JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

Just in time for one of my least favorite days of the year--Valentine's Day--I've decided to ruminate on the joys and struggles of being a single--very single--graduate student, and what it means to my future.

Valentine's Day doesn't rank high on my list of days for a number of reasons. What annoys me most is the world/society/media telling me that I don't have as much value unless I'm part of a couple. In the past I've kept the annoyance of being single on V-Day to a minimum by having anti-V-Day celebrations with friends and sending out valentines to other singles.

As a graduate student in general, and as one in science specifically, I am acutely aware of where the choices I've made have put me in my personal life, as opposed to my professional life. Over the holiday I realized that by my age my parents had already gotten married. They held off a few years before having kids so I don't feel like so much of a slacker in the child-bearing department. It seems as if (you know; you've read the articles, too) that we--young society--are delaying becoming adults, and prolonging our education is one of the more effective methods.

I'm doing my best to ignore my biological clock. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I am not ambivalent about getting married and having kids--those are important goals in my life. What you don't always think about when starting graduate school is that sometimes the choice to go to graduate school--especially when you haven't already met that special someone--can delay or impede your social progress, even as it advances your career.

There are a bunch of married students in my department, as well as some single folks. There is no war going on between the married and seriously dating, on the one hand, and the single on the other; relations between these two groups are generally peaceful, even amicable. But you do observe some distinct differences in how we all behave. The married people have sort of settled into the life that they are building together. They always have someone to go to the movies and dinner with, and there is less of a question about accomplishing social goals outside of graduate school. There is always someone to gripe to when they go home. Their daily lives and routines are a little more regulated. Unlike the rest of us, these married people, presumably, don't spend time pondering questions like:

Will I ever meet anybody to date, much less to marry? Have I made myself less desirable by subjecting myself to graduate school, neglecting my appearance (you know we all look grungy 90% of time) and minimizing my social time?

The single people in my department work strange hours, take out personal ads, hope to make connections at conferences or around town, and wonder if in the end it will be worth all the work they put into getting the degree, given the sacrifices they may end up making. There's a fear that they--we--will end up alone, which isn't fun no matter how successful you are in your career. Then again, maybe it's just me. Some of my friends tell me that it only takes one person, and that that person can come along at any time. But when you live in an area that has such minimal opportunity to meet people--more on this in a moment--it's hard to see it that way.

One of the last things I tell a person when I meet them is what I do. I have to let them get comfortable with me as a person before telling them I'm a graduate student studying science. At that point, I'm often met with a puzzled look, and then I might say, "yes, I'm a nerd, let's move on." I think sometimes I surprise people because I'm well-informed enough to hold a conversation on popular culture/politics/religion, but still study science. I don't try to or want to be intimidating or elitist about what I do, but often that's the perception other people have of scientists in general before they get to know me.

Maybe this is what makes socializing so hard; you get pegged with the "nerd" label and, depending on the situation, people want to look at you like something on display, or they expect you to be a person incapable of making mental mistakes. Yet you are expected to have no social skills. You get tired of putting on the façade and go back to the lab, because you do want to graduate and be a "normal" person one day. And besides, your experiments don't judge you.

I often think that the situation is a little harder for women than it is for men. Society quietly stipulates that women aren't supposed to be, or aren't supposed to want to be, brilliant scientists. This has been changing, but given the gender makeup of the departments of science and engineering faculty, it seems that women are making a conscious choice either to stay in academia and sacrifice family, or to get out, so that they can make time for family if they choose to have children. Women with families seem rare.

Yet it seems that most men don't worry about this choice; they get married, their wives have the children, and they continue to write grants, do research, and move forward with their professional lives. This has been a much-agonized-over question for me: Which field will allow me to have both professional and personal success, without feeling guilty for wanting to succeed in both places? The tides seem to be shifting, such that more professions are willing to accommodate women who want to have children while moving toward upper-echelon success. The larger question for me now is, can I find someone to share my life with?

Dating in the department is out. My fellow students gossip too much, and, anyway, do I really want to date another scientist? I'm not sure, and besides, I've seen enough ugly departmental breakups to not want to add that kind of stress to my life; I have enough stress already. Fortunately, my parents haven't started in yet with the, "so, when are you getting married," talk. They know I'm in this for the long haul. I think some of their friends, however, have tried to set me up with their sons or nephews when I go home for vacation--that's always funny.

There seems to be a lack of eligible (read single, sane, attractive, and compatible) men to date in my area, which is my reward for going to a small town with no bustling metropolis nearby. And then there is the time factor. How many people who are not graduate students understand the amount of time and devotion to a project it takes to work on it day in, day out, to run experiments, analyze data, read papers, and drive yourself slightly insane? Time spent with another means less time spent in lab, and probably less sleep. And I'm irritable enough already. ...

Though I may gripe, I must say there are advantages to the single life. I don't have to consider anyone else's feelings, moods, or whims in my decision-making. I don't have to compromise. If I want pizza, I can have it. I can choose where I want to go on vacation, be the life of the party, curl up with a book, watch the movie I want to see ... and fortunately I have enough friends to do these things with to cut down on the isolation.

Being satisfied with my current life is hard enough without adding another person to the equation, so I'll just practice making me happy. Hopefully I'll share that happiness with someone someday. ... In the meantime, happy Valentine's Day--or anti-Valentine's Day (whichever you choose to celebrate)--from a solidly single Micella. ...

And now, the shameless plug: All applications or inquiries to date Micella can be made here: micella_phoenix_dewhyse@hotmail.com. Smile! It's good for you, and you might attract somebody!

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the , , , or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.