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Academic career comes at a price

but single

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As an academic, you get to research what you love and live in countries all over the world. But all that moving around takes a heavy toll on personal and romantic relationships, especially when you’re a woman. ‘I knew if I went down this path, it might very well have consequences.’
11 June om 14:13 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 12 June 2024
om 22:46 uur.
June 11 at 14:13 PM.
Last modified on June 12, 2024
at 22:46 PM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

11 June om 14:13 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 12 June 2024
om 22:46 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

June 11 at 14:13 PM.
Last modified on June 12, 2024
at 22:46 PM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

‘So, you want to do your PhD?’ the professor asked Lisa. 

‘Yes!’ said Lisa, who was defending her master thesis before a panel of three male professors.

‘Okay’, the professor concluded, with a frown. ‘You’re not thinking of getting married, then.’

For a moment, Lisa was lost for words. ‘Luckily, my supervisor was really supportive’, she recalls. ‘She said she didn’t think I should worry about that right now. That I was young and should do what I wanted.’

And she did. Lisa moved to Groningen, got her PhD and is an early career researcher now. ‘I love science’, she says. ‘I want to be doing great science, so I just push through.’

But she is also still single. ‘In my home country, it’s a harsh reality that no man will have you if you’re too educated. So I knew if I went down this path, it might very well have consequences for my personal and especially my romantic relationships.’


Lisa is one of many female academics who struggle with relationships due to their career. International mobility is considered to be vital for a career in academia. It allows the researcher to build an international network and gain experience in renowned labs all over the world. But romantic relationships suffer because of it, and friendships are hard to maintain.

In my country, no man will have you if you’re too educated

That is especially true for women, conclude researchers from the Radboud University in Nijmegen, Aarhus University, and Northumbria University in a recent paper on how international mobility shapes the lives of single academics. Women suffer from prejudice against being single more than men. Men are also less likely to go with them when the job requires a move. And then there’s the biological clock: the time in your life that you are moving around is also the time you would build a family.

For many women in science, there is this constant ambivalence. They love what they do and are willing to do what it takes, but moving around can be lonely and finding a partner that actually understands your lifestyle is hard. 


Lisa now finds herself caught between two worlds. On the one hand, there is her home country in Asia, where you’re supposed to marry as soon as you are in a stable relationship, where the male partner is dominant and women don’t get many chances. ‘For example: the class representative is always a boy. I always questioned that.’

So when the opportunity for a PhD presented itself, she took it. ‘Here I saw a bigger dream, not limited by the fact that I’m a woman. I saw female colleagues who could lead a research group. There are so many role models.’ 

But she is also still religious, rooted in a deeply conservative culture. And that means, for example, that the Dutch ‘hook-up’ culture doesn’t work for her. ‘My idea of a relationship is very traditional, but if you talk with somebody from the Netherlands, they have different views on what is acceptable or not. That can become very complicated.’

And so Lisa concentrated on her career and didn’t actively pursue a romantic relationship. ‘I’m the type of person who believes that if it is meant for me, it will happen.’

Full potential

Many other women also pay a personal price for their life as an academic. Take Adriana. She’s from Croatia, studied abroad, went back and worked at a Croatian university for a while. She could have stayed, she says. A safe place, where the funding might be limited, but her position was secure. ‘But it was a very traditional town and I felt isolated. I didn’t reach my full potential there.’

She decided to do her PhD at another European university, then left to work in yet another European country at two consecutive universities, and then came to Groningen for a position as an associate professor.  

You feel like: I’m probably going to leave this place anyway

A difficult time, she says. Right after her PhD, there were all these temporary contracts. ‘It was psychologically draining. But I was continuously hoping a more permanent position would come up.’

Her relationship of eight years came to an end. ‘We had moved together’, she says. ‘He wasn’t entirely happy with the job he had in his home country, so he decided to give it a shot.’ However, things were harder than he imagined. ‘So in the end, he left, because it was too big of a struggle for him. It was much easier for him to get a job back home.’

After that, she never had a lasting romantic relationship again. Adriana has a solid friendship network that fulfils her needs. She was also moving around so much that she wasn’t really on the look-out. ‘You feel like: I’m probably going to leave this place anyway. But I think that I would still also like to have a romantic relationship, because of the partnership, loyalty, and privacy that you get from it.’

Juggling commitments

Louise, too, paid the price for her constant moving around. She left her home to study in Britain, where she fell in love with linguistics and did her PhD. After that, she worked at several different universities before coming to Groningen. 

Her first serious relationship broke down at the end of her PhD, when she started thinking about moving again. She had a second relationship that soon became long distance. ‘I had to juggle work commitments and relationship commitments and couldn’t get settled anywhere.’ It finally ended after she decided to apply for a position in Groningen. ‘He was supportive of that. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t get an interview, but I did.’

When she got the job, her partner suddenly became distant and it was hard to talk to him anymore. In the end, Louise had no choice but to end things. ‘Maybe he didn’t want to make me choose, because I would have chosen the job. And so, in a way, he accepted defeat.’


Then there is the judgement of the people around you. Sophia from Greece moved around ‘a lot’ before she entered a double-degree programme to get her PhD in Groningen. Being in a new environment every time is exciting, she says, but also heartbreaking. And especially in romantic relationships, you can’t promise any certainty to a potential partner. ‘I have in my mind that I will come back, but you never know what will happen.’

Maybe he didn’t want to make me choose, because I would have chosen the job

Most of her friends from back home have married already, she says. ‘There’s always a lot of questions why I haven’t yet.’ She feels like she has to excuse the fact that someone else is in a more stable situation than her. 

Lisa, too, has to defend herself to her family. She tries to explain, tries to tell them she chooses to be single rather than be with someone with whom she cannot have an equal relationship. ‘I can understand, in a sense’, she says. ‘They’re worried about me. I live abroad and in a conventional way of thinking, if a woman lives without a man, she’s unsafe.’


All that time, while they’re slowly building their career, they’re getting older. ‘According to Asian standards, I’m old already’, says Lisa, who’s in her thirties. 

She’d like to have children, she says, but it is hard. Men are often intimidated by her job, she has found. And for her, a relationship is a serious thing that should last a lifetime, so she’s not willing to compromise. 

Sophia, who is 37, would also want a family at some point. But first, she needs more stability and a secure income. ‘But there are a lot of women in my environment that gave birth even at 48’, she says optimistically. She also decided she might not wait for a partner.

But Louise says she is going to stay childless now. ‘If I had had another job, who knows? It might have been different if I’d stayed in the same place. I also think maybe my relationships weren’t strong enough to cope.’

She is not too bitter about it. ‘It didn’t feel like a sacrifice to me. It just happened. But of course, you sometimes ask yourself: what if?’

Male academics

Still, it’s also true that people accept a lot in academia. The long hours, the lack of stability, the moving around can weigh heavily on you. ‘A  friend was working in three different universities part time. She was driving around all the time, determined to make it’, Louise says. ‘She didn’t have a relationship. I think she just couldn’t fit it in.’ Another friend lived in Belfast, with the family in London. She left academia and put her family first.

For men, it’s different. They’re not called out when they reach a certain age. They’re not pushed to settle down as much by their families and are not asked to explain themselves. And their lives stabilise sooner too. 

A man will always ask you to stay behind a little

Louise saw her male colleagues get contracts much more easily than her female colleagues. ‘They didn’t have to move around that much’, she says. ‘Not that they didn’t deserve it, but it was easier for them.’

Partners of male academics seem to follow them more often than the other way around. Sophia once stopped her maths studies to help out her partner who studied medicine, and decided to never do that again. ‘A man will always ask you to stay behind a little’, she thinks. And she’s not willing to let that happen anymore.

‘Maybe some women are still more willing to adapt to a partner or make that relationship their priority’, Louise says. ‘They’re willing to move around or support the other person and let them shine.’ 

What if

Still, they wouldn’t have done things differently in retrospect. Sophia sometimes wishes she hadn’t compromised at the start of her career, since it might have brought her to where she is now a little faster. ‘But that is really the only thing.’

Adriana is much too driven to have exchanged her academic path for a partner. ‘Everything else is less important’, she says. ‘A relationship is an addition to life, but not the thing that makes your life meaningful.’

But every now and again thoughts can creep in. ‘And you ask yourself: what if?’ Louise admits. ‘What if I hadn’t prioritised the job?’

‘I’m only a human being’, agrees Lisa. ‘There are times when things get tough and as an international you can get very isolated. And then I question myself. I feel things would have been easier if I had stayed in my home country.’  

But thoughts like that are fleeting, she says. ‘I wouldn’t even be able to work in that old environment anymore. I have this mindset now that I cannot accept being ruled by a man just because he’s a man.’

The names of the interviewed academics are pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Their real names are known to the editorial staff.