The loneliness of a scientist

Jan 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

There was some talk on the tweets a while back about how lonely it is to be a scientist. That being an assistant prof is the loneliest job. That no one really can ever understand you. That as you get older it gets worse. That is lonely at the top. I can't speak to the last of these, as I have not spent time at the top. But I do have an opinion.

My sense of "being at the top" is that it, like much else in life, is a function of who else you are. And, like much of science that is neglected, the variation is larger than we suspect. I think many Big Dogs like to think they are lonely at the top. It plays into their sense of their uniqueness and that no one else is quite like them, i.e., quite as good as them. I think other Big Dogs are too busy being Big Dogs to know wtf loneliness is. Think Scott Kern (but also see this). I only think here. I don't know. It is not so much that the top eluded me, is that it never called for a date.

My memories of becoming an Asst. Prof. were ones of being ecstatic. My partner at the time was an ecologist, finishing up a PhD in tropical ecology on the other side of the world. I missed my partner, acutely, and sometimes with anger and sometimes with love. And, I could parse that loneliness into "personal life" vs. "scientific life". But getting a job: woot! eleventy1!`1!woot, before woot existed. When I started I reached out to people in other departments, and I still am (albeit distant) friends with those folks, many of whom were senior and very good to me (3 uni's later). Everything wasn't smooth, but mostly and I was already perceiving the borderline neuroses of  "will I get tenure?", but I remember the Good Stuff, not the bad. I don't think that is as much a function of my situation as it was, and is, of my brain chemicals.

Now the impact of 'older', that is something I know. I have been partnered and not. I have had family and not. And I have been lonely and not. And while I have been funded and not,  I have had jobs I liked and ones that were eating at my soul and making me miserable (see the series on Shit My Department Chair Sez at my old blog:, and yes I know that I need to renew the domain).  Any loneliness was more correlated with the first two and not with my funding status.

So, am I lonelier at work now that I am older? I don't think so. I liked this reminder from May Sarton (who I read obsessively when I was much, much younger):

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. May

— ADF (@AlinaDal_F) November 17, 2015

One of the things that has always been important to me is having a life outside of work. From what I can judge of my friends who are in similarly intense careers elsewhere, they feel the same thing. When I was in a biology department, I always had (and still do) friends in Chemistry (and their experiences make Biology look like a cakewalk). So does getting older, as a professor, mean getting lonelier? Perhaps if you felt that being lonely was a function of being a professor, maybe.

But... that doesn't mean loneliness isn't real, and that it isn't a significant health problem:

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