Thomas Bray | This post was originally published January 21, 2013 as “my first, my last, my everything”

The British welfare state, one of the key topics in my PhD research, has come in for a bit of a bashing recently. Indeed, it is now a distinct possibility that it may become, like gladiators, pyramids and decent Adam Sandler films, a thing of the past. This is big news, and I am, for a change, able to produce some insightful comments.

But I am not gonna talk about that.

Instead, I am going to discuss the peculiarities of finding romance as a PhD student. Now, as an historian rather than an ornithologist or an apiarist, I am no great expert on the birds and the bees, but I can tell you with some certainty that the whole meet-nice-person-and-do-stuff thing has been going on, in various sexy and not-so-sexy ways, since our ancestors first looked at each other and realised there was nothing good on television. However, for various reasons, the road to heartfelt nothings is a little rockier if you are completing a PhD, as I was reminded recently when advising a dear friend on such affairs. Why is this?

There are many doctorates-in-waiting who find a significant other outside the world of academia, and this can work very well. You put up with them telling you how their boss is, just, like, a total idiot, and they put up with you telling them how your complex mixed-methods approach has been found epistemologically unsound. Although others have told me otherwise, I have never found that my PhD status is a particular winner with prospective partners. Only the other night, I was flirting over the onions in a popular supermarket, when they asked me what I did for a living. Now, leaving aside that I am definitely not doing my research for ‘a living’, I confessed that I was a PhD student at the fine institution of Warwick. She gave me a long look, and then blurted out, “But…but you’re just a kid!”, and then wandered off to buy some rocket, which I can only presume is what non-PhD-doing adults eat. However, leaving my slightly scarring experience in the produce section aside, it does indeed happen that people undertaking postgraduate research manage to keep the whole shebang quiet enough to make people fall head-over-heels for their intellectual jawlines (if that is even a thing).

Dating within the PhD pool, meanwhile, is a different beast (a shark, if we are labouring the metaphor). Although one might imagine that there would be stolen glances and brushes of the hand aplenty amongst these academic saplings, it just does not seem to happen. Now, I can only really speak with any authority about History (maybe there is some beautiful Liebe in the German Department, or some serious chemistry in…well, Chemistry), but I think it’s true that PhD students are not finding the apple of their eye over the coffee in the staffroom. I have been quietly conducting my own research on why this might be (don’t tell my supervisor!), and some themes have started to emerge. One is that the whole system just involves too much abstract competition for romance to blossom; another is that a PhD is too darn egocentric to allow taking on someone else’s research highs and lows as well. I also suspect that the intimacy of being part of a research community is, paradoxically, anathema to paramours and skipped heartbeats. If you and the object of your desires smooch it up at a conference, word will get around soon enough, and then come accusations of plagiarism and favouritism in what can only be described as a deeply puzzling version of Jeremy Kyle (“You stole my lab partner!” “What! Leave it out! Mind your own beakers!” and cue much throwing of monographs)…

Having said this, I can think of many academics who have hitched up with fellow scholars, although rarely from the same department, so clearly it is not impossible. Maybe it is just a rarity that fellow researchers fall for each other. Of course, if two people meant for each other do indeed encounter one another, the fact that they are both engaged to PhDs shouldn’t stop them exploring the possibility of romance. I do sense that that most famous of interweb rules, number 34, comes into play here (and if not, then I have just discovered a new career path…).

So, if you find yourself swooning for a doctoral heart-throb, I say go for it. There may be some unusual issues, but if you get beyond those you will discover that even PhD students need a bit of affection. As the Beatles once sang, All you need is love…and a publication before you graduate. But mostly love.

Image: Zeeyolq Photography/creative commons