How do professors deal with loneliness? I feel that professors, specifically in the STEM fields, have to constantly project an image of seriousness to the public - an image that math and science are no. 1 in their lives. Any projection of any other feelings is discouraged, e.g. feelings of romance.

Professors earn a special social status in society, for better or worse, and this means that they are more intensely scrutinized and they have to adhere to extra morally restrictive standards. If one lands up in a small college town as a professor, there is virtually nobody that's a suitable dating partner or a suitable friend - other than one's colleagues. The college town will comprise mostly of students.

Am I on point with my assessment of the life of a professor in the STEM fields? If so, how does a professor deal with a relatively lonelier lifestyle than non-academics? The acquired social status of being an academic and scientific leader seems to come with an enormous cost.

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    "Am I on point with my assessment of the life of a professor in the STEM fields?" No, you are not.
    – Eppicurt
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 6:28
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    That question is based on a false premise if I have ever seen one. Just because you are expected to not date your students or be the most drunk person at a college party does not mean that you have to "adhere to extra morally restrictive standards". Just be a grown-up, and you'll be fine.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 6:45
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    professors, specifically in the STEM fields, have to constantly project an image of seriousness to the public — Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! No.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 7:05
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    that they are more intensely scrutinized That's a joke right?
    – Cape Code
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 8:07
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    There was this guy who used to frequent strip clubs, draw nude women, play drums, and be an overall easygoing person. Also a Nobel laureate. Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 10:49

4 Answers 4


I’m afraid you are misinformed. Professors (including in STEM) are ordinary humans and are entitled to the same set of feelings, emotions and lifestyle choices as other people are accorded by the rest of society. They certainly might suffer from loneliness, and deal with it in the same way that any other person might. But what you wrote about “Any projection of any other feelings is discouraged, e.g. feelings of romance”? Respectfullly, that notion is simply nonsense, and to the extent that it is a belief some people hold, it needs to die a swift, painless death.

As for the peculiarities of the situation a professor might end up in of being a professional, highly educated single person of a certain age range living in a small college town where there aren’t many other single people of the same age range and interests who may be suitable dating partners: well, again, that situation is by no means unique to college professors. Many people live in small towns with limited dating options. Somehow they manage, and for those who find this really intolerable, there’s always the option of trying to get a job in a bigger city or near one.

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    In my youth, I thought that there was a tendency for mathematicians to be more solitary than others, by nature of the profession, but now I sometimes think it's not solitary enough for me (meetings, committees, students, ...).
    – Kimball
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 13:00

A few years ago, while shopping at a supermarket, I bumped into a student of mine. He was aghast.

The next week he came to my office to take the exam, and we had the following piece of conversation:

Me: Hey, you're the one I met a the supermarket!

Student: Yes, at the beginning I was shocked, but then I thought: "They have to eat too!"

Me: Thank you for recognizing our human nature!

So, let me tell you a secret, but please don't tell it around! Professors are human beings: they have friends and families; they love and hate; they have hobbies; they play games, sports and instruments; they go to the cinema, theaters and restaurants; and they don't do the professors 24/7.

Overall, professors are no lonelier than any other human being.

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    "Thank you for recognizing our human nature" <- this sounds somehow... professor-ish :-)
    – peterh
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 7:18
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    @gerrit Yes it is! Along the years I made some funny encounters around the city with the students, but I think that this one shows better how much certain students think that professors are aliens from outer space. Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 10:10
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    Good try but we all know "The Faculty" aren't human...
    – ventsyv
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 16:08
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    Similar encounter at a pub. Very awkward. Students were counting how many beers I was drinking (2) and I think snipping secretly photos as proof. Lots of giggling next day in class.
    – electrique
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 17:09
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    Same experience here. I don’t know why the fact that professors also shop for groceries comes as such a surprise to students, but... it just does.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 1:22

Read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and cut with that nonsense that a professor (or even a Nobel laureate) has to be lone and deadly serious.

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    That is, at best, a special case. For every Feynman, there is a Dirac for a counterexample :)
    – 299792458
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 14:33
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    @TheDarkSide I disagree. Feynman was a bit unconventional, but he was much closer to a normal human being, and to a normal physicist, than Dirac was. Note that after all it’s Dirac, not Feynman, whose biography is titled “The Strangest Man”.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 15:20
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    @DanRomik - With all due respect to you, and to Feynman (I am obviously very, very fond of his approach to Physics), you are right when you say F was much closer to "normal" than D. He had the same instincts that normal people would have - everyone likes popularity and being viewed as unconventional. If you think a little more about it, all of F's Physics aside, that larger-than-life Feynman caricature was actually a carefully constructed image. Beyond a stage, it has a snowball effect, and that explains your last sentence. That's my opinion, please feel free to disagree. :)
    – 299792458
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 17:21

I don't know that this is any more true for professors/teachers than it is for priests, ministers, lawyers, physicians, politicians, etc. I'm not even sure it is really generally true for professors.

If it is true . . . well, you can always cultivate friendships and relationships with others in your profession, or with members of other professions in your locality. It is is a really small town, there are probably lawyers and a priest and some ministers without many in their profession to talk to. If you want a friend, try being one.

My suspicion is that this is not so much about "professors lead lonely lives" as it is about "I am lonely," or "I fear leading a lonely life." But this need not be so. You can learn to be more outgoing. You can become involved in something outside of work: a faith community, a food bank or Meals on Wheels, Toast Masters, a book discussion group, etc.

You are right that a professor must avoid the temptation of building close relationships with his or her students. And this can be tempting. The young are full of energy and possibility. But there are other types of energy and possibility in your town. You just have to consciously seek that out in somewhere OTHER than your students.

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