With busy lives and busy careers, a lot of STEM professionals and academics can fall into the trap of assuming that a love life will be an obstacle to them achieving their professional dreams. That assumption may need to be reconsidered, however. It has been decades since the College Dons of Oxford University were allowed to marry and combine a romantic life with their academic pursuits and it’s time we all let the option for romance into our lives.
For most of us, our love of learning comes down to a dopamine reward system in our brains which gives us a hit of happy chemicals whenever we make a discovery or learn something new. Falling in love gives our dopamine circuitry a major boost and promotes neural changes which can promote a sense of fearlessness and optimism. If you’re in that happy, new relationship phase then use that feeling to embolden yourself to take measured risks and embark on large projects that need a positive attitude.
If your new relationship blossoms and stays with you then the initial fearlessness will fade and stabilize. Your focus will return to normal and you will have the potential to gain a defense against the stress. The warm fuzzy feelings associated with a happy loving relationship can help you weather periods of stress and strain. In mice, a regular sex life improved recognition and recall during periods of stress.
Whilst mice are not people, the pathways for reward are similar and it certainly can’t hurt to try. In the up and down world of grant applications, deadlines, and travel to conferences it can be a huge help to feel a sense of security and stability. Where the waters of academia can be stormy, a happy relationship can be a rock to rest on.
You might reasonably point out that romance doesn’t always end the way it does in the storybooks. Not everyone lives happily ever after with Mr. or Mrs. Right. That is certainly true, but as far as your potential as a researcher is concerned, it does not matter. Disappointment and the feeling of loss that can be associated with romantic loss is extremely unpleasant but it can also be a catalyst for professional development.
If you use your post-break-up impulse to reach out and reconnect to others to bond with your colleagues, you could benefit from lasting camaraderie and make more progress with your team. Many people also feel the need to re-define themselves in the absence of a partner, a perfect time to invest heavily in your career, and generate benefits that will last. The key is to make your identity as an expert and a professional central in your recovery.
Romance might not always be a direct benefit to your work but the indirect benefits from a rounded life can give you a spur to carry on and provide resilience as you make your way along the research track. Embracing romance as part of life that nourishes your research is part of embracing life as a whole.