My husband started his PhD program 8 months after we married. We thought it would take 3 years, max. It took 5 years, and then some. We thought it would be a low-stress environment in which to start our married lives (what with flexi-time, and all that). It wasn’t. We thought we’d finish up grad school before we had kids. We didn’t.
And so, when I was asked: “Do you have any advice to give young married grad students?”, I flinched a little. Those five years of early marriage in grad school were intense, and it is hard to distil the things I learned which were true of sharing-grad-school as opposed to the steep-learning-curve-called-marriage; because we did them simultaneously. However, if you’ll forgive me smooshing things together, here are some of the things I’d want to whisper to other spouses of a grad student…
1. Grad School is more than a 9-5 job.
Grad students don’t come home from a long day on campus and get to sit down, grab the remote and “switch off” for the evening. They feel tremendous pressure to come home, eat a little, and keep working. After all, their lab mates are working, their professor expects them to be working, there are papers to be published, papers to be graded, books to be read, funding opportunities to research, and that’s just for starters. They are competing with motivated, mostly single, grad students who have room mates with whom they share responsibilities and bills; not a spouse with whom they share life. I, on the other hand, expected his “work life” to stay at work, and for him to be present when he was home.
My grad student spouse needed me to acknowledge the pressure he was under, and we needed to agree on when we would spend time together, and also allow time when he could work at night or on weekends without feeling guilty.
…but… Grad School is easier to manage if you treat like a job
Our youthful selves can all handle 24 hours of intense work, or even a week or two of 16 hour work days. Exam season, or mid-term season sometimes calls forth extra bursts of energy. But grad school is a LONG-TERM commitment: it requires YEARS of sustained effort, and no-one can work around the clock for years and stay healthy.
Even though grad school often required my spouse to work nights and weekends, he did better – WE did better – when we still aimed to treat school work as a job. We allowed for weekends away. We cherished vacations. We knew there had to be time for other things: hobbies, friends, dinners and the general shenanigans that make life fun.
2. You will not understand much/most of what your spouse is studying
My husband liked to joke that a specialist is defined as “someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” PhD’s are by definition in a field of study which no-one else has ever thought to think or write about before… i.e. it is NOT in the “public interest” (yet). I spent more hours than anyone in the world trying to understand what my husband was doing – but I just didn’t get it (and I didn’t really want to, and I had to beg him to stop trying to explain: “honey, the likelihood that I will understand it better if you explain it just one more time is exceedingly slim… so please can we get some sleep?”)
…but… You need to understand enough to give an elevator pitch answer about their studies
My spouse thought about his thesis topic in a great amount of complexity and detail, and anyone who asked him what he was studying was likely to get a complex, detailed answer. My role as president-of-his-fanclub and first-line-of-social-defense was to jump in with a 30 second layman’s explanation. I may not have understood it all, but I understood it better than anyone else not in his field.
3. Your spouse needs your encouragement more than your (constructive) criticism
Five years (or even two years) is a l-o-o-o-o-o-n-n-n-g-g-g time to keep going in an intense grad school program. At times it may have seemed like it was falling on deaf ears, but my spouse needed to hear that I believed in him, that his work was making a difference, that I was proud of him, that he was conquering the world. He needed to hear that when he was ‘succeeding’, but especially when he was discouraged. At times of discouragement, an “I love you, and you can conquer the world” did more to help him than “now let me help fix your schedule for you.”
4. Try not to hate their advisor
In our case, my hubby’s supervising prof was a particularly awesome guy; but the issue of “hating on the boss” came up often in our little grad school community. A frustrated grad student would share the frustrations of the day with their spouse, and the spouse would then fume or mentally “fix” the situation for days… long after the grad student had returned to the office in relative peace. Try to remember that the supervising professors really WANT their grad students to succeed – they’re on your spouse’s side, so try to forgive and forget.
5. Life after grad school is more like grad school than you realize
One of the surprises of finishing grad school was how much our routine stayed the same post-grad-school as it had been in-grad-school. The bad habits we had developed thinking “oh, this is just while we’re under pressure now – it will be different when grad school is over,” turned out to be bad habits we had to face later. The priorities we set, the way we managed our time, the way we shared household responsibilities, the way we volunteered at church, the way we communicated remained substantially the same after grad school as it was during.
So my advice is this: create the marriage and life you want DURING grad school, because it’s the marriage and life you are likely to have after grad school. Love each other well, work hard, play well… and on the day when your loved one gets capped, know that you as the spouse got an award too: Spouse cum laude.
Do you have any tips to share? Leave them in the comment section below!
And do you have a question? Click over to the “Ask Bronwyn” page 🙂