When you’re married to a grad student

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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 🙂

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20 thoughts on “When you’re married to a grad student”

  1. This is SO what I needed to read today! We were married for 6 years before grad school, but starting grad school with a baby has been an adventure to say the least! Finding ways to balance family time and school has been a challenge You, as always, are amazing 🙂

    1. Thanks, Carol! You two have such a great foundation – I’m sure you will find a good and healthy rhythm for this new season with your beautiful little Emma 🙂

  2. On point 1, I remember a guy in my law school class who was a little older, married with two kids. He’d been working as an engineer for a few years and then returned to school to study law. While the rest of us would take long breaks in the middle of the day to goof off and then study at night, he stayed at school and hit the library between classes. He said he was already used to working a full day straight and that’s how he’d handle law school too. He rarely missed spending the evening with his family. Then again, he was awfully disciplined!

    1. When I was teaching at law school, I used to notice the same thing: those who came up straight from undergrad handled their time so differently to those who had pursued a career before coming back to graduate school. Oh the hours I wasted…..

  3. Thank you! My good friend, Kristin H. (who knows you well) recommended this read to me. And I have to say, YOU NAILED IT! As a newly-wed married to a Grad Student I can relate with all of this. Thanks for the encouragement and wisdom. I think the last point is especially true, and my husband and I are trying really hard to consider how we can set and live according to our priorities now, knowing that it may only get more challenging as life gets more complicated (i.e. even after Grad School is over). Thanks, again!

    1. First: let’s give three cheers for the awesomeness of Kristin H, who is lovely in every way 🙂 Second: thanks!! So glad our experiences can be of encouragement to those walking through the Grand Adventure of Grad School. All the best, and thanks for reading!

  4. Sounds a little bit similar to being married to a computer expert, moving to a new area, and starting a new business. Praise God that because my husband is a disciplined worker, most days we have breakfast, dinner, and evenings together.

    Your point about post-grad-school-life being very similar to in-grad-school-life really struck me. We must start as we mean to go on.

  5. Great! Yes to all 5, but especially #5. When I read your title and tag line I thought, How do you do marriage with a grad student? Um the same way you do it with a post grad school professional.

    I love your insight about not getting adversarial with the advisor too.

    1. Thanks, Stanford. In the two months of mulling and procrastinating it took me to write this post, I often thought: “if anyone knows about how to handle marriage through grad school, it’s the gibsons!” Your wife has a phD and two masters degrees in spousal awesomeness.

  6. Oh yes! Andy was in grad school for less than 5 years, but it felt like a million. And I can’t even begin to count the number of times I had to bite my tongue when it came to his advisor! I wonder if Collin would enjoy reading this. He, of course, “supported me” through undergrad, law school, and half an MFA program. Poor kid thought I’d never be finished with school.

    Thanks for continuing to impart such calm, wise, and reasonable advice regarding this crazy thing we call marriage!

    1. Collin definitely got his third degree in supporting you through all that (or maybe he just got the third degree?) he is a champ kid, and you are such a champ mom .dh

  7. I can relate to most of these points even though neither of us have done full time education since being married but both have done part time studies. Doing professional exams or specialist in medicine who are required to work and study. Mine was all before kids where hubby done his mostly with kids. It never easy as he always worked full time, and studied part time. He does most of his revision on the train to and from work, lunch time, after kids are in bed and Saturdays. And when exams are upon us Sunday mornings too. We found boys totally depend on me for everything and they take a while to adjust back. We found we were could to have just family time after the exams by having a holiday together really helped us all adjust back to normal family life quicker. But now we can only holiday in school terms. We are on year 7! We also fitted in a house move and renovation and need to get on top of study space asap so he can hit the books. Praying it is the final 6,months!

    1. AACK! It replied too soon! Wanted to say: you two have had an intense time. I hope and pray these are the final six months, and that all goes swimmingly. I think you and Kerwin have done a stellar job of finding balance through all the stress!

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  9. Our experience with new-marriage-plus-grad-school was very different than yours. I loved that first year where we could do lunch dates if we wanted because Nic didn’t mind pushing off work til the evening. I feel like it made our entrance into marriage a lot smoother–and now I’m having to adjust to real-life issues (who showers first in the morning?) now that we have “real adult life,” but we’re out of the newly-married-adjustments phase.

    I like that: “president-of-his-fanclub and first-line-of-social-defense.” So true! I STILL fill this role; when people ask what he does at NASA, I always prepare to turn on my translation skills… 🙂

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