written by Angie, a current graduate wife and student
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
So remarks Leo Tolstoy in his opening to Anna Karenina, and it seems his observation applies to graduate students, too. The happy ones usually have the same reasons for being happy— they find what they’re studying interesting to them, they have nice comradeship with other students, they have helpful supervisors, they make good headway on their work. But the unhappy postgraduates are unhappy for all sorts of different reasons— they lose interest in their research topic; they feel lonely and isolated in their work; they feel homesick or stuck in a town they don’t want to be in; their supervisors are unsympathetic, unhelpful, or unavailable; they feel paralyzed by the mountains of reading and writing to do; they have writers’ block; they get intimated by the academic world and its intense competition and pride; they have financial struggles and burdens of loans or family financial sacrifices, and a constant questioning of whether the money spent on their education is justifiable; they have a hard time being present to their families; they have a constant sense of not having enough time; they have loss of vision and vocation and wonder why on earth they ever thought it was a good idea to start those degrees.
My husband and I are both PhD students, and between us we’ve felt most of those things. At the moment I’m more in the happy-student-camp, while my husband has been fighting off a flood of factors making him an unhappy student. Even though we’re doing the same degrees in the same university, the same department, and even the same area (Old Testament studies), we’ve had really different experiences. Maybe it’s because I’m a year ahead of my husband that I have more hope— I can see some glimmer of not being a student anymore!— but our experiences have made real to me how different each graduate life can be. All sorts of factors can make it enjoyable or miserable, and each person has different understandings of why they’re studying and how that study fits into the wider work they feel drawn to do.
But I think Tolstoy may have been off in his assessment of happy families—they actually are happy in different ways, too. And so, I must now qualify, are graduate students. It’s possible to be happy in the graduate life for different reasons, and there are healthy and unhealthy ways of finding that happiness. Some postgraduates base their happiness on their success in the eyes of the academy (how many publications, conferences, accolades they have under their belts), and they have their self-worth wrapped up in their achievements as academics. This seems to be the most common form of unhealthy happiness in academia— I see a lot of students fall into that trap, and it’s hard to get out of. But at the end of the day, it won’t give a lasting happiness, as all success is relative. It hardly ever is enough. My husband and I have had a long haul of learning that our work is not who we are, though the two things are related. Even as our work is part of our passions and interests and callings, it does not determine our worth, nor can we base our happiness upon it.
So we’re learning instead to seek out the deeper reasons for being happy in our studies, knowing why we’re studying, how our work might be formative in making us into the persons we’re called to be. What I’ve learned most these past six years of postgraduate life is that how one studies matters. A theologian I’ve been reading, Karl Barth, taught me that, as he said, “The real value of a doctorate, even when earned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such.” Learning, whether as a graduate student or as any other calling in life (including the calling of being a wife!), is a deeply personal act, an act that involves not just the mind and specific practices, but even more so the soul of the learner and the kind of life she goes on to lead.
And so, what we’re seeking on this graduate journey is in all things to journey in our hearts towards becoming the persons we are called to be. The writer of Psalm 84 puts this well, as he says, “Blessed are those whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways.” It seems the psalmist is saying that those highways are not the roads of particular situations one is traveling upon, but rather, the groves of one’s heart that are being worn as one lives, the ways one’s heart is heading in all things. What matters most is the way one is journeying and growing in her heart. A heart of highways that is ever striving towards more lasting and beautiful and broader things— that’s something needed for all of us caught up in this graduate life, happy and unhappy alike. And with those hearts of highways, we may come to find ourselves, wherever we are and however it’s going, somehow happy and at home.
In your graduate wife journey, how are you finding your journey of happiness?