-written by Susan, a current graduate wife and student
The road to a PhD is a notoriously lonely one—after all, the whole point of your project is to accomplish something that no one else has. So when academic couples tell you that it’s fantastic to have a spouse in the same profession, they’re totally right: it’s awesome to have someone who identifies with your academic lows (research dead-ends, arrogant colleagues, endless exam marking) and highs (publications,well-received conference papers, successful funding applications). My husband (PhD researcher in Theoretical Particle Physics) and I (PhD researcher in History) feel fortunate to have this unique time in our lives: we travel together on conference/research trips, enjoy flexible schedules that allow us to work on the home we recently bought, and always have a partner at departmental functions who can talk to our colleagues about academia.
…Behind all of these perks, however, an uncertainty about the future lies in the back of our minds.
Being part of an academic couple is kind of a funny thing. Because our job market is so constricted, and it’s rare that a university will look to fill posts for, say, a particle physicist and an early modern historian simultaneously, it is likely that post-PhD success will separate a couple—at least for a time. Everybody in academia knows that the better you do at your PhD (the more results a physicist gets, the more illuminating a historian’s thesis is), the more likely it is that you’ll get a job in the academy after your viva (or defense, for those in North America) and graduation. What everybody also knows, and tries not to talk about too much, is the far likelier option of doing a pretty good PhD and then going on to teach secondary school, work in publishing, or serve in university administrative posts because the academic job market is ridiculously tight. This means that the whole time you’re supporting your spouse and hoping they achieve their academic aspirations, you’re doing it with the knowledge that if they accomplish them, the flexibility and physical proximity you’re enjoying during the PhD stage of your careers will almost certainly be absent in the future. It is somewhat odd, then, that I hope that my husband’s post-doctoral fellowship applications are successful next year, though this will undoubtedly take him either to continental Europe or North America, while I still have another year of research in the UK before I finish my PhD. A further concern is that your careers will possibly never dovetail: if one partner gets a two-year post-doctoral fellowship and the other gets a three- or one-year post, there’s the chance that your professional paths will not square without sacrifice. Of course, there are options; academic couples make it work all the time through teaching online courses, commuting over crazy distances, or the dream ticket, a spousal hire (where the university knows that the partner they really want, say, the physicist, will come to the university if they can find the money to hire the historian partner…though even this can have its own complications, as a spousal hire doesn’t always sit well with the ego).
The uncertainties surrounding physical distance and career timing unsurprisingly complicate planning a family. Although our studies are funded, our grants cover our living costs but would not go a long way toward bringing up a child! Also, both my husband and I feel that while we’re working toward our PhDs, our focus should be just that. This begs the question, though, of when exactly would be a good time to start a family…after our PhDs, if we’re successful (and by some stroke of luck end up living near each other), then we will likely have fixed-term post-doctoral fellowships that will revolve around projects and getting additional publications under our belts—not the best time to be figuring out how to set up a crib or taking paternity/maternity leave. Again, though, the same problem resurfaces if you’re successful after your fellowship and you get a permanent post: the first thing you’d like to do when you get a job is devote time to your students, develop your next research project, and get involved with your university. It is possible to do it all, though, and having a child will likely be worth the bump in your academic career, but it certainly complicates the route to your professional goals (and those
of your spouse).
The central tension here is the age-old problem of balancing a career and a family. While we plan for the contingencies that will occur later in life, what I can say is that we are making the most of the amazing time we’re having together as PhD researchers. We both love our jobs—getting paid to do something you enjoy that allows for flexibility and travel offers us time to grow as a couple and to learn about each other. It is with these lessons in mind that we will march toward our future, filled with professional twists and family turns, but rooted in the foundation we built as PhD students.
If you are a graduate wife and student, how do you cope with balancing the work you’re doing, and the work your spouse is doing?