Check out the first installment in this series here.
Written by Laura, a current graduate wife
Recently, a group of our graduate wife friends gathered for lunch in Oxford, and of course, at some point during lunch, began to talk about the process of our husbands’ PhD programs and potential phases we would or could face during that time. As the conversation continued, excited words flying across the table, we knew we might be on to something rich, something that would be beneficial to other graduate wives outside of our intimate lunch. One of the women in that group, Laura, offered to put pen to paper, writing a four part series for The Graduate Wife, explaining those phases. We hope it is helpful for you – whatever phase your other half is currently in – and will give you an idea of the best way to support them during that time. – Mandy and M.C.
IT’S DARK IN HERE
After you have adjusted to the academic rigors and you finally have gained some confidence and mastery in regard to your workload, it is time to enter the phase of work that will transition you from neophite to near-graduate. It might be dissertation-or thesis-writing, doing clinical hours, collecting or analyzing research data, or working for a company doing the hands-on (but grunt) work of your chosen profession. Here is the part of the journey that is most likely to usher in a severe sense of isolation. You have had colleagues and classmates with you in the initial stages of coursework, and you have had the support of seasoned guides who have climbed this mountain before you; however, you have finally hit the treacherous trail that will lead you to the top of the mountain, but you must plod on alone.
You are asked to create something innovative or learn things that must become so habitual and natural you can perform them in your sleep, but this part of the journey must be done alone, in large part. No one can spend the seemingly endless hours of research required to set the stage for your writing or learn a whole new area of the discipline in order to set the stage for your dissertation. No one can do the clinical rounds or chip away at the incessant hours in the lab on your behalf, but they must be done. It can get dark in this tunnel – the long hours, the challenge of mining through academic sources to find the tiniest spark of inspiration, the sense of being buried under infinite possibilities.
It can be dull, it can be monotonous, and because it is done alone and in relative darkness, it is nearly impossible to feel the passage of time or success or any markers of progress. There is no one who can tell you when you have completed enough research to begin your writing, there is no way to predict that today’s reading will ignite the spark of an idea that tomorrow becomes the next chapter of your thesis. There is no way to sense that the clinical experience or observation of tonight will be the seed that grows into passionate expertise in a certain area of your field. There is no guide; each step must be taken blindly and with seemingly impossible faith that you are indeed moving toward something, that you are progressing – it just doesn’t feel that way.
You can no longer build on the excitement and enthusiasm present at the beginning of the journey, and you can’t quite glimpse the finish line. This feels like no man’s land.
At home, this is the stage where many students find themselves so tangled internally they withdraw emotionally or mentally, and it can be a painful experience for spouses, partners, and children who stand by and see their formerly passionate and driven loved one depleted and exhausted. Many students in this stage experience depression or anxiety, a sense of doubt or a loss of motivation and direction. Partner, this is a time when you have to watch your grad student flail in the water, nearly drowning, and you cannot offer a lifeline – it can leave you feeling utterly helpless.
Here is what you must remember:
1) This is not forever. Grad student, you may not remember why you decided to start this journey in the first place and you may be dizzy with the tasks before you, but you will get there if you keep plodding on. Partner, you may doubt that you will ever see your loving, light-hearted or impassioned spouse again, but that is not so. This is just a stage, and one of the final stages of this journey to boot, so you simply must keep putting one foot in front of the other and tread on.
2) Partner or spouse, you may not have the loving, connected, attentive man or woman you bargained for at this point, and demanding it would just lead to deeper guilt and isolation, so this is a temporary season during which you must keep your head above water and maintain your own life’s breath. Take up a new hobby, join a class, get together with friends on the weekends, take a short trip, make good friends and spend time with them, get support from others who have been in this stage before and have survived it. Be encouraged and hang in.
3) Grad student, you are almost there. You might not feel the progress, but if you are working diligently, you are moving toward the goal. Get whatever support you can – meet with fellow students in this same stage or just beyond, read blogs, run, enjoy an outing with a friend or spouse or loved one. Exercise and a good diet are helpful, spiritual resources are necessary, and don’t be afraid to allow yourself to rest when you can. You are almost there.
This is a period that requires great grace for your partner and a changing of the rules – the goals and measures of your relational connection should get smaller, and each person’s gratitude must become greater. Everything that can be celebrated should be, no matter how small the cause for celebration may seem. It’s a time when you have to will yourself to be gentle with each other, apologizing often, knowing that this is just a season. It is not a time to allow bad habits to seep in, but to allow new habits to develop which support you in this stage without worry of what others’ think or what conventional wisdom might say. Reach out to friends, invest in a solid community, and please do not focus on results in this stage; there won’t be any yet, so it’s futile. Take the long view, and don’t evaluate things too much; just keep moving and do whatever is healthy and loving and brings joy. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Then it just happens. One day, a tiny glimmer of light cracks through and you squint….yes, the summit is in sight. You are somewhere, no longer lost in the dark. You’re finally arriving at an actual, identifiable place in your program, and things are about to change. Take a breath and fill your lungs with much-needed oxygen; you’ve made it through the dark tunnel. Things are going to look up from here on out….