Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 1

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Recently, a reader wrote to ask us the following questions:

Is the graduate life what you thought it would be?

What would you say to a family who is interested in embarking on the graduate life journey?

We sat down to write a blog post, and it occurred to us that maybe we should take a survey amongst friends of ours scattered all over the world who have completed this graduate journey. We had planned to take snippets of their answers to create our post, but some of the answers were so helpful, we thought we’d leave them as they came in to us.

We polled current and former graduate wives, married academics, graduate husbands, and our own graduates. 

We hope you find their answers insightful.

-Mandy & M.C.

Is the graduate life what you thought it would be?

1. No!  I never imagined that it would require so much of us as a family and as a couple.  The dark times of our graduate journey were darker than I thought they would be but there were also many bright moments that surpassed my expectations.

2. Not at all. It’s more unifying to our marriage, and far less edifying to our budget. And the marriage is stronger only because we moved away on our own, owning nothing but the contents of four suitcases. All we had was each other. And being dirt poor isn’t easy, but conversations are had when cooking rice and beans over a rented movie.

3. Yes.  I feel like we knew enough people who were knee-deep in the graduate journey themselves, that we had a really good idea of what to expect.

And, no.  Because I NEVER would have guessed that 7 years (and 3 degrees) later we would have lived in three countries, had two children (in two different countries – neither of which are our home country), moved 6 times, worked 4 jobs, etc. to make this academic dream a reality.  And after all that, there is the unfortunate reality to eventually face that there are simply not enough jobs for all the amazingly talented people who have all made incredible sacrifices to make academia their career.  I (like most) once naively thought that a good degree from a top school where my husband worked with a well-known supervisor with whom he has a good relationship would ensure a good job afterward.  Sadly, there simply are no guarantees.

4. No. It’s been so much more than I could have ever expected!In the beginning, 2 weeks after we were married we shipped off for his first masters.  Just the two of us. The good, the bad and the ugly. And we had to figure it all out on our own but together. Wouldn’t trade it. Even the really hard bits.

3 years later we shipped off to the UK. Again, just the two of us. Those are precious memories.

And all along the way the amazing friends we met. More than friends. Kindred spirits. Make shift family. Forever friends. Most of the time it was people I might not have been friends with if we’d all been living in America. Why is that?! But it is special because our little world was really expanded through all those different friends. And we’re all still friends today. The kind that you get back together with after not talking for a year and just pick back up. The people you can be totally yourself with and they get you. The people you call/email when something really big is going on.

Those kind of friendships are harder to find after the grad life. So we treasure them.

And oh the places I’ve been. I grew up in a town of 500 people and never really had a desire to leave. I love my hometown. Love it. But I love that the world is so much bigger to me now. I love that I understand different cultures because I’ve experienced them…really lived in them. And maybe at times really hated them, but to come through that all the way to appreciation for why a country or city is the way it is. The grad wife journey has given me that.

5. Yes, in the main sense.  But much less contemplative.  Of course, that may be because we had no stipend the whole time, so I was always working at least 30 hours per week.

6. For the first response, it was more than I thought it would be!  This experience allowed my husband and I to grow as a couple.  Away from family we had to rely on the strength, empathy and sacrifice of each other.  We had the unique experience of pursuing doctorates together, but I don’t think that our experience is so separate from other couples where only one is pursuing graduate school.

7. Graduate life was far more intense (and far more rewarding) than I had initially expected. It really is a pilgrimage in every sense, not least all that relates to personal significance and aspiration. Graduate work, on top of that, was not what I had expected. Research is linear and subject to control, I came into the program thinking, that is, year 1’s findings lead into year 2’s findings and so forth, with equal measures of momentum and success. But research requires addition by subtraction, a step forward by a couple (or more) steps backward. That is no easy thing to experience on a regular basis. Good supervision alleviates this dimension of graduate life, but there is no getting around it: it is a rite of passage that every researcher goes through. The non-linear (and inherently provisional) nature of humanities research and writing took a good bit of adjustment.

8. My graduate husband said that his Masters’ program was about what he expected, but that the PhD program was much harder than he had anticipated. I think it was especially hard the first year, when he wasn’t getting a lot of feedback from his advisors and he began second-guessing his decision to be here at all. He said that he didn’t expect to need me as much as he has. Like, he knew in a “head” way that he would need me to help in practical ways and so forth, but he didn’t know he would need as much emotional support and encouragement as it’s taken to finish the program.

For me, the most surprising thing was how necessary it was for me to develop solitary hobbies. This probably has more to do with our living in a one-bedroom apartment the first 4 years of the PhD, but all through the program: coursework, comps, and dissertation, if I was going to see him at all, it was going to be in our living room and he would be working a lot of the time, so I better have something like reading/knitting/sewing/writing to do. So I’m glad I’ve developed those hobbies but didn’t anticipate how necessary they would be.

9. I can’t say that I had many expectations, so it’s hard to say! But one thing is sure: I didn’t expect this much of an emotional roller-coaster.  I thought I’d found my niche, meaning: a) I pictured myself enjoying every moment of my studies, and so it’s a bit of a let-down to find myself approaching my thesis more and more as another big hoop to jump through; b) I pictured myself excelling, and actually having something to offer to the academic community, so it’s a bit frustrating to feel like I’m just doing all I can to pass, and in the process am taking up space that someone else could probably fit more effectively.

10. No, but rarely are things the way I expect them. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got before going into graduate school was to treat it like a job, 9am-5pm. If one must do something in the evening it had to be made up elsewhere. Sure, there will be times, temporary times, where scheduling may get intense but I’ve always felt this can never become the norm.

In my years here I have struggled with this mentality while also recognising that ‘life is what happens to you while you are making other plans’. I have always felt that while graduate school is meant to be about preparation for a new career and a new life, the process and that time (it was 6 years!) can’t be seen on its own as just preparation–only waiting around until life will actually start. Life happens in those decisions and habits we make today. That doesn’t change just because one gets a degree. That is the reality of the situation. Certain sacrifices have to be made on both ends: for the graduate and for those who are affected by the graduate. But, it is those moments of mutual sacrifice that our love for each other is ACTUALLY put into practice. It is how we tell each other: ‘I love you. I am willing to sacrifice my own comfort and ambition for you.’

I found graduate school a lot more flexible in the UK then what we had back in the States. First, because the schedule is much more flexible. The coursework is a lot lighter (instead of being in the classroom for 20 hours a week it might only be 5-10). There is a lot more time in the week to be flexible. This just isn’t the case with most programs especially in the USA. For three years before we started graduate school my wife and I held full-time jobs and were full-time students in the USA (she was getting her Masters in Clinical Psychology and I was getting another degree in Engineering). This time was MUCH more difficult and a lot of it was because of the coursework we were both required to fulfil and because we were working full time. In the UK, we integrated this much better.

I wouldn’t trade my graduate life. I have met some of the most amazing people who have sacrificed a lot to be here, giving up successful careers to serve people in higher education (both graduates and family). I want to be around those kind of people.

11. I guess I have a limited perspective, since we only did a year.  I thoroughly enjoyed it!  It’s so fun to be back in the college atmosphere with the built in friends and fun.  Though, we will be paying off the loans until our own kids go to college, and they are quite expensive–like a luxury car payment every month.  I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything though.  I would wholeheartedly recommend it, and going overseas makes it even more life-changing.  If anything, it helped me understand what really matters–family, not location, wealth, status, or things.

12. No. I didn’t think that much about it, just went with it. I suppose I expected a sort of continuation of undergrad. (digression: read “Surviving my stupid, stupid decision to go to grad school“). I didn’t know about the “dark period“, the stress, the pressure, the insanity, or that I would be going through it with my graduate.

Now we ask you, dear readers: is the graduate life what you thought it would be?
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One thought on “Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 1

  1. I had zero expectations when we started the graduate journey (at the same time, it began our marriage journey too). I knew we were moving halfway across the country while my husband earned a masters. I didn’t realize at that time, it would be at least one more move, a PhD program, and lots of work for both of us! We are celebrating our 8th wedding anniversary today, and I’ve reflected on where we’ve been the past few days. It’s been such a wild ride for both us, and I truly wouldn’t have changed it for the world. We are fortunate that we have seen the world. and have experiences so many of our high school and college friends don’t.

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