REPOST: Caretakers of Hopes and Dreams

Written by Amy, a current graduate wife

The first four years of our marriage have largely been defined by our identity as grad students. In that time, Z got a JD, and I got an MA and began a PhD in philosophy. In the summer of 2008, we clasped hands and promised to nurture and nourish each other’s hopes and dreams. We promised to be partners, lovers, mutual supporters. From that moment, our lives have been shaped by the constant conversation of how to balance our two careers.

Since he was a sophomore in college, Z has been planning to be a lawyer. Since I was a bright eyed highschooler with far too many questions, I knew instinctively I was supposed to be a philosopher (on Xanga, I went by “Gadfly”).

We got married, and three weeks later Z started law school. I nannyed and went to lots of free lunch talks at the university. As planned, I then I applied to MA programs. The idea was to do a terminal MA while Z finished law school, and then apply to PhD programs at schools near large legal markets. My best-funded and highest ranked offer was in another state. Nearly 100 miles away. Rather than turning it down, or buying a car, like most sane people would do, I accepted the offer and commuted by train, bus, foot and willpower 200 miles a day for two years. It was 5-6 hours round trip. On the bright side, I mastered the art of grading papers while standing at a bus stop.

At this point, people usually gasp in horror. And they should. It was mentally and emotionally debilitating. But I loved my studies. And Z loved his studies. And we loved sharing our learning. Our dinner conversations ranged from Bankruptcy law to the norms of rationality. While Z and I flourished intellectually and as a couple, these were two profoundly isolating years. Because I did not live near school, I couldn’t socialize with my cohort. Because I went to school in another city, I didn’t have time or energy to invest in friendships at home. I felt like a pingpong ball, going back and forth but never coming to rest. Our whole world consisted in Z and me, his school work and mine. And waffles on Sunday mornings.

The lawyering process, for those who don’t know, is quite intense. For his first summer, Z worked in his home city. We lived with his parents to save money. In retrospect, there are more important things than saving money, and maintaining a healthy relationship with your inlaws may be one of them. It may be impossible to maintain a healthy relationship with your inlaws (or your spouse) if you live with them. We lived with Z’s parents for not one but TWO summers!

At the beginning of Z’s third year of law school, he was offered a job in a fancypants law firm in a Big City. We breathed a sigh of relief. Law school debts would be paid, he would have his dream job. And it was my turn to apply to PhD programs.

I applied to every program within a reasonable distance from Z’s job. And half a dozen other programs. It seemed like every conversation revolved around what we would do if I didn’t get in near his Dream Job, or how he would leverage his job to another one near my school of choice.

Everything seemed to go according to plan. Z had his dream job, I was accepted to a number of programs in the area (and across the country). I would get to pursue my dream of being an academic. It seemed that our hard work and sacrifice had paid off. Living with inlaws, commuting absurd distances, countless weekends and late nights working away, exam stress, job uncertainties, future uncertainties. . .

But then it happened. I always thought that it would be the soul-crushing effect of rejection and disappointment that would deal the death-blow. That we would dream big and fail. Instead, it was notification that I had been accepted to Dream School. Dream School. I had been dreaming of going there and studying with Famous Philosophers ever since I got the cockamamie notion of becoming a philosopher. My love of dream school wasn’t just a school-girl crush, either. Of all the schools in the world, Dream School offered the opportunity to study exactly what I wanted to study.

I sat on the campus of Dream School, sobbing. I had been accepted at the eleventh hour, and had to decide before noon on the fateful fifteenth of April. I had an impossible choice. I couldn’t ask Z to move to Tiny Collegetown and give up his Dream Job. Given the “on-call” nature of his job, he couldn’t commute to the city. We couldn’t live in separate states. I did not have the strength to commit to five+ years of commuting 200 miles a day to another state and another time zone. And I could not turn down Dream School. It would have been disappointing to fall short of my goal. But to arrive and have to exert the willpower to turn it down!

Z was a hundred miles away, and the cell reception was abysmal. And I was crying so hard I could hardly hear what he was saying.

Click. My cell phone battery died. I had less than an hour left before I must decide. It was crazy that in a world of modern gadgetry, we would be unable to communicate about such an important decision. But there I was, forced to act. Alone.

And then I thought back to the decision we made years earlier. His deep blue eyes looking into mine, his hand holding mine reassuringly. We promised to tend each other’s’ dreams. We promised to be partners, to encourage each other, to be a team. He as a lawyer, me as a philosopher. I felt a wave of certainty wash over me: I made my decision about Dream School when I made my decision to become Z’s partner. We are a team, and what we do, we do together. We couldn’t be a team commuting crazy distances or living in separate states.

With a deep breath, I turned down Dream School and accepted Compromise School.

Post Script: Life has a way of keeping Z and I laughing. I mourned the loss of Dream School for a summer, and then started at Compromise School. It turns out, Compromise School is a wonderful fit for me as well. I am thriving in my program. Z, on the other hand, no longer thinks that Dream Job is much of a dream job. I keep telling him that he can try something else, if he likes. Whatever he decides his next step is, we will do it together.

Have you had to make sacrifices for your spouse/your career and only later had the hindsight to realize what a blessing the sacrifice turned out to be?  Or, have you  had to make sacrifices and find yourself still grieving over what was given up?  

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Caretakers of Hopes and Dreams

Written by Amy, a current graduate wife

The first four years of our marriage have largely been defined by our identity as grad students. In that time, Z got a JD, and I got an MA and began a PhD in philosophy. In the summer of 2008, we clasped hands and promised to nurture and nourish each other’s hopes and dreams. We promised to be partners, lovers, mutual supporters. From that moment, our lives have been shaped by the constant conversation of how to balance our two careers.

Since he was a sophomore in college, Z has been planning to be a lawyer. Since I was a bright eyed highschooler with far too many questions, I knew instinctively I was supposed to be a philosopher (on Xanga, I went by “Gadfly”).

We got married, and three weeks later Z started law school. I nannyed and went to lots of free lunch talks at the university. As planned, I then I applied to MA programs. The idea was to do a terminal MA while Z finished law school, and then apply to PhD programs at schools near large legal markets. My best-funded and highest ranked offer was in another state. Nearly 100 miles away. Rather than turning it down, or buying a car, like most sane people would do, I accepted the offer and commuted by train, bus, foot and willpower 200 miles a day for two years. It was 5-6 hours round trip. On the bright side, I mastered the art of grading papers while standing at a bus stop.

At this point, people usually gasp in horror. And they should. It was mentally and emotionally debilitating. But I loved my studies. And Z loved his studies. And we loved sharing our learning. Our dinner conversations ranged from Bankruptcy law to the norms of rationality. While Z and I flourished intellectually and as a couple, these were two profoundly isolating years. Because I did not live near school, I couldn’t socialize with my cohort. Because I went to school in another city, I didn’t have time or energy to invest in friendships at home. I felt like a pingpong ball, going back and forth but never coming to rest. Our whole world consisted in Z and me, his school work and mine. And waffles on Sunday mornings.

The lawyering process, for those who don’t know, is quite intense. For his first summer, Z worked in his home city. We lived with his parents to save money. In retrospect, there are more important things than saving money, and maintaining a healthy relationship with your inlaws may be one of them. It may be impossible to maintain a healthy relationship with your inlaws (or your spouse) if you live with them. We lived with Z’s parents for not one but TWO summers!

At the beginning of Z’s third year of law school, he was offered a job in a fancypants law firm in a Big City. We breathed a sigh of relief. Law school debts would be paid, he would have his dream job. And it was my turn to apply to PhD programs.

I applied to every program within a reasonable distance from Z’s job. And half a dozen other programs. It seemed like every conversation revolved around what we would do if I didn’t get in near his Dream Job, or how he would leverage his job to another one near my school of choice.

Everything seemed to go according to plan. Z had his dream job, I was accepted to a number of programs in the area (and across the country). I would get to pursue my dream of being an academic. It seemed that our hard work and sacrifice had paid off. Living with inlaws, commuting absurd distances, countless weekends and late nights working away, exam stress, job uncertainties, future uncertainties. . .

But then it happened. I always thought that it would be the soul-crushing effect of rejection and disappointment that would deal the death-blow. That we would dream big and fail. Instead, it was notification that I had been accepted to Dream School. Dream School. I had been dreaming of going there and studying with Famous Philosophers ever since I got the cockamamie notion of becoming a philosopher. My love of dream school wasn’t just a school-girl crush, either. Of all the schools in the world, Dream School offered the opportunity to study exactly what I wanted to study.

I sat on the campus of Dream School, sobbing. I had been accepted at the eleventh hour, and had to decide before noon on the fateful fifteenth of April. I had an impossible choice. I couldn’t ask Z to move to Tiny Collegetown and give up his Dream Job. Given the “on-call” nature of his job, he couldn’t commute to the city. We couldn’t live in separate states. I did not have the strength to commit to five+ years of commuting 200 miles a day to another state and another time zone. And I could not turn down Dream School. It would have been disappointing to fall short of my goal. But to arrive and have to exert the willpower to turn it down!

Z was a hundred miles away, and the cell reception was abysmal. And I was crying so hard I could hardly hear what he was saying.

Click. My cell phone battery died. I had less than an hour left before I must decide. It was crazy that in a world of modern gadgetry, we would be unable to communicate about such an important decision. But there I was, forced to act. Alone.

And then I thought back to the decision we made years earlier. His deep blue eyes looking into mine, his hand holding mine reassuringly. We promised to tend each other’s’ dreams. We promised to be partners, to encourage each other, to be a team. He as a lawyer, me as a philosopher. I felt a wave of certainty wash over me: I made my decision about Dream School when I made my decision to become Z’s partner. We are a team, and what we do, we do together. We couldn’t be a team commuting crazy distances or living in separate states.

With a deep breath, I turned down Dream School and accepted Compromise School.

Post Script: Life has a way of keeping Z and I laughing. I mourned the loss of Dream School for a summer, and then started at Compromise School. It turns out, Compromise School is a wonderful fit for me as well. I am thriving in my program. Z, on the other hand, no longer thinks that Dream Job is much of a dream job. I keep telling him that he can try something else, if he likes. Whatever he decides his next step is, we will do it together.

Have you had to make sacrifices for your spouse/your career and only later had the hindsight to realize what a blessing the sacrifice turned out to be?  Or, have you  had to make sacrifices and find yourself still grieving over what was given up?  

Graduate AND Wife

                                                                                                                                                                                

-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?


A Happy Life


                                                                                    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?

The Graduate(s) Life

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Written by Jessie – a current graduate wife and student

Our marriage has survived a double dose of the graduate life. In our three wonderful, hectic, beautiful, crazy, blessed years together, at least one of us has been in school nearly the entire time. We were married the summer before my senior year of college, and after I graduated we decided to move away and both go to graduate school. We started grad school at the same time, in separate programs. We’ve had twice the books, twice the papers, twice the financial burden, and twice the stress. But, we’ve also had something that a lot of graduate students miss out on—a partner, a spouse, and a best friend who really understands what you’re going through: Someone who will stay up late and help you design your education module because they know tomorrow night you will quiz them on their Hebrew vocabulary until your eyelids droop; A partner in crime who will gladly ditch their paper too to go see a movie, and then pay the price with you later as you both scramble to the end of the semester.

After two of the hardest years of my life, I finished my degree in May (can I get an AMEN please?!). I often tell my husband that my degree is as much his as mine, because I don’t think I would have made it through without his constant encouragement to keep going, when all I wanted to do (and let’s be honest, even when all I did do) was sit in the floor and cry. Now, it’s my turn to do the same for him—to see him through in his last year of his Master’s program and then beyond as he seeks out further opportunities for post-graduate study. I’m actually tickled to death at the thought of being a graduate wife and not a graduate student! I know that this means we will probably move away from friends (again), put more distance between ourselves and our families (again), and live in a country where we don’t even speak the language (for the first time). I know we will likely live hand to mouth, that it will probably be hard for me to find work, and that I will miss the comforts of home terribly. But I also know that we can survive, because we are in this together.

People often ask me how we did it, as if there’s some secret formula to make your marriage and your academic pursuits work together. I never have a good answer; the truth is that we’ve struggled through it day by day, and in the end just made it work. But along the way, I have learned a lot. I’ve learned that marriage is much sweeter when you are both more concerned with what you can give instead of what you can get. I’ve learned that sometimes you just need a break. The paper will still be there in an hour or two (or the dishes, or the laundry…trust me, none of it is going anywhere), so it’s ok to take a little time and actually enjoy yourself. In five years, I don’t think I’m going to look back and remember all the A’s I got in my classes, or how good my GPA was. I do think that I will look back remembering fondly all the times I spent goofing off with my husband, escaping with him for a walk outside, or lingering and talking over dinner together. And most importantly, I’ve learned that even though I’ve doubted almost every step of the way, God has been faithful. My faith is smaller than a mustard seed, but God still moves mountains.

I constantly ebb and flow between gratitude for the opportunity to learn and pursue our dreams and despair at the sheer stress and burden of it all. I find comfort in the other women I know who share this same path, comfort in a God who hears my every cry (and whine, and pout), and comfort in a marriage that has only been made stronger by the graduate life together. The graduate journey is not an easy one, no matter which side you are on, but it is a treasured one. I know that everything I’ve learned so far is but a drop in a very large bucket, and in that way I am always a “graduate”—always learning, always failing, always trying again, constantly being refined and reshaped. This journey is not finished with me yet, and I’m thankful. Because, as it turns out, I’m not finished with it either.

In your journey through graduate school, have you been the one pursuing the degree instead of your husband?  Have both of you?  What are some tips you’ve learned along the way?