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Ever wonder what goes on in your graduate’s head? I know I do (and did)! I asked my husband, Casey, to write about his research experience, along with the possible psychological ramifications of being an academic. I understand that everyone is different, but it’s nice to have the perspective of a grad student who has walked the journey. ~Mandy 

-written by Casey, a former grad student

Don’t be like Mike…..

I’m a sports junkie, I have no problem admitting that.  So, I vividly remember the Gatorade ad campaign from the ‘90s that encouraged me and other kids to be like Michael Jordan.  Think what you will of Jordan now (post hall of fame speech), but the idea was straightforward: imitate the person you see succeeding and be successful yourself.  While there is some truth in that message, it can be very, very dangerous in academia.

Right now, somewhere, there is someone in my field who is reading a book.  Every time I stop to rest my weary brain I know that someone else is reading a journal article… probably in German.  I can never forget the casual chat with someone at a conference when they mentioned offhand how they do Latin vocabulary cards on their smart phone while waiting in queues.  And, of course, there is the seemingly weekly occurrence when I find out someone just got an (another) article accepted in a prestigious journal.  I need coffee; it’s time to go back to work.

This is what I used to tell myself when I would make coffee late in the evening to charge up for a four hour reading and writing session.  It is also what I would tell myself the next day when I read the output of that session only to realize it was rubbish.  Irretrievable rubbish.  For a long time I believed this narrative was an indication of my capabilities.  Then I got some sleep.  Not one night of eight hours—though that always made a positive difference—but a month worth of decent sleep.  And I read a book without footnotes.  For pleasure.  I played a round of golf and, afterwards, I watched a football match.  Scandalous, I know.  With just a few weeks of mental rest and distraction, I had ideas again.  A few of them weren’t rubbish.

I submitted my doctoral thesis when our son was 13 months old and still sleeping in our bedroom: you see, it was the only place in our one-bedroom flat that was quiet enough for him to do so.  I worked all day as an adjunct lecturer and, for the better part of 6 months, did my research and writing from 9 PM to 2 AM.  I’m a morning person, by the way, so this is even more insane than you think.  My son usually awoke between 5 and 6 AM, thus so did I.  That was my silly schedule; what is yours?  It’s probably worse.  But you can’t stop, can you?  ‘That’ person is now reading an essay… in French… and you’ve never even heard of the author.

Research is alluring because of the potential that you will find something never seen before.  There is always a new and intriguing topic to explore, a new possibility for making a link that answers an open question.  That same boundlessness makes researchers perpetually feel there is more to do, because there is.  You can always read another book, article, or essay, and surely you could be a bit more proficient in a foreign language, a computer program, or the like.  You never know when you’ve finished your research because that is a question that can’t be answered.  Research is like a race without a finish line, so it feels as if you can never run fast enough or far enough to reach the goal.  Because of that dynamic, any signal that someone else might be working harder than you can be (mis)read as a sign you’re not working hard enough.

I’m a workaholic.  If you’re reading this, there is a very good chance you’re a workaholic as well.  Grad school and doctoral programs attract workaholics like mosquitoes to a blue-light zapper.  What they don’t do, however, is warn you that this psychological tendency increases the probability that you will lose all sense of work-life balance while you’re doing your degree.

Among the things that I learned through doing a doctorate and living in the hellish purgatory that is post-doc, adjunct teaching are these two.  First, no one can read everything or know everything you think could be relevant to your research.  Not. Physically. Possible.  Second, it is your unique, individual perspective on whatever you’re researching that is more likely to provide the critical insight than is reading more stuff than other people.  When I finally learned the first lesson I was able to think of research as a strategic endeavor (I try to read what matters, I don’t try to read everything).  When I grasped the second I recognized that my single greatest strength as a researcher was being me.  And that meant I didn’t have to be like anyone else, not even the most successful person I knew in my field.  My particular constellation of experience, interests, and quirks (of which there are many) allows me to see problems in a fresh way and hopefully to offer new solutions to them.  I had to be me to be a good researcher, and that meant finding time for those things that made me who I am before grad school.  You know, back when I had a life outside the library.

What is it that makes you you?  Music; art; sports; cooking; movies; watching funny videos on the internet with friends?  Make time to do that.  If you don’t you’re cheating yourself in two ways: not only are you turning your brain into mush by not giving it a rest, you’re stifling the thing that could make you a distinctive researcher.  If you aren’t you, then you’re just a poorly engineered reading and writing machine that will break down sooner rather than later.

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A Bit of Dish Division: Advice on Household Chores

One of the biggest questions M.C. and I get asked regarding graduate life is “How do we balance household chores? I work full time, he is in school full time. How should we make this work?”

I grew up in a very traditional home when it came to chores. My Mother took care of everything inside the home; my Father took care of everything outside the home. This arrangement suited them well, so they’ve continued this way for the past 40 years (although my Dad is quite handy with the vacuum today).

Naively, I thought it would look exactly the same when I married. However, I didn’t factor in working full time, commuting, or a husband who would attend grad school.

In the weeks leading up to our wedding, we were having dinner with some friends, and they shared a piece of advice with us when it came to household chores: we were to pick a chore we hated, then switch.

I hate vacuuming.

He hates grocery shopping.

For the past 10 years, he’s vacuumed and I’ve shopped for groceries, and our little once-a-week arrangement has worked. There have been times we’ve had to step in and help each other out (especially during grad school), but there’s never been a doubt who owned that particular chore. We have balanced other household chores between us.

I know every relationship is different, so our little arrangement would not work for everyone. However, I’ve included some helpful tips below that I’ve picked up from various grad school wives:

What is your priority, and what are you willing to compromise? – Is having a clean house the most important thing to you? Is he a neat freak, and you’re the one with clutter? Are you still cleaning at 2am? You have to decide what is important for your family, and what you can compromise, then stick with it. A friend of mine in graduate life who stayed home with her children decided when they were young she would do one deep clean of her home a month. The rest of the time was spent maintaining, and she often had a messy home; but her trade-off was spending more time with her children. She felt absolutely no guilt for her messy home, as it was obvious where her priority was. I admired the way she owned her choice!

How do you communicate?- This may seem like an obvious one, but do you discuss your chores? I have a friend who worked full time while her husband was in grad school. While he helped out occasionally around the house, she did most of the household work. After awhile, she grew incredibly resentful because she felt like he was taking advantage of her. She finally convinced him to sit down to chat about it, and he grew defensive when she said she felt like she was doing everything. They managed to come to an agreement: for one week, they would keep a chore chart of every household chore completed for which they would earn one point. At the end of the week, they compared points: She had 25, he had 7. Believe it or not, several years later, they still do this, and now it’s easy for them to say to one another, “I’ve done the dishes 5 evenings this week, do you think you could do it for the next few evenings?”

Have you tried chore charts? – Chore charts (like these on pinterest) are incredibly popular, but they didn’t and wouldn’t work for us. Our schedules were always all over the place, so I’d always end up doing Monday’s chores (along with the rest of the week!) on Saturdays. :) For friends of ours living in shared graduate housing, they found chore charts to be essential, since they needed to communicate with more than just one other person. They would have a once a month meeting in the house to determine who was doing what chores for that particular month, and then the chart was hung in the kitchen for all to see.

Please don’t nag me! –  Back when we switched our hated chores, I found myself telling him how and when to vacuum. (He’s a GROWN MAN with a PhD, y’all. He knows how to run a vacuum). Two weeks into it, he said to me, “If you’re going to constantly nag me about this, I’m not going to do it.” Point taken. Remember that compromise thing? I accepted that it was no longer my responsibility to point out how and when his chores would be done – he already has a mother. :) We agreed he’d vacuum once a week, and I left him to it.

The graduate season tends to be a bit disorganized – there’s dissertations to write, exams to take, fellowships to engage in, and rounds to make. I know there will be times we’ll have to pick up the slack. The last year of my husband’s dissertation was also the first year of our son’s life. My husband was trying to finish his PhD, carrying a large teaching load, and trying to be a good husband and father. He had no capacity for anything else. For that year, I stepped up and did most of the household chores. After he submitted his dissertation, we reevaluated how we would manage chores going forward (especially since our home now contained a very fast, messy toddler).

How do you manage chores in your home? Do you find it to be a struggle? Would you give us any of your helpful tips in the comments below?

And remember, if all else fails, you could do what some friends of ours recently did after bickering for months around cleaning schedules, study schedules: they reviewed their budget, and decided it was worth their sanity to hire a cleaner. Oh the dream!

Happy cleaning,

~Mandy

REPOST: Another day in the library

Let me paint you a picture:

  • Dishes piled sky high in the sink.
  • Toddler who wants your full attention all day long.
  • Lots of emails in your inbox concerning an exciting project that you are contributing to that need to be answered sooner rather than later.
  • A shiny new book that arrived two weeks ago from Amazon, and still hasn’t been cracked.
  • Laundry overflowing in the hampers, and lack of clean laundry for all.
  • Pouring, I mean pouring rain outside. Nowhere to go but inside.
  • A list of creative toddler rainy day games with every single one crossed off…at least twice.
  • Dinner to prepare…then cook.
  • A phone call or two that needs to happen.

And then … (You can’t deny that you’ve done this too) … a picture pops into your weary, discombobulated mind: A picture of your husband. Alone. At the library. The quiet library. Researching. Reading about his interests, his passions. Quietly strolling through (in our case) the ancient adorned halls of the Oxford Bodleian library. Smiling, thinking deep, intellectual, powerful thoughts…alone. And I can’t help picture a smoking pipe in there as well. Or maybe your picture involves your spouse off doing fascinating field work in some exotic place…or doing a med school residency with a new rotation full of exciting, interesting new people teaching him/her life-saving skills.

Now, while I wish I could say the idea of my husband being in such a wonderful setting just raises my spirits and encourages me to get through the day, I have to be honest: it makes me a bit jealous and indignant at times.  When that picture comes to my mind at times, my first thought sometimes is not “oh how nice”, but rather, “oh how unfair“.

Yep.

It happens to the best of us. It has happened quite a few times to me lately, and I want to share some pointers if this starts happening to you.

1) Talk about it! The second that envy and jealousy start to creep up in your heart, share it with your spouse. Do not let these things fester and do not let silly, unrealistic pictures of his academic lifestyle continue to grow in your head.

2) Don’t jump to conclusions! He is not off playing Angry Birds! (And if he is, check out ML’s amazing post from last week). He is working his booty off for a degree that half the time he can’t even remember caring this deeply about to begin with. He is not off reading Bill Bryson with a pipe and a latte. He is knee deep in research and EndNote and endless PDFs and sometimes it feels more like a prison to him than an opportunity.

3) Be realistic! They don’t say “It isn’t meant to be easy” for nothing. Graduate school is hard work. Hard, hard work. And trying to balance that work on top of family and other commitments can sometimes be a lot to manage.

In short, I just want to say that for me, I have realized that maybe one in every five days of working in the library is relaxing and exciting for my husband. I feel like the other four are more like an isolating 9-6 office job that he has to keep pushing through, all alone, in order to get closer to an exciting, but far off finish line. And when he gets home he is usually needing encouragement from me (or an honest conversation about where I am at), not a whiney and jealous spiel about how hard my day seemed.

When these thoughts come, take a deep breath. Try to be thankful for the work that both of you have been given to do during this season: playing marbles for the 30th some odd time, singing Old McDonald again, scheduling conference calls while your kids are sleeping, or researching Lorentz’s views on relativity theory.

Cut them some slack.

This is a season.

Talk about it openly.

And know you are not alone in feeling this way every now and then!

-M.C.

REPOST: The Courage of Exploration

                                                                                             written by Sarah – a current graduate wife

So there I was, sitting at a cheap, plywood table in Newcastle England, starting blankly into a MacBook, more than 3,000 miles away from where I wanted to be.

How did I get so far off course, you might ask? Well, pull up a chair and lend an ear. My story is one a graduate wife can appreciate.

Some of you might remember what it is like to have a great career. I can still hear the hum of the printing press and feel the thick tension in the air as I tried to get a newspaper out on deadline. As a reporter and editor for our local newspaper the days were 100 mile-per-hour marathons, both exhilarating and exhausting. Since I was a little girl I had dreamed of this career. Every extra-curricular activity, internship and my university education had been strategically designed to make me a super reporter.

In my early 20s, I had almost made it. I was an editor at the local paper. The job title, awards and offers proved that I had become a small town Lois Lane. But I was aiming higher.

Then I met my husband.

He was intelligent, ambitious, a Matt Damon look-alike, and I was in love. He was also applying for medical school.

After a year of dating and applying for schools, we were married. On our one month anniversary he was accepted to a medical program – out of the country. We would be moving once a year for the first four years of our marriage, or more if fellowships and residencies dictated.

Like a monkey wrench thrown into the cogs of a printing press, my dreams came to a grinding halt. For this next season of our lives it would either have to be his career or mine on the chopping block – we couldn’t do both. With a few tears, I carefully packed up our unopened wedding gifts, cleaned off my desk and moved to England. I doggedly looked for a job. Anything. Sadly, there were no jobs there in newsroom administration, especially for a transient who would stick around for less than a year. This foreigner couldn’t make headway in the reporting business either – I didn’t know a bobby from a bodge.

Do you ever feel resentment for the sacrifices you have been asked to make?

My bitter tears and empty days alone in a foreign country were poison to my budding marriage. I knew I needed to find an antidote.

A wise comedian, who also found himself 3,000 miles from where he wanted to be, once said, “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.” Conan O’Brien might have been speaking to graduating academics at Dartmouth, but his words resonated with me. He continues:

“I went to college with many people who prided themselves on knowing exactly who they were and exactly where they were going. At Harvard, five different guys in my class told me that they would one day be President of the United States. Four of them were later killed in motel shoot-outs. The other one briefly hosted Blues Clues, before dying senselessly in yet another motel shoot-out. Your path at 22 will not necessarily be your path at 32 or 42. One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.”

As a newly-minted graduate wife, change was my only constant and adaptation my only antidote.

Somewhere in that foreign London fog of change and hopelessness, I started trying new things. I explored. I blogged. I taught myself how to design a website. I adapted.

Fredrick Nietzsche famously said “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But what he failed to stress is that it almost kills you. The loneliness, the disrupted career path and the stress in my marriage almost killed me. But for those who are stuck in the middle of that mire, I promise that on the other end of your effort there is peace.

My blank stare into that MacBook on that plywood table in that cold, dreary place turned into a journey of exploration. But only because I made it so. Conan was right – there is nothing more exhilarating than having your life flipped on its head and, through your own sheer force of will, flipping it right side up again. When you finally straighten things out, your dreams might look a little different. But because you were the one to do the changing, somehow those new dreams are alright.

Sacrifice became what I made it. It was still painful, but only as painful as I would allow it to be between the bouts of blogging and exploring.

We have survived our second move now and are tripping blissfully and blindly into year three of marriage and year two of his late night, blood-shot eye studying. We have learned that those who adapt, survive. I am a survivor.

What strategies have you found successful in your transition to a graduate wife?

REPOST: Six Stages of the Graduate Journey: Part IV

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.

Stage five:

THE DAWN

You can see it: the tiny glimmer of light at the end of the inky, bleak tunnel. You finally (finally!) have measurable results from the months and years you trudged through your research. Anticipation, relief, tentative signs of optimism – like daffodils or crocus muscling their way through thawing ground and announcing the arrival of spring – mark the beginning of your final stages as a grad student.  There are now a finite number of tasks to complete before graduation and you start to see the final checklist forming: finish writing a certain number of chapters, defend your dissertation, take a final examination, complete residency, do final lab write-ups or submit articles to journals for publications, whatever it takes to reach the finish line (and breathe a deep sigh of relief).

Many students gain momentum and experience a second wind in this stage, but sometimes the race to the finish line includes lingering exhaustion. In addition to completing necessary degree-related tasks, you are likely attempting to pave a path to the next stage of your career – applying for tenure-track jobs, postdoctoral fellowships, clinical placements, positions at law firms, hospitals, or your local Starbucks. That cloying sense of insecurity and self-doubt may rear its head once again as you grapple with anxiety about the unknown, and as you imagine the worst case scenario:  “Mom, I know you wanted to turn my old bedroom into a yoga studio, but……”

It might be safe to say that never before have so many elements of your future seemed quite so far out of your control.  For some this gives rise to a new degree of motivation; for others, it feels like a wet blanket of anxiety and fear.

How do you live with the uncertainty? How do you emotionally balance your excitement as you begin to see the culmination of your academic diligence with the foreboding fear that your career as an academic might be coming to a screeching halt?

  1. DON’T panic.  Plenty of grad students have tread on this steep terrain, and most would tell you that these are simply the final pains of post grad life.  You will be wanted, you are employable, you are going to make it.
  2. DO build into your life plenty of healthy distractions as you await news of interviews or potential job matches so the waiting won’t unravel your nerves.  Plan a mini-vacation, start a new physical activity (your mom seems to be really enjoying yoga, might give that a try?), or join a group of people doing something active and lively and interesting and that has nothing to do with academia.  Maybe you don’t feel up to beginning something new so close to the end of your stay, but anything to keep you physically, emotionally occupied is invaluable during the long silence.  Just step away from the computer and start doing something enjoyable – it will sustain you.
  3. DO share the process with your spouse or significant other and don’t immediately dismiss their encouragement.  They may not know the exact statistics of your program’s placement records or every detail of your field’s current available openings, but they care (heck, they made it this far too!) and want to support you.  And likely, they are waiting on pins and needles just as you are.  Determine not to fixate on the process and instead start to mend some of the distance that might have necessarily developed during the dark stages of your program; focus on celebrating even the smallest joys, and cultivating a renewed connection.
  4. DO your best during your workday, and then walk away.  Try – try! – to enjoy time with your partner, friends, or family and remember that this is the end of a long and treacherous journey; you are truly staring at the final tasks required to reach your goal. You are almost there!
  5. DO cultivate spiritual resources- prayer, mediation, involvement in a religious community; If these have ever buoyed you before, now’s the time to draw on that strength.
  6. DON’T give up – the end is in sight!

Stage Six:

COMPLETION AND EVALUATION

You’re a Master, or a Doctor, or So-and-So, Esquire.  It is finished. You have reached the summit.  Additional letters will forever accompany your name, and rightfully so; you have completed a great work.  In this stage, however, it is natural to take a look around, count the costs of having earned your new title, and ask the question, “Was it all worth it?”. Enjoy your successes, mourn any losses, and take a deep breath. Place your feet on a new path; on to the next journey…

Readers may contact Laura at LBenton.LMFT@gmail.com or check out ThinAirTutorials.wordpress.com

REPOST: Six Stages of the Graduate Journey: Part III

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.

Stage Four:

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….

Readers may contact Laura at LBenton.LMFT@gmail.com or check out ThinAirTutorials.wordpress.com

REPOST: Six Stages of the Graduate Journey: Part II

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.

Stage Three:

CONSTRUCTION ZONE

It is likely late summer or early fall at this point, you have arrived at your campus – your new, if temporary, home – and in the span of just a few weeks, it seems like a wrecking ball has taken a swing at your former life, leaving you shocked and excited by the initial phases of your new life as a grad student. It’s untidy and grueling work – relocating, shaking hands multiple times a day and answering questions about where you were previously and what area of the discipline you wish to master, but it feels purposeful and powerful. It’s exciting and terrifying, and it can feel like you are cyclically overwhelmed and euphoric. For some new grad students, an immediate sense of doubt appears – Did I choose the right program? Am I cut out for this? Were my motives pure? Is this really what I want to be doing? For some, this is temporary, for others, they must spend a season grappling with these questions and weighing various opportunities.

Ah, but the glorious sense of satisfaction as you start to gain the tools necessary to make it in this treacherous journey, the sense that you have found your life’s passion, this is worth the price. You buy a load of heavy new books and eagerly crack them open, after a few rousing rounds of get-to-know-you activities at the initial orientation meetings you start to bond with classmates and colleagues, and the halls of your institution (and the stacks at your library) become like a comfortable, well-worn second home.

Emotionally it is common to feel like you are diving and crashing, cycling between overwhelm and enthusiasm. Many students experience a sense of identity-rattling insecurity and intimidation in this new academic setting because it appears that every classmate has read more, prepared more thoroughly, gained more experience; it is common to hear students report that they feel like frauds, fearing the admissions committee might have mistakenly allowed them entrance to the program. Grad students often feel they are living a lie – while pretending to feel confident – all the while fearing they will be discovered as a sham, as someone who doesn’t belong in this rigorous environment. The good news is, to a large extent this fades somewhere after the first marking period or first successful Socratic dual with that dreaded professor, when you finally receive much-needed feedback and gain a sense of your bearings.

If a grad student is married or partnered, the initial enthusiasm for this new adventure might fade as the realities of the long hours in the library or the lab are starting to set in. Relational roles have to shift, and this is not often an easy change. A partner who used to help at home is now physically absent for long stretches (and mentally absent even when they are home after the drain of the academic work has taken its toll) and the connection points you used to take for granted have sometimes disappeared – catching up while cooking dinner or folding laundry, or watching a movie after a long day, running or biking together or just doing household chores side by side. The needs of the non-student spouse can feel overwhelming to the student, and the student’s fatigue-induced emotional withdrawal can be painful and bewildering. What seemed like a joint venture now feels more like a lonely climb, and the isolation can be brutal because at this point the new environment may feel comfortable and supportive to a certain extent, but it is still new and lacks the deep roots of home and loved ones, history and shared experience; it is difficult to lean into a new support network that lacks the robustness and depth that can only be cultivated over time.

This is where a couple’s mettle is tested. How creative are you? Can you find new routines to share that don’t require long stretches of available time? Instead of a lengthy dinner conversation, can you share a single morning cup of coffee? Can you create new and meaningful rituals on less time and nearly no sleep? Partners, ask your grad student what is possible rather than demanding old routines to remain in place. Grad student, ask your partner to think of one or two ways you can show you still care – practical and specific and attainable ways – and follow through with the request. Think about each individual segment of your day, likely things that used to seem like mundane tasks, and transform them into connecting points. Infuse the mundane with meaning! Fifteen minutes of rich connection can go a long way in maintaining the cement of your relationship. Plan dates  – knowing you will have time together in the near future can sometimes help with the long days. You have to be more intentional than you were, but it is possible. You can emerge a new, sleek, refined couple if you can make it through this stage of paring-down and streamlining. It will challenge your patience, creativity, energy, and resolve at first, but your future success as a couple will in part be determined by how flexible and adaptable you can be here.

Finally, support, support, support. Each partner must be investing in some kind of support system, no matter how worn out you feel or how intimidating it might seem at such a fragile stage. Some supports can be shared – e.g. participating in a religious community, joining new friends for get-togethers – but likely each partner will also need to forge their own groups or relationships, specific to their needs. Grad students: join a study group or occasionally go to a pub with classmates. Spouses: enjoy social time with colleagues after work or join a social group (book club, running group, volunteer organization). Parents: get out there and connect with other parents and make every effort to get your kids connected to a friendly network.

Sometimes this stage involves sadness as the honeymoon period finally comes to an end and the recent losses are deeply felt – missing loved ones, old belongings, old homes, etc. Give yourself grace and permission to grieve these losses – they are valid – and then figure out what energizes you and start creating a new support system around that. Sometimes easier said than done, but it still needs doing. Draw on spiritual strength, relational resources and old friendships, hobbies and life-giving activities, both individually and as a couple.

And remember, this is part of the demolition and reconstruction zone; it will not be easy, but something beautiful and substantial can emerge, maybe you just can’t visualize it yet. This is often one of the two most painful stages of the graduate journey, but things can turn around quickly and suddenly in this stage, and it is likely that one day you will wake up and realize this new environment feels like home and this is an experience you wouldn’t trade for anything – the adventure, risk, and challenge will refine you and change the course of your life, relationships, and character in ways not possible if you miss the opportunity to take this journey. Stay the course!

Stay tuned for Stages 4-6!

Readers may contact Laura at LBenton.LMFT@gmail.com or check out ThinAirTutorials.wordpress.com