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

REPOST: Six Stages of the Graduate Journey: Part I

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 One: 

CONTEMPLATION STAGE

Only those souls fueled by a passion to pursue something as valuable as greater knowledge in a particular field, those individuals driven to succeed in the pursuit of excellence and opportunity would willingly submit themselves to grueling hours of study, academic gymnastics, and personal discipline required to complete any grad program.

Yes, but let’s be honest; at this stage grad school can look kind of sexy and enticing. I mean, really, you picture yourself delving into fascinating research or meaty historical writings, prying open heavy volumes of famous theoretical musings and drinking in centuries of esoteric wisdom which ignites your imagination and your inner nerd. You can just smell the newly-sharpened pencils and freshly-brewed coffee as you daydream about what you will look like as a graduate student. What’s not enticing about joining the stream of smoky, tweedy academics who over the past centuries have wrestled with the material you are ready to savor?   Whether philosophers really do don the requisite black turtlenecks and law school students tote leather briefcases, who knows for sure, but one thing is certain: even if a program is only a few short years, it will change everything. There is no going back. It will have an impact on your finances, it will shift your relationships with immediate and extended family (you might return home with changed political loyalties causing many a tussle at thanksgiving dinner), and you will require some major shifts from your immediate family if you are partnered or a parent. Your mental and physical health will be affected, your sense of self will be forever altered, and of course you will change the trajectory of your career. But on the day you receive the acceptance email or letter, none of this is yet a reality and what you know is that you cannot imagine doing anything else. The path has opened before you, and it is beckoning you to tread on.

Stage Two:

TAKING THE LEAP

You are now surrounded by a buzz of preparation and anticipation; this stage is infused with hopefulness, eagerness, drive, motivation, fear, doubt, and passion. You’ve poured over the academic requirements, researched housing availabilities, finagled some level of financial aid, and you are weighing whether you are willing to take the risk to follow your dream with all the cost-benefit comparisons in front of you. If you are asking a partner or spouse or children to join you in this, you are all contemplating the necessary losses and pleasant expectations, fears and excitement. Some grieving may be rising to the surface as you begin to shed connections to the familiar and cut the ties to your old existence. You are dealing with the reactions, both positive and negative, of loved ones, colleagues, and friends as you share the news of your exciting adventure. They might be responding with discouragement or encouragement, and you are left to sort through the layers of emotion ricocheting around you as you finally go public with your dreams and aspirations. It may feel freeing to leave unencumbered and start fresh, or you might experience deep terror at the thought of severing the familiar moorings which tether you to your home and all the familiar comforts. You google the location of your grad program obsessively and try to piece together some picture of how life in your new hometown will be. Much like setting up base camp when you are about to begin a high elevation mountain climb, this stage requires establishing good foundations, support, and supplies.

Stay tuned for Stages 3-6!

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

Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 2

question-marks

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.

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

 1. Count the costs. One lives the day-to-day life just like the folks back home, but we do it with the added stresses of isolation, academic competition, and shoestring budgets (with student loan debt!). Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that there is a job on the other end. If it’s worth it for the meantime, do it; but it may not be a means to a straightforward end.

2. I would say that first and foremost, you and your spouse have to BOTH be a thousand percent sure that pursuing graduate work is worth it and something you fully believe your spouse should be pursuing.  If there is any sort of hesitation, address that before you jump in.  For the sake of your marriage, talk about everything.  What do each of you expect life will look like over the next 5-10 years?  What sacrifices are you willing to make (financially, relationally, geographically, etc.)?  What are your non-negotiables – the things you just can’t (or don’t want to) do life without?  What you will do if it doesn’t work out?  Will you have children?  How will your lifestyle as a graduate family affect them?  What if after this degree, you find your spouse needs another?  And another after that?  Are these scenarios you can live with?  Of course some of these things will be re-visited and adjusted throughout the years, but start the journey with clear conversations about where you are headed and why.  Once you’ve made the decision to go ahead, don’t look back!!  Throw your heart and soul into it and make it happen – TOGETHER!

3. Going on this graduate wife journey has slowly shaped me into a person who is more resilient, more emotionally present in everyday moments, more thankful and more accepting of others.  I have learned how necessary community is and what a rare and beautiful gift deep friendships can be (even with unexpected people).  To those just starting the journey, I would say . . . try to hold your expectations loosely and do your best to live fully in each place you are (instead of setting your heart on what is next or wishing for what has already passed).

4. Whatever problems you have now in your life, your marriage, etc. the grad life will magnify it. Yep. Make it front and center. Something about this journey (all the change, the moving, the insecurity, finances–take your pick!) brings out the hard stuff. And that’s not a bad thing if you’re ready for it and committed to seeing it through to the other side. It’s helpful to also do the following:

-Have a life outside of being a grad wife. Be there for your spouse, but don’t own their ups and downs. Be interesting on your own.

-Make a nest for yourself. Even if you’re only there for a short time.

-Settle quickly and start putting down roots. This time FLIES by. Make the most of it from the beginning.

5. Graduate life is certainly demanding of one’s time, energy, and financial and mental resources.  Throughout the whole process we had to learn to communicate our needs and design ways to balance ‘life’ with the demands of school, ambition, and career.  It was important to us to set boundaries about work and play.

I’ve also heard many couples on the graduate journey talking about this time as a ‘holding tank’- a place of limbo until the graduate student graduates and ‘life can begin’.  This analogy is utterly unhelpful and ripe for discontent for the certain setbacks to be faced in the future.  No graduate journey is smooth, there may be financial setbacks, personal or family circumstances that change, problems with data/researching, a doctorate taking longer than thought, and a healthy chunk of time waiting for job offers to come.  If a couple is going to embark on this journey, it should be seen as, yes a season of life, but part of life. Life shouldn’t go on hold until the end of the degree.

With that said, my husband and I found that our life was immeasurably blessed on the graduate journey.  For a precious time in our life we were surrounded by people on the same journey. Most were on similar budgets, we lived in the same community, all had similar dreams, and we could empathize with each other’s struggles.  As a couple, we were faced with many years of an incredibly flexible schedule, where we could work on our studies, spend more time together, and be incredibly enriched by our like-minded friends and community, and a stimulating city.  We’ve loved our experience, struggles and joys.

6. You wouldn’t expect me to say this, but go for it! ~ graduate movement can be shaped, as it was for us, by many important, life-giving forces, not least the power of community and the exercise of virtues (love, patience, tenacity, empathy, rest etc) as a family in the face of varied success, inevitable disappointment and constant uncertainty. To go with that, I’d also say be aware of how much you can handle/take (financial freedom at the end of the journey is a goal worth considering). There is a saying that PHD stands for ‘Permanent Head Damage’ and without making light of it I’d say that to some extent the intensity (and isolation) of doctoral (and masters) work can have that effect, at least in stretches, on more graduates than one would expect, especially if there are no/minimal supporting structures of care and empowerment. Know your own limits and don’t be afraid to consider enough is enough if the warning signs persist.

7. I would say the same thing that I would say to anyone who is married or in a committed relationship. First of all, be flexible and have flexible expectations about the future. Remember that you married each other because of who you are, not because you were going to be a doctor/lawyer/professor/etc. (well hopefully that’s the case!). And even though you should be flexible, also be honest with one another about the expectations you do have and the struggles that you face. Sometimes, all it takes is being willing to hear one another out and listen while reserving judgement, either for yourself or your spouse. My most important piece of advice is one my sister gave me: At the end of the day, try to remember that when the line is drawn in the sand, you’re on the same side. Being a team and working together has gotten us through this journey with so much less strife and resentment than we could have had!

8. Just that the long-term ramifications of even beginning the academic journey are serious.  The job market is no joke: it has no mercy and it isn’t fair.  Life on a student budget is a serious stress for a family. It’s probably not going to be much fun unless the move into academia is a mutual decision, and unless it’s made after plenty of discussion with other former or current graduate-families.

9. Your time as a graduate will be longer than you expect and the time before you get a stable job will be longer than you expect. Only do it if you have a way to fund a significant portion of it (although my wife and I broke this rule initially). To Graduates: this is a vocation not only you need to feel comfortable with but those around you. Also, you will have setbacks both financially and academically whilst pursuing graduate work. You really need to count the cost…

10. I would tell them to consider realistically what the job market will be like in their field with that degree. To research the area the schools are in before making the move.  That they need to find support. That there is more to it than doing what you love all the time. I would probably point out some articles I’ve read about the reality of staying in academia. But really the number one thing I would tell them is to look at the job market in that field. I think so much of the depression and stress is realizing, after years of agonizing work, that you might not be able to work in the field that has been your dream, or that it turns out your dream job isn’t what you thought it would be.

11. Don’t do this unless you’re SURE you want to.  The job prospects are lousy, and you may well not get one.  Have a backup plan for your degree if you don’t get an academic job.  And be ready to be content if you have to use that backup plan.  It’s there for a reason.

Now we ask you, dear readers: What would you say to a family who is interested in embarking on the graduate life journey?

Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 1

https://i0.wp.com/www.ciob.org.uk/sites/ciob.org.uk/files/images/question%20marks_0.jpg

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?

Hoops

hoops

Hoola Hoops.

Hoop earrings.

Hooptie Hoop cars.

Shootin’ some Hoops.

Yep. Lots of hoops out there.  Sadly, this post isn’t about any of those.  It’s about the kind you have to jump through…

… from about 300 yards away … and it’s spinning … and it’s on fire.  In other words, the kind where your form doesn’t really matter; you just have to get through it somehow.

My husband recently came out of the ‘dark phase’ of his PhD journey (so perfectly captured in Laura’s post here), and I’m glad to say that we can see some light at the end of the tunnel!  Woohoo!  But then just last week, we found ourselves saying, “Hold on a second.  Is that the light up there?  Really?  We are getting so close to the end of all this labor, turmoil, exhaustion and it’s all been for this?  This finished piece?  Is this really all it’s adding up to?”

I know that many people’s DPhils and PhDs go on to be incredible works – books published that continue to shape and inspire the minds and lives of many around the world.  However, I am also just now realizing that many of those dissertations are also considered – gulp – just giant hoops to jump through.

We had such lofty expectations going into this DPhil program.  My husband was so excited to finally have this sacred time to think, write and explore.  And better yet, it was all funded!  And yes, it has been an incredibly rich and fabulous journey.  There have been many times we’ve pinched ourselves and said, “Ha, we’re living the dream life!”  But after year one, we realized that the time was flying by, and that the program wasn’t quite what we had so idealistically envisioned, and now at the end of year three it’s started to feel a bit like it’s all been a big hoop to get through.

Now, I know that for many, this isn’t the case.  But if you happen to find yourself in a similar spot, here are some tips on how to deal with the whole ‘hoop’ thing as you work your way to the end of your journey:

1.)  Get some perspective:  Yes, it’s true.  As you near the end of the PhD journey (and start searching for jobs) it might start feeling like your spouse’s research has been nothing but a big fat hoop to jump through, especially if you can’t find a job that doesn’t require another sort of degree or a post-doc in addition to the degree you’ve been working on.  But hold on, step back, and look at the bigger picture; recognize that the work put into this PhD is indeed something to be proud of.  It’s taken a long time to get where you are, and even if it doesn’t look like what you had hoped it would look like at the beginning, survey the long haul and be thankful for where you’ve come.  Also try to look at it in terms of the future – like putting puzzle pieces together as your life fits together before you.  The PhD was and is a necessary and crucial piece getting you from point A to point B.

2.)  Be honest about change: It might be your case that you have to help your spouse let go of the ideal that was envisioned for this thesis when he/she started out on this journey. We have to accept in our hearts and minds that change is inevitable, and it’s through change and flexibility that we grow stronger and more complex and able.  The work might have taken a different turn, but that is okay.  Help your spouse focus on the good of where it is going now and help them to articulate and hold onto the desire and dream of its original vision.  Maybe one day you’ll have time to go back and explore further areas that didn’t make it into this work.  The thesis doesn’t have to be a closed book.  It can be something that is worked and built upon in years to come.

3.)  Be realistic:  Okay, so maybe X years really is an incredibly tight time to actually research and write a work as lofty as your spouse set out to do?  Maybe not.  However, just as I stated in number 2, let go, cut yourself some slack, and finish in stride.  This is an incredibly powerful work that has in so many ways been at the center of your hearts and minds for so long…but then again, it is simply just a thesis.  It will speak on your spouse’s behalf for years to come, but then again it doesn’t have to define them.  It’s a crucial step.  An incredible badge of honor.

I think if can help my husband relax, finish well, and be proud of what he has accomplished, then we don’t have to look at the next few months/year as an annoying ‘hoop’ to finally get through.  As I see it, it’s more like a stepping stone on the journey – a rather tedious and difficult one, but nonetheless a step sending us onto the next one.

What are your thoughts?  Has your PhD or D.Phil journey felt like a ‘hoop’ at times?  How have you dealt with this feeling?

-M.C.