5 Ways to Cope with Uncertainty


The post box door flung open and I winced as our mail flew around me into a heap on the floor.  As I knelt to scoop pieces of mail back into a neat pile, I saw it.

A thin letter. The glaring University logo in the corner of the envelope. I felt my heart sink in despair.

It was THE letter we had hoped to never receive, the one that began with these paraphrased words, “You’re awesome, but not awesome enough to be teaching at our school; good luck finding a teaching post at another school.”

I knew what the coming evening would bring: reflection on what could have been done better, comparison to colleagues, conversations on publish or perish, all done with an overarching sense of failure. In the long run, this also meant another option had been scratched off our ever-shrinking list. There was absolutely nothing I could do to avoid the oncoming train of discouragement that was about to hit us.

As I wandered back up the stairs to our flat, the cloud of uncertainty fully enveloped me, and I wondered how I would once again garner enough strength to be the cheerleader he needed me to be. How many more times could I do this?


How many of us have lived that scene of uncertainty, or one similar to it? Maybe in your world, it’s your students’ applications to graduate school, law/medical school, a fellowship program, or in my own case, a teaching post. How are you dealing with the uncertainty? And how do you remain hopeful? Can we, as supportive graduate wives, maintain a level of positivity during the midst of constant change and uncertainty? I hope so, but I know I struggle with it!

Here are five ways to deal with uncertainty; this is not an exhaustive list by any means, but things I’ve learned from fellow graduate wives and my own graduate journey:

How do we accept this uncertainty?

1.   Acknowledge that you may face several possibilities.  In our world, for the last two or three years, my husband has had a different job (or in some cases, jobs), every year.  As of right now, since he doesn’t have a permanent post, we have no idea from year to year where we’ll live and what we’ll be doing. At one point last summer, he had applications out in four different countries. With so many possibilities, I found it difficult (and still do) to try to plan anything. My anxiety kicked in, and I began to panic and worry over things I had no control over. It was only after I acknowledged that it was just a possibility that my anxiety slowly dissipated. I learned to wait for an answer, be it a ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘you’re on the waiting list’, and dealt with it then.

How would you deal with the idea of several possibilities?

2.    Focus on what you can control. I may be able to control some things in our lives, but I can’t control a hiring committee, a school reviewing applications, or post-doctoral funding. I can control the atmosphere in our home, working hard at a job that will pay our school bills, and at the cleaning of laundry and dishes. It’s often unfair, if not difficult, when your husband’s future is determined by someone sitting on the other side of a desk. But if you can learn now to let go of what you can’t control and focus on what you can control, life will be a lot easier.

How do you deal with control?

3.    Manage expectations.  What happens if your student spouse doesn’t get accepted into the school of their dreams? What happens if you don’t end up in the city you had wanted to live in? Learning to manage expectations by having an adaptable plan is important in the graduate life. Sit down with your spouse and write down your non-negotiable and negotiable desires. Make a plan from there. When your spouse has fourteen different job/school/fellowship applications out in three different countries or six different states, an adaptable plan will come in handy.

How do you manage expectations?

4.    Be honest about how you’re feeling. But be wise in your timing of sharing it. Pick a time that your student will be in the right frame of mind – if you choose to do it during a particularly stressful season (i.e. exams, etc). then you may not get the response you were looking for. Over the past eight years, the sweetest moments in our graduate life have occurred when I’ve been able to share with my husband that I was fearful and frightened of what his future in the Academy may not hold for us. Such honesty allowed us to have an open, frank dialogue, reminding us that we were a team. While it’s important to have these conversations, it is also equally important that they are done in a respectful and understanding way.

Are you honest with yourself, and your student spouse?

5.    Keep moving forward.  It’s not easy feeling caught between the place you came from and the place you’re headed. It’s difficult to gain momentum when you feel trapped in the same place doing the same things. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last eight years it is this: you have to keep moving forward by developing yourself, investing in relationships around you, and learning from those pesky, teachable life moments.  Those experiences are the things that will define and refine you, and those are the things you’ll be able to carry into future endeavors.

How do you keep moving forward?

If you’re in the middle of uncertainty right now, how are you coping with it? Would you be willing to share in the comments below?

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity” (Gilda Radner).



8 thoughts on “5 Ways to Cope with Uncertainty

  1. Really great post, Mandy. We are able to identify really well with this right now, as my husband is in that year where he is trying to gauge whether or not to finish his dissertation, which is affected primarily by whether or not he gets a job. At this point, we are super grateful because he was called back for an interview to one job where he applied, but are just waiting to hear from them in the next week or two. So, it’s an exciting but definitely uncertain place to be. Honestly can’t express how encouraging it is to read about others’ processing of these times in life and experience them, in a way, together!

  2. Ugh. This is so us right now. So many applications out, career paths, etc. I have literally no idea where in the world we will be in six months. :) Thanks for taking the time to write this Mandy. It’s so, so timely.

  3. We don’t know either, but it helps to have a back-up plan. Though the back-up job isn’t something he’d want to do, it would keep us from moving into his parents’ basement, provide a good income, and be something he would have a 99.99999% chance of getting hired at. Like I said, it’s not what he wants but it is just a back-up, in-case-of-emergency plan in the back of our minds that we find comforting.

  4. This is really helpful; thanks for posting! I am learning that I cannot control everything. My student/husband is in his first year of graduate school. 1/4 of the way finished! :)

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