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?
2 thoughts on “Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 2”
Amen on the “holding tank”!! My husband and I have thought that for some time–people kind of insinuate, or even outright talk about this time of life as not being “real life,” and while it’s certainly different in many ways from the lives of our family or friends with regular jobs, etc. it has caused me to wonder, “Well then, when does real life begin?” So yes, I would echo all the sentiments to the effect of, “Make the most of this time and don’t constantly be looking forward to the nebulous time when things are ‘stable!'”