Stages of the Grad Journey

Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 2


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?

Stages of the Grad Journey

Questions About the Graduate Life, Part 1

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?