Friday, November 6, 2015

PhD Wife Life and Advice for Grad School Couples

Any fellow grad-school fiancees and wives, holla.  This is for you today.
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Andrew and I had been friends for a while before we started dating, and I knew his dream was, God willing, to teach college English one day.  By the time I became his girlfriend, then his fiancé, then his wife, I knew that dream would entail many more years of school, moving, and lower income.

We could've waited until he was further along in school to get married, but seriously, from the very first month I knew that boy would become my husband!  For a lot of reasons, including the prospect of years of long-distance dating and struggles with chastity as the alternative, we decided getting married before getting settled was where the Holy Spirit was leading our relationship.  To be clear, I absolutely do not consider us morally superior or anything like that for choosing to get married young (we were both 23) and relatively poor--in fact, I sometimes complain about Andrew's career path, the one he feels so strongly called to, way more than I should--but for our particular weaknesses and strengths in virtue, it's been a purification from which we emerge continually more joyful and in love.

Practically speaking, though, academic life for one or both spouses in a relationship is ridiculously hard sometimes.  Grad school applications are long and daunting, always with an element of uncertainty that sort of forces you into a willingness to move anywhere for the sake of a program and, ultimately, a career as a professor or researcher that's a good fit.  Some full-time students, like my husband, are also student teachers; one of those alone entails bringing work home each night and working far more than 40 hours a week, for measly pay, and the combination of both can involve even more.  And, since there's not really a way around the fact that grad school is a means to an end, there are periodic needs to write extra papers and travel for conferences and networking events.

I know every field definitely has its struggles and busy times of year.  But, if I can humbly try to shed some light on this particular field we're in, here's what experience (and our repeated failings!) has taught us can ease some of the burdens of academic life:

If and when you have to move to a new area, seek out community.  Following your love to a new state and new town, maybe miles from both your homes, can be isolating for both of you, particularly if the one of you who's not in school doesn't have a job lined up yet (looking at you, past Stephanie).  After a somewhat slow start in the town I moved to after our wedding, where Andrew was getting his Masters, we were blessed to make a incredible friendships with another young couple and a few families from our parish, and eventually got involved with the youth group and became certified to teach NFP.  Being able to share in ministry with my hubs from the start of our marriage was awesome, and even after moving away, we've been able to stay in touch and occasionally visit our friends.

For Round 2, aka Andrew's PhD, we were lucky enough that his school isn't far from where we both grew up.  Returning to our families and college friends has been such a gift, especially as we've started our family.  For that reason, along with the demands of having a baby, it took a little longer for us to find a community at our church this time, but in the past few months we've become friends with a few other young families, at the same time that the parish is starting a young families' ministry, and I recently started going to a mom's Scripture study that I'm enjoying.

Thinking you're in this alone is such a lie.  For me, cultivating relationships in our parish, at work, and in Andrew's program made a huge difference in my sense of contentment and belonging.  Here's more advice on how to get acclimated if you're relocating.

Expect the unexpected when it comes to your time, and find ways to fill it while you're alone.  Like any profession, I expect, academia sometimes means unplanned meetings and tasks crop up during the day, especially if your spouse is a teacher and students need to come talk about projects and assignments.  What that looked like for us was me expecting Andrew home around a certain time, only to end up angry when that ETA got pushed back by a few hours--especially in those first overwhelming months after Aaron was born.  Fortunately, I like to think we've become more flexible and forgiving about this over the last few years.

I also need to constantly remind myself that the difficulties with time aren't personal; when I strip away my pride and my temper, it's not terribly hard to remember that my husband would much prefer to be home for dinner on late weeknights or hanging out rather than grading on a Saturday.  And even with those responsibilities, he still finds time to chase Aaron around to the point of the kid practically going blue with laughter, to do a significant amount of our household chores, and to do some of his work early in the morning, sacrificing sleeping in so we can go to bed together most nights.  For us, I think our four years of marriage and two years of parenthood have sort of been a process of figuring out how to identify and enjoy the pockets of free time we have together, compared to being constantly let down by expecting long blocks of time to hang out during evenings and weekends.

Andrew's done taking classes now and will spend the next two and a half years taking comps exams and writing a dissertation, but I found out early on that grad classes are nearly always night classes, usually ending around 9 or 10 p.m.  Before babies came along, I decided to try using those nights to catch up on the phone with my friends and to be purposeful with my time.   "Purposeful" sometimes meant knitting while watching Dawson's Creek, but I enjoyed it, didn't feel like I was wasting time, and it was nice not having Andrew in the room commenting on every melodramatic plot twist.  Now that we have Aaron (and will soon have his little sis!), I try to spend time after he goes to bed putting away all the stuff I didn't put away during the day and just making our apartment a nice place for my husband to come home to and rest.  It doesn't feel sexist or terribly burdensome, just like a gift I can give back to Andrew in exchange for all the ways he helps me and loves me.

Slack off now and then. Seriously!  Andrew's mentor once described grad school to us as getting repeatedly whipped as you run through a gauntlet and, if you make it, they give you a degree at the end.  I know it's a constant struggle for Andrew to feel like there's always more he could be doing, which is probably true, and we're always working on (and failing a good amount of the time at) figuring out when continuing to work is good and important, and when just calling it quits for the day, either for the sake of his mental energy, our relationship, or our other responsibilities, is the best choice. It's sooo hard for me being the one without all the schoolwork hanging over my head--so often, I'm tempted to encourage Andrew to take breaks even when it's not for the best.

We probably should've figured this out earlier, but communicating about each of our game plans for the day, stuff like what time Andrew hopes to be home on a given night and things I might need him to take over around the house, has gone a long way in helping us will the best for each other and to not fight over little misunderstandings.  What's more, it's helped us figure out when we can hang out without thinking about work!  Because of the weird hours, like some longer nights and then other days when Andrew can come home in the middle of the day, we've figured out (or at least know more than we did as newlyweds) when we can fit in time to cook together, watch a movie, and just sit and talk.  Maybe it's easier on me than on him, but I'm so thankful my husband's willing to rearrange his sleep and his assignments a little so we can have that quality time.

Discern things a year at a time.  A few years ago, after an exhausting two years of his Masters program and a year of teaching six classes at two different colleges, Andrew was sure he wasn't drawn to earning a PhD.  Yet obviously, here we are.  Combined with the years he took off from school to work after undergrad and after his Masters, the total time he'll have spent working towards his end goal by the time he finishes his PhD will be 9 years.  Dude,  just typing that out is daunting.  The thing is, the paths we've felt called down in our life together have changed as we reach certain milestones, and we've tried to just constantly pray as we go that God leads us in the right direction.  For instance, I was offered a great job at the tail end of Andrew's Masters program, the end of which we'd expected would be moving back closer to family and Andrew looking for high school teaching jobs.  After so many false starts on the job front for me, and upon realizing we could grow our savings with that opportunity (until that point, we didn't really have any), we decided to stay in the area and lived there for another year and a half.  It was during that time that the idea of teaching college kept pulling on Andrew's heart, and we experienced such clarity from the Holy Spirit that applying to PhD programs was the right thing.

If, at the beginning of all these years of school, we'd decided it was PhD or bust, or if we'd gone into it with a just-get-through-it sort of mentality, I think a lot would have been lost from our spiritual growth and our sense of being present in our own lives.  In fact, every year or so Andrew goes through a sort of academic-calling crisis, worrying that his hard work won't pay off with a future job that suits him (locationally, personally, and financially), or that he's been selfish in pursuing a profession with many years of low pay and no guarantees at the end of school (which, for the record and even amidst all my other complaints, has never crossed my mind).

It might sound like I have nothing but complaints about our situation and while, in my weakness, I certainly get angry over it more than I should sometimes, I do have the abiding confidence that we are doing God's will for us and that these particular crosses are sanctifying us.  The truth is, I do have days where I think how nice it would be to be settled in a house in one semi-permanent place, knowing my husband would be working roughly 9-5 every day and be done with work when he left work, and not having to worry too much about money.  But experience and conversations with friends, some stay-at-home moms, some not, has taught me that academia isn't the only type of work that involves long hours and commitments we'd rather say no to--it'd be self-centered of me to think otherwise.  So we pray and wait on the Lord, and up to now, every question of our calling has been answered with the peace that Andrew continuing in school is the best thing for us and our family, at least for this point in time if or until God comes knocking with something else.  There's a true freedom in that.

What about you?  Will one or both of you be in school by the time you're married?  If you've been at it awhile, what's helped your marriage the most?  Like I said, whatever wisdom I have to offer comes from a place of deep humility and significant weakness; I would love to hear your own advice and be able to support each other!


  1. I can so empathize with this - thank you for sharing! I'm the one in grad school for my masters while hubby works full time. We navigated the application process while engaged, which resulted in me moving across the country to start a program that I was really excited about. We had it all planned out - we lived apart while engaged and for the first several months of marriage, and then he was going to follow me there with a job transfer. The job transfer he had been all but promised fell through, and then we spent the next several months wondering whether he would get laid off - from like 2000 miles apart. He was able to hang onto his job, but we'd had enough. God came through big time and I was able to get admitted to a program near Zach even though I applied like in April (and it was funded - a pretty big concern!).

    My program doesn't sound as time-consuming as Andrew's, and I do a lot of my work from home because the commute is pretty bad. So I've been learning and struggling a lot this semester with being gracious enough to also pick up a lot of the apartment/life stuff and cooking, that way he doesn't have as much to worry about after getting home after a long day. When it doesn't seem fair, I try and remind myself (with varying degrees of success) that going to work is a pretty big sacrifice for him, so I can treat home stuff as "work" and pitch in too. advice - it's hard! But prayers for your family. :)

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  3. Hi Stephanie! I'm trolling your blog today (while avoiding doing schoolwork..) and this one really resonated with me. When we get married this October, my fiance and I will both have been in university for upwards of seven years, and he'll still have one or two more years to go. He's mostly studying online these days so he'll work 9-5 with a 1.5 hour commute on either side of that and then work on his coursework in the evening!! I already know those evenings will be hard because I'll just want to hang out during our first few months as newlyweds. Fortunately, like your husband, he's very intentional and will use his time wisely :) And this post has served as a good reminder for me to offer it all up.

    1. Dang, props to your fiancé…we've found that just being in school is a full-time job, so I imagine working on top of all the schoolwork will be a lot to handle. But getting to hang with your spouse is definitely good motivation to get everything done, and like I mentioned in the post, we've been able to figure out what tasks are more flexible and can be put off for later, for the sake of our relationship. It's a balancing act, but you are so right that offering it to God is a huge consolation and will only bring glory to your marriage and for other intentions =)



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