By Doctor Comrade
This post originally appeared on GradHacker.
Every graduate student is undoubtedly accustomed to having to explain the process of grad school to people who are unfamiliar with academia. Whether dealing with family members, friends, dying house plants, or prospective partners, common themes become apparent to grad students: most people simply do not understand what grad school is, what grad students’ objectives are, or the kinds of stresses that grad students routinely encounter. What can make these interactions even more frustrating is when they occur between people who interact on the most intimate and basic of levels. Shari Wilson authored a post in which she described the difficulties of forming relationships, both with academics and non-academics, and JJ Koczan has described his experiences from the perspective of a non-academic married to a Ph.D. Having a spouse who is not an academic is a multi-faceted challenge that manifests in numerous ways. Perhaps they don't understand your research, or they detest how you manage time, or they can't sympathize with how hard teaching is. In each case, interactions between academics and non-academics can be fraught with tension and disagreement that can put serious pressure on relationships.
I have been incredibly fortunate to have a wife who strives to understand my graduate student experience; while I was in the final preparation stages for my comprehensive exams, I realized how crucial she has been to my success. My wife has never gone to college, but she’s brilliant in her own way: she’s a voracious reader, cunning interlocutor, and street-wise young woman. We met during my senior year of undergrad and got married just before I started grad school. She witnessed the trying transition from undergrad to grad school and the changes I had to make in both my personal and professional life. What has become obvious to me is that she also transitioned from being the helpful girlfriend of a senioritis-ridden history student to being the masterfully supportive wife a serially procrastinating graduate student. That transition was neither smooth nor natural, and it took work on both our parts in order for me to accomplish my goal of finishing my MA in two years.
There are many misunderstandings we’ve had over the previous two years. What is important to remember, though, is that misunderstandings are natural, good, and foundational to building stronger relationships. Misunderstandings are a dialectical process that help couples address problems in a productive manner.
With summer upon us, one misunderstanding that my wife and I had last year—and I'm sure others have as well—was the seeming dearth of work for me in the summertime. However, grad students are probably aware that we don’t actually have time off. Summer is perhaps our most productive season for research and writing because we are not overburdened by classwork or teaching. We have internships, research jobs, conferences, and other commitments, but we also have to address comps prep, dissertation research, grants, committee meetings, professional development, and applying for funding. On days when I didn’t go to my internship last summer, it appeared as though I did little work. But while my wife was at her job, I had been doing school-related activities that were not immediately obvious because I hadn’t commuted to campus. In the same way that people seem to think that teachers get three months off every year, it is easy to mistake a lack of formal and structured academic activities as “time off.”
My wife also doesn’t understand why I’m such a terrible procrastinator. I do have a bad habit of starting projects much later than is probably advisable, but I also use procrastination as a stress relieving enterprise. The fact is that during the semester, many of us do become burdened by classwork and teaching, which not only gets in the way of some of our other academic duties but are also endless sources of stress. For these reasons, I always find it difficult to start, for instance, a seminar paper early in the semester when there is a high concentration of reading and other assignments to accomplish. Later in the semester, when the reading load has been mostly exhausted and other assignments turned in, the relative openness of my schedule is more conducive to starting larger projects. What this generally means, however, is that papers get started much later and require more time and intensive efforts than other assignments. I have seen looks of disgust from my wife when she sees me at 4:30am next to a pile of discarded Red Bull cans trying to finish the last few pages of a research assignment the morning that it’s due.
In both instances—time off and procrastination—I had to improve communication about my time-management strategies to my wife. Her life is rather structured and she generally starts and ends work at regular intervals throughout the week. On the other hand, I had to deal with semester-long timetables that juggled various obligations and appropriated time for those obligations in different ways. I’m the first to admit that my time management is never readily intuitive or even coherent. But I’m also the first to say that I have a certain way of accomplishing tasks that has been productive for me, so it behooves me to explain that process to my wife. And to her credit, her ability to adapt and understand why I behave in certain ways has proven her resilience as a companion. I could never force her to adapt to my idiosyncrasies, and she could never force me to be a better time manager. And that’s the entire point I’m trying to make: living with anyone under any circumstances takes work and mutual adaptability; what has worked for us is finding a communicative middle ground in which we can both express our habits, needs, and desires so that we both understand the perspective of the other person. She has adapted by communicating a sense of support rather than scorn, and I have attempted to adapt by being a better communicator of my plans for upcoming assignments.
Education is a cooperative experience. In the midst of financial difficulties, mounting debt, and unbelievable stress, my wife has been there for me, and I’ve always tried to communicate that the principal reason I’m engaged in this endeavor is for the betterment of our future. In the short term, she’s allowed me to have my space so I can work uninterrupted. She’s done little things that save me time, like taking care of our cats or doing the dishes (both chores which are typically done by me). Then she brewed me coffee while I wrote three seminar papers in four days; she rubbed my shoulders after I spent the day hunched over my desk reading for comps; she proofread every assignment I ever submitted. And the result was obvious: passing my comps with honors was clearly—to me at least—the result of unconditional support from my wife. That needs to be made clear to her, as well. Cooperation is as much a product of acknowledgment as anything else: acknowledging the role our partners play and the support they give us, even though they probably don’t completely understand why we do what we do.
There are other benefits as well. Having a non-academic spouse means she is not under the same pressures as me, which is liberating for both of us. She doesn’t have to worry about homework or test prep, and as a result she has the emotional capital to deal with the wild swings of stress that I experience. She has a job and supports our home, which makes living in a nicer house possible because of the combination of both our incomes. And she also makes me look good when we go to functions because she has so much to add to every conversation we have with my colleagues and professors. I really couldn’t ask for a more perfect arrangement.
Perhaps it’s a cliché to say that communication is the foundation of all successful relationships. I tend to agree, but I would also add that communication means nothing without the will to forge interpersonal compromises. My wife compromised her entire life to marry me and move 1,000 miles from her home. For that, I hope to successfully communicate my gratitude.
[Image by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and used under Creative Commons Licensing]