My nearly 6.5 years of doctoral study have included two labs, two departments, and two universities. I have connected with graduate students from other campuses at the usual places: cohort gatherings, workshops, Twitter, conferences. We have a variety of things in common, but the one I wish we didn’t share is the negative effect of graduate school on our partnerships.I'm sure associates on the partner track, members of the military, railroaders bucking the extra board, and any assistant manager in the world of rank-and-yank will be moved to tears.
Doctoral training is hard. And relationships are hard. They’re both long-term, serious pursuits. But the quest for knowledge should not mean sacrificing your relationship.
Certainly some people have had great marriages through graduate school and beyond. I truly love to hear the success stories — specifically, how they made it work. But I know many other doctoral students — of different backgrounds and genders — whose relationships fell apart or struggled to survive as a direct result of their doctoral study. When my own marriage nearly collapsed, graduate school was a main factor. We have had to fight hard to stay together, and I have had to unapologetically realign my priorities to what works better for both of us, and not just for my work.
"Two labs ... and two universities" suggest a voluntary transfer of some kind, not exactly a dictate from the Division Superintendent that the Memphis yards need sorting out, or a Movement Order from the Admiral. Then catch that "different backgrounds and genders." Personnel departments in higher education were on board with domestic partner benefits and no questions asked about who is doing what to whom long before legislators and courts granted sanction. Note, also, dear reader, that the dysfunctional academic couple, generally somewhere in the humanities, has been a staple of the academic novel probably longer than "White Christmas" has been a seasonal favorite.
Never mind, she's on a roll.
Marital hardships are easily traced to academe’s toxic work culture — one in which your research must be everything, you are praised for working 17 hours a day in a lab, and you are reprimanded and told you’re not dedicated enough for visiting your long-distance partner or (gasp!) taking a vacation.Read on, though, and you discover that the high achievers face a time crunch, no matter where they are.
For many overachievers — i.e., most graduate students — the work-is-everything environment becomes a trap that bleeds you of your emotional capacity. You stop being present in your daily personal life. You live to get through this one class, this one semester, this one grant proposal, this one field season, this one short course, this degree. Only when you get through those accomplishments can you start your life. Even then, you are encouraged to chase the next goal. It’s a never-ending cycle.
My partner was a successful professional chef for several years, until we really saw what longevity in that profession looked like for marital, and family, success. We decided together that he would pursue a different path because what we knew, saw, and were told about that industry did not match with sacrifices we were willing to make. Little did we know — because nobody talked about it — that my pursuit of a Ph.D. would provide pressures and work-life imbalances similar to those in my partner’s previous career path.It's really very simple. As long as there are people who are willing to out-work others, consequences be darned, there's going to be that struggle. Be grateful that you're not in a position of having to out-work everyone else to keep the wolves away from the flock at night.
As a community, we need to do better. We need to be transparent about work-life challenges in doctoral study — and not just talk about it but provide concrete support and actual suggestions. I do not have exact answers, either. I am not a marriage counselor or a marriage researcher. I am just a married graduate student who has struggled on this front.