Why Relationships Matter In Grad School: 5 Ways To Maintain

Story Context

First of all, I would like to thank Ryan for the opportunity to contribute to his site. As a former student, I know how important it is for graduate students to have a community for emotional support and to stay on top of valuable resources (as this article will touch on). After I finished my PhD I realized that in order to get my degree I had to overcome many of the same barriers as other graduate students.

Going further, this brought up a key question: Why wasn’t there a book that summarized all the tricks and tips of navigating graduate school? In order to answer this question, I interviewed over 100 students from 30 different disciplines (over the course of two years) to learn what their secrets to success were in graduate school. I covered areas such as financial support, elements of a thesis, time management, communication with your PI and coworkers, writing skills, and career planning.

From this, I published many of their ideas on my newsletters, which are accessible on my website (http://www.phdnet.org/), as well as my book (“The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”). I continue to receive questions from students around the world, and I address them through my blogs.

With that said (stemming from graduate student issues), Ryan has recently approached me about a very important topic: How can significant others (or spouses) support each other if one or both of them are graduate students? I can certainly relate, since my fiancé and I were graduate students at the same time, and we got married during my last year in graduate school. (For simplicity, I will use spouse and significant other interchangeably.)

Graduate Students Need Support Since They Are A Vulnerable Population

If your worth as an individual depends on your achievements, then you’re extremely vulnerable in graduate school because you’re bound to not succeed some of the time.  —Myriam Mongrain

The other common personality correlate Mongrain identified for depression was a lack of social support. Graduate students can get so caught up in their work, especially when they’re driven by perfectionist tendencies, that they forget to be social, she says. They stop seeing friends and talking with families. Loneliness and isolation build and contribute to depression. Depressed people aren’t very fun to be around, so the cycle of isolation continues.

How prevalent is depression among graduate students? Much more prevalent than in the general population, says Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

In a 2008 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 6.4% of the general population in the United States reported having depressive symptoms within a 12-month span. (The percentage for younger adults is slightly higher.) By contrast, about 15% of the 4553 graduate students who responded to Eisenberg’s 2011 survey reported experiencing depressive symptoms—as defined by the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—in the previous 2 weeks.

Source: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2012_10_05/caredit.a1200111

Could emotional support offered by a significant other during graduate school help lower depression rates?

The answer is YES.

Your Pillar of Strength: Significant Other Support Other in Graduate School

While the pressures in graduate school can put the best relationships to a test, they also present an opportunity to deepen your support and commitment to each other. Your relationship might be strained financially and emotionally as you pour every ounce of energy into a thesis that will only materialize in a few months or years.

However, it is no secret that one of the most important factors influencing personal happiness is the quality of your long-term relationship. So the question is, how can you and your spouse support each other to give your work the attention it needs? The strategies I share here are from couples I knew personally where one or both of them were graduate students or post-docs. So here they are…

5 Ways To Make It Count:

1) Commit to your relationship

A strong relation can endure financial hardship, long-distance, and any other personal or professional challenges brought on by life. If you want to create a mutually supportive environment in your home, you first need to strengthen your commitment to your spouse. Be proactive and give him/her the kind of support that you desire, by doing as much as you can to make his/her life easier. No matter how busy you are, there is always time to do something nice for your spouse. Your spouse will surely appreciate it, and probably return the favor doubly.

2) Spend quality time together to create a mutually-supportive environment

Knowing how busy graduate students are, I am sure that this suggestion is raising some eyebrows. “How can I spend time with my spouse/significant other every day when the majority of my time is spent working?” you might ask. Remember that you are not in this boat alone. You are part of a team. If you function as part of a team you can come up with better strategies than if you tried to row alone. No time or money for elaborate dates?

A simple 15-20 minutes of connection every day (over tea in the evening, or an ice-cream during the day) will probably strengthen your relationship orders of magnitude more than an expensive get-away once a year. Use your 15-20 minutes together to solve challenges together as a couple, and soon you will come up with more creative answers than if either of you had ruminated alone.

Besides the daily 15-20 minute check-in, students have found that a weekly date can do wonders for re-energizing their minds. Once again, I would like to emphasize that elaborate dates (although fun occasionally) might not be the best investment of your time and money. Simple activities such as watching a movie together every Saturday (perhaps at home if you cannot afford movie tickets or find a babysitter), going on a hike or working out together can do wonders for opening up lines of communication so you can provide each other the support you need.

Keep in mind that the date is about being together. Having the certainty that there is always a person you can count on is the most powerful support one can have, especially during a challenging time such as graduate school.

3) Get creative with your finances

Graduate student relationships are frequently under financial strain, due to low stipends and student debt. Ryan’s excellent book is full of ideas to help you generate additional sources of income.

I would also like to share a story about how one spouse turned her hobby into a small business. My friend Stephanie was a working mom and wife of a postdoctoral associate, and they were just barely scraping by. She was artistic and while her husband traveled, she enjoyed doing crafts with her children.  She especially liked decorating scarves and jewelry boxes. Around Christmas time she showed her crafts to her friends and they were eager to buy them as holiday presents. Soon she was generating income all-year round, and even built a website to sell her art.

For other ideas on managing your money and investing in your future, I recommend the following articles:



4) Reach out to a support network.

While your spouse is (hopefully) your best friend, it is not realistic to expect him/her to provide you all the answers and support. If you connect with graduate student organizations in your department or hobby group, you can find out how others have solved problems similar to yours.  Some schools have groups for spouses, which can be especially helpful for internationals, who do not have a permit to work or study in the United States. Besides getting answers to practical issues such as obtaining visas and student discounts, you will probably significantly improve the quality of your life and your relationship by growing your circle of supportive friends.

5) Be proactive about planning your future together

The two-body problem can be one of the most significant factors influencing your job search. Take comfort in knowing that thousands of students have found solutions to this problem without sacrificing their professional aspirations. It does take creativity, determination and commitment, however, because the job market is so competitive. Specific job searching strategies are beyond the scope of this blog, but I can recommend books and articles on this topic. In fact, I have devoted an entire chapter to career planning in my own book (see below for more info), because I believe that it is never too early to begin networking and exploring job opportunities, especially if you and your spouse will be looking for employment simultaneously.

More About the Author

Dora Farkas, Ph.D., completed both her Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Toxicology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After she earned her Ph.D. she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Tufts University in Boston. As a graduate student, and later as a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Farkas realized that there was a real need for a guide book to help doctoral students finish their degrees more efficiently. She began her quest for this guidebook by casually conversing with graduate students, and noticed that students in different fields faced similar challenges while completing their dissertations.

Reference Books and Online Articles:

The Academic Job Search Handbook by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong

Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs by Kathryn Hume

Best wishes,

Dora Farkas, PhD
Founder PhDNet
Author:“The Smart Way to Your PhD:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”

Further Reading:

  1. Issues with Significant Others During Grad School
  2. Grad Student Advice Series: Lack of Social Life, The Effects, and What To Do About It