By Bronwyn Lea

Survival Tips for the Spouses of Grad Students

My husband and I had three graduate degrees between us by the time we walked down the aisle. Within six months of getting married, a fourth had begun. With that, we said sayonara and adios to our "honeymoon period."

We thought as we both had some grad school experience under our belts, doing it married wouldn’t be much different. We thought the PhD would take three years, max. It took five years, and then some. We thought it would be a low-stress environment in which to start our married lives (what with flexi-time and all that). It wasn't. We thought we'd finish up grad school before we had kids. We didn't.

And so, when I was asked, "Do you have any advice to give young, married grad students?" I flinched a little. Those five years of early marriage in grad school were intense, and it is hard to distill the things I learned which were true of sharing-grad-school as opposed to the steep-learning-curve-called-marriage — because we did them simultaneously. However, if you'll forgive me smooshing things together, here are some of the things I'd want to whisper to those champion supporters (aka spouses) of grad students...

Grad school is more than a 9-5 job.

Grad students don't come home from a long day on campus and get to sit down, fire up Netflix, and "switch off" for the evening. They feel tremendous pressure to come home, eat a little, clean a little, and keep working. After all, their labmates are working, their professors expect them to be working, there are papers to be published, papers to be graded, books to be read, funding opportunities to research, emails to respond to, drama in the research group to be considered — and that's just for starters. They are competing with motivated, mostly single, grad students who have roommates with whom they share responsibilities and bills — not spouses with whom they share life. Spouses, on the other hand, often expect their grad student partners' "work life" to stay at work and for their partners to be present and available when home.

A grad student wife needs her husband to acknowledge the pressure she is under and then talk with her about when they will spend time together, thus also agreeing on times when she can work at night or on weekends without feeling guilty.

But...grad school is easier to manage if you treat it like a job.

Our youthful selves can all handle 24 hours of intense work, or even a week or two of 16-hour work days. Exam season or midterm season sometimes calls forth extra bursts of energy. But grad school is a long-term commitment: it requires years of sustained effort, and no one can work around the clock for years and stay healthy.

Even though grad school often requires one to work nights and weekends, you will fare better — you both will fare better — if you aim to treat schoolwork as a job. My husband and I allowed for weekends away. We cherished vacations. We knew there had to be time for other things: hobbies, friends, dinners, and the general shenanigans that make life fun.

You will not understand much (or most) of what your spouse is studying.

My husband likes to joke that a specialist is defined as "someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing." PhDs are by definition in a field of study that no one else has ever thought to think or write about before...i.e. it is not in the "public interest" (yet). You will spend more hours than anyone in the world trying to understand what your spouse is doing — but unless you are in very similar fields, chances are you won’t be able to (nor will you want to!). More than once, these words were said in our household: "Honey, the likelihood that I will understand it better if you explain it just one more time is exceedingly slim... so please can we get some sleep?" need to understand enough to give an elevator pitch answer about her studies

A grad student thinks about her thesis topic in a great amount of complexity and detail, and anyone who asks her what she is studying is likely to get a complex, detailed answer. Your role as president of her fanclub and first line of social defense may be to jump in with a 30-second layman's explanation. You may not have understood it all, but you probably understand it better than anyone else not in her field.

Your spouse needs your encouragement more than your (constructive) criticism.

Five years (or even two years) is a looooong time to keep going in an intense grad school program. At times it may seem like it is falling on deaf ears, but your spouse needs to hear that you believe in her, that her work is making a difference, that you are proud of her and will love her no matter what. She needs to hear that when she is succeeding and even more so when she is discouraged. At times of discouragement, saying, "I love you, and you can conquer the world" can do more to help than an offer — "let me help fix your schedule for you."

Try not to hate the advisor.

In our case, the supervising prof was a particularly awesome guy, but the issue of "hating on the boss" came up often in our little grad school community. A frustrated grad student would share the frustrations of the day with his or her spouse, and the spouse would then fume or mentally "fix" the situation for days, fantasizing about meeting the offender(s) in a darkened parking lot for a reckoning. Meanwhile, the grad student had returned to the office in relative peace. Try to remember that the supervising professors really want their grad students to succeed; they're on the student's side, so try to forgive and forget.

Life after grad school is more like grad school than you realize.

One of the surprises of finishing grad school was how much our routine stayed the same. The bad habits we had developed thinking, "Oh, this is just while we're under pressure now — it will be different when grad school is over," turned out to be bad habits we had to face later. The priorities we set, the way we managed our time, the way we shared household responsibilities, the way we volunteered at church, the way we communicated — these remained substantially the same after grad school as during.

So, my advice is this: create the marriage and life you want during grad school, because it's the marriage and life you are likely to have after grad school. Love each other well, work hard, play well... and on that day when your loved one gets capped, know that you get an award too — spouse cum laude.

About the Author

Bronwyn Lea graduated from law school and seminary in her native South Africa, before settling in sunny California where she worked in college ministry while her husband completed his PhD. She is passionate about raising her three little kids, and writing and teaching women to be fully-equipped and fully-loved disciples of Christ. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics, RELEVANT, Think Christian, and Start Marriage Right. She belongs to the Redbud Writers Guild. Find Bronwyn on Facebook or Twitter, or follow her blog at, where she writes about the holy and hilarious.

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