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Maintaining committed relationships in grad school


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First year PhD student and really enjoying it so far, but I've been surprised by how busy its been. I had a high workload for my undergrad, and I also spent the first part of my career in a job which required 80-120 hours a week, so I think I can manage my workload on a day-to-day basis. 

However, I was wondering if anyone had advice about nurturing a long-term relationship whilst juggling research and teaching duties? This is something I was warned about by academics before starting, but I guess it's become more real now that I'm enrolled. My partner and I live together and are considered legally married, and he did see me through the crazy hours early in my career, but I'm worried about giving him the attention and care that he should get. I'm really conscious that the PhD is my decision, and I don't want it to infringe on his wellbeing, even though he is 100% supportive. My supervisor has had students get divorced and I would hate for us to be in that statistic. 

Does anyone have any tips about managing the work/home boundary, and what to do when you have to take work home regularly? Or even any things you can do to make someone feel valued when you're short on both money and time? 

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I have been in a long term relationship with my partner for quite a while now and we got our master's together and now in the fall we will be starting our PhDs together. Since we are both in academia our situation is a little different since we both have times when we are absolutely swamped, so it's really easy to understand that and just let the other person catch up with everything they need to do. But I'm gonna try and give some advice as best I can into how we make it all work.

I think one of the biggest things for us is us trying to make sure we are on the same wake-up and bedtime routine because then that means the times surrounding those times of the day are spent together. Also we really try to make sure we spend time not working after we wake up or before we go to bed and instead enjoy our breakfast and coffee together or enjoy winding down for the night after dinner. I really think if you have the ability to be on a similar schedule as your partner then that allows you to see each other much more frequently through the day. If you aren't on the same schedule you can easily end up just barely missing the opportunity to spend a little time with your partner. I usually wake up when he does (5:30 a.m. )for his 8 a.m. classes even though I don't absolutely need to wake up at that time and I'm totally not a morning person. But this allows us to spend all that time together before we need to leave the house. Also when we are really on top of things that wake up time allows us to work out together in the mornings/meal prep (chop veggies) for that evenings dinner.

I think one of the things that helps us a lot is even if one of us is working at home we try to be in the same room as the other person (unless we do need absolute solitude) so we can still chit chat when the person working needs a break or someone's brain to pick about something. Also while chores aren't fun we try to do them together when we can so we can have the time to catch up during that. We also almost always try to cook dinner together or at the very least eat dinner at the same time. I guess all of my advice so far is to just try and spend time together, even if it is just day-to-day stuff, but I would imagine that doesn't work for those who need a break from their partner now and then (I guess my partner and I do tend to be attached at the hip a bit...) But I do recognize that doing non day-to-day stuff also really helps keep relationships thriving.

For you to be able to do bigger things outside the day-to-day activities together during grad school I think the most important thing is time management. It took me a looooong time to figure out time management during my masters, but once I did, my partner and I were definitely better for it. It did allow us to do non-day-to-day activities more frequently (i.e. going out to eat or to the movies, going fishing or hiking or other things that we enjoy doing together). I find that the best way for us to do these fun activities together was for us to plan on X date to do whatever it was we wanted to do. This allowed me to figure out what I needed to do before that date and usually meant I was very productive in getting things done so I could feel deserved in taking the break with my partner. Basically we had to prioritize spending time together and I think that is maybe one of the most important things we learned during out master's. Of course setting aside a certain date isn't exactly spontaneous and sometimes spontaneity is great for relationships. So at times we would just shirk our responsibilities (when we knew we could get away with it for a day or weekend) and just do whatever the heck we wanted to do besides work even if it just meant a day of Netflix together.

It is absolutely OKAY to not constantly be working during grad school (take some weekends off!) and it's OKAY to take unplanned breaks to have some fun! If you want to go on a vacation with your partner then make those plans and do it! While during grad school you of course have to be productive and get things done in a timely fashion, sometimes you just need to make time for other things because that will ultimately make you a more productive student. When I realized that it was okay to not work all the time, I started to treat my grad school responsibilities as more of a 9 to 5 job (I mean more realistically I was working from ~8 to 6 or 6:30 with a lunch break) and became much more productive. It meant that I needed to make the most of those hours I set aside for work and I did. It meant that I had so much more downtime to look forward and wasn't as likely to goof off at school as I was before. It meant my partner were so much happier because we had made the point to prioritize our life in addition to prioritizing our responsibilities to grad school.

I know this went a bit long but as I was writing it I came to the realization of just how much better off my partner and I were when we better managed our time and prioritized us. I think prioritizing your partner and relationship is one of the biggest things for a relationship to remain on solid ground. It allows your bond to remain strong and by making time for your partner that shows how much you care for them. I know I went a bit stream-of-conscious-y so feel free to ask me to clarify something if its unclear.


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The advice above from @FishNerd is awesome and I agree with all of it. A lot of it sounds very similar to what we did too. I was married at the end of the first year of my Masters after 6 years of being together before that. We moved from Canada (where you typically do a 2 year MSc then a 3 or 4 year PhD) to the USA where I started over with a 5-year PhD. It was a lot of work and I was very glad to have the support of my partner throughout the entire PhD. A few months ago, I reached the point in my life where it turns out I've known my partner for more than half of my entire life (we were good friends before we dated).

Here are some of my own thoughts on how to nurture a long term relationship through the tough trials of academia. I do have to note that it is "easier" for us because only one of us is an academic and I have heard from other couples that it's much harder when both are academics. But still, many non-academic people have very time consuming and demanding jobs too.

1. We considered grad school an investment in ourselves and a decision for both of us. I know you're past this stage now but the philosophy remains. The decision of where to go for grad school was 50% me and 50% my partner, even though I was the only one attending the program. Similarly, when I applied for post-PhD jobs, we applied the same idea. 

2. Before starting the PhD, we had a good talk about life and career goals and ensured that we were both moving on a path that allowed both of us to achieve our goals and our goals together. We are both clear on our long term plans and we had a "long game". It was a long term plan that we both truly wanted and it had to be one that we both were happy with and would choose (not just one we would compromise with for the other). Once we had this plan, we made all decisions with the plan in mind. The plan also really helps when times are tough in grad school. We would just go back to the plan and remind ourselves what we were doing and why we were doing it. We also reflected on the plan regularly to ensure that we really were making decisions that will benefit both of us, since sometimes we might end up neglecting the other's goals accidentally.

3. We identified our main worries about grad school / academia and made plans to mitigate/avoid them. For us, the biggest worry/concern about academia is that the often quoted goal of a TT prof position is very hard to get, and there might be some undetermined number of postdocs between graduation and the TT position. In addition, we were concerned about the nomadic nature of academics and we weren't really keen on moving around forever. We were/are happy for some short period of adventures and living in different places and moving around but we didn't want to wait forever before we could settle down, start a family, buy a home, etc.

So, our mitigation plan to preserve our long term goals was to set a time limit on this academic career thing. Our time limit was 10 years from the start of the PhD program. After this time, our commitment was that we will be in our geographical area of choice, no matter what, and settle down there. It's where we grew up, it's where our families are, it's where we want to grow old etc. For my field, 10 years means a PhD, and then 1 really long postdoc or 2 shorter ones. It is more important to me (and both of us) that we live in our area of choice than what work we do.

So, from then on, every major decision we made was towards this goal and we kept this "exit plan" in mind when the going go rough, when it seemed like we would never move back etc. So I only applied to PhD programs that were at the top tier since limiting myself to an geographic area means that I better be very competitive for any academic positions there. Similarly, when applying to postdocs, the question was not, "will this lead to a faculty position in the future", or "will I be able to stay in the field if I do this postdoc" but instead, "will this postdoc lead us to moving back to this area in the future?". 

Having this backup plan felt really good and it was a critical part of keeping ourselves happy with all the uncertainty that comes with a career in academia. For us personally, it directly mitigated all of our worst fears and concerns about going on this path and was a key component of our healthy and strong relationship.

4. We synchronized our schedules like @FishNerd suggested. My partner had somewhat fixed hours and I just matched my schedule to theirs. 

5. As @FishNerd also suggested, we prioritized ourselves/each other/our personal lives. In grad school, I think the most important and one of the hardest things to learn is saying "no" to people who have power or influence over you. However, we need to prioritize a good balance of work and the rest of our lives. It took me a few years to figure out how to do it, but I felt like my stress levels went way down, our relationship thrived, and everyone was much happier when I finally decided that I will prioritize every part of my life equally in terms of scheduling. 

That is, I decided how much I wanted to commit to each part of my life. So I decided that 8am to 5pm on Mondays to Fridays was 100% dedicated to work, minus break time. This was also my partner's work schedule. So I would happily accept any work engagement, meeting request, etc. during these hours. However, the rest of the hours in the week belonged to us. There were some key core hours that we both agreed that we would clear with each other before committing ourselves. In particular, weeknight evenings from the end of work to dinner together were time meant for us. So, neither of us would make commitments during this time without checking with the other. To be clear, this doesn't mean that we only ever spend this time together or only with each other---we often met up with friends for socializing or did our own things too, but standard procedure was to give the other a heads-up.

So that meant that if anyone asked for any work related thing after 5pm or before 8am, I would generally decline or ask to reschedule unless it was absolutely urgent. Some students I know are less good at saying no, so they feel like they need a good excuse every time their advisor or a prof asked them to do something outside of work hours. I simply said no, I can't, and if it's a mass email where others can see, I usually specified the reason like, "Sorry, I can't attend the meeting at 5:30pm because it is my responsibility to cook dinner for my family and I need to leave at 5pm to do that" because I wanted to set a good example for more junior students and also to change our academic culture of having to work all the time. Note that I think this reasoning for absence is just as valid for non-family reasons too, such as planning to meet your friends that evening or your plans to go to the gym or even just your planned down time. 

Of course, there will be times where the nature of work requires extra work hours put in beyond the regular work week and that gets scheduled in as needed. However, I feel that if you are not careful about scheduling, it is easy to have work bleed over into all parts of your life, potentially damaging your relationships.

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