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Is dating another grad student doomed to failure?

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I'm a 25-year-old grad student and just started my Ph.D. program back in August, which, as it's a humanities program, should take me at least six years to complete. Three months ago I started dating another grad student (age 26) in a completely different field (sciences) who only has one more calendar year to go before he completes his Ph.D.

 

Things are going really well and I'm starting to fall for him, but I'm becoming afraid about what will happen when he graduates. It's too early to tell whether we'll be at a level of love and commitment in a year that will make him willing to compromise to keep the relationship going (such as finding a job in the area, for example). He will have job options everywhere (he's already starting to be sought after by recruiters), but I feel that it's not yet my place to ask him to consider me in his future plans. In fact, he may end up making the job decision before he even completes his Ph.D., so the timeline could be shorter than a year.

 

The bottom line: I'm worried about falling in love and investing my time and energy in something that may have no future (and getting my heart broken). Because I am a Ph.D. student too, I know how important it is to pursue your dreams in your field of choice, and I'd hate to make the decision difficult for him if he found a job in his specialty field that's really far away (he is not planning on entering academia). On the other hand, if in six months I've become deeply in love with him (as seems possible right now), I want to be honest with him about my feelings and tell him that I would like to be a part of his life for the long term. 

 

Any advice on navigating this situation? Does anybody have successful stories about dating another grad student, especially one at a different place in their academic timeline? Any help is appreciated, as I'm new to grown-up dating.

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Well, it's not exactly the same, but I met my husband while visiting home for Christmas break my freshman year. After three weeks, I asked him what kind of relationship he wanted. I was fine with having a casual relationship or a serious one and dealing with long-distance. I asked him which one he wanted. IN my case, he wanted to try a serious, long-term relationship, and we've been together ever since. Of course, he could have gone the other way, but in either case, I would have known what he wanted. 

So, basically, I think it's a good idea to lay your cards on the table and ask him what he wants. You might get hurt (or not), but you won'd have this uncertainty and will be able to look for someone who will want the same things you do. 

Best of luck!

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I may not be the most qualified to answer, but I don't think you should be afraid to take risks and see where they take you. Different people have different priorities: some put career above all, some would rather follow the chance of a family and would be completely fine making that sacrifice. Personally, I'd rather have tried to see where it goes than to cut it short for fear of the worst. To me, if following that path to a happy relationship means I sacrifice my dream job/location (which, by the way, is not permanent.. there's still time later on to move and get that dream job) then I'm okay with that. And if it doesn't work out, then you'll know you gave it a shot and there's so much more out there for you to move on and keep going. You can't always know that things will work out, but even if you end up apart, there's always long distance options. The best option is just to be completely honest with him now, so you both know what to expect.

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It's not innately doomed to failure, it depends on the relationship and the career goals of the people in question. 

 

I know some academic couples that have constant long-distance relationships (NY to Brazil, in one case) and do well. I know some where one or the other or both was happy to find a lower-prestige job (full time teaching, alternate academic career, etc) and they were able to make it work. I know other cases where both were rising starts in their field, and were able to both land TT jobs at the same school. 

 

The more flexible the two of you are both on career goals and relationship, the easier it is to make it work. 

 

I do suggest googling/reading on the Chronicle about the two-body problem, as that's what you're facing. There's a lot of great advice that's been written, more than I can hope to condense here. 

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For me, I'd risk it. But, I tend to just let myself fall in love and then deal with things as they come up. I dated another grad student for over a year but, ultimately, it didn't work out because I wanted to move for my PhD and they wanted to stay in that area and work in a job they'd found. During my PhD, I dated someone that wasn't a grad student. That relationship ended because the person I was dating wasn't interested in the uncertainty of where I might live next (there are zero job prospects for me in the place where I got my PhD). You really can never know whether even someone with a mobile career is willing to follow you. I say take the chance and just see what happens. Good luck!

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I don't have any personal experience with this! However, since you asked about success stories, I'll echo what others said about it not being doomed to fail. 

 

I do think that they are higher risk though, because I've seen many such relationships fail and sometimes they fail in dramatic ways. But, I would say that for each graduate student relationship I've seen fail, I've seen just as many (if not more) relationships that are successful. Actually, it seems like there are more success stories when the couple are at different stages in their career!

 

In some cases, the couple do have a few years of long distance, but there are certain areas of the world / US where there is a high enough density of institutions that the couple works at different universities but still live together. The "sacrifice" is that often one or both of them would have a fairly long commute. However, for three recent couples that did the "long commute" thing, all of them are now working at (or about to start new jobs at) the same institution. In these three cases that come to mind, one is a tenure-tracked professor and the other is currently employed as a contract-based/temporary research scientist/postdoc with an opportunity for a future tenure track position. 

 

These are just a few anecdotes and what works for each person depend a lot on what each of you values of course! But just wanted to provide some success stories. I'd also second Eigen's suggestion to look on the Chronicle.

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I know several academic couples who were either dating before graduate school and went in at the same time, and/or have graduated and are doing their things together.  There are many permutations of what they have decided to do.

 

Some of them arranged their plans so that they could stay physically in the same place.  Example 1: A friend of mine is in year 6 of her program.  Her partner was thousands of miles away at another PhD program in a different field.  Partner, for a variety of reasons that included their relationship, quit his program and moved to Grad City.  He worked for a few years and then joined a PhD program in the metropolitan area of Grad City. Then the shoe was on the other foot; my friend moved to the suburban place where her partner is.  She's on the market now, but she's looking only for positions in the metropolitan area around where her partner is in his program, since her partner still has another 3-4 years to go.

 

I know of many examples like that.  In some cases, my friends and colleagues were able to get postdoctoral positions at the same universities or nearby ones so they could wait for their partners to finish up.  In other cases, friends and colleagues actually left academia, preferring to work nearby their partner than do an academic job far from their partner.  In still other cases people got lucky and got jobs in the same places as where their partner was employed/still in programs.  And in other cases, I have had colleagues move across the region or country to follow an academic partner.

 

And some of them chose to be apart for some limited (or indefinite) period of time.  I'm in the latter group and my husband isn't even an academic - but he started a degree program towards the end of my PhD, and I got offered an excellent postdoc, so I moved 250 miles away (with his encouragement).  I know some other academics who have chosen to do this, and it is both less and more common than you'd think.  It's more common in the sense that a lot of people do it, but it's less common in the sense of WHO does it.  Most of the academics I know who live apart from their partners (academic or not) are older academics who are more advanced in their careers and have heard the mantra that you need to sacrifice if you want to succeed in academia.  Most of the ones I know who have moved the earth to make things work are younger folks in my own generation, who have decided that they don't want to live apart from their families and would rather entertain a greater diversity of postgrad options.

 

In my case, the separation has positives and negatives.  The negatives outweigh the positives, of course, but a few good things are that I have a lot more time to focus on me and my own work without the (often welcome!) distractions of a partner and that I have an entire apartment all to myself, haha.  However, we have jointly decided that this is the last time we are doing this (we were also medium-distance for the first 4 years of my doctoral program).  After this we are living together; if that means that I have to leave academia, then I will.  But he's also pretty flexible about the academic thing, so flexibility and understanding is key.  The good thing about dating another academic is that they understand that need for flexibility and what academia is like.  (My husband is incredibly observant and empathetic, so even though he is not an academic he has absorbed a lot of the norms of the field and he "gets it."  People would ask what my dissertation was about and what a PhD is like during parties, and he'd explain it almost as well as I could lmao.)

 

**

 

The thing to remember is that this is not limited to graduate students.  Academics do have some location-limited jobs, but so do other high-powered professionals.  You could later date an actor who needs to be in Los Angeles or New York; or a financier who needs to be in London or New York or Charlotte; or a public health practitioner who really needs to be in Atlanta.

 

I thus agree with the general advice that you should take a risk and just figure things out as you go along.  For now, enjoy the relationship.  You've got 12 months before you really have to think about this.  And then in October or November of this year, when it's more clear where he's going to be in the next couple years - see how you feel.  A lot can change in a year.  You may not still be together.  Or you may be deeply in love and he decides he wants to stay in Your City until you finish.  Or you may be deeply in love and decide to do long-distance for a couple of years until you get done, or at least until you are dissertating and can move to where he is.  Lots of my friends in the humanities dissertated long distance so they could be with partners or family.

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"It is sometimes a mistake to climb, it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt... [When you climb and fall,] sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly." - Neil Gaiman, "Fear of Falling," Sandman #29

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Thanks for the advice, folks, you're making me feel a little less afraid to take the leap ;) The thing is that until now, I've always gone into relationships knowing that I was probably going to be leaving within a year and have been okay with keeping it casual and low-commitment (I've been going back and forth overseas a lot in the last few years and moving between home and school as well, with an average stay of 10 months or less in each place).

 

Maybe it's because I'm finally settled in one place for a few years, or maybe it's because I'm getting a bit older and starting to seriously consider the possibility of marriage and a family a ways down the road, but I'm noticing that my priorities are starting to shift and that I really want a relationship that has a chance for the long-term and is less casual. I've always been dead set against long-distance before, but now I think that for the right person, I might be willing to try it. Recognizing this shift in myself is as terrifying as it is exhilarating, as for years I've been the type of person to guard my feelings somewhat to minimize impact in the case of a breakup. I realize that being truly in love with someone and maturing into a potential long-term partner involves a whole different level of honesty, openness, and willingness to expose the more delicate parts of your heart, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed right now as I contemplate this.

 

I just hope I'm brave enough and honest enough to lay my cards on the table when the time comes.

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Yes. ;-) J/k. Ornery moment. But seriously: over-analyzing. It's good to think about things like this, but don't over-analyze. IF you're going to over-analyze, consider the alternative: being celibate your entire grad career, or dating people that probably have no similar interests?? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. There's the stress of grad school to consider, for sure, but that doesn't necessarily equate suffering on your part or the part of your studies; that is purely personal variables that can only be determined by yourself, I think as someone already sort of mentioned. Either way, you have to decide if it's worth it or not. But to simply exempt someone because they're in grad school? Seems a little silly to me.

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Maybe it's because I'm finally settled in one place for a few years, or maybe it's because I'm getting a bit older and starting to seriously consider the possibility of marriage and a family a ways down the road, but I'm noticing that my priorities are starting to shift and that I really want a relationship that has a chance for the long-term and is less casual. 

 

I feel you on this one.  I started dating a fellow grad student my first year. It was my first serious relationship.  Three years later we are setting a timeline for marriage and my priorities are definitely shifting.  I used to put ALL my energy into work and school and saw nothing but the most rigorous and prestigious academic career in my future. Now I'm more content smelling the roses, enjoying time with him, and I'm starting to value having a job in the future that allows me to free my mind when I come home from work. Love changes things. :-) 

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I think it is a fairly common experience.  I started my grad program when I was 25 too, and shortly thereafter began dating another Ph.D. student in another program- who is one year ahead of me.  Next year he will most likely be moving away, and we will be long-distance.  That has never been 'fun' for me, but the relationship is worth it.  The good thing is you'll have a significant amount of time together before the other leaves, and outside of academia, there are more job options in nearby cities (I would imagine).  As another poster here said- people in all career tracks face this kind of thing, so it's no reason to stop what appears to be a good relationship!  Good luck!

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There's no guarantee that if you meet a man outside of grad school it wouldn't fail, either.  Just do it. :)

Yeah, this isn't really a challenge to a relationship compared to the hundreds of other challenges that relationships face.

 

My parents have had thousands of miles between them at several points for extended periods of time in their marriage (you know, war and stuff) and they are still together. I don't think temporary distance breaks a relationship, it will just exacerbate problems that will. So if you a mature enough to solve problems and understand it will be more difficult to do so from some distance, it won't matter in the long run.

Edited by <ian>

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I do know a few friends who dated fellow grad students, and ultimately it comes down to how compatible you and the other person will be together (after all, grad students are human beings, and no two students are identical). For some, it went well, while for others, not so well. But if I can think of a positive side to dating a fellow grad student (or a medical student/resident, as for my case, haha - I'm currently in a LDR with a medical resident), it is that your significant other will easily understand and relate to any complex academic/research stresses & troubles you are going through (non-grad student SOs can understand easily too, I'm not denying that... but some might not).

 

Now, as for dating a fellow grad student in your own department... that is something I would not recommend (esp. if your department is small). Sure, some people maintained happy relationships meeting their SO in their own department, but for couples which this didn't go so well, it can end up somewhat awkward (while they were dating, they shared the same facility, took same classes, and also saw each other ~24 hrs if they were living together, but once their relationship starts to fall apart, it becomes rather unpleasant to have to continue facing and interacting each other every day at work). 

 

But, these are only suggestions, and in the end, you never know unless you try meeting and getting to know the person :)

 

As for me... I had a VERY hard time finding a date during my master's, mainly because most of the people in my cohort were quite a few years older than I was (I was one of the very few first year master's students who entered the program directly from undergrad), and most of the women were already dating/engaged/married. Plus, working at a remote research station for a large portion of my master's didn't exactly improve my dating scene, haha...

Edited by FoggyAnhinga

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Yeah, it seems like the location factor is huge for those who pursue a Masters degree and get into the dating world. When I start my Masters this fall, I definitely want to get 'more' into the dating world and to be very flexible with it...whether my future partner is not in a graduate program or in a graduate program regardless of  the field of study and/or location.

 

I feel you on this one.  I started dating a fellow grad student my first year. It was my first serious relationship.  Three years later we are setting a timeline for marriage and my priorities are definitely shifting.  I used to put ALL my energy into work and school and saw nothing but the most rigorous and prestigious academic career in my future. Now I'm more content smelling the roses, enjoying time with him, and I'm starting to value having a job in the future that allows me to free my mind when I come home from work. Love changes things. :-) 

Aw, how nice. I'm single, but I hope to get to this point soon. I'm only in my last year and undergrad and have been practically killing myself with anything academic nearly most of my life. I graduated with a 3.8 in high school and will be graduating with about the same for my Bachelors this Spring. I'm ready to move away from that just a tad bit lol.

Edited by OneLove21

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If you are both in it for long term relationships, then it is definitely worth keeping the relationship. In my mind, if it's worth it, you'll both make it work when the time comes for you both to make a plan for the future.

 

Now, as for dating a fellow grad student in your own department... that is something I would not recommend (esp. if your department is small). Sure, some people maintained happy relationships meeting their SO in their own department, but for couples which this didn't go so well, it can end up somewhat awkward (while they were dating, they shared the same facility, took same classes, and also saw each other ~24 hrs if they were living together, but once their relationship starts to fall apart, it becomes rather unpleasant to have to continue facing and interacting each other every day at work). 

 

I definitely agree(d) with this, but a couple months ago I not only started dating a student in my department, but one who is in my year and works in the same lab. (whoops)

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Update: in a few weeks, we will have made it to the six-month marker. For at least a month now, I've been biting back the desire to tell him that I love him, because I'm terrified of what he's going to say. By the end of the summer he will be making his decision about where to take a job next year, and although chances are good that the job would be within this metropolitan area (i.e. within a 45 minute drive of the city we live in now), I don't know how to discuss this with him.

 

I want to let him know somehow that because I'm a mature, rational adult, I understand that he needs to make his decision and follow his own heart and that I won't pressure him to decide to stay for me, but on the other hand, because I love him, I'd be overjoyed if he stayed in the area and I'd be willing to make compromises so that we can stay together (i.e. live in another part of the metro area to be closer to him, drive to see him on weekends, etc.). He is opposed to long-distance (and frankly, I wouldn't see any healthy end to the time spent apart in this situation, which would be my condition for starting such a relationship in the first place). 

 

I made a promise to myself that if after six months I was sure I was in love, I'd be honest with him about my feelings (if I don't set a deadline I may never get up the courage). I don't know whether my confession will necessitate talking about the issue of his future location posthaste, but I'd really like to keep that a separate talk (I know it can be pretty intense when somebody drops the L-bomb, especially if you're not expecting it). Any advice on how to navigate both of these interactions in a healthy, mature, and not super weighted fashion? I don't want to make a big deal out if it, and I want to give him time to think about his response if he needs to.

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Congrats! To be honest, I think that what you said here is perfect for relaying to him, particularly the second paragraph. I feel like it might be difficult to keep the talks separate, though (I can imagine them just kind of merging into one another), and I think that if they were one single talk, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, the whole thing may come off as less overbearing? I'm not sure if that makes any sense. But I feel that it may give everything context: you want to know his future plans because you love him, and you're telling him all this now because you want to see what the future holds. After six months, I feel like that's pretty reasonable. I think that as long as you let him know "this is how I feel, don't feel obligated to respond in any specific way," then he'll know where you stand and he'll have time to think about where he stands. 

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Thanks for the vote of confidence, braindump! I think I know what I need to say, I'm just scared of fudging it when I actually try to say it :( 

 

Also, I'm trying to decide whether confessing on our anniversary or on my birthday (which are a week apart) would be a good idea, or whether I should just wait until the fuss dies down a few days afterwards and bring it up casually. Thoughts?

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I wouldn't recommend doing it on your birthday; I'd worry about him saying something he didn't mean just because it was your birthday and he didn't want to upset you, or wanted to make you happy, etc. (hope that doesn't sound too harsh). Anniversary is a maybe, I guess depending on what you guys do, what you talk about, etc. If you make it the focal point of the evening, then it may come off as a big deal, but if you guys are already having "that kind of night" where bringing up something like that wouldn't be completely out of the blue, then I think it would be fine. If you don't get a chance on your anniversary then I wouldn't stress it, and just wait until another day when you guys are having a nice night in. 

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You're right, I should probably just wait for an ordinary day after those two events are over. I doubt we'll be doing anything fancy for the anniversary, neither of us is into big fusses over things like that, but if I bring it up at dinner on that night it would seem pretty loaded. 

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I wouldn't do it on your birthday or the anniversary, to be honest. You don't want to ruin or mar either one of those days. Definitely do it when it feels right though. Just saying that you love someone doesn't obligate you to have a whole long conversation about your future, as I'm sure you know.

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@rising_star Yes, I actually hope that the "I love you" is able to just come at some random time when it feels right, but I want to be prepared in case the conversation about the future evolves naturally from that. 

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I don't think there's anything wrong with being honest about how you're feeling, and simply asking whether he is looking for something short-term or whether he sees potential for something longer. There are no guarantees with any relationship, but (unless he's a total commitment-phobe anyhow) it doesn't hurt to check in to gauge his interest. The sooner you're on the same page the better. (And by this I don't mean, "Hey, do you think you see us getting married in X number of years and would you turn down a great job for me?" but a more general kind of open-ended query to get a feel for where you stand.)

 

This actually happened to me this year, but with a slightly different set of circumstances -- I started dating someone in September, right before starting my PhD applications, and let him know I might be moving soon. We were immediately crazy about each other, so since he knew I might be moving he brought up pretty early on that he had strong feelings for me and would consider moving with me. We're still going strong and he's planning to move cross-country with me in the Fall! I'm so glad we discussed it early on - the last thing I needed going through applications was the stress of thinking of leaving him behind. 

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