Friday, 30 September 2011

Getting through the first Year of Grad School: For Philosopher-Partners

[Note: Before I begin, I think it’s fair to warn you that I just realized that I’ve been wearing my jacket inside-out all morning, so before you take anything I say seriously, remember that you are putting your faith in a person who can’t even dress properly].

Sometimes philosophers decide to attend graduate school in philosophy. Grad school in any subject can be difficult, but grad school in philosophy has the potential to be Hades—for you and for your philosopher. This post will be particular to those of you who are partners of new graduate students.

Granted, some former grad students have expressed to me how much fun they had in grad school or about how much current grad students complain about how hard it is when it is, in fact, easy-peasy. For most of you who claim this, I’m going to file your claim under “selective memory” [and I actually romanticize my high school marching band camp experiences], and for the few that had an easy time in grad school: kudos to you.

I’m going to say it again: grad school has the potential be Hades—for you and for your philosopher.

I think I’ve talked before about how hard grad school is for philosophers, and I’ve even given you tips on how to help them through the hard parts like the paper-writing season. For once, though, I’m going to address this post to you partners of philosophers. This is about doing something for you—not just your philosopher.

My philosopher and I have been down this grad school road a few years (two unmarried; three-ish married), so I feel like I’m finally getting the rhythm of things. I know that on certain days of the week I just won’t be able to have a conversation that moves beyond routine conversations (“Sweetie, you need to stop staring at your socks and get dressed so you don’t miss the bus”). I know that certain days will find him in despair, hunched over the computer for hours while he prepares for a presentation. I know about what time of the year to expect him to come home with bags of books and printed articles and start piling them around his desk.

The first year of grad school is the hardest, I think. Your philosopher will be excited about her/his studies, meeting new students, and taking classes with super-smart professors. Your philosopher will also be scared to death for several reasons:

(1) They might look stupid in front of their peers
(2) They might look stupid in front of their super-smart professors
(3) They might not get good grades on their papers
(4) They might fail out of grad school

The first year of grad school can also be hard on you for the following reasons:

(1) Your philosopher might be constantly worried about any of the reasons listed above, so you might find yourself doing a lot of reassuring
(2) You will probably find yourself doing a lot of things on your own
(3) You probably moved to a new area [we moved across the country] where you won’t have any friends or family members
(4) The added stress from the new grad school experiences will probably put stress on your relationship

So how can you survive this first year that your philosopher is in grad school without divorce/breaking-up/maiming/gaining 50 pounds? Here are some methods I’ve picked up and/or observed that seem to really help.

1. Make your own friends

Duh, Katie. No really; this is important. Your philosopher will be busy—seemingly all the time—and you will feel left out and lonely if you don’t make your own friends. Get out there in the community and join some groups (I joined an awesome knitting group). You will find that many grad student partners (from all sorts of disciplines) end up joining similar groups. I learned after a very lonely first semester without trying to make any friends that I was just hurting myself.

2. Consider getting a job

You may have already considered this when you first looked at the small stipend amount your philosopher would receive every nine months [“We moved to Texas for this!?!”]. If not, consider getting a job—even if it’s only part time—for your mental health. Seriously. Not only will this give you a chance to interact with “normal” people, but you need to feel like you’re also an important person making important contributions in this relationship. It is very easy to find yourself feeling marginalized because the work that your philosopher is doing is so important to the field of philosophy.

3. Take classes/Go to grad school yourself

Hey, why not? Why should your philosopher get all the fun? You’re going to be materially poor anyway, so why not take advantage of this time in your lives to both be poor together, but rich in knowledge (and great conversations!)?

4. Get involved in the community

My first thought when we moved here for grad school was, “We’re only going to be here a few years, so why should I care about the community?” Yes, you are likely only going to be in a place for a few years, but getting involved in a community is a rewarding experience. Volunteering or involvement in community organizations will help you feel a sense of place that you might be missing and/or give you a different group of friends/acquaintances that you would not have met otherwise. Being an academic or in an academic relationship can feel very transient. Academics tend to move around and travel a lot. It’s very helpful, I think, to develop connections with a community, even if you’ll only be there for a short time.

5. Be willing and prepared to have difficult conversations

Your philosopher will be stressed and busy and will tend to (not always) let her/his philosophy stuff take over her/his life and become more important than you. Grad school becomes for them rather like a new baby becomes to a new mother: time-consuming, demanding, and the most precious thing in the world. You must remember that you are also an important person in this relationship. Be prepared to address any feelings you have of being unimportant in your philosopher’s life. Tell your philosopher that you want to spend time with them apart from philosophy. Remind them that you want them to succeed and grow as super-philosophers, but that you feel ignored or pushed aside for the new philosophy-baby. Help your philosopher work out times in the week when they spend time only with you (no philosophy!!).

[Note: It’s best when having difficult conversations not to attack philosophy or attack your philosopher, even if you’re upset. You are upset because you feel a certain way, not because philosophy is stupid—though stupid things have certainly been done in the name of philosophy].

I’ve had academic-partner-friends who just sit on their feelings and things go very badly for them. Relationships can be ruined if you don’t address negative feelings.

“Ok, Dr. Laura, so what do you do if your philosopher won’t listen?”

Bake cookies. Eat them all by yourself. Hide all of you philosopher’s books and claim innocence when asked.

Seriously, some philosophers (like any other group of people) are jerks and won’t listen. I don’t really know what to do with those sorts of people other than reacting negatively, especially to the patronizing ones.

6. Eat lots of chocolate

Or other indulgences. Really, it will help you feel better. Plus side: your philosopher will be too busy to notice that you ate half of the cookies in one sitting. Negative: weight gain. Take up running.

After you learn how to cope with these harder things, you’ll find yourself really enjoying the time that you do have with your philosopher while she/he is in graduate school. It’s especially fun, I think, to watch philosophers (yours and others) come into a department so scared and unsure of themselves and leave as more confident, serious people who just love philosophy.

~The Philosiologist

You can follow me on twitter (@Philosiologist), friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed), add me on Google+ (Philosiologist Qed), or send me an email (left sidebar). I’m going to be working at another philosophy conference for a bit this weekend, so hopefully there will be more inspirational fun for blog posts. Really, you non-philosophers should attend at least one philosophy conference.


  1. Chocolate works wonders :) So do hobbies and friends, I concur.

  2. Nice. I was amazed at the divergence between the spouses. Some seemed to handle it quite well. Others had to pull out the ultimatums within a semester (moi). It's a good training experience for those future one year non-tenure track jobs.

  3. I started dating my philosopher in the middle of his first year of grad school so I already had friends, classes, a job, and was in a community group. That spring, even though he was for sure stressed I was the one outright panicking (about school and work).

  4. I certainly have really struggled this year. My husband has his masters. While he was getting that degree, I had no trouble. I immediately fit in with the group and surrounding community. I got a job straight off (I'm a teacher and jobs are hard to come by right now). I loved everything about our area. Now, we have moved for him to start a PhD program. He is more stressed than he was the first year of his masters. I didn't find a job. I haven't found a group of friends yet. It can be really tough.

    Your advice is really sound (my philosopher is probably screaming in the shower right now because I used the term incorrectly), and I am glad you covered this topic. My husband and I have Saturday mornings as our official no-philosophy time. We go to Starbucks or a local diner, have breakfast, and follow it up with a walk. It is the best of the week every week for both of us.

  5. Best part of the post:
    "Bake cookies. Eat them all by yourself. Hide all of your philosopher's books and claim innocence when asked."

    Some of this is actually flipped for me and my philosopher, since he moved to the community where I'm already established to start grad school. It seems like the new place advice would apply just as well to the philosopher as the non-philosopher, though.

  6. I started feeding the philosophers pretty early in our first year. They are like wild animals and can be tamed with a steady supply of baked goods. Eventually, when they really trust you, they will start to talk about other things when you are around. Also, the local library is great, free or cheap books, music, and movies to occupy you while your philosopher studies.

  7. @ feedingphilosophers: I love the concept of your blog, by the way. And yes, local library sources are an excellent source of entertainment and education for philosopher-partners! I an employed by a university where I get faculty-privileges as a staff person, and you'd better believe I make use of that resource :-)

  8. thought you might like this :)

  9. I hope all is well in your world, as it is really unfortunate (for readers) that you no longer regularly post. This coming from a philosopher, with a non-philosopher finance who quite enjoyed reading your blog. All the best, and if you have the time to post soon, or begin regular posts again let us know why the extended absence. Cheers!