Chandra Crane starts a new series by sharing her own journey of being family to a graduate student. Over the next few weeks, she’ll further unpack ways of engaging in the unique journey of having a loved one in graduate school.
Part I: Congratulations and Welcome
Dear New Graduate Student’s Family,
Congratulations! Your loved one is not the only one starting a new journey. You have also started grad school, and you are now working on your own program of study. You have now begun your “PhT”: your Pushed him/her Through.
When my husband’s advisor told me that acronym, I laughed. How clever! How funny! (We love puns and wordplay at our house.) But I had no idea how true it would be. How much there would be times when I felt like I was almost physically having to push him through. As though I was standing at the bottom of a steep hill, with my beloved spouse in a giant barrel, and while it was his job to pull himself up, it was my job to push from behind. The worst part is every time you look up, you realize that this steep hill is actually a mountain, no wait—it’s Mt. Everest, just kidding—it’s a completely vertical, unending wall, made of glass.
My husband started graduate school in Civil Engineering at Georgia Tech (Go Jackets!) in May of 2005. He graduated with his PhD in May of 2010. It was “only” five years. It was only five of the hardest years of our marriage. It was only five years where, in addition to the strains of graduate school, we experienced the pain of job losses and family deaths. It was only five years (and now, it was five years ago) that sometimes felt like twenty five years, but was also gone in what now seems like five minutes. We had no idea what we were getting into.
After reading Monica Greenwood’s poignant Letter to a New Graduate Student, I wished we could have read that letter when my husband was first starting grad school… and then when he was in the midst of grad school… and then, years later, when he was still in grad school. Gracious people definitely gave us much helpful advice and encouragement, but the wonderful thing about a letter is that you can go back and read it again and again. And again. And “what do you mean the funding got cancelled… your advisor retired… the research didn’t work out… this is taking longer than you thought it would?” again. I wish someone had written me a letter, too. A letter telling me a few important things:
- it will be okay
- it’s worth it
- it’s his (her) your calling
- it will end eventually
- and it doesn’t have to wreck your lives forever (and can even shape them in good ways, too)
Dearest family members, I echo Monica’s gracious words that “you aren’t alone,” except that in some ways, you uniquely are.
People understand the sense of loss and fear that comes from the huge sacrifice a military family makes when a loved one is deployed. Folks rightly commiserate with someone whose spouse travels often, and lovingly grieve with those whose family members pass away or are hospitalized. Those losses and sacrifices certainly loom much larger—and in some cases, more permanently—than having a family member in graduate school. I am in no way trying to minimize those situations. It’s just that there is a unique loneliness to the life you’re now living. The sense of overwhelmedness, helplessness, and exhaustion that a spouse feels when the graduate stipend doesn’t even fully cover tuition. The confusion of parents when they don’t know how to support, encourage, or even talk to (or about) a child who is still in school, studying and researching Mysterious Things. The sadness and anger of children who really don’t get to see Mommy or Daddy except over a stack of books or around a laptop.
Grad school can be a very lonely time. We desperately needed community. We would not have survived if not for the dear souls who had gone before, and were praying and encouraging us through. They gave perspective and life-saving snippets of advice (more on those later). We would have floundered even worse than we did, if not for our own loved ones, who offered help in ways both tangible and intangible. They brought us meals—not just during the birth of our first daughter (there’s really never a “good time to have kids,” so we went with the worst possible time), but also during the birth of his thesis, during the final months of his writing and defense. They sent us encouraging emails, text messages, and cards (because who doesn’t like to get mail? Especially mail that doesn’t demand money you don’t really have?). We would not have made it through, if not for our extended family—our church, school and neighborhood family—who stood with us through years of exhausting graduate school limbo, because they believed in us and in our God who had called us to be in grad school.
But before I get into the nuts and bolts of my advice on how to survive graduate school as a family member, let me just say, welcome. Welcome to your course of study—your “PhT” work. It is an exhausting, sanctifying, holy, precious, life-changing time. Getting your “PhT” is no joke. But you will learn so much over the coming years, about your loved one, about yourself, and about God and this world he’s made.
More on what it means to take on the “PhT”—how to love your graduate student well and keep your own sanity—next time.