Chandra Crane starts a new series by sharing her own journey of being family to a graduate student. Over the next few weeks, sheâ€™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 Studentâ€™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 â€œPhTâ€: your Pushed him/her Through.
When my husbandâ€™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 waitâ€”itâ€™s Mt. Everest, just kiddingâ€”itâ€™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 â€œonlyâ€ 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 Greenwoodâ€™s poignant Letter to a New Graduate Student, I wished we could have read that letter when my husband was first starting grad schoolâ€¦ and then when he was in the midst of grad schoolâ€¦ 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 â€œwhat do you mean the funding got cancelledâ€¦ your advisor retiredâ€¦ the research didnâ€™t work outâ€¦ this is taking longer than you thought it would?â€ again. I wish someone had written me a letter, too. A letter telling me a few important things:
- it will be okay
- itâ€™s worth it
- itâ€™s his (her) your calling
- it will end eventually
- and it doesnâ€™t have to wreck your lives forever (and can even shape them in good ways, too)
Dearest family members, I echo Monicaâ€™s gracious words that â€œyou arenâ€™t alone,â€ 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 largerâ€”and in some cases, more permanentlyâ€”than having a family member in graduate school. I am in no way trying to minimize those situations. Itâ€™s just that there is a unique loneliness to the life youâ€™re now living. The sense of overwhelmedness, helplessness, and exhaustion that a spouse feels when the graduate stipend doesnâ€™t even fully cover tuition. The confusion of parents when they donâ€™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 donâ€™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 mealsâ€”not just during the birth of our first daughter (thereâ€™s really never a â€œgood time to have kids,â€ 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 doesnâ€™t like to get mail? Especially mail that doesnâ€™t demand money you donâ€™t really have?). We would not have made it through, if not for our extended familyâ€”our church, school and neighborhood familyâ€”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 studyâ€”your â€œPhTâ€ work. It is an exhausting, sanctifying, holy, precious, life-changing time. Getting your â€œPhTâ€ 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 heâ€™s made.
More on what it means to take on the â€œPhTâ€â€”how to love your graduate student well and keep your own sanityâ€”next time.
About the author:
Chandra Crane works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowshipâ€™s Graduate & Faculty Ministries, is finishing up her Master of Arts at Reformed Theological Seminary, and is a member of the multiethnic Redeemer Presbyterian in Jackson, Mississippi. Growing up in a multiethnic/multicultural family in the Southwest and now happily transplanted to the Deep South, Chandra is passionate about diversity and family. She is married to Kennan, graduate student turned civil engineer, and they have two spunky daughters. She is the author of a forthcoming book about multiethnic identity in Christ, due from InterVarsity Press in 2020. Chandra enjoys reading, napping, and defying stereotypes. You can follow her random thoughts on Twitter: @ChandraLCrane