Letter to a New Graduate Student’s Family, Part 3

Chandra Crane wraps up her series of letters for families of new graduate students, offering advice on what it means to support the graduate student in your life. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

More Advice, and A Commissioning

Dear New Graduate Student’s Family,

Now that you’ve (hopefully) resigned yourself to your new job and course of study, let’s talk about the last four of these five points of my “PhT” (Pushed him/her Through) thesis:

Welcome to your new job, and your new course of study.

  • Try not to be a distraction, but please offer distractions.
  • Time spent doesn’t necessarily equal value given.
  • Rely on humor. Rely on the Lord. Rely on others.
  • This isn’t forever, but act like it is.

When I say Try not to be a Distraction, but Please Offer Distractions, the immediate thing that comes to mind is our first daughter. Children are little time-bombs of distraction. I don’t know anyone who can study well when a baby is around. And most of your graduate student’s life will be studying, researching, and panicking. These are not done well with distractions. However, he or she cannot study, research, and panic around the clock. Even if it were physically possible, it just isn’t healthy. So provide healthy distractions.

Thankfully, our pastor and his wife shared the amazing advice with us to set aside some amount of family, worship, and rest time each week and to stick with it. So while my husband was writing his thesis, we didn’t see him during the week, except for an hour at dinner each night. And every night when he trudged in the door, I watched three things happen when I handed the baby to him. First, panic—here was one more thing that needed his attention, and that he felt he was failing. Secondly, relief—at least her diaper was usually changed when I handed her to him. And thirdly, joy—here was someone who didn’t care whether his research was working well, whether he was working well. Here was a small being who liked his scratchy beard and wanted to cuddle. Here was someone who didn’t need him to produce anything, but rather just be with her. And come Saturday at noon, we knew that Daddy was ours through Sunday, before he’d disappear again Monday morning.

Different schedules work for different families, but make sure you have one. Schedule a weekly movie night. Go for a walk in the evenings. Take advantage of technology like Skype and FaceTime to connect. Take even a tiny sliver of time, and proclaim it sacred, holy, set apart. Worship together regularly.

Which leads me to the fact that Time Spent doesn’t Necessarily Equal Value Given. What I needed to hear, and believe, while my husband was in graduate school (and what he probably needs to hear and believe now that I’m in grad school), was that although the demands of his coursework and research meant that he spent the vast majority of his waking hours away, family still was more important. This is a dangerous truth. We can’t allow truly bad habits to be justified with a flippant, “but I do love you more than grad school,” as though that excuses things. But if your loved one is in another town, and once your loved one has a full-time 9 to 5ish job, mathematically, he or she really won’t be spending the majority of the work week with you, nor, if you have a regular job, you with him or her. So internalize now that spending hours on end together is for vacations (and somewhat of a fairy tale, anyway), and make those few hours together really count. And have your loved one speak truth to you that you really do matter to them, and speak truth to them that you really do understand that they have enormous pressure and time constraints on them. And all of you try to believe and really live those words.

I’ve already mentioned ways in which you can—and must—Rely on Humor, the Lord, and Others. Have some sort of Sabbath routine, even if a particular course of study (medical school, anyone?) pre-empts a traditional Sunday day of rest. Read PhD Comics, both for the glimpse into graduate school life and for the humor. Don’t be afraid to ask others for help with housework, advice, and a shoulder to cry on, especially when you can’t ask your graduate student. Take advantage of the beautiful profession of counseling, whether through your school’s counseling office, or a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Your graduate student needs you, and you both need others. Now is especially not the time to try to do life alone.

Finally, This isn’t Forever, but Act Like it Is. In some ways, grad school isn’t forever. And in some ways, it won’t really end. The same struggles that your loved one has in grad school—depression, fear, disorganization, etcetera—will re-emerge in later life, and actually were there even before grad school. It just took the crucible of thousands of pages to be read, several professors impossible to please, and numerous hours spent researching one little word, or cell, or concept, for those things to be brought into sharp relief. And what was true before, during, and after grad school is true of life: there is joy to be had, but this path isn’t easy.

We (sometimes) look back on my husband’s grad school days fondly. There were many good times. Yet there were still the dark moments, the frustrations and miscommunications, the resentments, guilt trips, and exhaustion. Those also came, and far too often.

There will be times, if there haven’t been already, when your loved one is feeling depressed, ashamed, poor, stupid, hopeless, and like grad school is anything but his “calling.”

And it will be your job to mourn with him through that.

There will be times when your graduate student needs more strength, endurance, time, and patience than what she actually possesses.

And it will be your job to help her unearth more.

There will be times when your loved one will try to balance an unrelenting schedule with an impossible research timeline, all while supposedly keeping up good spiritual habits and not developing terrible habits of stress and myopia to last a lifetime.

And when your graduate student inevitably fails, when he or she is grouchy, impatient, or just plain ignores you, it will be your job to speak the grace of forgiveness, while trying to extend the truth of human responsibility. When he or she fails an exam, or a course, or even qualifying exams, you will have to figure out when you’re needed for encouragement, and when you’re needed to suggest solutions. When your loved one’s research stalls, advisor yells, structure crumbles, and motivation disappears, you will be the first line of defense against giving up. And at the end, you will have to learn how to live together again. You will have to learn how to support him or her through the painful process of job searching, taking the Bar, beginning medical residency, or looking at post-doctoral positions (which pay terribly and feel like grad school redux through a fun house mirror).

And through it all, he or she will need a savior, and this is the hardest. Because that’s not you, friend. It’s not you. All those other roles—cheerleader, motivator, scheduler, research assistant, coach, activities director, and so on—are ones that you may fill at one time or another, that you can fill without being an unhealthy enabler. But savior is a special role, and it transcends the others. The savior is he who gives life and meaning to the roles of helper, comforter, challenger, questioner. The savior is he who gives life, period. The savior is Jesus.

It is my prayer for you and your graduate student that you will thrive during these graduate school years. It is my prayer for you and your graduate student that you will draw near to Jesus, whether thriving or floundering. Before you is a dizzying ride, but one in which you will see God glorified and your entire family—Lord willing—strengthened. Congratulations, PhT Class of 20 (mumble mumble mumble)! The journey is just beginning.

With Love,

A Fellow Traveler.

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Chandra Crane

Chandra Crane works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries, is now in graduate school pursuing her MDiv at Reformed Theological Seminary, and is a member of Redeemer Presbyterian in Jackson, Mississippi. Growing up in a multi-ethnic family in the Southwest and now transplanted to the Deep South, Chandra is passionate about diversity and family. She is married to Kennan, a former graduate student and civil engineer, and they have two young daughters. Chandra enjoys reading, napping, and defying stereotypes. You can follow her random thoughts on Twitter: @ChandraLCrane

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