A (belated) Valentines Day post

This guest post is written by Magdeline Lum – Chemist, Metallurgist & Photographer and blogger. Last year, in honour of Valentine’s Day, Magdeline told us about her experience of dating a Thesis. In this post she tells us what it’s like to experience the other side now that she has a boyfriend and a thesis of her own to manage…

Last year I wrote about that being in a relationship with a PhD student meant also dating their thesis. The shoe is now well and truly on the other foot. I added my Masters thesis to the mix of our relationship last year. It was awful. I had a breakdown that I didn’t see coming. My boyfriend, Dave, did and he dealt with it better than me.

There are some dreadful times in research where nothing goes right. I’ve had them and gotten out of them with project intact. Studying was different. It was my project and therefore mine to get done but obstacles were everywhere. Despite my best efforts my academic woes spilled out into other aspects of my life, mostly into my relationship with Dave.

I became moody and snappy, even on date night. Dave would pull me up on it every single time and I would stop. No defense mechanism. I knew I was being unfair. And mean. It’s not easy doing this but the skill of biting one’s own tongue when a thoughtless remark is thrown your way during a research group meeting has to be good for something right?

It was at this point Dave would ask me what was wrong. You know what my reply was to someone who has finished a PhD and now has students of his own? The ever classic, “You wouldn’t understand.” Stupid or what? If anyone was going to understand my private hell, Dave was. And even when he didn’t understand, he listened. Sometimes what I needed wasn’t someone who understood, I just wanted someone who would listen without saying anything. Just voicing things to someone who wasn’t going to judge was what I needed.

The best thing about talking to Dave was that he didn’t tell me what to do or what I should do. It was a relief. And sometimes it was all too much and I was reduced to tears. I was an utter mess and when this spilled over to a date night, something inside me snapped. I realized I needed to do something.

I decided to take a break from my Masters. It wasn’t easy. When I told friends, most of them said, “You’ve been through worse, it’s just another six months.” with the best of intentions. They hadn’t seen me when I detoured from going to uni. Nor had they seen me wolfing down a cheeseburger with extra pickles as the only solid meal of the day. They didn’t know how late I stayed at uni some nights trawling through journal articles. I barely recognized myself.

During an office reshuffle with advice to stick out another six months ricocheting around my hollow brain, I decided to take my belongings home. There was no fanfare, I just left. I didn’t even see my supervisor on my way out. I needed a break. The sooner, the better.

It was just after lunch when I made a phone call to Dave while loading my car boot. Telling him what I was doing tore me up inside. A feeling of incredible stupidity hit me. I didn’t feel like I was good enough to be his girlfriend. I felt like I had screwed up and had no options left in life. Any sense of self-worth was gone. He said, “Take a break. Take as long as you need before deciding what to do next.” This was the only time Dave ever told me to do anything during my Masters. I listened.

That was six months ago. I am now typing this from a mine site after work. I am still on my break from my Masters and in full-time employment. I have started to feel good about myself again and I’m regaining my confidence. The best part is that I am being paid to do research as well as day- to-day tasks. I could have written about a happier time during my Masters but what is the use in that? We’re all too cynical for posts spewing forth rainbows and unicorns especially on days like Valentine’s Day. Postgrad life isn’t conducive to having a relationship or much else. It demands long hours and unyielding commitment.

The thing is I am lucky to have had enough sense to know that Dave is someone who will always listen to my rants and be there for me. It isn’t easy to step back and apologise for being a moody cow but the more I’ve done it, the easier it’s become.  I have also had to remind myself that my relationship with Dave is separate from my Masters and that I won’t be crucified for being less than perfect. I was safe from that. I did my best not to take out my woes on him. There were times when I failed miserably and was admonished. I learned there was a fine line between venting and just being aggressive, usually when Dave asked questions to fill in gaps of something I was telling him. It wasn’t an attack on my integrity, it was a request for more information. It wasn’t as if he was there when I was aggravated.

I owe a lot to Dave for sticking out 2011 with me. It was a horrible year. There was very little fun in it but the bits that were fun, I relished. Dave would come by with cheeseburgers when I needed them with episodes of Doctor Who to dangle in front of me for much needed breaks. There was the time when he bought me a plush Totoro after I sat him through My Neighbour Totoro. By some quirk, Dave always knows when I can do with a hug. These are the little things that made me happy and got me through 2011. The huge thing that got us both through was being able to listen to one another.

How does your partner cope with your study commitments? Do you have any advice for someone who is in a relationship with a research student?

16 thoughts on “A (belated) Valentines Day post

    • Mags says:

      Hi Rhonda,

      This is my experience with Masters and it’s one of many out there. I wasn’t having a fun time. I also don’t have a good student-supervisor relationship which is the thing that determines how postgrad will go. For me, I floundered while at the same time another Masters student in the same program has finished successfully.

      It’s different for everyone.

  1. michellelmckay says:

    I enjoyed reading this post, thanks.

    Like you, I have only recently learnt that quitting isn’t necessarily indicative of failure (see my post, ‘the benefits of quitting’, if you’re interested). I’m sure that when it’s time to return to your thesis you’ll do so, with a little more perspective. I think that often when we’re brave enough to detour, we open ourselves up to learning a lot more. After all, it’s not just about earning the masters; it’s about enjoying the journey every step of the way. Best of luck! x


    • Mags says:

      Hi Michelle,

      I’ve been reading your blog semi-regularly since it got mentioned on my tweetstream and some things resonate. I haven’t made up my mind whether I will return to my thesis or not at this point. It’s just there at the moment. Part of me just wants to finish the silly thing and get it over and done with while another part wants nothing more to do with it so it’s something placed in limbo for now.

      • michellelmckay says:

        I reckon you’re right to keep doing exactly what you’re doing until you begin to feel better and find some clarity about the whole thing. I think you’re really brave, Mags; it’s hard to do something that appears to go against the status quo. And I’m glad to hear you’re feeling happier. : )

  2. Ashley says:

    I can’t even count the number of times my boyfriend has sat by and listened to my hysterical sobbing during the last 2 1/2 years of my PhD. Sometimes that’s all you need, is just to cry or rage, just to get all that pent-up emotion out. Usually, after a momentary loss of sanity like that leaves me exhausted and my boyfriend will tell me to watch a film or take a bath, bring me a cup of tea and tell me to take the day off because I clearly need some ‘me’ time. I then, often, hurt him deeply by asking him if his ex had similar breakdowns.

    That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, my boyfriend and his ex split up after she finished her PhD, a few years after and because of things not related to PhD stress. Anyway, so yes, he has emotionally supported two women through their PhDs…well, I’m not quite done yet, but I know that I’ll get there because he tells me so every time I have the slightest doubt.

    Sometimes what you need is break. Sometimes that break is an afternoon, sometimes a whole day or a week. For some people it will be months or years. The important thing is that very few people will understand how much of an emotion drain doing any kind of intensive training or research can be. They will get that it is difficult mentally and maybe even physically, but will not understand how emotionally exhausting it will be. It is still worth it, but knowing when to take breaks or having a partner who will sit you down with a cup of tea and a slice of cake to tell you that maybe it’s time to take a break (mini or maxi) is the most important lesson I’ve learned.

    …that and taking out a few minutes from data entry to read (and possibly reply to) a thesis whisperer article is always a good idea. ^_^

    • Mags says:

      Hi Ashley,

      The mention of hysterical sobbing caused me to chuckle. I lost count of the hysterical sobbing last year. I was glad Dave was there for me. It is much easier when there is someone who will just listen and provide cups of tea.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. My Masters experience was an emotional drain that I didn’t expect nor was prepared for. Hours of long work and office politics were things I could deal with but emotionally, I was a wreck!

      • Ashley says:

        Hi Mags

        That’s it, you try and treat it like a job, work 9-5 as best you can, but there’s an added emotion strain that I’ve never felt in a job. I took a couple years out between my MA and my PhD and found that going to work was more tiring than going to class, but that it doesn’t come close to the emotion drain of doing a thesis–any kind of thesis, undergraduate, master, doctoral.

  3. FrancesB says:

    I have found age and experience help put it into perspective. Your post reminded me of my Honours project in 1983 and of quitting my MSc theis is 1994 – just could not face it any more, it felt like it was me or the project, and I chose me. At the time and for years afterwards I felt a huge failure, and that I had let everyone down, most of all my supervisor. Still, I could also see that I had gotten myself to the point where quitting was all I could do to stay sane.

    In 2008 I completed an MPH (Hons) thesis and am now at the end of my second year of a PhD for which I have a scholarship; I also work half time. I am much more capable of coping with the ups and downs – they still get to me a bit but I also recognise they are just part of doing the project and will pass. I am no longer afraid of failing or of succeeding, just keep on making progress and when things get hard make sure I get at least something done each day, even if it is small. It is a very important thing but not the most important thing in my life – my health and welfare and that of my friends and family (human and four-legged) is more important. I am coping with a much larger workload with much more confidence than I would have thought possible for me all those years ago. My experience with the MSc helped me prepare for and manage myself better this time around.

    Good luck with what you do; the PhD will take on a different meaning with time.


    • songtothesirens says:

      You mentioned no longer being afraid of failing or succeeding…. how did you arrive at that point? I have a tendency to be afraid of both. If I fail, then I feel terrible. If I succeed, then I wonder when the next failure is coming. It is a never ending, meaningless cycle.

  4. songtothesirens says:

    During the times I have tried to return to school after a 10 year hiatus, I have found that my partner still seems to expect me to play housewife. He expected me to clean, cook, do laundry, etc. even when I told him I was working on some really heinous math problem. I was going after a Master’s in Computer Science, but after a recent near nervous breakdown (I have manic depression), I have decided that maybe in a year or so, I will take the GRE, and work on a Master’s in Counseling. I have decided that I would be much more satisfied with what I am doing, and who I am if I were helping people get their lives back on track.

    I do not know how he is going to handle the thesis part of the degree, but hopefully, he will see that I am working really hard to improve not only my life, but the lives of others. I have yet to decide if I want to focus on “at risk” youth or work in a more clinical setting like a hospital mental health unit. I already have a degree in Sociology and Psychology so it seems a logical choice. I hope that my partner is as understanding as yours because I, too, sometimes cannot tell the difference between ranting and pure aggression. So, we’ll have to wait and see. I think he’ll be supportive, now if he will just stay out of my way while I do this, everything will be fine.

    • Anonymous says:

      I found it best to set boundaries between study and home life as much as I could. I treated the thesis like a job, worked 9 to 5 and did wife/mother in evenings and weekends. Of course, this only works if you can study full time. Things became much more difficult the last 3 months when I returned to work and struggled through a massive rewrite of the draft thesis. Luckily that amount of time was brief, but it was trying for all of us. I wish you the best of luck with your endeavours!

      • songtothesirens says:

        Thanks. I have decided to take a Master’s in Counseling. So, I am really looking forward to the thesis…. ummmmm, not so much. I have no idea where a person starts with a thesis. I have ideas about what I want to study, but no clear way of turning my ideas into a full-fledged 100 page thesis. I used to struggle to make my 10-15 pages in undergraduate school… I am just psyching myself out 🙂

    • El says:

      @Songtothesirens, I have the housewife problem too and I have dealt with it by pretty much outsourcing everything that I feasibly can. House cleaner? Well it’s 60 bucks every two weeks but my time is worth way more than that and I’m a hopeless cleaner anyway. Same goes for gardening, ironing, etc. Makes finances pretty tight but well worth the peace 🙂 good luck!

  5. The British Asian Blog says:

    It’s been an interesting read. I too have gone through a similar experience. What makes it worse for me, is that as well as an academic study life (i.e. PhD research part time), I have two other life-styles – first is a professional full time career and second a life style of business entrepreneurial which includes a couple of business.

    I have gone through exactly what you have gone through, but the only problem is I am not able to commit to a relationship – as the women I tend to meet cannot cope with my unpredictable life style so the relationships that suits me are those which can (I guess) be called ‘open relationships’.

    Admittedly, what has helped me is 3 very important choices I make, first is to have regular but small breaks, since money is not really an issue, I can make my breaks worth while. The second is time management to the minute, planning the night before the start of each day and knowing exactly what is to be done helps each day and thirdly to stay engaged with those friends and families regularly – this is vital to be engaged in the social services so you don’t feel lonely and isolated from everyone else.

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