In praise of academic spouses

It’s almost Christmas time, when many of us have a bit of time with our families. It seems an appropriate place to pause and think about the myriad of ways that our families provide support for many of us.

This post is by Moira Hansen who is currently in the 3rd year of her Lord Kelvin Adam Smith-funded PhD at the University of Glasgow. As a graduate of both literary studies and life sciences, her research project – ‘”Melancholy and low spirits are half my disease”: physical and mental health in the life and works of Robert Burns’ – indulges her passion for arts, sciences and Scotland. Tireless support of her academic dreams and a firm grounding in reality is provided by her husband and her 12-year-old son. Respite from research and domesticity come in the form of the family’s two rough collies and the on-going battle to get to grips with her new patterns,having earned her black belt in taekwondo earlier this year.

Follow Moira on Twitter as @moiraehansen while updates on her research can be found at @bluedevilism

Research proposals, funding applications, research trips, conference attendance, journal articles, writing up, editing, viva prep, corrections, final submission…a doctorate is a long process, physically and emotionally draining, but worth it for the degree, the postnomial letters, the graduation celebrations.

But what if you don’t get these? What if, at the end of the three or four years, the sum total of what you have to show is a line or two of thanks in the acknowledgements section of the thesis and a seat halfway up the graduation hall where you can just about see what’s going on?

Such is the lot of the academic spouse. Truly the unsung heroes of the PhD journey.

Now I do have to confess a vested interest here; my husband undertook his PhD between 2009 and 2013. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I entirely underestimated the impact I had on that journey. I wasn’t a supervisor, a mentor, a funder, a colleague. My own specialism (literature) was entirely outside his field of research (microbiology of paediatric inflammatory disease).

It wasn’t until I started my own PhD in 2015, and found him doing for me things I had instinctively done for him, that I really gained an appreciation for the importance of this unique role within the PhD experience.

So what does your significant other do for you? Think about it. Really think about it.

Many things your partner does are come naturally within an established relationship and you might not even realise it. It might be dropping the kids off at school so you can make that early meeting, keeping dinner warm because you’re late leaving the lab (again!), making that long overdue dental appointment or remembering to send a card for a friend’s birthday. The kinds of things that happen in any relationship, not just ones with an academic.

But think about the psychological impact of such practical activities. You’ll not find a supervisor doing these things. It’s a different kind of care, care of the person and not the researcher. Yet, it is vital; we’re only too aware of the issues around mental health in academia, and these little things are just one less thing for you to worry about.

One of my favourite things to do was packing for conference or research trips. I’m now a dab hand at getting a week’s worth of clothes, toiletries and a laptop into hand luggage (useful for my own travels!) For both of us, it was my way of making sure he was looked after, even from a distance; the subconscious signal that I supported his trip, that I recognised its value to his research, even if it was another few nights away from home, from me and our son.

However, it’s not just about these practicalities. Your academic spouse will also recognise and help you manage the emotional demands that research places on you. You still can’t get your experiment to run, your statistical analysis to make sense, or negotiate access to that treasured-but-vital manuscript? It’ll be your spouse who becomes the release for those frustrations. They’ll let you scream, cry, rage and complain then quietly put the kettle on and never remind you that none of it is their fault.

They’ll develop some understanding of your research and become a sounding board for new ideas, a friendly ear for all the ‘thinking out loud’ as you try to make sense of your latest results, a test audience for your conference paper, the copy editor for your next article (or even your whole thesis). Yet, they remain distant enough that they can spot poor explanations and excessive jargon in your writing, ask questions from a different perspective that provoke alternative ways of thinking and prevent you from disappearing completely into your research bubble.

Keeping things grounded in this way is probably one of the most important things your academic spouse will do for you. They’ll recognise that, at times, there are looming deadlines which necessitate late nights and long hours but they’ll also be the first to tell you that you need a break, albeit in a roundabout way. It might be the bottle of wine in the fridge on a Friday evening or it might be that this is the weekend where you absolutely need to cut the grass, put up the new bathroom shelf or go shopping for a new sofa. It’s important that you listen to these ones; it may also be your partner’s way of telling you that they’re feeling a little neglected!

As a PhD student, your spouse will be on that journey with you every step of the way. Your worries will also be their worries, your victories will also be their victories. They’re probably the only other person as invested in your research as you are. I insisted on going with my husband to submit his thesis. The night before his viva, he slept better than I did.

But the nature of the role of the academic spouse is that you’ll be the only person who really sees what they do. Those sentences in the acknowledgements will never do justice to the sacrifices they have made for you. So make sure you tell them.

We couldn’t do it without them.

Thanks for these beautiful reflections Moira – how about you? Do you have a spouse or partner that supports you on your PhD journey? Maybe you want to show them a bit of love in the comments!

Related posts

Parenting your way to a PhD

Silent sufferings

22 thoughts on “In praise of academic spouses

  1. What does my academic spouse do for me?
    Before uni, I was cleaning pub kitchens and my partner was driving buses. We were both miserable at work, but with three kids, we decided I would study and he would step up a bit at home to make things work. It was rocky and we split up for a bit – but he still supported me as much as he could. During undergrad, I moved on to research assistant work (loved it!) and then administration and training. Shortly after completing my Masters (R) I became a very happy librarian.
    My partner is still driving buses.
    And doing all the shopping … & lots of other things.
    That’s what my academic spouse did and does for me.
    … & occasionally people say – ‘really – *you* are married to a *bus driver*!’

  2. So true. My spouse has taken up the slack I’ve left on the housework and childcare front and he never begrudges me time to go to the gym at the end of a stressful day. But most of all, his opinion of me and confidence in me is entirely unrelated to my PhD. If my PhD is a blistering success or a total failure he will still feel just the same about me and on the days when I feel like a total failure that is the best gift of all.

  3. You can do it without them! I’m single and I think I’d drive a partner up the wall with blow-by-blow accounts of the difficult PhD days I’ve had. I’m managing just fine, though, and I like being able to come home from the lab at midnight without having to call or explain myself to anyone.

    • That is, indeed, a luxury! Regular checkins are part of a committed relationship. I’m still a tiny bit in trouble for not checking in after going to a bar in a really sketchy neighbourhood in the US and getting back 4 hours later than I said I would, to a husband beside himself and about to call the police! Creating worry for someone else was something I had to get used to.

  4. Thanks for your article Moira. The support me husband Peter has given me has been incredible. He believes in my capacity to complete the thesis and has unconditionally supported me. Peter has been an anchor during the calm and tumultuous waves of the PhD and I’m so grateful to have this. We’ve faced challenges we could not have predicted during the PhD. So much invisible stitching goes on behind the PhD curtain and it’s important to acknowledge the backroom players.

  5. Reading this was painful. Going through grad school with a fellow academic spouse is not this rosy picture. It’s both of us stressed and frazzled come finals week, but without the money to order pizza every night. It’s never remembering a compete grocery list because we’re too distracted and going without milk for a week until we get up the energy to go out again. While so supportive and optimistic, this post doesn’t address the resentment that can build up when you see your spouse pouring energy into their work and then being too exhausted to hold an intelligent conversation with you. It can mean skipping potential networking opportunities because you feel guilty for not spending time with them. It can be hard not to compare achievements and set up internal competitions. Yes, there can be a lot to be thankful for, but your spouse isn’t necessarily the most supportive person in your life.

    • Also – while Moira is fortunate that her male spouse returned the gestures of support and aid (presumably without prompting), gender plays a huge role in who gets supported first or at all.

      • Yes indeed it does Meghan. My husband is also an academic and I am so disappointed and angry at his lack of support. My interests consistently come second to his and I am sure it is the same for many women doing PG study, the gender imbalance is even worse if there are kids in the picture.

  6. I’m doing a part time, distance MSc while working full time. This means I’ve got limited access to peers and very little time for myself. My husband (who is now in college for electronics…..while we are both almost 40) does the majority of the household stuff so I have time to work on my dissertation. I take up what I can when I can, or when I have to because he needs some study time. My husband knows WAY more about bones than he ever wanted and has listened to so many of my ideas.
    He understands that a rather exciting (and expensive) trip I am taking this summer is for my education and career. For that matter, one part (but not all) of the reason he is in college (thankfully in a field he enjoys) is so his income will be higher when I stop “conventional” work with a decent income and start a PhD. On the other hand, we can afford him being in school because I am working full time.
    My whole grad school endeavor, is definitely large scale cooperation. No, things aren’t perfect, we both get grumpy about things that do or don’t get done. We’ve managed to not let resentments happen. I won’t claim it is easy in any way. There are compromises but we get through it.
    If he hadn’t been so supportive through this, I wouldn’t be sane never mind about ready to hand in my dissertation on time in January! This hasn’t been just my effort. I know a PhD is going to be doable with this kind of support.
    Academic spouses do not have an easy role to play and I know I’m thankful for mine!

  7. Yesterday I planned to go home at about 3pm but at 3 I was thirsty so I got another drink and stayed for ‘just a bit longer’ then, at 6:34pm – I lost track of the time – my husband texted me then came to pick me up from uni and bought a kebab for dinner. This morning he encouraged me to do the same because ‘neither of us wants to cook’.

    And this is at the end of a roller coaster year where I had two months off because of surgery (no cancer, yay!) then, just as I was starting to get back into the gym, trying to get my muscle mass back, I had an accident at the gym that left me literally black, blue and purple on the hip and ankle. Around each of these things, he’s driven me to and from uni, he always does the grocery shopping and he’s often the one who does the vacuuming.

    After many years of me taking most of the responsibility for the housework, one Saturday morning not so long ago he said something like ‘I’ve been slack, I haven’t even put a load of washing on.’
    ‘I LOVE YOU!!!’
    ‘Didn’t you hear me? I said I HADN’T done it!’
    ‘But you thought of it! And you’ve been doing a lot of the washing! It’s such a change from the way you used to be!’

    Although he likes me to spend evenings and weekends (when we’re not doing chores) with him, he even encourages me to attend writing weekends because he knows how much I get out of it, both in terms of getting work done and building relationships with my peers. (At first I had to talk him into it and strategically bribe him with watching TV or movies that I don’t want to watch!)

    It’s been a real roller coaster of a year but, overall, I’m feeling really positive and even maybe a little buoyant because of my partner’s support.

    Now please excuse me while I have a nervous breakdown because I can’t access my scrivener thesis folder at the moment, I have a research proposal and two chapters to write for my conversion in February and a paper to write for a conference in May… 😀

  8. I agree with everything in the post. Having a partner, inside or outside academia, is very important. My boyfriend works in a business company and he didn’t do Master so the academic world is totally unknown to him. I initially thought he wouldn’t understand the PhD stress. He has been slowly realising how difficult going through a PhD is and he has been massive supportive. He listens to me and take cake for the house when I have to stay up to 12 hours in the lab. Having a happy and satisfying relations and an understanding partner does make the difference during PhD.
    I often ask myself if I am emotionally depentend from him, since I turn to him any time stuff goes wrong in the lab. I realised that this is not the case. Going through stressful periods and getting emotional support from a partner are part of the relationship. People struggle everywhere when doing something very challenging, like a PhD for example. So, a strong and solid relationship really helps in coping with stress, despite the sort of job or level of education.

  9. I couldn’t help it – this post made me feel a bit sad. My partner does not bring even close to the same level of support as described in the post, whether with taking care of the children, the house, the intellectual understanding or the emotional support. It is rather the other way around, because my work time appears more flexible. No wonder my phd is nowhere near finished after all these years!
    At the same time, why should it be different? He has a “real” job and a career, I don’t. When I finish my phd (eventually), and I am unemployed, I will be grateful that he can support our family when I can’t!

  10. I see others have commented on this already, but the finishing line “We couldn’t do it without them” really rubbed me the wrong way, too. What about us single PhD researchers? It must be surprising that we still manage (and yes, single PhD researchers might still have children or other people to take care of, on top of everything else).

  11. Re “we couldn’t do it without them” – I interpreted that more to mean that if one is in a close relationship, it is difficult to do a PhD without that person’s support.
    While I don’t benefit from the same degree of support as the writer and several commentators, it is heartening to read that it does happen for at least some people.

  12. I ‘really thought about’ all the things my spouse does for me to support me in my PhD. He doesn’t do a single thing mentioned in that article, actually he is pretty obstructive a times. So Yah boo sucks to you unsupportive spouse. You ain’t getting no shout-out from me.

  13. I’m sad to hear the stories of spouses who don’t provide support so, for the record, I’d like to add to my previous comment (I’m Nalini, somehow I’m logged in as Dark Matter Zine, my website, this time). When our kids were young my partner expected me to stay home fulltime and take care of all the housework. He had to be introduced to the idea of contributing at home. We had many rows over the years about how his work was for 8 hours 5 days a week where the house and kids were 24/7, especially with one child who was in and out of hospital. He changed over time, maturing and learning that his upbringing and the church were not good influences. We’ve gone through many hard times and I think that’s reflected in our relationship now: he has a much better attitude towards women in general and equity in marriage than he had even 10 years ago.

    I’m aware some men choose not to change because it’s easier for them. My earlier degrees taught me that women ‘tell them and tell them and tell them’ then mourn for the relationship THEN move on, preferring to be single than married to a selfish man. The man ignores the woman, not believing that there are consequences for his behaviour, then has an epiphany sometime between when she moves out and the divorce court, sometimes even IN the divorce court. This is all really shitty for the women concerned. I don’t know if it’s possible to get through to some men until they face that crunch; I would rather be single and doing a PhD than married to someone like that.

    Those who are single don’t ‘need a man’ although it can be easier if you have help from friends or family or housemates or even, if you can afford it, a housekeeper or ‘professional wife’ to do the things supportive spouses do. Sometimes it’s just a matter of cutting (housework) corners (we will NOT discuss my dining table, which is barely visible beneath the books [mine] and my partner’s laptop, for example), living simply (cars don’t really need cleaning do they? can you catch a bus? I do!) and finding the really vital support through friendships. My partner and I often share a kebab is an ok dinner that doesn’t involve cooking. Also wraps are quick and easy to make! Who needs a cooked dinner?!

    We sisters can look after ourselves, we can look after each other, and we can celebrate emancipation in many ways.

  14. Pingback: Stuff and Things 20180124 | Eric Webb

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