Four Tips for Grad School Couples



When my husband and I first became friends in our undergraduate English class, he shared his dream of, God willing, one day teaching college literature courses. By the time I became his girlfriend, then his fiancée, then his wife, I knew that dream would entail many more years of school, moving, and lower income.

For many reasons, including the prospect of years of long-distance dating and struggles with chastity as the alternative, we discerned that getting married before getting settled, i.e. during my husband’s years in grad school, was where the Holy Spirit was leading our relationship. For our particular weaknesses and strengths in virtue, it's been a purification from which we emerge continually more joyful and in love.

Practically speaking, though, academic life for one or both spouses in a relationship is uniquely challenging. Grad school applications are long and daunting, always with an element of uncertainty and a forced willingness to move anywhere for the sake of a program and, ultimately, a career that's a good fit. Some full-time students, like my husband, are also student teachers. One of those pursuits alone entails bringing work home each night and working far more than 40 hours a week, for measly pay, and the combination of the two can involve even more. And, since there's not really a way around the fact that grad school is a means to an end, there are periodic needs to publish papers and travel for conferences and networking events.

I know every field has its struggles and busy times. If I can humbly shed some light on this particular field we're in as my husband completes his dissertation and final year of his PhD program, here's what has helped us ease some of the burdens of academic life:

If and when you have to move to a new area, seek out community.  

Following your beloved to a new town, maybe miles from home, can be isolating--particularly for the spouse who doesn’t have the built-in community of academic colleagues at school or a job lined up right away. After a somewhat slow start in the town where my husband was earning his Masters degree, the community life of our parish eventually drew us into volunteering with the youth group and becoming certified to teach NFP. Sharing in ministry together from the start of our marriage was was grounding. It forged true friendships we continue to maintain and cherish, even years and miles later.

For my husband’s PhD, he was blessed to be accepted into a program not far from where we both grew up. Returning to our families and college friends has been such a gift, especially as we've begun to grow our own family. Thinking you're in this alone is a lie. For me, cultivating relationships in our parish, with old friends, and in my husband’s program made a significant difference in my sense of contentment and belonging.  

Expect the unexpected when it comes to your time, and find ways to fill it while you're alone.

Like any profession, academia sometimes entails unplanned meetings and tasks that crop up during the day, particularly if your spouse is a teacher. What that often looked like for us was me expecting my husband home around a certain time, only to end up angry when his arrival got pushed back by a few hours--especially in those first overwhelming months after our son was born. Fortunately, I like to think we've become more flexible and forgiving about this over time.

I constantly remind myself that the difficulties with time aren't personal. When I strip away my pride and my temper, I know my husband would much prefer to be home for dinner on late weeknights or relaxing together rather than grading on a Saturday. Our years of marriage and early parenthood during school have been a long process of learning to identify and enjoy the pockets of free time we have together, compared to being constantly let down by expecting long blocks of leisure during evenings and weekends.

My husband is done with coursework now, but I learned early on that graduate classes are nearly always held at night, ending around 9 or 10 p.m. After a few weeks too many of endlessly scrolling through Netflix options, I made an effort to create a ritual for myself on those nights--usually journaling, painting my nails, and watching a show or movie I’d chosen ahead of time, as a way to be more intentional and to view those hours a routine to look forward to, rather than time to just get through until my husband was home.

Slack off now and then.

Really! It's a constant struggle for my husband to feel like there's always more he could be doing, which is probably true, and we try to be mindful of when continuing to work is good and important, and when just calling it quits for the day--either for the sake of his mental energy, our relationship, or our other responsibilities--is the best choice.

Discern things a year at a time.  

Following an exhausting two years of earning a Masters and one year as a very busy adjunct professor, my husband was sure he wasn't drawn to further study, yet here we are. The paths we've felt called down in our life together have changed with certain milestones, and we've tried to simply pray constantly pray as we go, asking the Lord to lead us in the right direction.

Toward the end of my husband’s Masters program, for instance--after which we’d expected to move back closer to family and for my husband to pursue high school teaching opportunities--I was offered a job that would allow us to grow our savings. We decided to stay in the area and lived there for another year and a half. It was during that time that the idea of teaching college continued pulling on his heart, and we experienced such clarity from the Holy Spirit that applying to doctoral programs was right.

If, at the beginning of all these years of school, we'd decided it was PhD or nothing, or if we'd gone into it with a just-get-through-it sort of mentality, much would have been lost from our spiritual growth and our sense of being present in our own lives.  

While in my weakness, I certainly get frustrated over our long-term academic situation more than I should sometimes, I do have the abiding confidence that we are doing God's will and that these particular crosses are sanctifying us. The truth is, I do have days where I think how nice it would be to be settled in a house in one semi-permanent place, knowing my husband would be working roughly 9-5 every day with commensurate income and be done with work when he left work. But experience has taught me academia isn't the only type of work that involves long hours and commitments we'd rather say no to--it'd be self-focused of me to think otherwise.  

So we pray and wait on the Lord, and up to now, every question of our calling has been answered with the peace that my husband completing his doctorate is the best thing for us and our family, if or until God comes knocking with something else. There's a true freedom in that.

What about you? Will one or both of you be in school by the time you're married? What's helped your relationship the most?  We love hearing your advice and being able to support each other in sisterhood as we pursue the callings unique to each of our vocations.

About the Author: Stephanie Calis is Spoken Bride's Editor in Chief and Co-Founder. She is the author of INVITED: The Ultimate Catholic Wedding Planner (Pauline, 2016). Read more