How do I make enough time for my partner during graduate school?

Question

I am a student who has been engaged in undergraduate research for one semester now. It is something I am passionate about, and definitely a step in the right direction towards my PhD aspirations. However, it is already pretty time-consuming. With full-time classes, homework, research, and volunteer work, it is sometimes hard to find a lot of time to talk to my partner.

I'll note here that I am monogamous and have been in my current long-distance relationship for about a year. We managed a one-month visit last summer and will be doing the same this summer. I might be applying to a few graduate schools somewhere geographically closer to my partner if any faculty in his area are a good fit with my research interests. Fingers crossed!

However, I have heard and I fully expect that the time crunch is only going to get worse in grad school. I have two questions now. First, between taking my own classes, teaching undergraduates, and doing thesis/dissertation research, how will I ever find time to devote to my partner while I'm in graduate school?

Second, how can I properly communicate with him about what I'm studying, now and in the future? My partner and I have aimed for very different levels of educational attainment: my partner has his country's equivalent of a U.S. high school diploma, whereas I am on my way to a Ph.D. I want to be able to talk about my research to him, because it's a big part of my life and it'd be nice to be able to talk with him about the stuff that makes me tick. But it is a daunting task, because there is not that shared foundation of knowledge. He has not taken the years of classes in a specialized subfield that my peers have. For example, I don't know how to express to him my excitement at finding statistically significant results, when those two words (statistical significance) would be enough to get one of my peers excited with me.

Thank you in advance, and have a great day!

Answer

Hey there! Well, you certainly came to the right collie with these questions, as I had to manage just the juggling acts you describe during the years in graduate school I spent seeking my own PhD. In my case, I even had to juggle a polyamorous relationship! Frankly, it is as much a mystery to me how I did that as it must be to you, but I do think I at least have some pointers for you.

pullquote

First off, it is key to set proper expectations with your partner and to make sure your partner is kind and understanding about the amount of alone time and focused effort it takes to succeed in graduate school. The anxiety you are expressing seems to be related to a fear of disappointing a partner because you aren’t spending enough time on them or a fear of losing a partner who becomes fed up with you over feeling neglected or abandoned. In order to be with someone in a positive, healthy way, you need to make sure that your needs and your partner’s needs are compatible with each other. There isn't a way to manufacture more than 24 hours in a day, and there is no secret that makes it easy to both spend hours of quality time per day with a partner and also spend many grueling hours in the library.

If you have a partner who is extremely emotionally needy and who requires constant contact, the fact that you need excessive amounts of alone time in graduate school might mean that you aren’t really compatible with your partner, and it might be a good idea to call the relationship off.

On the other hand, if you have a partner who is totally cool with you being busy, you don't really have anything to worry about. Many people are content to enjoy time with their partner when they can get it and to keep busy with other activities when their partner is otherwise occupied.

In order to figure out exactly which situation you're in, you'll need to have a frank conversation with your partner about what your expectations are for when you are in graduate school. Explain how much time you expect to have available, and ask your partner if they are willing to accept the amount of time you'll really be around for them.

If your partner convincingly assures you that they know how to keep busy and that they won't resent you for being occupied with your graduate training, you should be able to proceed with both your relationship and your education plans free of guilt.

If on the other hand your partner expresses serious concern and alarm, you might need to have a more serious conversation about whether it makes sense to continue the relationship when you're in graduate school. Even if you decide to part ways, keep in mind you can remain friends and stay in touch. If you ever find that both of you are single again during a less busy part of your lives, it might even be possible to rekindle the relationship then. No parting need be forever; keeping that thought in mind might make the parting easier.

As far as your question about explaining your research to your partner goes, that's a matter of knowing your audience and being patient enough to explain in a way that your partner can understand. I happen to work in scientific communication professionally, so this too is something I know a bit about. The key thing to realize is that you might need to use a lot of metaphors and analogies, and you might need to explain some basic concepts like statistical significance, but if you take your time you should be able to explain what you're working on in a non-technical way.

If you intend to be an academic, learning to communicate complicated topics non-technically is a necessary life skill, as you'll often be explaining your work to non-experts who wield great power over you, people like tenure committee faculty and grant program officers.

To practice, imagine yourself getting in an elevator with a peer who works in a different field and figure out what you'd say to explain your project in the minute or two it takes to ride the elevator. Anticipate questions you'd be asked. Make what you say as efficient and exciting as possible! And remember, human beings love stories. The closer you can come to making your elevator pitch a story, with winners and losers, heroes and antagonists, the more engaging it will be.

Once you've explained the core of your project this way, it becomes easier to explain new pieces because the person you are talking to now has a vested interest and context to understand the importance of the result.

Hope that helps! With any additional questions or comments, feel free to leave feedback below or get in touch with us via our contact page.

Viro the Science Collie

Viro Science Collie is a PhD virologist and medical writer, experienced in teaching, technical communication, and writing for the public. He has been active in the furry community since 2012 and has been happily and ethically non-monogamous for much of that time. His interests include non-traditional relationship structures, technology, biological science, and tennis.