Degree In Sight

Any social psychologist can tell you that we are drawn to those we spend a lot of time with-a phenomenon known as the propinquity effect. And the packed schedule most graduate students carry doesn't leave much time for meeting people outside the program. If you're dating anyone at all in grad school, it's likely to be another student. And while the following couples, who met in graduate school and have stayed together, say the joys definitely outweigh the frustrations, they agree that there are a few things you should consider before dating a fellow student.

BREAKING NEW GROUND

Johanna Kaplan, a third-year clinical psychology student suspects that she and her fiancé, Tim Fratto, a fifth-year student who's on his internship, may be the first couple in Catholic University's clinical program to get married. She hadn't heard of any others at least, and that made her hesitant to date another student.

"If it didn't work out, would I have to see him all the time?" she wondered.

They met in a neuropsychology class during Kaplan's second year. Ultimately she decided that since Fratto was in his last year of classes, any possible fallout would be minimal. But she still waited until almost the end of the course to make her move.

"We went to the ESPN Zone to study for a neuropsych exam--he's going to specialize in it, so I asked him to help me," Kaplan says. "He actually invited another girl," she laughs. "He was in the mindset that we were just classmates." But Kaplan made her interest clear when the talked on the phone after the study session, and the two began to date. "We started dating two days after the final, so that took some of the pressure off," she adds.

For the first two and a half months, they kept quiet. "We wanted to see how it would go before we told everyone," Kaplan explains. "[Then] we told a few friends, and suddenly everyone knew!"

Wanting to be professional, Kaplan didn't say anything to her advisers, but no one in the program expressed any misgivings. "When we announced the engagement, everyone was really happy," she says. They're even inviting their neuropsych professor to the wedding this summer.

But there are still challenges ahead. Fratto was able to stay close to campus by getting an internship at the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., and will be staying in the area to work on his neuropsychology specialization. Kaplan, however may be interning somewhere else.

"I'm not going to not apply to things I want to do," she says. "It's just a year and I'll be back."

Communication is especially key to navigating grad school difficulties because you're balancing the sometimes competing needs of two careers, Kaplan maintains. She and Fratto talk things through and understanding each others' time demands.

"I just went though my comprehensive, and he knew exactly what I was going through," Kaplan says.


MUTUAL SUPPORT

When Michelle Dorsey, PhD, had some medical problems during her internship, she was able to turn to her husband and fellow intern, Peter Sanchez, PhD. Being in the same program also made it easier for them to get time off together when Dorsey needed Sanchez's help. Having Sanchez there made a stressful situation much easier, says Dorsey. The couple, who went through the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) Match as a couple, say that working together gave them new insights into each others' personalities and was a great experience to share.

However, when they first met, during Dorsey's first year and Sanchez's second year in the counseling psychology program at New Mexico State, dating in the same program seemed a little awkward at first. "A lot of my social group was tied to the department, so I thought twice about dating someone," says Sanchez. They spent a little time socializing with the same group to get to know each other first. At first, they mostly kept their relationship to themselves, but once they started planning their wedding in their third and fourth years, more people became aware.

But soon enough it was time to think about choices for internship. "Some of the schools we each liked were 1,000 miles away," says Dorsey. "We had to come together and negotiate."

They finally agreed on several sites and ended up at a program at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and haven't looked back since. Both are now licensed psychologists in Arizona, and they have been together for about nine years.

There have definitely been challenges--as students they were both living off nothing, notes Sanchez, adding "if you have a spouse that has good, stable job, it probably makes it a little easier." But the mutual support and pleasure of sharing a professional passion have been worth it, they maintain.


PROCEED WITH CAUTION

Challenges aside, what else should you consider before dating a fellow student?

"What if the relationship doesn't work out?," asks Carol Williams-Nickelson, PsyD, the associate executive director for the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS). "You still have to go to class and maintain a collegial relationship."

A few other things experts say you should be aware of:

  • Your program's policy--Your school may not have a rule forbidding students from dating, but some programs are likely to highly discourage it. Make sure you know what you're getting into.

  • Your professional reputation--Carefully consider the appropriateness of overt displays of affection in the classroom and on campus. Too much love-struck behavior and your professors may think less of you.

  • Your personal life--Will mutual friends have to take sides if you break up? More than one nasty breakup has ended in "War of the Roses" type behavior, so make sure you maintain friendships outside the relationship.

  • Your progress--Don't let a whirlwind romance (of any kind) seriously distract you from your ultimate aim--becoming a psychologist. Getting your work done is your highest priority.

"We told a few friends and suddenly everyone knew."

Michelle Dorsey
Tucson, Ariz