Degree In Sight

Little bride and groom figures

Lindsay Masland didn't get much sleep in May 2005. In a matter of 31 days, she finished and defended her 80-page master's thesis, graduated from a psychology master's program at Wake Forest University and moved from North Carolina to Georgia. She also got married, hosting a wedding ceremony and reception for more than 100 guests, which she planned from out of state.

"It was quite a whirlwind," recalls Masland, now a third-year doctoral student in school psychology at the University of Georgia.

Masland was pretty ambitious, as she juggled the many demands of graduate school while simultaneously planning a large social event. However, this may be a feat many grad students attempt, given that the age of an average grad student, 27, falls smack dab in the middle of the median age range for first-time marriages in the United States.

Some newly engaged students choose to forgo a more traditional event-and the time and effort that go along with it-in favor of a quick trip to Las Vegas or a scenic spot to tie the knot. Brooke Lloyd, for instance, says she planned her Virginia Beach wedding within a matter of days, before school took over all of her time as a first-year clinical psychology student at Regent University.

"I didn't want to take the time to plan a wedding," says Lloyd, "so we planned it in a weekend."

But for those who have always dreamed of a big wedding--or whose parents are dead set on sharing their child's wedding day with 200 close friends and family--newly married students share tips for staying sane:

  • Plan a long engagement. Most student and early-career newlyweds recommend at least a year's lead time to plan a wedding or commitment ceremony. For Karen Stamm, a behavioral science student at the University of Rhode Island, a three-year engagement gave her and her husband--also in graduate school--time to find a date that worked best for their academic schedules, and it allowed them to organize their 175-guest event in small chunks.

"I don't know that you could have too much time to plan a wedding," Stamm says.

As for the best time to marry, many students agree that they preferred holding their nuptials during an academic break and before beginning work on their dissertations, which require a hefty time commitment, says Stamm.

"My mother-in-law--a clinical psychologist-told me not to plan a wedding and work on my dissertation at the same time," says Stamm. "I am eternally grateful for that advice."

  • Get organized. Experience in putting together complex, large-scale projects-a graduate program application, for example-comes in handy when faced with the many tasks involved with planning a big event, says Masland, who enjoyed planning her wedding so much that she now runs a wedding planning and stationery business as she finishes up her graduate schooling. When she got engaged, she created two calendars-one plotting her graduate school deadlines, the other one for wedding-related deadlines.

"There would be certain times when things were so busy that I literally had to plan out every hour of a day," she says.

A "double--calendar approach" may have helped Stamm avoid a rough week when two deadlines collided. "I had to stuff my invitations and send them out during finals week," Stamm recalls. "I definitely do not recommend this."

  • Set aside time for each. It's easy to get distracted by wedding planning tasks when you're supposed to be studying for an exam, says Tiffany Garner, a clinical psychology student who tied the knot in May. "Let's face it," she says, "Martha Stewart Weddings is way more interesting than the 'Historical and Philosophical Bases of Psychology' any day."

To stay focused, set aside specific--and separate--times to devote to graduate school and wedding planning duties, Masland says. She approached her graduate school work like a full-time job, focusing solely on writing her thesis during the day and devoting her nights to planning her nuptials.

Keeping wedding-related tasks separate from schoolwork may help make the planning more enjoyable as well, ensuring that you're not racked with guilt at your cake tasting because you know you should be studying, for example, says Kate Altman, a second-year clinical psychology student at Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill College.

  • Enlist help. Delegate wedding details to your partner, family and friends, says fourth-year clinical psychology student Kelly Anne Constant Bhatnagar, who planned two ceremonies-one Hindu and one Lutheran-for her June 2005 wedding. She recommends planning only what you view as the most important aspects of the day yourself, and delegating the rest. Bhatnagar put her parents and in-laws in charge of decorations for each of the ceremony sites, and asked her sister-in law-a professional opera singer-to plan the music. "The only way I was able to manage it was to have my family pitch in," Bhatnagar says.

Fourth-year developmental psychology student Tanya Broesch took that approach and didn't quite know what to expect when she attended her August 2007 wedding in Nova Scotia. In the months before her wedding, she was setting up a new research site on a remote island near Fiji and preparing for her qualifying exams. Her parents pretty much planned the entire 30-guest event, she says.

"The only thing I really had to do was find a dress," Broesch says.

Altman, set to wed in September, relied on her fiancé to pitch in on wedding tasks, such as finding the DJ. As the foodie in the house, he's also in charge of selecting cooking supplies for their wedding registry, so that she can focus on her doctoral work. "I can't deal with figuring out which food processor to get right now," Altman says. "It really helps to have his support."

Friends and colleagues can also help you stay sane during this busy time, says Meghan Kelley, a doctoral student at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology. Kelley, who hosted a 50-guest commitment ceremony in Aspen, Colo., in 2006, found great support among professors, supervisors and friends in her program, who helped her navigate the emotional and financial stress of event planning and grad school.

  • Keep things in perspective. The Internet is invaluable to students who are planning their wedding from afar. But sometimes the Web offers too many options, and it's easy to get bogged down in minutiae. One way to avoid this is to keep things simple, says Altman. She limited herself to selecting from only a few DJs and florists, rather than researching every option available. And if a fun idea begins taking more effort than originally suspected-such as arranging for a "London cab" to transport you to the ceremony or seeking out obscure flowers-give it up or delegate it, advises Jill Durand, PsyD, who planned her 100-guest wedding while on internship in Westborough, Mass.

Russell Carleton, a sixth-year clinical psychology student at DePaul University, jokes that the strategy for getting through graduate school is often similar to the approach needed with nuptial planning: Keep your eyes on the prize. After all, as long as the bride shows up, it doesn't really matter if your cake is perfect, he says.

"Your wedding isn't just another hoop and it's not an end to itself," says Carleton. "It's the beginning of your marriage."

  • Enjoy the day--mistakes and all. No matter how well you planned, your event will probably not be perfect, Stamm says. Often, the things that do go wrong make the day most memorable.

In Stamm's case, one of their limos broke down en route to the wedding reception. Luckily, the driver was able to get a jump start from their other limo, delaying the wedding party only 15 minutes-and the setback made for great photos, she says. Carleton and his wife still crack up when they remember the funeral bouquet-"Beloved Grandmother" sign and all-accidentally left on the altar for their wedding ceremony.

When the unexpected happens, says Carleton, just roll with it.

"The only things that you absolutely have to get right are making sure your family knows when and where [the event] is and that you've filled out the paperwork for the right license," says Carleton. "At the end of the day, you're just as married, whether the centerpieces match the bridesmaids' dresses or not."

“Let’s face it, Martha Stewart Weddings is way more interesting than the ‘Historical and Philosophical Bases of Psychology’ any day.”

Tiffany Garner
Loyola College, Baltimore