From the Science Student Council

Dual graduate careers: How to manage a shared scientific track with your partner

How to deal with the unique stresses that result when both partners attend the same graduate program.

By Gina Fernandez

Maintaining relationships can be difficult, especially when both partners are enrolled in the same graduate school program. Graduate students often find themselves in this situation, and although stressful, sharing your academic and private life with someone can also be a blessing.

Competition and Support

Very rarely will you find a couple that is evenly matched in terms of specific talents, marketable skills or salaries. Normally, this is a positive attribute in relationships: one partner complements the other so that both can function as a unit. However, when these differences are highlighted within the same field, jealousy can rear its ugly green head. If you find yourself comparing yourself to your partner, and become discouraged as a result, make sure to communicate these issues with your partner. Communication is the key to a healthy relationship (Rehman, Janssen, Newhouse et al., 2011), and you may be surprised at how often your partner feels the same way. Whether both of you receive the ‘amazing researcher assistant of the semester award’ should be irrelevant. Realize that your relationship goes above and beyond academic accolades and that communication, mutual support and love will help ease the stress of competition.
 
When a couple is in graduate school, each partner has the unique and amazing opportunity to share academic frustrations and delights with someone who has been there. The ability to communicate openly will help you to find the patience and strength necessary to carry out your graduate duties. It is also easier to unwind after a long day and be able to discuss your data and latest lab gossip with someone who will do more than just nod their head while you talk.

It is also beneficial to have a support group outside of your relationship. Sometimes you will find that you need some time away from your partner, which can be difficult to achieve if you both work in the same building. Make sure that you are able to schedule some “me” time, lest you tire of your partner. Keeping your independence can also make it easier to maintain your professional relationship within academic settings such as seminars or conferences.

Planning the Future

It is important to plan and decide upfront what both of you are willing to do as you plan for your post- graduate career. Will you try to find  jobs at the same university? Will one of you seek a post-doc position, while the other applies for tenure track jobs? Are you willing to hold off on marriage or family until you both find stable jobs? Are you limiting your internship matches, or post-doc possibilities, because you are both applying for similar positions in the same area? These daunting questions should not wait until the last minute when you are applying for interviews.  Fortunately there are several websites and forums that can help you make effective decisions.

Communication is again key at this juncture (Villalba, 1999), as well as the ability to compromise. For example, it may help for one partner to pursue academics while the other finds temporary or permanent work outside of academia. Another issue to consider is at what point in the application process do you bring up your significant other’s search for employment. The literature suggests you hold off on this question until after you receive an offer. It is important to keep in mind that you may have to make some sacrifices. For example, it is not uncommon to maintain a long-distance relationship during the job hunt. You may also find yourself compromising by taking your second, rather than first choice offer in order to accommodate both of your needs. 

Although some sacrifices may be made, keep in mind that your career should not define your relationship or your significant other.

References

Kelsky, K. (2011). Negotiating the Spousal Hire, The Professor Is In.

Rehman, U.S., Janssen, E., Newhouse, S., Heiman, J., Holtzwoth- Munroe, A., Fallis, E., & Rafaeli, E. (2011). Marital satisfaction and communcation behaviors during sexual and nonsexual conflicts in newlywed couples: a pilot study. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 37, 94-103.

Villabla, C. (1999). Partners in science, part two: looking for and negotiating faculty jobs together. Science Careers Magazine, 1-29-99.


Gina Fernandez is the biopsychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. She is a doctoral student in the biopsychology program at George Mason University. Her research interests include the effects of adolescent nicotine exposure on long term addictive behaviors in rodents and the role of cellular learning cascades on the establishment of addiction.