Finding Balance and Joy after Year 1 (and after a spouse writes his dissertation)

Partners may not expect the PhD process to turn their world upside down, but it can. The dissertation process takes an incredible amount of time, and when both people in the relationship are in a PhD program, finding time for each other is a real challenge. The first and last years of a doctoral program are particularly difficult, and I sometimes wonder if the same bodily and material stressors are experienced by students who do online, distance graduate programs (like the ones I’ve seen at It would be very interesting to study the potential benefits of online education, which I think might provide greater flexibility to balance study with other priorities. I’ll be teaching distance learning for the first time in 2013, so I’ll update you with more info on these observations soon! Until then, I want to take a moment here to reflect on those physical, material struggles of grad school–especially the dissertation year.

Now that my first year is over, I have some new goals and hopes for the coming year.  A great friend told me recently that transitions are particularly vulnerable times for us; times that require more understanding, more calm, and more sweetness towards each other.  Trying to start my PhD program–and simultaneously support my husband as finishes his–has been the most challenging time of my life so far.  Add to it a new location, new people, and a new program and I had myself a down-right tough and tedious 2010-2011.  Now that Stephen’s final PhD presentation is a week away, and the fall semester begins for me the week after, I want to take some time to reflect on what I’ve learned and how I’d like my life to change (for the positive).

Feeling forced.

The first major lesson I’ve learned is that spouses need A LOT more warning about what the dissertation (sometimes referred to here as the “baby”) year is actually like.  I frolicked into dissertation times with the mentality that things would be hard, but not all that bad–and definitely not this long.  I simply was not prepared for how long the process takes (for us, a year and a half) or how much focus it requires.  This baby has been the primary thing upon which our world turns for the past year.  Add my own entrance to a PhD program to the mix, and I see why last year was a sort of hell for us.

What is most difficult about being the spouse in the dissertation situation is figuring out how to see through the awfulness and recognize the spectacular amount of growth the dissertation-er experiences.  I’m not talking about growth in our relationship, but rather growth in his ability to think and understand impossibly challenging concepts–and answer impossibly challenging questions.  There is so much to be discovered and understood in a dissertation project… and discovering those things is incredibly rewarding for him.  Since I love him, it’s also rewarding for me (but in a different way… a kind of “I can appreciate that” way).  It is a love-hate relationship, where he is drawn in by the pride he feels in learning this much and at the same time overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.  There were many times that I wished he could say, “This sucks” or “I hate this” and he simply couldn’t.  To say those things would make his task of completing it infinitely harder.

Couples who go through a PhD understand how difficult it is to work together as equals–because basically for more than a year, everything has to be devoted to the “baby.”  What have I learned from this?  It brings out the deepest insecurities in yourself.  While I was a generally happy person before this started, I’ve learned that much of my happiness was dependent on Stephen.  That’s not a bad thing, but rather an unbalanced thing.  Where does my joy come from?  What makes me feel alive?  What defines my life?  When you’re the one who is sacrificing your relationship for your partner’s life goal, these questions arise.  At least, they did for me.

Taking a break.

Now that it’s coming to an end, I’m focusing back in on myself again.  My hope for Fall 2011 is to develop a deeper understanding of myself–and then commit strongly to the lifestyle I know makes me happy (without conceding to a lifestyle someone else thinks I should have).  Part of my success in school, I believe, rides on the fact that I get a lot of joy out of pleasing my teachers.  I’m a people-pleaser.  But what I find at the bottom of people-pleasing is a lack of personal reward or self-motivated accomplishment.  I want to do my work because I find it worthy–not because someone else will be impressed by it or find me unstoppable.  I just want to enjoy what I do–whether it’s work or play or extra-curricular.  If I can’t find my own personal joy in this lifestyle, then I’ll fall into resentment and unhappiness–a place I’ve seen enough in the past year.

Part of the problem with getting to a place of self-motivated accomplishment is the classroom itself.  It’s difficult to be in control of my work when I mostly have to function by receiving orders from professors (i.e. read this by X date… write this by X date).  Since this should be my last year in the classroom as a student,  perhaps these feelings are completely natural and helpful in getting me ready to do research and write a dissertation.  Now that I’ve seen what a dissertation can be like, at least I know what I’m getting myself into.  And I think there are many rewards to having done it… I’ll inform you of them sometime in the next few months when my life achieves a more satisfactory balance.  Until then, know that I am working on fulfilling myself and choosing my own path.  I believe that is what takes to write a dissertation anyways.

One of the most joyful writing moments of my life. Alone on a weekend night in the English department. Working with multiple resources to complete a project that I loved. I pray that I find this kind of joy more.

About taylo206

I am an Assistant Professor of Composition, Rhetoric and Professional Writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
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5 Responses to Finding Balance and Joy after Year 1 (and after a spouse writes his dissertation)

  1. Katie Taylor,
    This is a beautiful post. I liked your addition of pictures, as a tool to help you reflect and as a way to help your reader “feel” with you more. I loved reading this:)

  2. J. H. Adams says:

    Last year of coursework over here too; I’m going to try to use it to rethink my approach to school/work to try and build some good habits for the reading year. Congratulations again on enduring the first dissertation: one down, one to go.

  3. allison says:

    a word of advice (or maybe comfort/company when the feelings i’m about to describe arise for you) from someone on the other side of that last year of coursework: you’ll probably start to hate school/classes long before the year is over. you’ll begin to feel like you’re tired of taking orders and you’re ready to be independent. maybe you already feel this way. when these feelings arise, appreciate them for what they mean: you’re ready for the next step.

    at the same time, try to appreciate the structure this year provides and, as JHA notes, try to cull some good habits to assist you through the less structured half of your degree.

    thanks for posting this. i’ll make j read it when we arrive at this next stage.

  4. Katie Taylor says:

    Thanks so much for these words of encouragement/inspiration, everyone. I really appreciate the idea of using those feelings to bring me comfort about the next step. My hope is for growth and patience and self-assurance. I think I’m finally ready to rise above the notion that grad school has to always make us feel small. It’s time to feel self-assured.

  5. clvresearch says:

    I love this post, Katie. It’s very inspiring. I pray you find your joy again this summer as well.

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