#592: Am I sabotaging my academic career by dating a guy with no degree; or, how is Academia like Reality TV?

The Bachelor group shot
“One of you lucky ladies is going to get tenure!”

Hi Captain (& friends),

I have been dating an awesome guy for a little over a year now. It’s not really my style to gush over a romantic partner, but this is possibly the happiest and most comfortable I’ve ever been with someone. However, we have one big difference: I’m a graduate student getting my PhD in a science field, and he never completed his bachelor’s and is currently working in the service industry. He’s taking online classes and collaborating on a startup, but doesn’t plan to finish his degree.

This doesn’t bother me, or adversely affect the relationship. He is extremely intelligent and genuinely interested in my research work, and I like hearing wild stories from the club he works at. He challenges my ideas and experiments in ways that are interesting and helpful, since they’re not coming from within the academic culture. And besides, we have a lot of shared interests, like programming, caving, and gaming, where we are at similar levels of accomplishment and feel like we can challenge each other.

But this doesn’t stop me from getting anxious about the education discrepancy. When I first met Boyfriend, my out-of-town friends told me I needed to be aiming higher. All my in-town friends are grad students / PhDs, and they’re all dating other grad students / PhDs. They spend date nights writing new theorems; I spend date nights playing Starcraft. It can make parties a little weird: “Oh, your partner developed an entirely new model of fish ecology? That’s awesome! Mine couldn’t come because he’s still washing tables.”

I already have a lot of anxiety about my career. Thanks to ever-present imposter syndrome, my brain loves telling me that I’m my department’s pity hire, I actually don’t know anything about science, and I will crash and burn horribly. So now I’m afraid that I’m somehow sabotaging myself and my career with this non-academic relationship. Is it going to turn me into a lesser scientist? Am I wasting time? Are my priorities all out of whack? I feel awful for making this all about me and my flawed, academia-instilled value system, but my brain won’t shut up about it. For what it’s worth, Boyfriend knows about this anxiety and tries to help (like, by scheduling Thesis / Startup Work “Dates”, to help with my fear that I’m spending too much time with him and not enough time in the lab).

"America's Next Top Vampire" -- America's Next Top Model on The CW.  pictured left to right: Tyra Banks, Nigel Barker and Dania Ramirez Cycle 14 Photo: Barbara Nitke/The CW ©2009 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved
“You are still in the running toward becoming America’s Next Top Adjunct”

I’m not asking you to be my anxiety therapist (I’ve got one of those), but I think you could help with some specific things:
1. Do you or your readers have experience dating with education discrepancies? Are my fears as unfounded as I hope?
2. What can I say if people get all judgy about his choice of career? I feel like saying “No really, it’s a challenging job and he’s very smart” is patronizing, but I’m at a loss for other options.


I really debated whether to publish your letter. I honestly think it’s something that you will cringe at having written someday. But moments of crisis are sometimes moments of transformation, so we’re going in.

In answer to your questions:

1. You asked for anecdata, so here is some. I have a terminal degree, my boyfriend has some college but not a degree. It affects my career not at all and us socially not at all. My mom has an advanced degree, my dad has a certificate from a technical college. It affected them not at all. I can think of zero relationships among my peers where having a degree vs. not having a degree is an issue, if the relationship is otherwise happy. I can think of many relationships where both partners being in academia is the problem, like, one person has a better opportunity so the other one has to put their their own education or career on hiatus for a while, or the couple has to live apart for long periods because they can’t get jobs that are reasonably close together. There can be a lot of expense, discontent, jealousy, immigration issues, loss of career momentum, and other giant, real hassles in dual-career relationships.

2. Your judgy out-of-town friends need to, pardon my French, fuck the hell off on this topic. And I am confident that I can find you a less patronizing script than “No, really, it’s a challenging job…” to tell them so. Howabout, “Wow, you have a lot of interesting ideas about what makes someone worthwhile to know” or “What a very…American…observation.” Or you could go with the classic, which is to stare at the judgy person as if they’ve sprouted a second head, and say “I beg your pardon?” and “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean by that” and make them keep repeating themselves until they realize they are saying something very embarrassing and slink away in shame.

Barring that, “Did you really just say that? Out loud? What the hell is wrong with you?” could work.

Your peers, at these nightmare hellscape parties where apparently people can only trumpet their stellar accomplishments, would probably describe themselves as very informed, logical, and open-minded people. Why then are they so ignorant about and dismissive of any life path that is not the exact same as theirs? What you are describing isn’t a failure, on your boyfriend’s part, to be or do a certain thing, but some seriously ugly classism and a massive failure of imagination in yourself and in your peers. The more you reframe it that way the less you’ll be tempted to apologize or justify something that requires no justification or apology.

This is totally normal and healthy, right? Nothing weird or humiliating going on here at all.
This is totally normal and healthy, right? Nothing weird or humiliating going on here at all.

As if “inside the academic culture” is such a great place to be right now. It’s not like academics have an easier or better road romantically, family-wise, or getting-hired-wise. The problems of “dual-career” couples are so well documented that you’d be better off asking for case studies where that PhD-PhD long-term relationship does work out. That doesn’t mean a career in research or academia can’t work out for you, and if it’s what you are great at and what you want, definitely go for it! But, while there are certainly supportive mentors and institutions, you have to realize that for the most part the world of elite scholarship does not care about your happiness. It does not care about your health. It cares about your usefulness and your results. It cares about your productivity.  It cares about finding the smallest amount of money and support that you will settle for. Sometimes it will give you asshole old man advice about how you should live your life and conform to its expectations. But it won’t tell you how to be happy, and it will often look suspiciously upon any decisions you make that are purely for your own happiness and try to convince you happiness is inefficient or unnecessary.

You say: “So now I’m afraid that I’m somehow sabotaging myself and my career with this non-academic relationship.” That’s going to be one of the sentences that makes you cringe someday, btw, because the opposite is actually true. You don’t need an accessory who looks good on paper to impress your friends or to stand next to you at parties and spout off about their research. You don’t need someone to constantly mirror and compete with you in terms of who is the more accomplished one. You need someone who loves you, for you, who roots for your success, who supports you emotionally when the going gets tough, who excites and challenges you, who would care about you even if you failed at science. Someone who, for instance, sets up “let’s work on our stuff side by side” dates when you need help staying motivated. And if you are thinking long-term, you need someone who could potentially move when you get that dream appointment someday.

Apologies if I’m mis-gendering you, but the email address had a female name in it, and I feel like it’s important to say this in response to the idea that you are hurting your career with this relationship:  For centuries, academic superstars were men. They could thrive in their careers partly because they had wives, who maybe worked outside the home at some job, but who poured a ton time and energy into supporting them while they did their intense manly intellectual work. It’s worth examining how many of your assumptions are coming from patriarchy and the idea that the man is supposed to be the superstar in the relationship. Maybe this will be a relationship where you are your own superstar, and I don’t think that’s bad. At all.

Moreover, I love my grad school friends, but I survived grad school because of my friend-friends and my partner(s, there was a series there 🙂 ) who were not in grad school. The ones who bought me dinner and groceries when my financial aid took 14 weeks of a 15-week semester to come through. The ones who helped out on all my film sets, lent me their houses and cars as locations. The ones who had parties where I could talk about NOT grad school. The ones who would love me even if/when I failed. The ones who came to weird/bad student film screenings in smelly basements and said polite things. The ones who could offer outside perspective on my school/workplace dramas. Sometimes what you need from your day is not to discuss the finer points of research methods or the three-act-structure one more time, but to talk with people who have completely different stuff going on than you do. Or to get good and righteously gloriously thoroughly laid. Grad school is not there for you on this.

Bret Michaels from Rock of Love Bus
Keep your eyes on the prize! You can worry about stuff like being happy later.

Academia baits the hook of “doing what you love” with prestige:

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious. – Paul Graham.

In your defense, the orthodoxy that graduate school is the One True Way To Demonstrate Worth is being indoctrinated quite deliberately within the subculture you are in. Graduate school can operate a lot like a reality dating show, in that it thrives on Stockholm Syndrome, and you actually have to fight to keep your own sense of what is important amid the absurdity.

Reality dating shows isolate their contestants, moving them away from everyone they love and imprisoning them in a big house with only other contestants. Everyone has the same goal and the same focus, and there is no down-time or escape – you must always be thinking about the Bachelor or the Rock or the Flavor of the Love and how to win them over. No pets, no books, no distractions. You associate only with people who are on the show. It’s even the same for non-dating shows – you live in the house with the other Top Chefs or designers or Biggest Losers – and while you may get to make calls home, for the duration of the show you are expected to live and breathe only the show. You live in a fishbowl, where everyone is up in everyone’s business, and where approval radiates in this one specific way, from the Bachelor/ette/Rock/Flav, and where the stupid stuff you have to do as a contestant seems totally logical and normal because it’s what everyone around you is doing. And one of the biggest sources of drama on these shows is the contestants questioning each other’s loyalty, the old “Are you really HERE for Bret/Flav/Square-Jawed Bro? Because I think you are just sort of here for them, and not HERE here.” The producers don’t even have to enforce this stuff if they can get the contestants to police each other. The most threatening thing to the equilibrium of this little hothouse is for someone to go “You know what? I don’t know. I’m just trying this thing out.” It’s actually a very big deal when someone says “yah playing ice hockey wearing only a halter top is not for me, byeeeeeee!“whereas I’m always surprised that doesn’t happen, like, every week. I think it would happen way more if the contestants lived at home with their dogs or cats and saw their actual real-life friends once in a while.

Flavor of Love
Flav’s clock is a reminder that the average time to complete a PhD is 3-10 years.

Taping of those shows only lasts a few weeks, and still it’s enough to foster complete emotional breakdowns in a non-insignificant number of the contestants. Imagine living like that for 3-10 years (the average window to complete a PhD depending on your field and institution). Graduate school isn’t a break from your life, it’s your actual life, that’s happening actually right now! And while maybe your advisors and your peers can only imagine one way of living that life, they don’t actually get a say over anything that happens outside of school, like, for instance, who you date. In the article I linked up thread by Sarah Kendzior, she writes about the decision to have a baby during grad school:

The greatest threat to getting an academic job is not a baby. It is the disappearance of academic jobs. Telling women in any career what they should do with their body is always a sexist, demeaning trick. But in a Ph.D. program it is particularly pernicious, because what usually lies at the end of the years of obedience and hoop-jumping is a contingent position or unemployment.

I know a few women who hurt their academic careers by having a baby. This is not the fault of the women, but the fault of a system which penalizes women for being mothers. But I know far more people—men and women—whose lives were derailed because they sacrificed what was most important to them for an academic career that never materialized. They were told again and again that these sacrifices were “worth it”, only to find, in the end, that “it” was nothing.

So should you have a baby in graduate school? I do not know. I am not you. I know nothing about your life. I know nothing about your goals, desires, finances, health or family situation.

In other words, I am in the same position as your advisor, your colleagues, and everyone else who will judge your intensely personal decision. Some of these people may be authority figures, but authority figures do not have authority when it comes to your body and your family.

– See more at: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/549-should-you-have-a-baby-in-graduate-school#sthash.VtdVVR4m.dpuf

Daisy de la Hoya from Rock of Love
“But are you like, HERE-here, or are you just here?”

I know your question wasn’t about having a baby, but I think that Kendzior is so wise to remind you that you are a person who has worth and autonomy and a life, a life that is happening right now, and not “someday.” The culture of gradate school wants you to suck it up for the grueling, underpaid, difficult present and post-pone all life decisions that are about happiness until “someday” when you’re a “real” scientist. Wait until you’re done with your coursework. Wait until you’ve passed your comps. Wait until you submit your dissertation. Wait until you defend. Wait until you find out where you are going to work. Wait until you’ve got tenure, etc. The time when you get to be happy is always in the future, always on someone else’s schedule. But you are a real scientist now. I know this because you are doing science with your days. You have the right to happiness and love now, and fortunately you’ve met someone who makes you really happy, or probably would, if you’d let him. You can go to school and be a scientist and have love without living in the Rock of Science Brainwashing house.

Letter Writer, I want you to have all the science AND all the love. So the best advice I can give you is: question your assumptions.

  • Question your peers’ assumptions.
  • Questions your jerkbrain’s assumptions.
  • Question your advisors’ assumptions if their advice to you goes against what you know to be right for you.

You would do this in your research, so start doing it in your life. When you get a message that sounds really off to you or leads you to a hurtful place, like “will this non-academic relationship make me a worse scientist?” or “Shouldn’t you be dating someone more, uh, ambitious?“, before you look at your partner as the reason for any of it, ask yourself some questions:

  • Where is this even coming from?
  • Is this comment about something related to my work?
  • Is this topic this person’s business?
  • What’s the agenda here?
  • Is this person speaking from authority or experience, or just projecting? Where is the evidence for their point of view?
  • Does this person really have my best interests at heart or are they just enforcing the status quo?
  • Is this coming from a competitor or a supporter?
  • If I didn’t follow their suggestion, what would the consequences be, if any? Does that consequence matter to me? (For example, “They will think I am making a big mistake“…who cares?)
  • Edited to add: What would someone outside of academia think of this ‘problem’?</edit>
  • Is this what I do think or just what I think I should think?
  • If I followed this suggestion, would I be happier?

You have a therapist as a sounding board to work through questions like that, which, good. Keep doing that, and for the love of your partner, don’t share these anxieties with him as if he is somehow complicit in creating them. He isn’t, and the one way you can really cause hurt is to keep asking the “but are you good enough for me, really?” question over and over again out loud to him. Keep going to the parties at your school, but try making a “no talking about work” conversation boundary and pay attention to who can actually hang with that and talk about other topics (as they will become your real friends in the program). Please also do what you can to find friends from all ages and walks of life who also want to talk about Starcraft or stuff you are interested in at their non-competitive, actually fun parties. Make time every week to exercise, cook, read for pleasure, knit, watch your favorite TV show, have lots of hot sex with your hot boyfriend, go to therapy, go to the doctor when you get sick – do whatever it takes to feel like yourself and feel grounded in your body and your life. In an intense grad program sometimes every moment of happiness you can steal back for yourself while still doing your work is a victory.

In the meantime, being good at what you do and happy as you are is one hell of a snappy comeback for the haters.




165 thoughts on “#592: Am I sabotaging my academic career by dating a guy with no degree; or, how is Academia like Reality TV?

  1. Captain wins thunderous applause of course.

    And LW, I know this is going to be hard to hear at first, but if you ever want to chat about the two-body problem and all of this stuff the Captain just laid out for you, I’m around. So you know. No judgment. I know where you are.

    1. Couldn’t have done it without you!

      And the thing is, I had a very supportive grad school environment where the profs treated us like actual people, and the fellow students were mostly really cool and not all about themselves. And I was still grateful for outside friendships and perspectives. It’s not good to live in a hothouse where there is only one way to be!

      1. Yep. I’m a PhD student, Cambridge undergrad, and quite a lot of my social circle is also Oxbridge undergrad (and sometimes higher degrees/jobs)… but *none* of my partners are in higher education and I think we are all happier that way. /Especially/ because it reminds me of all the ways I have the potential to be happy outside this environment, and because it reminds me that it’s a thing I chose because I actually enjoy it (though I am incredibly lucky in having an amazing supervisor, and am also incredibly lucky in that this is the format of work that probably fits my crip self best).

    2. (And, you know, in our academic marriage that has weathered storms, crossed oceans, and encompasses three scientific disciplines, dozens of papers, years of lab work, lots of skills and great love and value… There’s only one PhD between us and I don’t post as Dr Glass.

      And I’m putting in a first author paper this week and presenting at the Royal Society next week. WHAT’S UP, GATEKEEPERS?)

      In the lovingest possible way, three figures don’t make a paper and three letters don’t make a scientist. You carry that shit in your heart, not on paper. Try not to let three letters dominate your experience of life.

      1. I love you! Keeping perspective like this is hard but oh so worth it.

    3. LW here! Oh no my anxiety attack letter got published. I have died of shame. I am dead. I am typing from the 7th circle of grad student hell, where the coffee is decaf and the bagels are stale and there are only horrible evolutionary psych papers to read.

      Seriously though: thanks to you and the Captain and the community for this massive outpouring of support. These are things I know, theoretically, to be true, but this kind of concrete evidence is exactly the ammo I need when my brain starts in about Why Don’t You Have A Nobel Prize Yet You Failure, and then starts looking for scapegoats. And thank you so much for re-framing my “judgy friends” as probably cases of me projecting – I think that is absolutely what is going on here, in all but the few cases where people actually used their words (and used their words to be assholes). None of my problems can be solved by looking for faults in other people.

      This is all starting to make me think: at some point I got it into my head that in order to brave the wilds of Sciencing While Female, I was going to have to excise everything soft and feminine from my personality, and surround myself with only things and people that would drive me to further academic success. But Sarah Kendzior’s story, and everyone else’s stories, are so, so much more badass than any of that. My imaginary Science Trinity makes a pretty boring human being by comparison.

      Self-assigned homework: call Boyfriend and gush about all the things I value him for. Work on re-defining what “successful” means. Re-read this comments section whenever brain starts to act up. Play some goddamn Starcraft.

      1. Redefining “successful” is an ongoing project for me. I’m a PhD student who has really been struggling with anxiety over my performance and my expectations for myself. There are just so many ways to look at success. At the moment I aspire for a work-life balance which means I get evenings and weekends away from my research, and that I, on balance, enjoy my research and I’m glad that someone is willing to pay me to do it (which at the moment means my stipend, and in the future may mean an actual job!). Some people claim to have reached this happy state and I am trying to work out if I can emulate them somehow. At the moment I am still caught up in trying to be “the best” in some way, and being miserable that I don’t already know all there is to know about research in my field (yes really, thanks jerkbrain – remember I’m doing a PhD as *training*?!).

        However my backup plan is to look at success as making the decision to stop my PhD if it makes me miserable and to find something else. Having a partner outside academia definitely helps with this, because he reminds me that actually most people don’t care one way or the other about PhDs, while at the same time he is incredibly supportive and believes in me even when I don’t.

        Good luck LW, and lots of jedi hugs!

      2. I just put my PhD on hold, definitely for a few years, possibly for much longer, who can say. When I say put on hold, I mean that I am ABD and I walked away. Successful is being happy and having the capacity to have a life, and whatever does that is okay, and in fact good. 🙂

        1. I applaud that decision with delight. I cleaned out my hard drive last summer and found a folder titled “I Quit” – full of letters to my dept. chair in which I withdrew from my grad program. I don’t remember writing them anymore (even though I apparently wrote one per semester from the middle of my second year onward) but I do think I might have been a lot happier if I’d quit at any of those points. I could sure still be doing the (academic) job I’m doing now.

      3. Okay I am proper delighted forever by your first paragraph. Well played, you, well played, and YES on the gushing-to-the-boyfriend and the playing-some-Starcraft. ❤ Redefining successful is hard but SO WORTH IT. But — yes yes yes also on the rereading the helpful thing when brain starts doing its Stuff: because of this I have a small book of poems that reliably make me smile, and nice things people have said to me, and it’s incredibly helpful, and — go you, basically, for (1) asking for help on this [you knew things were going wrong!] and (2) that glorious first para.

  2. I can relate to OP’s situation except I am the less career oriented partner, if you will. My partner is a self-admitted workaholic in a field that will certainly require a PHD and no life for many years. I have struggled with feeling inadequate for having my sights set a little lower in life (while I have a degree I prefer a slower work pace, and don’t think my career is my top priority and am okay with that). However I have come to realize that having both partners in academia would be insanely difficult. It is actually an asset to have one partner in it and one partner out of it. If both partners are on high powered, fast-paced career tracks how do you get them to synch up? (Not saying it can’t work). But when one person has more time and flexibility it makes it much easier to coordinate schedules and priorities. I would encourage you to think of your partner not being on the academic track as a blessing that may make your long-term success possible, not a hindrance!

    1. The first thing I thought upon reading this was, “Hey, no two-body problem!” If the SO is washing dishes for a living, it won’t be terribly bad for him to pick up and leave every few years due to her academic moves.

    2. I would argue that your sights aren’t actually lower. Education is just education. Your partner might know more than you on some topics, but I’m sure you know more than them on some topics too. People that think they’re better than other people because they have more formal education aren’t thinking carefully about things.

  3. I would have been a much happier person much sooner if I had realized that the world of elite scholarship does not care about my happiness. Captain, thank you for laying it out so clearly. I had a really upsetting advising meeting last week, with my committee member who still isn’t happy about my decision not to pursue postdocs or tenure track work. I have tried saying “because I don’t want to.” I have tried explaining the structural reasons for staying put geographically. My husband loves our city and his job, and I love our city and his happiness matters at least as much as mine. And it’s not sinking in. This letter is like permission to not care if he ever gets it, the important thing is that I know what I need. Thank you, Captain.

    Oh, and LW, my husband is a recovering scientist and we had the two-body problem for a long time. I know the fishbowl can be stressful and I wish you the best as you work this out. (And I hope your equipment rarely malfunctions and your advisor is swimming in grant money).

    1. In my opinion, your committee member is uncomfortable at least in part because your decisions make him questions his OWN choices. “If she doesn’t want this, it might not be that great.” And that’s not good when his self-worth is so supremely tied up in that particular flavor of academia that he must advocate to you in order to maintain his own psychic comfort.

      1. I agree with this opinion. I have doctors that are never happy with me for the same reasons – my life choices do not match up with their life choices and if they admit that my life choices are equally valid, they might have to question why they made their own life choices. I understand why they don’t want to go down that road. I get the distinct impression that some of them went through the hell that was residency a few decades ago (and still somewhat now though it’s a whole lot better) for their parents or family and not themselves. Of course, understanding doesn’t keep them getting pissy about the fact I’m not willing to risk my health to pursue an intense career in academia any less annoying, so sympathies GrouchyABD.

        1. Thanks for the sympathy! I also think in this academic climate, the worst advisor to have is the one who has led a charmed life– no visiting jobs in crappy places, lots of grantwinning and publishing. It means they can hear that the system is broken, but they have never actually experienced it. I think this makes it a lot easier for people to get upset when their students leave, because they still have naive hope that everything works out for good people.

    2. When I was in grad school, I was warned by my adviser not to choose my future husband in Germany over an academic career in the U.S. because I would be “ruining” my life and career. I chose to be with him. I’m now out of academia, but I own my own business, which has pretty much turned out to be my dream job.

    3. I know this feel. Do what you need to to graduate, if that’s what you want to do, and then do what you want. When push comes to shove, you’ll probably still get the references you need.

      Also, in my dept students are starting to bring this issue to the attention of the department and ask them to do something about it. One thing we’re doing is getting way more visible with our participation in and expectations around departmental involvement in career development activities that include careers outside of academia. Anything we can do to remind the faculty that it’s impossible for all of us to get academic jobs, that we’re underpaid compared to similarly educated peers and that some of us don’t want those academic jobs anyway.

  4. I feel like I could go on for pages about how good I think it is to have space in your life that ISN’T your academic/professional/scientific career. Like, your Starcraft dates sound AWESOME.

    There may be anecdata to follow, but basically I think that the judgy people are dead wrong and you should trust your happiness over their judgyness.

    1. OK, anecdata (even though I can see it pouring in!): I have an aunt & uncle who are pretty much the reason I believe in the possibility of good relationships and happy families. And my aunt has a PhD and a tenured position and my uncle dropped out of college.

      I don’t have any personal stories of amazing success, but the only time when a gap in formal education was a *problem* was when I was dating a guy who was too insecure to let me be good at ANYTHING. The problem was HIM, not the education difference.

    2. Hooray for Starcraft dates! There’s nothing like defending against a bunker rush with the one you love. 🙂

      1. It is an awesome bonding experience. My husband and I kicked ass all over Azeroth for a couple years and still have in-jokes and fond memories from it. Actually, it helped rewire our relationship dynamics once. I was feeling a bit walked on, so we rolled up new characters and I tanked. (If you’re not a gamer, that means I took the role that decided what battles we got into and when.) I suddenly started taking responsibility for other decisions around the house as well. It was great.

        1. As a shy lady used to being stepped on and formerly expecting that as my due, it changed when I respecced to bear and charged into HDs and LFRs. We weren’t a raiding guild at the time so I was mostly pugging or going with a few guildmates. Coincidentally around then certain officers felt I was getting too intense and wanted me to go back to resto (“like a girl should” being the unspoken reasoning). I realized I LIKED taking charge, and if certain individuals felt threatened by a lady tanking (and clearing DS before they did), that was their problem.

  5. I am a frequent reader of the always amazing Captain (and army), and have never felt so inclined to weigh in. Captain, I am so glad you focused not only on the relationship aspects and the elitism of LW’s friends, but also on the role that academic culture is playing here, because it is one of the most destructive things that we university types do to ourselves.

    LW, I was motivated to respond because I really am exactly the type of anecdote you are seeking. I am a recent PhD grad, newly-minted TT prof (albeit in the social sciences, though I think that makes little difference) married to a man who stopped his education after high school (though he is now, in his 30s, pursuing trade school). Now, I love this person far above and beyond what his job is, and he loves me beyond what mine is, and that is why we are committed to being together, but I cannot even count the number of times I have expressed gratitude that I happen to have found this person in a package that is not connected to academia. At the most basic level, he is employable just about anywhere, and his willingness to move around the country (and beyond), several times if necessary, made my job search much easier. At a deeper level, though, what the Captain highlights has been so true for me – speaking just for myself here, I find it far too easy to start thinking of academia as The Most Important Place in the Universe, and imagining that what we do, think, and say is he only way of doing, thinking, and saying. Getting that viewpoint shaken up by a different angle on reality has made me a better person, and actually, a better thinker. In a related way, I often say that having a baby during grad school was *awesome* for my productivity, because it helped keep me from thinking about my research all the time and burning out by running it around in circles. Being able to step away from it – indeed, being forced to step away from it to feed, bathe, or entertain a small child – gives my brain space for thoughts to settle and fresh ideas to bubble to the surface.

    I could literally go on and on here about how positive this combination has been for me, but I also want to say that it hits me in the heart to hear the anxiety you feel about your career and capabilities. One of the biggest truths the Captain touches on is just how much academic culture perpetuates that, and also with no judgment, finding things in your life (whether they are relationships, friends, activities, or whatevers) that bring you out of that and into other parts of yourself and why you are valuable as a human being are so important to surviving the PhD and beyond. Good luck!

  6. Big thumbs up to the Captain’s advice. I have multiple graduate degrees, and my husband “only” has a college degree, and it hasn’t hurt my career at all. Or, I should say that my husband is very, very good at what he does, genuinely enjoys it, and when my former employers ended up being total assholes who torpedoed (or attempted to torpedo) my career, he’s the one who got me through it. Jobs and colleagues will come and go, but a love like that? Hang onto it hard.

    I also wonder if some of this is the pernicious patriarchal message that “women marry up.” I have rarely ever heard anyone ask a man if he made the correct choice in partners when his wife is the one who has fewer degrees. (Class issues might come up, but not education so much.) There is a pervasive cultural message that women should marry up–men with ambition, men who are doctors or lawyers or PhDs, or what have you. Is that possibly what’s going on subconsciously? If so, being aware of it might help to stamp out the voices of the doubters, because it’s the patriarchy talking, and you can help dismantle it by loving this guy who loves you and not worrying about which one of you wins the “who went to school the longest?” game.

    1. NAIL. ON. HEAD.

      I’m a lawyer, not an academic, but I see this gendered discussion playing out all. the. time. Multiple female friends who are lawyers have asked me advice about whether I think it’s a problem that they’re dating a less educated/less “successful” (makes less money, has a less prestigious job, etc.) man. Not a single male friend who is a lawyer has ever asked me that. I’ve heard more than one snarky or confused remark about a female lawyer “dating down” but no one bats a single eye about male lawyers I know who are married to tennis pros or receptionists.

      1. My mum specifically said that one of the problems with my relationship was my partner is less educated (I have two degrees and working on the third, all at a pretty prestigious research-intensive university, he has one degree from a much less prestigious university) but also that if the genders were reversed it would be fine. Maybe I can put this down to her only knowing intellectually insecure men who have to be “more intelligent” than their partners? Maybe she is projecting because she got a better degree than my dad did (albeit in her forties)?

        One economic rationale for women marrying up (in different sex cis couples) is that it means that if the woman stops work to look after kids then they are living on the higher income of the two, but the way people think about these issues clearly indicates that we’re not thinking like homo economicus and instead have just ingested a whole host of social norms which don’t really do us as individuals any favours, because homo economicus would also actually factor in love, long term shared goals and values, etc (yeah, economics isn’t just about money). There is the downside of also having to factor in any costs from breaking social conventions but I reckon that homo economicus would realise that the threat of social censure for breaking the rules in this area rarely results in consequences beyond some funny looks and comments, which can easily be dealt with if you’ve spent enough time reading the Captain’s good advice.

        1. Homo economicus would also realize that lots of non-academic jobs pay at least as much as a grad school stipend, and the grocer or landlord cares more about whether you can pay your bills than about letters after your name. And not having to worry about whether you can pay the bills is valuable on a lot of levels.

          1. And also on average people with PhDs earn less than people with just a Masters! But a lot of this is selection into academia rather than business. Though there’s a lot to be said for doing a PhD if it will let you into a career that will give you more satisfaction even if it pays less (which is the case for me since I want to teach at university level).

        2. There’s no automatic reason why the man should have the higher income of a two-income different sex cis couple, nor (barring the relatively short time of breastfeeding) does it necessarily make more sense for the woman to be the person to stop working to look after the kids, however. Neither of those things are givens.

          1. Neither of them are givens, but they are true for the vast majority in the US and UK (can’t comment on other places), whether through choice or circumstance. Large scale household surveys show that it’s still a small proportion (but growing at least) of couples where women earn more (overall or have a higher hourly wage). Also the “motherhood” premium is fairly well researched and it seems that most women receive a massive slowdown in wage growth when they have kids, often attributed to loss of promotional opportunities (and thus a widening in the gender wage gap, even controlling for education, job experience, etc). This may have a lot to do with the fact that women are more likely than men to take time off work to look after kids (illness, etc), as well as time out of work for maternity leave (in the UK the current government recommendations is six months of breast feeding, and legally you have up to a year of maternity leave where your work must keep your job open for you) so employers find ways to give mothers less responsibility in the workplace (on their expectation that mothers’ main focus will be on their children and not their job).

            We need seriously radical change in parental leave policies to overcome the status quo and allow families to pick what is right for them and making sure that children have access to good childcare (whether provided inside or outside the home, by professionals or family). The whole issue is a mess of expectations, social norms and behaviours reinforcing each other so it’s hard to know where to start.

    2. Exactly this. There is so much social pressure and anxiety around the fucked-up notion that The Man must be “more” in all important ways – taller, older, more educated, higher-prestige career, bigger paycheck.

    3. YUP. I was thinking the whole time “this sounds suspiciously like all those times people have asked me (haver of engineering degree) whether I care if my boyfriend makes less money than I do (technical type call centre), or if he cares.
      Neither of us cares and we are great with each other. Ignore your “friends”, LW.

    4. I think there’s something else at work besides “women marry up” message. LW’s and Captain’s guys both sound awesome. But…how do I put this? There is a certain subset of men who didn’t go to college or didn’t finish or went to trade/technical school who are proud of their fewer years of formal education in a very, very offputtingly misogynist way and will…not…shut…up about how “useless” academia is. (And some MRA-types who complain nonstop about the “feminization” of education, etc.) In my early adulthood (the days before the tech bubble burst), a lot of them were in IT, and I dated a few of them, including Darth Ex. (Heck, even Spouse slightly resembled these remarks when we first got together, though he certainly does not anymore.)

      In fact, most of the fights I remember with Darth Ex where he turned physically threatening or menacing were either about exactly this or about closely-related topics. The very worst of those fights was about my desire to return to school and possibly pursue a PhD (in a completely different field from the one I’m now in).

      And I even think that some of LW’s concerns (and some of the concerns/fears of the people who are concern-trolling her) just might come from having been around men like this, and the people concern-trolling her may have left relationships like this. Doesn’t make what they’re saying okay, exactly, but there is this bias that anyone who sees how valuable higher-level academics can be will of course participate themselves, and sometimes buried in the “are you sure he’s bright enough for you?” comments is an undertone of “are you sure he’s actually going to support you in this, in the long term?”

      And YES, it is 10000% true that the whole “two-body problem” means that sometimes someone who stepped off the formal-education track much sooner is in a BETTER position to be supportive than a fellow academic. (It’s a very different kind of support, but it’s support nonetheless.)

  7. Wow, the Captain hit the nail on the head. I’m a Ph.D. student, just embarking into dissertation-land, and I am so grateful for my partner, housemates, and friends who are not in my program. My friends in my program are great, too, but I love coming home from the department and not being in the department anymore. When there’s departmental drama, I come home to a place where no one else is thinking about said drama, and it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

    Most people in my department do not have much of a life outside school. As far as I can tell, this hasn’t helped them. Those of my cohort who have made it this far are all at the same point, so it’s not like they were getting so much more done than I was. Most of them are more generally stressed about school than I am, too (although of course I get stressed about things like finals and comps). The culture of academia says you’re supposed to just workworkwork every waking minute, but that’s not actually a possible or desirable thing! Self-care will NOT slow you down, it will just keep you happier and healthier.

    I’d also like to add that having a social life outside of academia is making it easier for me to imagine a non-academic career, in the (very likely) case that I can’t find an academic job. It’s easy to imagine myself doing a whole variety of non-academic things, because I regularly interact with smart, hard-working, creative, incredible people who are doing a whole variety of different awesome things with their time. When academia and my jerk-brain are telling me that if I don’t get a tenure-track job in academia, I will be a complete and total failure and will be miserable for the rest of time, I hang out with these friends and remember that there’s a wider world out there.

    1. “The culture of academia says you’re supposed to just workworkwork every waking minute, but that’s not actually a possible or desirable thing! Self-care will NOT slow you down, it will just keep you happier and healthier.”

      Thanks for my new mantra! As a newly minted ABD, I’ve needed to hear this lately.

    2. My grades in law school shot up when I started dating my current boyfriend and making more time for a social life. Like, dramatic improvement. Funny how being happy and satisfied with your life overall makes it easier for you to apply yourself to schoolwork, eh?

  8. I’m a 40-something, second-career attorney with a partner who never finished his bachelor’s degree. When I talk to my lawyer colleagues, who can get very rat-race-y, fishbowl-y, and status-conscious, his level of education simply never comes up. They may ask where he works and what he does, but no one ever probes further about his education. Maybe it’s not a perfect comparison with academia — but lawyers can be very snobby about academic qualifications and other indicators of social status, so maybe the comparison helps a little.

    If a lawyer colleague of mine were to ask me about his undergraduate career, I’d probably answer along the lines of, “He attended Local Not So Prestigious University,” possibly continuing with, “But in the end it wasn’t his cup of tea and he left before getting his degree.” As the Captain points out, it crosses a social boundary for someone to make a disparaging comment or ask a pointed question after that. Who is my interlocutor to insinuate to me, or tell me directly, that my choice of partner is a problem — whether because of his education level, or any other reason [*]? Who talks to another grown adult like that?

    And at some point, “sticks and stones,” you know? Who cares what someone thinks about my choice of partner? If they think he’s not intelligent, that’s simply incorrect. (Also, it’s nothing I’ll be able to prove to them, so whatever.) If they think there’s a risk to the future success of our relationship because of the disparity in our education levels, that’s none of their business, whether it’s correct or not — because the status of our relationship is none of their business in the first place.

    A final thought, I wonder if it’s because I’m older and have been around the block a few times that I’m feeling so “who gives a flying fuck” about this kind of thing. I do have very thick skin — helpful in my field — and sometimes I fear I don’t always remember that it can be easier for me to blow off non-constructive criticism than it is for other people.

    [*] Barring some situation where you fear for someone’s health or safety, of course.

    1. Having a relaxed attitude about it helps, I think. I’m in a similar position – professional career track and starting a masters next year, he’s in the trades and has “some college” in the parlance of vital statistics forms. When people ask what he does or where he went to school I answer with neither defensiveness nor embarrassment, and no one’s ever probed or given me a weird look or anything. It’s a fairly new relationship so who knows what the future will hold, but thus far I don’t find his career path to be a stumbling block, and his lack of BA has nothing to do with his intelligence or intellectual curiosity. At the beginning of a recent date: “Have you ever read Fear of Flying? I just finished it…” (I haven’t, actually)

      1. In lawyer terms, we’re “taking the sting” out of any potentially harmful statement by bringing it up and putting it out there first ourselves. My dude went to university and quit a few credits short of a fine arts degree. So fucking what? We haven’t played a game of Scrabble in ages because I’m afraid he’ll beat me, and he has a crazy encyclopedic knowledge of music and films that makes me look like a rank amateur. Dismissing someone’s worth based on the pieces of paper they may or may not have finished earning is just so childish, and it deserves to be answered as childish behavior.

  9. Another Ph.D. holder here to say that your partner sounds like a jackpot! My husband does have a PhD (met in grad school, typical story) but works in industry in a job that doesn’t require his degree. If he had wanted to stay on the academic track, we would have been in for some very very difficult decisions about how to make both of our careers work. Many of my friends are in that situation now, and it is rough. As it is, he was able to follow my career to a small city in another state without jeapordizing his own.

    Of course, just because your partner doesn’t have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean that, if you stay together, he won’t want and deserve input into where you make your lives. At some point, you’ll still need to have some honest and difficult conversations about whether you want to stay in academia, and what that might entail, and whether he is willing to deal with the multiple moves/career uncertainty/etc. While my husband was able to follow me, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t an issue in our relationship. My career demands have led to us living in a snow-belt city far away from either of our families. He’s given up real things to follow me here, and I think constantly about how to make this situation work out for us, and when/if it would get to be too much.

    Logistics aside, I also hear you worrying that you aren’t really a scientist because you don’t do science 100% of your waking hours. And that’s bullshit. Regardless of who you are partnered with, you are allowed to have hobbies. You are allowed to spend time caving and gaming and whatever else, and you are no less a scientist because of it. You really, really can do good work and still have a life. There’s scholarship on productivity showing that working more than 40 hours a weeks is usually counterproductive; scientists and academics aren’t magically exempt from that.

    1. “Regardless of who you are partnered with, you are allowed to have hobbies […] and you are no less a scientist because of it.”

      This is absolutely true and I’ll go one step further: time away from the work and the research is an integral part of the process. If my PhD taught me one thing, it’s that breaks are not optional.

      I’m sure there’s a quote by an important scientist out there about this. Something to the effect of: you have to read the literature/get the data and really look at it, you have to do that work, but then you have to step away from it, go and do something else. And that’s when ideas happen. Sorry I can’t remember who said it… but I think a lot of researchers know this to be true.

  10. I got an MA at a very good school. My BF dropped out of high school during 11th grade. He has his GED now and some college, but because he’s permanently disabled no one will ever hire him so he figured getting his degree was a waste of time. In the beginning of our relationship I pushed him to go to college because I was worried we would run out of things to talk about. Looking back, I see that was really stupid of me. We’re going on 14 years now and we still have things to talk about even though he has no degree. Actually, it’s probably better this way – I can blabber on about history and he can blabber on about computers and since neither of us knows the other person’s topic but both are somewhat interested, we always have things to talk about. Plus we have a lot of similar, shared interests and we make each other laugh. LW, you sound like you have shared interests and get along well with each other and that’s the most important part.

    So, no, you are not sabotaging your career in any way. And if you need more anecdata, my best friend from HS has her MS in biology, works in the field, and just married a very nice man with no degree. They’re deliriously happy.

    I would NEVER in a million years have wanted to date someone who was also in grad school. There’s no time. I was working 20 hours a day and my boyfriend was stay-at-home and I still never got to see him. And everything that Capt. said above about competition is true. I had professors who married other people with Ph.Ds and then had the horrible task of trying to figure out whether they would each live in the city where they taught or if one of them would sacrifice her or his position to move so they could live together. Those marriages failed. Some of them failed spectacularly. It was really painful to watch, especially since I was in a great department with incredibly supportive profs and grad students. I don’t think I would have gotten my MA in a department with bitchy, snobby, competitive faculty and peers. I chose not to go for my Ph.D. because I didn’t want that environment, I value my health, and I was already spending enough time away from my bf. Not everything has to be about school.

    As for your judgy friends … tell them he may not have a degree, but he’s great in the sack. Then smile really big and walk away. There’s more to life than intelligence.

    1. “As for your judgy friends … tell them he may not have a degree, but he’s great in the sack. Then smile really big and walk away. There’s more to life than intelligence.”

      no PhD != not intelligent

      1. One more thing:
        “… but he’s great in the sack!”
        I see how this might be a very satifyingly cheeky retort, but I (a lady-person, if that makes a difference) would be really upset and humiliated if my partner ever used such a line to “defend” me. Consider the following demeaning shit-show:

        Douchey Friends: Your partner’s worth as a human being is solely a function of how many degrees she has!!1!
        Partner: Nuh uh! It’s 100% her fellatin’ skillz!

        Yes, I know we’re all sexual beings and naked times are awesome, but I would bristle at anyone implying that that was all I was good for.

        1. Agreed. You can’t reasonably fight against having your partner being reduced to one aspect of hirself by countering with a reduction to a different aspect.

          1. It is, however, perhaps one of the few ways that might get the asker to shut the hell up if the asker is an ossified White Male Ph.D.

          2. Still not worth it, in my opinion, because then the old wizened gross dude is thinking about you + The Sack.

  11. NYU Professor Harvey Molotch, who gives the amazing “Intro to Sociology” series of lectures on YouTube, says that grad school is the means by which young scientists get institutionalised into their discipline. He says it in a joky way, but it’s not a joke.

  12. Ugh, yes, challenge the patriarchy! My dad is a university professor and for most of my childhood my mother was a part time bookkeeper. When my dad said his wife was a stay at home mother or a part time office manager do you think any colleagues or friends looked askance? Of course not because that is The Order of Things, but that Order of Things is based on women being less valuable than men. So when your “friends” question your boyfriend’s value try to imagine them as a Muppet, but instead of Jim Henson the hand up their butt is the patriarchy.

    Related personal experience: My SO is the assistant manager of a grocery store and you’d be amazed how many people tilt there head and say “Huh.” when I tell them that. Because my job requires a degree and his does not they think he has less value to society than I do and is therefore “below” me. Never mind that his job requires way more responsibility and budget management and people management than mine and that everyone has to buy food but not everyone has to read really specific business to business publications so he’s serving a lot more of the community than I am. Your value is based entirely on their perception of your job.

    It’s BS and it’s snobbery and if he is good to you and you’re good to him and your life is better with him than it would be without then just laugh when “friends” question your relationship.

    P.S. I hope this is written clearly enough. This hit a little close to home and I’m on a bit of a caffeine kick so I might be typing faster than I’m thinking.

    1. If being over-caffeinated leads to more instances of “…try to imagine them as a Muppet, but instead of Jim Henson the hand up their butt is the patriarchy” I say YAY FOR COFFEE.

    2. I am trying to stuff all the Internets you just won into this envelope to send you. I think I’m going to need a bigger envelope.

  13. LW: As a guy who grew up in a firmly patriarchal segment of our patriarchal culture, and who has a wife whom he loves but who definitely has far more academic achievement and financial success due to career choice, lemme just say that if you have a guy who is beyond all of that stupid patriarchal crap enough to not get bent out of shape over you being more “successful” than he is, OMG keep him.

    I say this as someone who often has to kick my own hindbrain over not being the primary breadwinner in the house. Even though I know it’s stupid.

    Good luck. 🙂

  14. Great advice as always. LW, I didn’t go to grad school where I’m sure the pressure and culture around academic success is much more intense than in a bachelor’s program, but I am someone with a BA from an academically rigorous school who is married to a smart, talented, hilarious, kind, all-around-awesome guy who didn’t go to college at all. My family made plenty of snide comments about the educational difference and it was hard to constantly hear and defend against their put-downs. I definitely understand how the doubts you’re hearing from external sources can begin to creep inside your own head. But it may help to remember that for people who like working at startups or in the service industry, a college degree isn’t necessarily a requirement or even particularly helpful for achieving success in their chosen field. My husband was always interested in coffee and music, and didn’t see any reason to spend 4 years pursuing a degree when he could spend 4 years actually doing the stuff he liked, and he was totally right. By the time I graduated college he was managing a couple cafes by day and playing music in a local band at night. Meanwhile I had a shiny new degree, a pile of student loans, and no job to pay them off with. In a university environment it’s natural that the people around you are going to place a lot of importance on a traditional university education but the truth is that plenty of people succeed in the world (both financially and in terms of overall satisfaction with their lives) without it. Don’t let the jerks around you drag down your confidence in what sounds like a fantastic relationship.

  15. More anectdata:

    I have a friend who was given a fairly large amount of grief by her law school friends for dating a programmer / military reservist who was launching a startup instead of pursuing an advanced degree (he did have a bachelor’s). Personally, I found her lawschool friends insufferable (we knew each other from grade school) and much preferred HIS company…

    They seem very happy and are five years and two kids into their marriage. And she is now the in-house counsel for their company (the start-up took off…)

    More scripts:
    -Just as long as I don’t end up with an adjunct professor
    -Every time I look at my thesis I think he is the smartest guy in the room
    -I like having my professors be my mentors and my boyfriend be my boyfriend

    1. “I like having my professors be my mentors and my boyfriend be my boyfriend.”

      So much this.

      I have a Masters degree, and when I entered the program I’d intended to go all the way to my PhD. I ended up getting a terminal Masters for several reasons, but one of the things that gave me red flags about the department I was in, and massively creeped me out, was how many of the male professors had married women who had been their grad students at one time. *One* of those women became a professor in the department herself, but others had become stay-at-home-moms.

      1. I actually meant that to be a pithy way of saying “I don’t need to have my boyfriend help me do my homework” and not “hey, professor, my eyes are up here!” But it works both ways 🙂

  16. Dear Letter Writer,
    Your graduate school anxiety is ABSOLUTELY making a problem where there is none. Your boyfriend seems to be doing everything regarding this situation right, and you will be too once you can put down this particular anxiety ball you are carrying. A grad student/academic’s partner doesn’t need to be a career clone. Ze needs to be someone who is mutually happy with the grad student/academic. I have FEELINGS about this letter, because I have just been through a serious depressive episode while in grad school in a science field. What helped me about my partner was not his career, it was the fact that he was there for me and loves me.

    For Group One, the people who are judging you out loud, follow the Captain’s suggestions for acting like they are saying the most ridiculous/irrelevant thing you have ever heard, because those people are wrongity-wrong-wrong. They don’t get to decide *for* you that “prestige” or “a certain degree level” is one of your dating standards.

    For Group Two, the people you just suspect are judging you because of the academic culture you’re in, please take a few breaths and remind yourself that you are happy with your life. It’ll take practice, since you also imagine they are judging you for everything else, too. Maybe some of them are and some of them aren’t, but if they haven’t said anything out loud, it is officially Not Your Problem. (And if they do say anything, then all they’ve done is moved themselves to Group One!) I’m still practicing not feeling like an impostor myself, but the breathing seems to help. Your therapist probably has other ideas for your particular situation, so I won’t expand on this any more.

    I also want to emphasize the Captain’s advice to look for the people at school parties who can talk about more than science and work. I don’t know your program, but I bet they exist; they just aren’t immediately obvious because Work is the one thing everyone knows that everyone else has in common at a Work party.

    And if Boyfriend’s current work/startup aspirations are geographically flexible, that’s just the cherry on top of the reasons to be grateful for him when graduation day finally comes and you have to try to find a job *somewhere* with your shiny new degree. My beloved Favorite is not an academic, but his job does have limited geographic flexibility, so this is a hurdle we will have to leap together one day soon.

    We get to have lives, LW! We get to have lives.

  17. Oh, boy. Captain, I love you. So much of what you said — the Stockholm Syndrome, the prestige — is too true. For years I held that getting a PhD was THE goal. I’d see alumni notes from my high school and wonder why more people weren’t “succeeding” and getting PhDs — they were drifting or working in shops, or just “wasting” their skills in my old view. The idea of my doing anything else other than getting an advanced degree and being some “researcher” seemed like failure to me. It was all about either having the degree and doing the really cool research or having some secure university staff job.

    I was horribly wrong and snobby, of course, and I’d like to apologize to everyone I ever judged. Life paths are valid whether they’re academic, artistic, administrative, or another style.

    LW, I wish you the best of luck.

  18. LW, I can very much relate to your situation. I am just getting started in my dream job as a college professor (as an adjunct, but I’m crossing my fingers and performing magic ritual dances in the hopes of being hired full time) and aiming towards a Ph.D. in the near future. My Significant Otter currently works in security and retail and is applying for HIS dream job as a member of the highway patrol. We both had a few moments of insecurity about the differences in our working lives and questions about how we were going to fit them together in the future. The final answer for us was that we were the only people who got to decide what our lives would look like. With a little luck, we will both be working at jobs that engage and challenge us. We encourage each other to achieve our respective goals and provide love, support, and comfort when work is difficult or discouraging. We are both happier with each other than we have ever been. And that’s what really matters, isn’t?

    And, in my opinion, anyone who would judge a person’s worth solely by their job isn’t worth listening to.

  19. Publishing this was probably a good call from our gracious hostess. I am in academia and dating another academic (who would probably love to hear about that new model of fish ecology), and I can think of a lot of friends who are in a similar situation as LW and probably share at least some of her concerns.

  20. As a woman a little further along the science-y academic path, I’ve wrestled a lot with how to stay happy and sane while in academia – a lot of which matches up with what Captain Awkward wrote above. There’s certainly a lot of pressure in academia about how to live your life (namely, work all the time), but what really matters is results, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with the amount of time that you put in. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve found that I am actually the most productive when I work no more than 8 hours a day and take most of the weekend off. Other people might have totally different profiles, and I certainly know people who love to think and talk about science all the time (and dated one of them, where this issue made both of us miserable), but here’s the secret: they’re not necessarily more productive or more successful than me. There’s more than one way to be a successful scientist and you need to figure out which way actually works for you – both for being productive in your research, but also for being happy with your overall life. One thing that’s helped me is to tell myself that it’s okay if I don’t make it – if I live my life the way that makes me happy and that is not enough for me to succeed in my field, well, then okay – I wouldn’t be happy succeeding any way. This thought process is helped a lot by there being a lot of viable job options for people who decide to leave my field. But the hardest thing I had to learn during grad school/postdocing has been to just keep living my life the way that actually works for me despite the immense sociological pressure to do things differently. So, to actually relate back to the question – it sounds dating your partner is really working for you and that’s great!

    1. Yes to your comment, especially what you’re saying about productivity!

      I’m not particularly “further along the academic path” (only just started working on my Master’s a few months back) but still know that I’m at my most successful when I work in a way that suits me/is comfortable for me. Granted, I’ve never once encountered the famous pressure to work all the time – I’m not sure if that is because the general uni experience where I am seems to, at least in parts, vary dramatically from how it is in the US and other countries, or because I’m usually completely oblivious to any such vibes – but I’ve sure as hell encountered fellow students who were all “I stayed up all night to study for this test!” or “I haven’t eaten properly in days because I need to write this paper!” all the time.

      And the thing is – I’m one of the most successful (grades-wise) students among those who are as far along as I am. And if someone were to ask me how I do that, it’s just that I know my limits and I’m absolutely adamant about them. I need a lot of sleep, and a regular amount of sleep, and time to eat, and some downtime to focus just on myself and my hobbies. And maintaining all that helps me so much with all my academic work. If I’m well-rested and not hungry I can focus 100% on the task at hand for hours, something that has worked really well for me in the last few years. If I feel that I’m not up for it – mostly because I’m tired, cranky, and can’t concentrate properly – I’d much rather rest for some time or read some fanfiction or work in my garden to reboot later and get an overall better approach at the thing.

    2. You are so right about productivity.
      In my grad program, it was almost a competition as to who had the worst health habits. I haven’t eaten yet today! Yeah, well, I haven’t slept more than three hours in four days! (Thinking on it, it was rather like the previous column, wherein women bond by comparing their food guilt. Academics bond over how they should be working so much more!!) But gosh if my mental health and productivity didn’t get better when we all decided that Friday after 4pm was a work-free zone.

      And, hey, I start my TT position in August, so it all turned out okay. =)

  21. A great, detailed answer as usual!

    I have a friend in a similar situation, and one of the most difficult things to deal with is the constant stream of low-level comments made by people you care about. You’ll be talking up someone you like and respect who has agreed to help you network, then the two of you start talking about personal things. When you mention what your partner does, the other person freezes ups and just says “Oh.” and it’s a conversation killer. Or comments by family members asking if he’s going back to college or telling a story about someone they know who was also working service jobs, but then they went to law school and now they’re a lawyer. Or there’s a discussion about work stuff going on but then your partner comes over, everyone awkwardly stops talking and changes the subject to news or pop culture or something. Many of those people will be well-meaning, but the message you get is that you’re different and your relationship is some weird outlier. The people who explicitly say “You can do better” or “why are you with him” are hurtful, but can be written off as nosy douchecanoes, but the constant awkwardness, “helpful” comments and tiptoeing around can really wear someone down.

    It’s worse if you don’t know anyone who has a relationship like yours that succeeded. If everyone is dating/married to another academic or a professional with at least a college degree, that + anxiety can be pretty stressful. It helps to know of other people in your position – the commenters here have given some great examples.

  22. I want to share some advice given to me by a female faculty member (one of only a few in our department ’cause my field is a total boy’s club). She said the number one thing that you can do for your career is have a “portable husband.” I thought this was a pretty funny term, so it’s stuck with me.

    Basically, her experience was that a lot of times departments will deny opportunities to women (raises, etc.) if they feel that she isn’t likely to leave for somewhere better. And apparently, having a partner who is also in academia or who has a big industry job that can’t move easily can lead to some departments treating you like a sure thing. So if your boyfriend has a flexible career he is going to be an asset, not a hindrance, because you will have more negotiating power down the line.

    Obviously, you’re not picking your partner based on your job marketability, but like Captain said, you might be looking at this from the wrong angle.

  23. Oh hey, I have anecdata! I’m in grad school, and my partner is a mail carrier who dropped out of college after about a year, deciding not to waste his savings on coursework he wasn’t interested in or particularly good at.

    Once upon a time, this was a point of contention for us; not to put words in his mouth, but when we were both freshmen, we broke up partly because he thought I was “too smart” for him. After realizing that that’s ridiculous, we’re back together, and have been for going on five years. My coursework hasn’t been an issue since, and as we’ve grown to know each other better I think it’s become obvious that we aren’t mismatched at all. I’m not in grad school because I am Smarter Than Everyone, but because I really like books and I’m pretty good at writing papers.

    Additionally, it helps that we are both able to recognize the great advantages his position has; he has no student debt, he makes more money than I do at the office job I got to pay for grad school, he has a five minute commute, mail carrying is great exercise, if I get a position he can transfer with me literally anywhere that USPS goes, etc. I think the captain’s takedown of this issue is spot-on, and that it’s only a problem if you, personally, need it to be (or if you were the kind of person that had no interests outside your program, which is clearly not the case). Otherwise, laugh at the insecure “friends” with bad advice and move on.

  24. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. My husband dropped out of high school at 16 (but later got his G.E.D.) This has never once made a difference to anyone, least of all us. If you were to look at our employment histories and guess which one of us went to college, you would totally guess that he did. He is consistently employed in management-level jobs. I on the other hand, have worked very sporadically in nothing but entry-level retail and customer service jobs. I would say our intelligence levels are equal, though of course he has strengths in areas that I don’t and vice-versa.

    Your boyfriend and relationship sound great and like they work for you and make you happy. Those people that are trying to make you feel insecure about it sound like snobby jerks. 🙂

    1. I also have a Bachelor’s degree in Psych (and one in Communications), with plans to eventually get a Master’s degree (would have loved to get a PhD but at this point in my life I’d be happy with the Masters… I want to live comfortably enough to be able to travel and be able to do that while I’m still young-ish… and I’m nearing 30). My partner finished high school and went straight into the workforce. He learned stuff on his own and is now in a management position for a department in one of our city’s universities. He actually makes more than I do, and once I actually get my Master’s I’ll make as much as he does but not more.

      I enjoy his company; he’s the best relationship I’ve ever had. The fact that I have two degrees and plan on going to graduate school has not had a negative impact on our relationship; we still overall get along fantastically, have shared goals and dreams that we’re planning on making happen together. He makes me so happy that I married him last week!
      You say this is possibly the happiest and most comfortable you’ve ever been in a relationship. That is what should count; not what other people think.

      There’s already lots of anecdata here showing you that relationships like the one you have work out great, but here’s one more for you:

      I have a friend who has a Master’s in a science related field. Her husband is a mechanic. They’ve already been together for a decade, and have started a family together. The fact the she is more educated than him and also the major breadwinner has not had a negative impact on their relationship; they’re as happy as they were when they met, if not happier still.

  25. Maybe another question to add to the Captain’s list of things to ask yourself is “what would someone outside of academia make of this?” In the case of this particular worry, the answer is basically “…eh?”

    Think of it this way – picture another career path. Let’s, for the sake of the argument, say you were an accountant. Ask yourself, in your accountant persona, whether there would be any issue in having a partner who lacked even BASIC accountancy qualifications. What would the other accountants think?!? Put it to yourself like that, and it just sounds daft.

    I don’t mean to suggest you’re daft, by the way. But, PhD study tends to be a goldfish bowl – very enclosed within, and very distorting of everyone and everything outside it. I basically run a Reslife team for a living, and my senior team members are all postgrads*, mostly doing PhDs. So, I’m very accustomed to the stresses of their lives, without actually being in it myself. My strong advice would be that having an existence outside that world is a very, very valuable thing. It’s a balancing factor, something to take you away from the tangled, narrow confines of adding your bit to knowledge. Your partner sounds great, and I hope you’ll continue to be really happy together.

    (*Narrowly spotted that my tablet autocorrected ‘postgrads’ to ‘potheads’. They are not potheads. We would be obliged to frown upon that, professionally speaking. Apologies, though, if I’ve missed any other weird typos…)

    1. I love your additional question. Adding it to the list in the post, if you don’t mind.

    2. I love the accountant example because I *am* an accountant, and I would specifically prefer to date someone outside of my profession. I talk about work enough as is, and I don’t want to compromise on my spreadsheet design for the household budget!

      1. Bookkeeper by profession here. Yes, keep your hands off my household budget spreadsheets!
        My partner is actually ahead of me in the education field at the moment, and he’s a kindergarten teacher by training and inclination. Whereas I, female, am headed up the corporate ladder and in am school for business. He looks forward to being the stay-at-home dad, while I want to run large teams of people or offices. Sometimes telling people that’s the plan gets us very odd looks because of COURSE the man will earn the money while the woman does the childcare. But that would drive us both crazy, and earn less money for the family. The fact that his ambitions center around building us a home and mine face outward and up are something we’ve talked about a lot, but something we both think will be amazing as it happens, and as the plans change over time, and that we’ll talk about more.
        LW, what you and your partner build has to make sense for the two of you. Expect the plans to change and the standards to shift and the conversations to keep happening. Life is not static. But you say this is the happiest and most comfortable you have ever been – so enjoy it.

        1. Things sound amazing for you. This is what I think is an important point that a lot of people still aren’t getting, that people have to do what works for them. I think that movies, and media in general offer this script that people feel like they should follow, forgetting that it might not mesh with their values and interests. People feel like the man should be the one working and pursuing ambitions and women should take care of home life because TRADITION! People defer to tradition way too much and forget that tradition is simply the way things have been done (not necessarily that it’s the best); therefore keep what traditions you want and discard what you don’t.

  26. I forgot that I wanted to comment on this part of the Captain’s response:
    “Sometimes it [academia] will give you asshole old man advice about how you should live your life and conform to its expectations.”

    This reminds me of the thorough mocking in the science blogosphere a few years ago of a medical scientist who published exactly that sort of asshole old man advice. Some of the commentary is gone now, but you can still see some here
    and here

    So, yes, LW, there are people who will say that grad students and postdocs (especially women) who don’t live in the lab are letting Science down. But there are also people who think that’s a ridiculous notion, and they even have the data to back it up. A Ph.D. in the sciences is supposed to teach you how to think scientifically, not just how to glue yourself to a lab bench. (I am lucky enough to have an advisor who thinks this way, and it is very helpful. If you are not in that boat, I hope you can find a committee member or other mentor who is more supportive to help keep you on the track you actually want to be on.)

  27. Random anecdata: my parents both have PhDs in the same field and have been together for over 40 years. But they got lucky (with a lot of planning).

    So it *can* work. But it usually doesn’t. I can give you ten data points for it not working for the one I have which does.

  28. NOTE: This comment probably won’t help with the anxiety. LW, feel free to skip this. I’m speaking against my own anxieties about being a non-degree-holding person with an upcoming marriage to a degree-holding person.

    The thing about degrees and certificates is that they are not a guarantee of success or stability in your life, and neither is the lack of a degree a guarantee of poverty and misery. I mean, all the education you’re getting will be a powerful tool in your toolkit, and it’s worth pursuing just for that (assuming you’re not being driven over your physical/mental health threshhold, YMMV), but there is a non-zero chance that ten years from now your SO will be the main breadwinner in your house while you struggle to find work. You cannot tie people’s value or their future prospects to their career (or lack thereof) when that’s only one of many possible factors shaping their lives.

    If your partner was sitting in a mound of Cheeto dust playing Bejeweled all day while you worked your ass off, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t sound like the case. It sounds like they do have goals and ambitions they’re actively working toward. That’s a green flag! Ultimately only you and your partner should be the arbiters of whether your relationship is a partnership of equals.

    (I’m with CA about wanting to kick your snooty-sounding friends right in the butt. Just as a side note.)

  29. Hi LW. It sounds like you’re in a great relationship, and it is the nay-sayers who have got their priorities out of whack. I’ve got to agree that it seems to stem from a lot of out-moded thinking that men are supposed to be the bread-winners and that women need to marry up.

    I’m not exactly in your position, but similar enough. I got my BS in biology and actually just finished my teaching program. My significant-other has a high school diploma. This difference in education hasn’t affected our relationship very much, but he does occasionally feel that he’s not smart enough/good enough for me. My friends have never brought this up though, because I don’t think it cares. In my friend group we have a lot of independent women who most of the time are the ones earning more money. In my situation, I’m actually the sole breadwinner because my S.O. is clinically depressed and isn’t currently able to work. But we’ve been together for 9 years now and have been fairly happy (barring some depressive/suicidal episodes). He has been a great support, especially during my teaching program when I was student teaching, working (technically still full time), and doing the homework for my teaching program. I was basically “working” 12 hour days (with 1-2 hours of commuting). He took care of all the cooking and cleaning. I think that he feels slightly emasculated being a house-husband, but there’s nothing wrong with what he does, it’s just the toxic ideology of patriarchy that’s so hard to escape making him feel bad.

  30. Oh, LW, I feel you. I can’t speak to grad school, but I did just finish my undergrad at a fairly demanding school and whooo boy, academia culture. I think the real insidious mindset causing these brainweasels is something that’s gotten really bad in our culture (not just academic, but for everyone), and that’s the belief that college is the GATEKEEPER TO SUCCESS AND HAPPINESS. It isn’t, but while you probably know that logically, it can be really hard to honestly believe it without some serious deprogramming. For me it only happened after I took a year off, met people from different places and experiences, and went back to find out that I was getting way more fulfillment from self-study and waitressing work than from my classes– even my great classes!

    It was then that I realized, even though I love learning, and my field, I detest being in school. It’s a job and environment like any other, and it isn’t for everyone. I don’t want to write things that win academic awards, or get the most recognition possible for my thoughts; I just want to tell good stories. College helped a lot, but so did many, many other things in my life, things that didn’t suck away my health and social life and put me in debt. In my opinion, getting your education from Approved Institution #863 can be enormously helpful, but at the end of the day a grade is just a performance review, and a degree is just a certificate for doing the right job in the right way, according to a particular set of bosses.

    Does that make any sense? (I’m typing this on my phone, sorry for any incoherence or typos I didn’t catch!)

  31. I agree with the Captain here! Grad school absolutely requires Stockholm Syndrome to continue. I had a lot of difficulty getting my advisor to acknowledge that I had a life outside of grad school that was important and worthy of my time. Once, during a massive crunch in which I was attempting to write 70 pages of a thesis in a weekend to meet a deadline I had told my advisor was impossible, I had the good fortune to eat a listeria melon and end up in the hospital. My boyfriend had to take my laptop away from me, even after I insisted that I could type just fine with an IV in. Normally, of course, I do not perceive uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea to be good fortune, but afterwards I got TWO WHOLE WEEKS off. In which, after I was able to control my bowels again, was actually quite pleasant. I slept, and watched my boyfriend play Skyrim.

    My point is, grad school utterly warps your perspective on life. I love Sarah Kendzior’s article, especially this: “Ph.D. programs … are designed to infantilize young scholars and discourage them from making adult decisions.” You are a grown-up! You get to decide who to date! You get to push back on unreasonable deadlines! You get to insist on time to make real food and exercise!

    I also want to second the point that your peers snubbing your boyfriend for not being in a PhD program is classist, elitist BS. I can’t even. Ugh ugh ugh ugh uuuugggh. Not having a degree does not make someone less valuable as a human being. People are valuable regardless of the kind of work they do. I think society in general (and American society in particular) would be a heck of a lot better off if we stopped evaluating a peron’s worth based on their current “achievement” and ambition. The stuff that people wish for as they’re dying is not more time in the lab/more money/higher achievement–it’s more time with the people they love.

  32. I really, really feel the need to comment here with this amazing love-letter-of-sorts about not doing PhDs a career academic scientist wrote for me when I was applying. I note that I am doing a (science) PhD and I am having an amazing time and Liv, who is a friend not a partner, is being incredibly supportive and cheerleady about it as well — but… she addresses so many of the ways in which postgraduate study and the academy are fucked up, and I think they’re relevant. (I am in fact heading into my 12th hour in lab as I write this — yesterday was 14 hours — and I love it, but I also know that sprints like this aren’t sustainable, and I know I wouldn’t be doing half so well if it weren’t for all of my amazing partners outside academia who go out of their way to drag me out of my basement to sit in the sun for half an hour. Being reminded that we’re doing this at least in principle because we enjoy it is important: there have been plenty of letters before about how if a job makes you miserable and you have options you should maybe consider not being in that job any more, and just because these are finite-length contracts with a piece of paper at the end that is no less true.)

    1. I arrived at a point where I was looking down the barrel of a PhD and said to myself, “Is there in the universe something besides this I could do that would be happy and fulfilled? And is it vaguely reasonable that I could arrange to be doing that thing?”

      And the answer was yes so I GTFO of academia and am now very, very happy in the private sector working with and for people who are not ALL completely insane, for an institution that is less dysfunctional and less tolerant of abuse. And I’m working for a company that has a reputation for shitty work-life balance. I say to you: you have not met bad work-life balance until you have been in academia.

      1. Hah, so one of the things I’m incredibly lucky with with my group is that I am insane (like, took-a-year-out-of-undergrad-because-otherwise-I-was-going-to-die insane, PTSD & chronic severe depression insane), but as far as I can tell my supervisor also has A History Of The Mads (by which I mean: I cannot conceive of any other explanation for her having scars that look like that in that location), and… yeah. My group is astonishingly, wonderfully balanced-and-supportive and just good at this stuff.

        But, and this is important, I am so glad that you made the right choice for you and that you are happy.

        1. I also have mental health issues (I, too, took most of a year out of undergrad — thanks, out of control panic/anxiety disorder!), and was in fact informed I was resigning from my academic job because I told my supervisor “Hey, so I’m having this mental health issue and parts of this job (the ones that I wasn’t told about before you dropped them on me) are incompatible with my mental health issue, can we either change this or arrange for me to shift my responsibilities so I am able to cope?” (Short version: I wasn’t told “field work in a nearby US city” would mean “you’ll be squatting in a vermin-infested building in a dangerous part of town and will not be allowed to return home, not even if you offer to use your own vehicle to do it.”)

          And her answer was “No, and also you’re leaving, here’s the language you’re going to use to resign from your position.” She also had a glorious history of being generally unreasonable — stuff like saying X and later saying she said Y, and acting like you’d lost your mind if you tried to say she’d originally said X (including, memorably, an incident in which MULTIPLE PEOPLE had written it down when she said X and she came close to accusing them of conspiracy). I was never able to figure out if there was something going on with her mentally and she ACTUALLY didn’t realize she was doing this, or if it was just a control thing where she wasn’t able to admit to being wrong or changing her mind.

          It sounds like you’ve landed in a less wildly dysfunctional place, which is awesome. Out of my cohort I think one person is still with the department — everyone else left without finishing their PhD, which should give you an idea of how wildly dysfunctional it is. :/

  33. LW, the short form answer is that is only matters if it matters TO YOU. Period. The end. If you feel like you are not getting something out of the relationship or if YOU YOURSELF have some weird feels about his job/ambition/whatever, then okay, examine that. If this is completely planted in your head by others and exacerbated by your jerk brain, I would definitely stay the course with the partner who makes you happy!

    I only say this because I worked in the private sector and my ex was a HS English teacher. He was very much of the school of not understanding my ambition/need to change jobs/move to find a better position because he already had tenure/found his dream job/moved up in salary automatically every year. As I was struggling to find my place, he was VERY less than supportive (which does not sound like your dude at all BTW) and told me that I was just “getting bored” instead of seeing/understanding the drive behind my choices/changes. I loved that he loved what he was doing, but we somehow didn’t “get” each other on that level — it wasn’t necessarily a status/education thing though. My new partner is much more aligned in understanding this part of me as he has the same part in him. I think so long as you can understand, support, and respect each other here (which it sounds like yes!) you are golden. Keep on keepin’ on.

  34. First: I love everything about this post!

    Second: My family is full of anecdata on this subject! I am working on my clinical psychology PhD, married to someone with a bachelors who only recently (5 years out of college) was able to get a job outside of retail. My sister is an MD married to a guy who just recently completed his GED. My mom is a partner in a law firm and my stepdad owns an auto shop. We are all happily married!

    I know the feeling you are expressing and have felt it before; everyone in my program is married to a lawyer, another academic, or something that requires an advanced degree. But I started asking myself questions like the ones the captain recommended to you and thinking about what really works for ME and my life! And I love my husband and am blissfully happy; his degree matters not at all. My mom and sister would say the same. In fact, there are things about the education mismatch that have made things easier for us. My husband’s job has been portable as I have moved and may have to move again for my internship and may have to move again for a post doc and/or full time job after that. I can be flexible because he can be flexible. On the flip side, there are 2 profs in my program married to other academics who have to live in different (plane-ride worthy distance) places because of the lack of portability of academic jobs.

    I also agree with the captain that this is likely a hugely gendered issue; it is hard for me to imagine a man being questioned and questioning himself in the same way regarding his partner’s education because it was typical for so long for men to fill the primary breadwinner/worker role and for women to not. I think we can be conditioned in some ways to feel bad or guilty for out-earning or “achieving” over male partners, not necessarily by our partners, but by society. I also think the flip can be true (may be what you’re more worried about), which is the notion that you’re a successful woman, why are you with someone who JUST ________ (fill in the blank with unworthy job)? With some people, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but you don’t owe it to anyone to explain your life or your choices. That being the case, I’m all about the captain’s advice to just keep on living your life happily.

  35. I always feel like judgments like the one the LW’s friends uphold seriously underrate the complexity that are people and their lives. They come from a place where they only see a certain aspect of a relationship or person (work in academia/academic success; partner who doesn’t have an academic job) and, based on that, just… well, overlook other things. And these overlooked things don’t even have to be something as “deep” as the person’s happiness in a relationship.

    To people who meet me in an academic environment, I always come across as intelligent, studious, interested and successful in my field. Which are all things I’d say I am.
    However, I also come from a family of craftspeople and am the first one ever to attend a university.
    I’m also someone who, had I for whatever reason not gotten into academia, would have become a landscape gardener.
    I also live with my mum and little sister who have to survive on welfare until my unable-to-work mum can retire next year.

    What I’m trying to say is, a person’s biographical/personal data is not always in perfect alignment with what others may perceive of them, so based on that alone it’s always a bad idea to get all Judgy McJudgerson on people. (Obviously, it’s also horrible to be evilly judgmental when a person is as “pure” an academic as you can get, with all their family in the same venue and thelike, but I’ve found that this is really a point that is often forgotten.)

  36. Sounds like you work in a place where people take themselves/their work waaaaay too seriously. For anecdata – of the people in my year group for my PhD, most of them were dating/married to people in a variety of non-academic professions. I don’t think anyone was dating within the same field actually. It was no big deal at all, because we are all capable of interacting with other humans without being a giant asshole.

    ( Honestly, I see a lot of people on the mouse wheel of working-all-the-time, and the trouble is they never stop to -think-, and then waste their time and money doing stupid experiments that lead nowhere. But oh, hey, great, you worked 80 hours last week, congratulations. If your non-academic boyfriend is making you think, in a big picture way, about the importance of your work, he’s probably doing a lot to help you think about how you’re going to fill out funding applications in the future, so… )

    1. This! Being able to talk shop with people in the same tiny field is one thing, but if you can’t explain your work to someone outside it then you are not going to write good grant proposals. Having someone who is interested and can ask questions and point out places that need clarification and makes you see your work as part of the Big Picture is invaluable.

      (The advice I actually got was “assume your grant reviewer is reading your proposal. Yours is the 20th they’ve read that day, it is 3am, and they are drunk. Write accordingly.”)

      Uggghh on the 80-hour-a-week worthlessness. That was the majority of my postdoc. My PI was a brilliant man with the attention span of a coked-up squirrel; zero pubs came of that waste of two years of my life.

    2. Yes, this absolutely! Once you enter the wider world of academia, there are a ton of people who are not judgy pants! My grad school experiences have been a lot more like yours, Cate, than like the LW’s. A lot of people with non-academic partners, a lot of people who know how to have outside social lives, a lot of people who, sure, like to get drunk and talk shop but also like to talk about any number of other things.

  37. I’m working towards a PhD. My partner has his bachelor’s and dropped out of a master’s program several years ago. Meanwhile, his brother barely graduated from high school and is married to a college professor with a PhD. And honestly, it hasn’t really been weird at all. It’s not like we talk about our work like we’re at a conference, when we’re really just hanging out having dinner or something.

  38. Captain, this may seem nitpicky, but I’m having a problem with the term “dual-career couples” used when talking about the two-body problem in academia. People outside of academia also have careers.

    1. And so you should, but that is literally the stupid way they refer to it in academia. Would quotes help?

  39. WOW. I’m a recovering academic (7 years in a PhD program plus 7 years as an overworked, underpaid, non-tenured adjunct professor…until the contracts dried up) and I have to say the Captain’s words are the BEST and more accurate description of academia I’ve ever come across. If your partner makes you happy and supports your path, their “outsider” status just may eventually help you be the sanest and happiest person in your department. It is hard to get perspective when you’re inside the hothouse, but keep re-reading the Captain’s words. I wish you a bright academic career AND a balanced life full of love and outside interests.

  40. Oh academia – I remember that. The Captain is so so right, and I wish I had read this when I was 18, rather than nodding along now with my been-there-and-done-that face. 🙂

    Academic snobbery is a thing, and it’s pretty awful. I recall the way some academics treated the administrative staff – if they weren’t a post-grad working part time then they were somehow lesser beings who deserved no respect at all. It was pretty disgusting. Don’t buy into it!

    Also, it’s not actually true that academia is the be all and end all of ambition. It doesn’t matter if your guy is ambitious, but know there are many paths to career success. I know a guy who got work straight out of high school. He’s in his late twenties now, has worked his way up to managing an IT team and just bought a house. He is financially successful. Here I am in my mid thirties with a degree it turns out I don’t use, paying off university debt, having only started really earning money in my late twenties. I am not in a position to buy a house. Obviously there’s more to life than money, but when you’re inside academia you’re sold this idea that a phd is the be all and and all of financial success and that is a big fat lie.

    I would strongly urge you to cultivate a broader social circle. If you socialise around hobbies rather than work you can have friends from a much wider spectrum of jobs and this sense that you’re somehow selling yourself short with this man who sounds pretty great for you (which BTW is hard to find) will disappear.

  41. I’m in a master’s program, and one day, learned that my classmate has a boyfriend. Had never met him, never heard about him, didn’t know he existed (despite knowing all the other partners well). When I asked what he does (out of curiosity, not judginess), she sheepishly said he was blue-collar. I looked at her blankly because that’s not a job, so she finally said that he works in a factory. I may be wrong, but I got the impression she was embarrassed, and THAT made me judge her, not his job. I know different programs are different, and being in a phd program may change things, but that’s how things are here.

    I think the other thing to consider is that your profession doesn’t override basic human principles. Maybe there’s pressure to have a certain type of life, but so what? Having an advanced degree doesn’t mean that you should abandon all other principles, like not judging others or valuing prestige (which tends to imply money and privilege) over being a good person. Bending to all the pressures and gossip and other people’s cattiness is not an attractive quality. As with my classmate, if people catch on to your embarrassment, it’s honestly going to look a lot worse than you being secure in your life. I’m trying to imagine any of my professors displaying that, and I just can’t see it at all.

    My final thought is that I agree you shouldn’t talk to your partner about this any more. I know you are trying to figure things out and are feeling anxious, but it’s kind of mean, and if my partner told me they were worried I’d bring them down, it would probably severely hurt our relationship.

  42. I hesitate to write this, but I guess I’ll leave my two cents. First, in an imaginary world in which all things are equal, the Captain is totally right. Second, if you are happy and your boyfriend is happy, do not worry about this stuff.

    I’m an attorney and a straight woman. I am mildly successful. However, as I am forced to live in the actual patriarchal society we have right now, I have never dated a man who has less education or makes less money and *not* had it become an issue. It has been a sad fact of my reality that eventually, all less traditionally “professionally successful” men are threatened by my career. I don’t mean outside perceptions; I mean that my dates eventually come to resent me in some way. Perhaps that stems from something in my own personality or manner, or just the men I’ve chosen to date, but it has nonetheless been the case for me. I know that it has also been the case for *all* of my friends in similar situations.

    This is sad and frustrating. It is sexist, a totally gendered issue. It makes me angry that no one blinks twice when a man attorney begins dating a waitress. It makes me angry that on top of having to deal with sexism in the workplace, I have to deal with it in my dating life. It makes me frustrated that I don’t feel that I can be open to dating a large portion of the population. However, I’ve given up on trying to change it in my personal life; I just accept that I can’t date men unless that traditional career-oriented power dynamic is eliminated.:-/ I very much sympathize with the LW.

    1. On a related note, in straight relationships I’ve definitely seen the phenomenon of “your husband/boyfriend does laundry and cooks for you when you work 80 hours a week? Wow, that’s so generous of him! Doesn’t it bother him to do all the housework?” even when the male partner is unemployed and is otherwise being completely supported by the female partner. As if men contributing to the shared home is going way above and beyond (and sometimes there’s the REALLY icky “*nudgenudge* you better be rewarding him, right?”) Bleah.

  43. If it helps LW, I’m working in medical research at the moment. There are people in my department who have academic partners, and people who have partners who do something very different but still ‘middle class career’-ish, and people who have partners who are in customer service or hospitality. Your field is not dating your partner, you are. Your field will not actually care much about your partner, because it will be hiring you and working with you and dealing with you, not him. Possibly you will encounter people in your academic career like your current friends who will side-eye your relationship. They will be jerks, the people who already work with them will know they are jerks about these things, and probably the jerks will not be hiring you. (I have never had my partner’s work/career come up in a job interview. I have, however, gotten a lot of “what are your personal plans for the next few years?” type-questions, which always turn out to be not-so-subtle probing to see if I’m planning on having kids.)

    I’ve found that people relax about these things a little when they’ve had jobs for a while rather than been working for degrees. For a start, you meet a bunch of people who have gotten to the same place as you by different means rather than being surrounded by people who have, to this point, mostly taken the same path and have a rather homogenous (and not yet especially validated) view of “how to do career”. I found a big difference in the type of people I’ve been working with since switching from a university lab (filled with people who did their degrees at that uni, who went right through the student path to their doctorates and then slotted into positions at that lab, who have never worked anywhere outside of the university) to my current workplace (which has some people working here who don’t have degrees and have been technicians for so long that they’ve worked their way up, some people who have multiple doctorates, people who have gotten their qualifications in different countries and different ways, people who have experienced vastly different lab cultures, and a whole heap of HR people). So where your research group is physically based and where the money comes from and how varied the backgrounds of your coworkers are will all have effects on what the general tone of the group is. And probably none of your future coworkers will give a shit about what your partner does for a living. In fact, if he has some hilarious club stories and knows how to mix drinks then he’ll probably even be an asset to you – in my experience, a lot of people in research love talking about things other than research over some drinks and tapas.

  44. Speaking as a science grad student, it sounds like your colleagues have some things going on in their own lives that they’re taking our on you and your boyfriend. Like they’re insecure or secretly hate their studies and need to convince themselves that it’s IMMENSELY IMPORTANT because otherwise it means they’re giving up half their lives for nothing that important.

    I’m almost done my PhD, and have learned many things from it, but one of the things I’ve finally ‘got’ is that it really doesn’t matter! If you enjoy the process and what you’re learning, and are able to live a decent balanced life, it can be a worthwhile experience; if not, it’s not.

    1. Yes, could definitely be a case of projection/unhappiness on the part of the judgers. My only charitable interpretation of academics taking issue with a partner who has no degree, is that academia is such a tiny little world where you mostly interact only with other academics. I can see how you would get to a point where you might feel like “But doesn’t EVERYONE have a PhD? Because literally everyone I know has a PhD.” And it would be technically true, although this logic shows poor critical thinking skills.

      I work in a support role at a university and I have definitely encountered academics who literally have no awareness that there are millions of people in the world who work in service jobs or do manual work and/or have literally never set foot in a university.

  45. LOL, I kind of want your life! Seriously, if you can have an academic life AND a life outside it? I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want that, whether they’ll admit it or not. And if you can have a successful career AND have a guy who isn’t offended by the idea that you have more degrees than him or might eventually make more money?

    These are what many people dream of (especially many women! I’m assuming you’re a women but that may just be an assumption). I genuinely wonder if some of your detractors aren’t jealous.

  46. More quick anecdata, on academics dating each other:

    I spent two years working at a Very Prestigious Science Institution in the US. The entire place was full of postdocs living in different hundred if not thousands of miles apart from their spouses for years at a time, because they both wanted jobs at Prestigious Places but couldn’t manage to get positions at the same one.

    In most cases, it was the woman (in heterosexual couples) who ended up caving and dropping out of academia or taking positions at significantly less prestigious institutions to be with their husband, not the other way around. This happened twice in my very small lab, and countless other times in our building.

    I would like to add that there is NOTHING WRONG with taking a less prestigious position to be closer to your spouse. It is TOTALLY VALID to value relationships and personal happiness over your CV. My point here is that 1) chances are, if two academics want to live in the same city at least one of them is going to have to take a less prestigious job/put their career on hold and 2) For lots-of-reasons-that-can-be-summed up-as-“patriarchy” this is usually the woman, and this is not OK.

    So…dating other academics is not necessarily helping your career.

  47. PhD student here (humanities, not science). My partner, for various reasons, never finished undergrad and, given his current career goals, probably will never have a bachelor’s degree, and I’m 100% ok with that. My mom was very concerned when she found out: she worried that we would have nothing to talk about and increasingly less in common. I had to point out to her that level of education =/= level of curiosity or intelligence, and just because we don’t have academia in common doesn’t mean we have nothing. My partner is incredibly smart and fascinated by all kinds of subjects. He just doesn’t have a piece of paper from a snooty college saying so.

    Also, about the “ambition” thing. What the hell is ambition? Does your partner want a certain thing in his life that he’s working toward as actively as possible given his situation? Sounds perfectly ambitious to me. Maybe that thing isn’t even a job; maybe your partner, like mine, is more concerned with working to live than living to work: a job that pays decently well, has security and benefits, and doesn’t follow him home.

    Here’s the other thing: once he’s done with his certification, my partner will have significantly more hireability and job security than I will when I reach candidacy and even after I graduate (not to mention a higher starting salary, most likely). Plus, as someone mentioned upthread, he’s completely portable. My field isn’t tiny, but it’s not English literature, either, so it’s an incredible relief to know that I won’t have to limit my already somewhat limited job searches by where he’ll be able to find work. I know people who married not only other academics but other academics in the SAME FIELD, and I don’t understand how they’re planning to make that work.

    You love whom you love, and it sounds like he’s making you happy. In that case the problem isn’t him or your relationship, but it’s everyone around you and your jerkbrain telling you that he shouldn’t be making you happy. That’s bull. Don’t put up with it.

  48. Long-time lurker, damn near first-time commenter. Wow, does this post hit home. I’m 5 years into a PhD program at a major research university, and my partner of 9 years did not go to college. He works in retail, and he enjoys it (probably the only human to actually like working retail ever, haha!). He’s happy. I’m happy. I wouldn’t trade him in a million years for another academic.

    But when I started my program, a couple of people said some seriously judgy shit to me when they found out that my partner only has a high school degree. And a couple of other people said some equally judgy shit about the fact that he didn’t move out to (university town) even though he didn’t have some sort of pressing academic reason to stay in our hometown. I’m ashamed to say that that tiny handful of people — whom I’m not even friends with! they’re just people in my program — made me feel bad about myself and my partner. Even now, years later, I rarely talk about my private life with my school buddies, because I got into the habit of hiding those aspects of my life so early on.

    LW, don’t be me. I’ve let cowardice rule my interactions with other academics. Your boyfriend is awesome and that’s all that matters. And Captain, you’ve inspired me to be more open about my personal life with my school friends. I owe my partner that much.

  49. This is such an excellent letter and an amazing series of comments.

    I’m a grad student, and if I’ve learned anything in grad school, it’s the same thing being echoed through all the posts on this page: prestige is the mind-killer. Seriously, my whole life got better when I stopped worrying What The Department Thought Of Me and decided that maybe the department ought to worry about what *I* think, since, y’know, I’m an *employee* there and have union-backed worker’s rights to a decent working environment. The number of hours I’m supposed to work is actually on my contract… but the number of degrees my partners need to possess sure isn’t.

    It’s none of my supervisor’s business who I date (and believe me, my conservative department wouldn’t be best pleased by my queerness). I try to think of it this way: is it more prestigious in academia to date heterosexually? to date only rich people? to date only native English speakers? Because even if any of those things were more “prestigious,” that wouldn’t make them any less totally bigoted and awful. There’s no need for me to recreate poisonous systems of privilege to try to impress some arbitrary and nameless Ivory Tower; the institution is already doing that just fine without me.

    1. Prestige is the mind killer! I love this. (I love this whole post and comment thread, really.)

  50. If it helps to think about it this way, universities have no pity. They hired you because they want you, because they know you can do something for them. Think of your department as a predator ruthlessly seeking to maximize calories to rear its young.

    The metaphor might’ve gotten away from me there, but what I mean is, you don’t have to believe other people are saintly to believe that they value you.

    And yeah, what your partner does has no bearing whatever on your academic future. If anything, it means you won’t have to hold out for a college that will hire you both.

  51. I’m glad this letter received a response. I often felt like as a young woman that I couldn’t win. If I spent all my energy living up to my ‘academic potential’ I was buying into a system that couldn’t care less about my happiness. If I married and had cute babies then I was ‘letting down the side’ when I should be ‘leaning in’. It would be so nice if there wasn’t still the assumption built into the system that people pursuing a ‘serious’ career had the option of a domestic slave to raise their babies and take care of all their domestic responsibilities. But at least women can now routinely pursue careers, and men can have the satisfactions that come from being supporting partners. I fully agree with the Captain’s advice to the LW. Stomp on that sexist and classist nonsense. Stomp hard.

  52. I’m a PhD student. It’s 2:45am where I live and I just got home half an hour ago. I’ve been awake for 30 hours and I have to get back to work again in 5 hours. The Captain’s comments about academia and its inherent pointlessness are hitting particularly hard tonight. I’m thinking of moving back to my home country to become a rodeo clown, a vocation in which I will obviously be more successful.

    Anyway, my husband has a bachelor degree, but dropped out after failing 5 years in a row to get a 2 year master’s degree. His problem wasn’t that he wasn’t smart enough, he was actually so smart that he managed to get all the way to graduate school without developing any real study skills. Then when he finally reached an academic tier that challenged him, it was a pretty serious blow to his self-esteem. Essentially, he mistook having to work at a subject as equivalent to being bad at that subject. It was pretty frustrating for me to watch, because I think he took the wrong lesson from that experience. But ultimately, he has now has a job in which he’s much happier than he ever was as a grad student. Between the two of us, I suspect he made the better choice, assuming that happiness is the end goal.

    Every now and then someone insinuates that I’d be better off marrying into my “intellectual class”, but those people can seriously go suck a dick (pardon the French). I’m under significantly more pressure to segue into a post doc position abroad once my PhD is complete, something that my husband really isn’t keen on. “But doesn’t he understand how important it is for you?” they ask. Sure, he understands, and I could probably browbeat him into moving abroad with me to further my career, but I’d be forcing him into something he didn’t want. Naturally, that would breed justifiable resentment. So fuck that. Rodeo clown isn’t exactly my first choice of alternate careers, but the longer I stay in science, the more I wonder why the hell I bother.

    1. “His problem wasn’t that he wasn’t smart enough, he was actually so smart that he managed to get all the way to graduate school without developing any real study skills. Then when he finally reached an academic tier that challenged him, it was a pretty serious blow to his self-esteem.”

      This is a story that is so common (happened to me , I dropped out of a course, spent a year working then returned to academia slightly wiser, but I am still dealing with this). It has happened to loads of my friends and my brother, and they’ve dealt with it in a range of ways. I often see posts about child development, teaching and parenting which talk about praising effort rather than achievement and can’t help but think that this would have made so much difference to me and other people I know.

      Please accept my jedi hugs for your current situation. Have you heard of The Thesis Whisperer (http://thesiswhisperer.com/) or James Hayton (http://jameshaytonphd.com)? I have found them really useful resources while trying to get to grips with the whole process of doing a PhD and considering whether I want to continue (although my mind isn’t made up quite yet).

      1. Me too – the “Suddenly: the material is hard!” hit my senior year of undergrad, and I dropped out with something like 9 credits ’til completion.

        I’m now happy and stimulated in a managementish/department-head job I like with people I adore, that started out as a “refilling soda and toilet roll” gig from when I was desperate for A Job, Any Job, “Position sought: A Job, compensation desired: Money”.

  53. “So now I’m afraid that I’m somehow sabotaging myself and my career with this non-academic relationship…”

    I just finished my PhD. I got married, had two children, and supported my wife in getting another Master’s degree to advance her career all while a Ph.D. student. Did my career suffer? Of course. Did I have to make sacrifices? Yes. Do I regret that? Not one bit! What is more valuable – to add kindling to the eternal fire that will come or raise a family as part of an eternal memorial? You can be the judge for yourself.

  54. Because my mother (Phd) was pursuing her academic career while my stepdad (high school) was not, when it came to us kids he stayed home to look after us which meant a lot less disruption to her career than a lot of other women in academia faced when it came to balancing family and career.

  55. I have a PhD and I’d much prefer video game nights than writing theorems…

    Science is very good at making you feel inadequate. Oh, you are leaving early to work from home? You slacker. Oh, you had a mid-phd crisis? You’re weak. Oh, you took one year less than me to complete? Your research wasn’t hard enough. Oh, you got a job that isn’t research (and are happy)? You fail.
    Having a good support network to teach you to ignore this bs is important.

  56. Captain, thank you for posting this letter, and your response, which along with the comments make up some of the best advice I have seen on the internet for staying sane in grad school and academia generally.

    However, as a straight woman scientist who has dated both academic and non-academic men, I would add, as a caveat, that there are ways in which a partner can damage your academic career. These are pretty much unrelated to whether or not your partner has a PhD, but they are definitely (still) gendered, with a couple of issues seeming to occur much more frequently and intensely for female academics who date men than for male academics who date women:

    (1) He comes to resent your successes, perhaps because he feels he *ought* to be the breadwinner/provider in your relationship. This can take different forms, depending on the particulars of his and your situation. Maybe he resents you because you have more degrees than him, because you make more money than him, or because your career is seen (by him, or by outsiders) as more “prestigious” than his. A variant of the above that applies to dating other grad students — he thinks you are in a competition over professional success (especially if he works in the same field), and/or treats you like his research assistant. Unfortunately, as mentioned by the attorney who commented above, this *does* happen, and it can be extremely damaging to relationships as well as damaging your mental health and thereby your career. But, it sounds like this is not a problem for you, LW, which is excellent!

    (2) He or she is unable or unwilling to move if your career requires it. As already mentioned above, many academics have a narrow view of what constitutes a career and forget that non-academic careers may also have geographic restrictions. Furthermore, some people just don’t want to move — they want to stay near friends, and near family, or in a location where they can participate in their favorite hobby, or whatever. While the academy sometimes accommodates dual-academic couples through a dual hire, there doesn’t seem to be much support for helping non-academic partners adjust to a move. And, if you simply can’t or won’t move, the academy doesn’t care WHY, and it *will* limit your career options. But guess what — choosing to limit yourself to a particular geographic region and accept the consequences is one of the possible choices that you are totally allowed to make (no matter what your friends or your adviser tell you!).

    LW, you didn’t mention whether your boyfriend is cool with the idea of following you through 2-3 moves before having some long-term geographic stability, which is common in the segment of academia in which I reside (i.e. a postdoc, perhaps another postdoc, and then, with some luck, a tenure-track job). And maybe you are not thinking about that yet, but if/when you are starting to think about long-term prospects with this guy, you need to start talking with him about this. I learned this lesson the hard way years ago, because, caught up in the bubble of academia, I assumed it was obvious, and went without saying, that 2-3 moves were par for the course. Most non-academics do not, in fact, know about the realities of a career in academia, and it is better to start talking about that early on, in order to avoid possible rude awakenings on both sides later.

  57. Two anecdata….

    1) My boss is an English prof, married to another prof in her department. The one time we discussed her and her husband’s being able to get a job at the same college, she was practically tearful when she said how lucky she was that they both managed to get a job in the same place, because they would have been stuck commuting like whoa (several hours’ worth a day) otherwise.

    2) My friend, who’s a History prof, is married(ish) to another friend who’s just started undergrad. They sure as hell aren’t damaging each others’ careers! Or their social circles, for that matter.

    If anything, the consensus among people I’ve talked to is that two people in academia together are going to have a hell of a time of it, like the Captain said.

  58. Wow… isn’t classism against the rules of polite society? I’m completely baffled that those out-of-town friends actually said that. I’m even more baffled they actually believe that.

    At the end of the day, the academic world is exploiting us for our wish to improve the live of our fellow humans (which is what i naively believe science is all about). Sure, fine. Take all my work. Take part of my free time. But don’t take my life.

    And noone is better for being at the academy. I still believe, naively, that everybody, deep in their hearts, wish the better for their fellow humans. And every job, every calling, is necessary, and enriching and can make us complete people. Different skills, different types of intelligence, but all worth of respect and love. And all capable of giving it. Those out-of-town friends are quite low on the scale giving it, incidentally.

    I just don’t understand the elitist attitude coming from some members of the academia.

    -One of the 10-year-to-get-PhD’s

  59. I empathise so hard with LW. I’m in my 4th year of a PhD program in engineering and my husband has a BS in psychology and is currently unemployed. He’s a fantastic guy, really smart and we have amazing conversations together. He even helps me get ideas for how to fix problems I’m having in my research because I tend to be a very linear thinker and he’s not. But whenever I’m having a conversation with someone and the inevitable “so what does your husband do?” question comes up, I can’t help but cringe. Because I love this guy so, so much, but society as a whole seems to look down on anyone who doesn’t have a job. As if we’re defined by our careers and nothing else. I am totally okay with him not having a job; my fellowship is enough to support both of us and I’d rather have him be happy than have a little extra money each month (he has depression and social anxiety which gets exacerbated by the kind of menial office jobs he’d be able to get). Yet, I still feel guilty/ashamed when I have to answer that question with “he’s unemployed.” People I’m close with get it, but the question still comes up often when I’m talking with new people (especially at church, because I go by myself). And I’m definitely not going to get into his private mental health issues with a stranger. I just wanted to chime in and let LW know that she’s not alone.

    1. I am in a similar situation where my significant other is not working, and it’s not so much a problem for me, but he is ashamed of it. His reasons are also depression and social anxiety. I also gotta agree that it sucks that society looks down on anyone who doesn’t have a job. Right now he does house-husbandy things, but society doesn’t really look at domestic work as “working.” I wonder how your husband is deals with things, because mine feels like he needs more support. I would love to talk more about this, but I don’t want to hijack this thread, so if you would also like to discuss things, you can email me at jaybgee (at) gmail (dot) com.

    2. I reccommend freelancing. I mean, it’s up to each individual whether the ups and downs of freelancing are a career for them, but ‘being a freelancer’ (or ‘trying to break into-‘ and ‘building a freelance business’) so, so, beat ‘being unemployed’ particularly if you have a couple of clients you can talk about. It’s nobody’s business how much work you do (or don’t) have but it means you do not need to explain/justify your lack of paying job.

  60. MORE ANECDATA: My parents both have advanced degrees (MD, PhD, they met in chem lab at CalTech) and their relationship really only works because they’re both super unambitious in the traditional ways measured in medicine/academia and even then they did go through a phase where there was a two body problem.

    My dad is a professor at an alternative college and has never had any interest in moving into a “better” position there or elsewhere. He likes where he is. He likes teaching. While he enjoys research, he does not like playing the competitive publishing game that professors have to play at a lot of universities, so he’s very happy where he is. My mom likes working with patients with mental disabilities as a general practitioner. She’s never earned a ton of money or held a prestigious position, but she likes what she does and she helps people and that’s really cool. Some of the clinics she’s worked with over the years have driven her up the wall, but she’s generally happy. They’re happy together doing what they enjoy doing even if they are not as “successful” as they probably could be.

    Back in the day though, when my mom was doing her residency and my dad was trying to find his first position, they went through the two body problem. My dad ended up commuting hours and they went days without seeing each other until my mom finished residency in the big city and could move into the small city where my dad had gotten his job. It was very stressful for them.

  61. Hey LW.

    I don’t have any good ancedata with regards to education differential pairings working out (my academic ambitions being one of many reasons I have not successfully entered or stayed in a romantic relationship :/).

    What I do have is this: Ask yourself first what you WANT.

    I am currently finishing my master’s (writing this comment between observation timesteps for my thesis, actually) and will go on to do a PhD in the next couple years. I am 26 and expect to be 28 before I start the next phase of my academic career. I have worked four internships and two research positions but never held down a real “job.” You better believe that I have anxiety and shame out the ass for Not Doing Things Right. I should have gone straight through. I should have gotten internships at better companies. I should have focused harder on getting good grades. I should have not had bad mental health. I should have focused harder on my freelance writing career while I was in school and had funding. I should do all this while also balancing regular exercise, travel, and finding a Relationship. I should have done everything better, righter, and more according to the golden image in my head of what a Good Person looks like.

    You know what? Bullshit. There is no greater good. There is no exterior person who gets to decide on the value of my life choices. I did what I did because I was trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and sort of succeeding and trying and what even WAS that result? Your life is as worthwhile and decent as you judge it to be — your science, your relationships, your work ethic.

    I am bitter as fuck about academia as a larger institution, and I don’t want to start in on it because it makes me feel ill. But know that academic institutions are really goddamn invested in making you think that the problem is all on your side. “If I only worked harder and produced more awesome work, no one would ever judge me.” “If I only was more efficient and smarter I could get all my work done AND have enough time for myself and my relationships.” No, how about, “If I didn’t work in a toxic shitstorm that is powered by making people feel like their work doesn’t merit compensation and constant pissing contests, maybe I would not feel undermined all the time.”

    But the thing is? Even with that attitude, even with my bitterness, even with my unstable mental state, I still get to decide what I want.Which is more training and more access to academic resources. YOU still get to decide what you want, and deciding to tango with the academia monster doesn’t mean you’ve given up that right. Dating a guy who’s got fewer degrees than you or having severe anxiety doesn’t mean you are somehow proving you are the wrong “type” to be an academic. You don’t have to embody the perfect scientist to deserve space to work in your field. Your choices don’t have to make sense to anyone but you.* What works for other people doesn’t have to work for you.**

    As for your judgmental friends — don’t give them space or opening to judge. It really fucking sucks that you have to be on guard about this, but people pick up your shame cues and mirror them back at you. This is the danger of being honest and vulnerable — you give people the opportunity to respond to your true feelings in really shitty ways. When I was openly uncertain and afraid about what my next step after my master’s would be, people responded to that by treating me like. . . someone who didn’t know what she was doing. Some mildly incompetent. I think if you want less negative feedback about what is otherwise an amazing relationship, you need to focus on trying to embody the confidence of that relationship, and airing your fears more selectively. Go into conversations with the attitude of “This is my boyfriend, he is awesome, and I am also awesome, so we are in a mutual awesomeness society,” rather than “This is my boyfriend, he is not good enough, as I picked him, and I am also not good enough, and where would you like me to deliver my ten thousand handwritten apologies.” People pick up on whether you are apologizing for your existence even if you don’t say anything.

    Your anxiety is legitimate, your fears are legitimate, but other people do not deserve the opportunity to make you feel crappy.

    *(Normal caveats about ethical behavior apply, of course. But “you’re not sacrificing your entire life on the altar of this job/your education” is not a reasonable ethical standard to hold anyone to.)
    ** (Just don’t assume that what works for you has to work for other people.)

  62. LW, I guess this is tagential to your questions, but I’m just so struck by how well your boyfriend has responded to this situation. You told him that you were anxious that your relationship with him would harm your career, which, whatever your intentions and however much you love him, is an anxiety underpinned by some really unpleasant classist stuff. But by the sounds of it, he didn’t pick a fight, take offense or make it about him at all, but instead offered you concrete solutions to ease your worries (scheduling work dates etc). Speaking as someone who struggles with anxiety, I have to say that a partner who will respond in such a practical, supportive, ego-free way to it is worth their weight in gold. They’re also someone great to have at your back if you have a career in something as high-stress as academia. Don’t let other people’s opinions sabotage a relationship that’s that good for you (not to mention makes you comfortable and happy); I can’t see how you wouldn’t regret it.

    1. This. To me, the BF’s described reaction to her struggles says more than anything. She could take her friends’ judgy advice and wind up with some fellow PhD, who might be cool and supportive and feminist … OR who might expect her to move for HIS job, and be pretentious, and feel threatened whenever she experiences success. What she appears to have, NOW, is a guy comfortable in himself, who enjoys his life, supports his significant other, and most importantly doesn’t get bent out of shape when she expresses her worries on this topic, but rather shows patience and creativity in response. We’re also told that she DOES feel mentally/intellectually fulfilled with him.

      A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as they say. From what you’ve told us, LW, your bird-in-hand sounds pretty great. If the only “problem” with him is that your friends have deemed him not to have the “correct” letters after his name … yeah, I think “consider the source” is the right approach here.

    2. I agree with this entirely. LW, you have my sympathy and I don’t blame you at all for having a complex about this, but that complex is rooted in some classist attitudes that have been shoved down your throat by your environment. A lot of SOs would react by taking offense to this, and this wouldn’t be unreasonable (again, I want to stress I don’t blame you, I just also wouldn’t blame him if he got mad, you know?). But yours didn’t do that and that’s very sensible and kind of him, which suggests he’s a good partner to have.

  63. Thanks for answering this CA, and thanks for all the great replies everyone.
    Once again, I am struck by how different gradschool in the USA is compared to the UK. It’s not that gradschool isn’t also fucked over here but the OMG WORK ALL THE HOURS, HAVE NO LIFE aspect is one we don’t have so badly over here. That, or my lab group is a significant outlier. Either way, my supervisor was very clear on not working more than 8 h a day on average. He was less good about you actually using your holiday entitlement but never actually stopped anyone taking time off. Consequently, it’s expected that you do have a social life outside work. Everyone is very open about family committments, seeing friends, and doing fun stuff, and we always commiserate if you did have to work in the lab at the weekend, rather than bragging about it.

    My own stories are pretty relevant, but they don’t paint me in a particularly good light. I have in the past been a bit of a snob about education but I’ve grown up since then and learned that being book and study smart doesn’t count for anywhere near as much in the working world as they tell you it does in school.

    Anyway, here goes.

    The guy I was dating as I finished my undergrad and started my PhD had no education beyond a few GCSEs at 16. He apprenticed as a car mechanic for a while and then ended up doing desktop publishing and web design for some company or other. I loved him very much, and he was completely supportive of my academic goals, but I got bored of conversations about cars and computers, which were the two things he loved best. There were other, more serious problems in our relationship than that but it was a factor because it bothered me that as far as I could see he wasn’t trying to do anything with his life. He didn’t have any goals or aspirations! He pointblank refused to do things that would have helped him get a promotion (and he needed the income!). He refused to stand up for himself! He wouldn’t let me help him with his CV! etc. on and on it went. Thing is, that was almost entirely me projecting on him and not understanding him and valuing him for who he was. I can only assume his job wasn’t as bad as he made out since he’s still working there as far as I know. Your case sounds nothing like this, so that’s a definite plus.

    My current partner is also a case in point. He’s smart and got a physics degree just barely (he still thinks the university gave him his degree by mistake!) but has no intention of using it ever. While (not) doing his undergrad studies he discovered the entertainments industry and started working behind the scenes at gigs. He freelanced after undergrad in the industry but was barely scraping by, and was burning through his inheritance at an incredible rate. We were both worried because he wasn’t getting enough hours to live on, and the savings would run out eventually. Anyway, I was all – I don’t want to move in with him if he’s not making x amount because I don’t want to have to support him financially, I’m going to have enough trouble looking after myself, and he’ll still expect me to do most of the cleaning/food/chores even if I’m working longer hours because yay patriarchy. He’s since landed a full time job with a decent wage doing something he loves but frankly, that doesn’t make up for my behaviour and I’d go back and give myself a talking to if I could.

    So again, these were my issues, not his. It has/does bug him somewhat that I’ve been earning more than him, because he likes to spend money on me and take me to dinner (being the provider stereotypes!) but he’s also been so very supportive of me working for the PhD and whatever I would like to do after it, in all the ways that matter. He has said over and over again, I will follow you wherever you need to go to get work and use you PhD the best you can. And with his career, he can in fact do so. He’s completely not bothered that I’m the one doing the academic work because In his family, his mum is the breadwinner (she actually is an accountant) while his Dad dropped out of post-18 education with nothing to show for it and has spent his time mucking about on the water with boats (he’s a rowing coach, so it’s legit but it doesn’t pay very well).

    My other example is my brother and his girlfriend. They’ve been together four years now and are hoping to move in together this year, which makes me so very happy. 🙂 Anyway, he’s got school certificates but no undergrad degree and has spent the last six years pulling pints, while she has an aeronautical engineering degree and an office job. They make enough to go on lots of holidays to Europe and do all the fun social and sporting activities they enjoy, and while he would have liked to work as a kids sports coach, that didn’t work out so he’s now nearly ready to become a pub manager. The fact that she has a degree and he doesn’t? Is not an issue in the slightest.

    So, as everyone has said, it doesn’t have to be an issue unless you make it one. Dealing with the snobby friends and unsupportive supervisors is a legit issue, especially if you have anxiety brain weasles, but CA has good advice on that one. It may also help to do the thing she’s suggested elsewhere with delivering the news in the tone of voice and manner in which you expect it to received. Depending on how assholey people are being, sounding confident yourself about his job and it’s value to society may help?

    Good luck, LW

  64. I haven’t read the comments yet, but I wanted to say this advise is stellar! Grad school in science is super hard, and one of the things I’ve learned is that there is this pernicious myth that there is some correct method to success, which is only partly true… The successful people I know in academia all have one or two things in common, one is they work hard, the other is that they are passionate about other subjects as well, whether that is keeping a blog, acting, music or video games. It turns out it is so much easier to survive in a highly competitive environment when you aren’t punishing yourself for just being yourself. All that is to say, don’t compete with these people by pretending to be someone you aren’t, play your video games, love who you want, and do good science and you’ll be fine. Best of luck 🙂

  65. Wow. Best. Advice. Ever. + spot-on analysis of the problems in academic culture. I say this as a PhD happily partnered with someone who didn’t finish college. And my partner is, by the way, an incredibly intelligent, creative, wonderful human being who happens to have less formal education than I do. Many academics have the completely erroneous belief that formal education = intelligence.

    Love your partner for who he is. Use your position to explode the classism and elitism still rampant in academia. And rock on with your awesome self and your awesome life.

    Let’s change the world. 🙂

  66. To paraphrase someone out there who despite my efforts in Google Scholar remains a mystery: an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. This reminds me of your friends. My partner puts it another way “that’s great, but can they get on the phone and order a pizza?” Comments like theirs say to me that their world is small and the thought of ordering pizza (miiiiight be stretching my metaphor, here) sends them into a tailspin disguised as disdain.

  67. I legit clapped out loud after reading this. All of the things Captain brought up are reasons why I decided to cut off my academic career at my MA. I couldnt stand how academia promotes framing the world only from an academic perspective, and there was this obvious disconnect between that path and the one I wanted to take. Once I left my department and started working, it was refreshing to escape and hear from and see multiple perspectives. Your partner being able to talk shop wih you and show you different ways of seeing things is really awesome. It’s so easy to get caught in a bubble where everyone you talk to and everything you talk about is in the ivory tower.

    Letter writer, if your partner makes you happy, then ignore any and all haters. Let your colleagues say what they want. I know there is a TON of pressure to listen to them and not offend them, but seriously, they are jerks. Don’t sacrifice your happiness to play Keep up with the Jones’: Academia edition.

  68. My best friend has a PhD in a super technical and really small field, and when we lived together she would drag my anti-social college-dropout ass to her parties full of PhD-pursuing- friends and they were all super into what they were studying/working on and really intense… and also asked me questions about my life and interests and none of them ever EVER made me feel bad or lesser for not being smart enough or accomplished enough. If people are doing that to you/your honey, it’s THEIR fault for being small minded and mean. Your sweetie sounds like someone who cares about you and what you’re working on (OH GOD I have read SO MANY advice columns from grad students whose romantic partners were pitching jealous fits bc they were working on their thesis/grading/etc instead of hangin’ with them and yours sounds understanding and supportive and not like a jackass) and that’s so, so good. Fuck the haters and work on being awesome and having awesome scholarship and an awesome relationship.

    1. HAH. Yes. I am poly, and I have stood every. single. one. of my partners up For Science (including most recently and spectacularly, to the tune of 14 hours… and then I spent most of the rest of our weekend-date asleep or off my face on painkillers). And… yeah, people who will be way more awesome about this than is fair on them? So, so amazing.

  69. I work in university administration. University administrators are, for the most part, a very clever bunch who love universities and everything they do, and considered a career in academia before realising the hideous reality of zero job security, long hours and terrible pay in a hideously cutthroat environment for the first 10-20 years of that career (it does *eventually* get better once you’re very established – if you get that far). One by one we each said “sod this” and realised that in admin you get to hang out with cool, clever people, take part in great projects, get some job security and leave work at a reasonable hour. I don’t regret it.

    1. Hey, that’s exactly the decision train that I took! 🙂 Jedi high fives for university administrators!!

  70. I’m living…a strange version of that, right now. Or rather, maybe I just finished living it? Anyway, before I met my fiancé, he had been in a PhD program, studying what he loves, and totally destroying his health. He had to leave said program and move back in with his parents because he was apparently essentially on the verge of a major collapse. After two years of this, we met, which was right before I started grad school. I just finished grad school, and while he lives with me now, his health is still super-shaky. So: he has more years of schooling under his belt, but no advanced degree. I now have a Masters. And we always get the “what do YOU do?” questions, which are weird and invasive, because even when I had a concrete answer it was one that 50% of the population would disapprove of (both my former job and my thesis work centered on a controversial issue), and my fiancé’s answer gets into all these complicated areas that people don’t know how to respond to.
    That said: while taking care of a chronically ill person while in grad school isn’t a cakewalk, it was always nice to get home from ridiculous class stuff (or even awesome class stuff) and find him there, ready to hear about my day and my ideas, and knowing that the cats weren’t lonely when I was gone. It was good to have someone really truly supportive of me, instead of what I had during my BA, which was someone who passive-aggressively undermined everything I did. Those are the things that are important, and while I hope my dude can get his health together and fulfill his PhD dreams again, if he can’t…we will figure it out.

  71. For a slightly less popular/different opinion, I am dating someone who has a lower degree of education and it DOES effect us, a little bit. It certainly doesn’t effect MY schooling (how does that even work???) but the difference in the opportunities I have vs the opportunities HE has DOES come up and DOES bother him. It’s hardly a deal breaker, however. I suspect in the future I’ll be the primary bread winner, and it does come up and it does, on rare occasion, cause issues. But frankly, more of our relationship issues are caused by my lack of cleaning prowess… as far as “things that cause relationship troubles,” it is a thing, but not a particularly dramatic thing. Nothing that a bit of talking couldn’t cure if it started making bumps in the road.

    Your friends, however, need to back the hell off. My parents have the “you could do SO MUCH BETTER!” attitude too, and it drives me insane. Whenever my father gets judgey about whatever job he has, I just sort of shrug and say “well, I have a degree and am chronically unemployed, so I guess he picked the correct career path between us.”

  72. Well this letter was just an excellent reminder of why I’m glad I left my doctoral program in the sciences with a terminal master’s degree. (A decision I agonized about and then a process I struggled with–feel free to read basically my whole blog if you want to take a journey through the stages of quitting academia grief.)

    To briefly illustrate how dysfunctional my particular academic environment was: during my first year of graduate school, I broke up with an abusive boyfriend who then proceeded to harass me to try and keep me from moving on with my life. I threw myself into work pretty hard for awhile, because everything else in my life was a disaster. After a few months though, I felt ready to dip my toe into dating, so I did. I found a lovely guy that I started spending 2-3 evenings a week with. I started engaging with people again, and soon was hosting a board game night/dinner party about once a month.

    This was a huge positive step for me, and I was happier and more productive in the hours I was at work, but it did mean that on occasion, when I was asked to stay late or come in at a particular time on the weekend, I would have to say “sorry, that I have plans”. My boss responded to all of this by taking me aside and explaining that I had “too much of a social life” to be a successful graduate student. Note–I still didn’t typically leave before 6 , still came in for at least a few hours every weekend, and still worked lateish (8/9/10) on a regular basis. I still worked 40-50 hour weeks minimum. I just happened to have a little bit of a life, something I desperately needed and which was clearly making me happier/healthier. And my boss accused me of being “too social”.

    Coincidentally, I now work about a ten-minute walk from my old lab, and typing this makes me mad enough that I almost want to walk up there and tell my boss how awful this was of her. Instead though, I’m going to leave her to her miserable life, and enjoy that no one in my office will know or care that I’m having a date over to my place this evening at 7pm.

  73. As an intelligent, articulate, curious person who never finished college and whose social circle mostly consists of people with/working on grad degrees, THANK YOU for this response. Thank you so much. I can’t count the number of times I’ve encountered this sort of classism, and it’s demoralizing. Anything to combat it is welcome.

    P.S. To anyone who has these classist instincts: If a relatively-uneducated person says something insightful, it doesn’t automatically follow that someone else told that person the thing.

  74. I definitely have some empathy for your situation, LW, but from the other end. It’s not an exact match, but I’m in your boyfriend’s position in my marriage. My wife works in IT and makes enough for both of us to live comfortably with me not working at all. I got my bachelor’s in psychology, which I didn’t really care about, enjoy, or want to pursue a career in(woo yeah parental pressure), so I’ve been sort of floating aimlessly up until relatively recently. Now I’m back in school to become a vet tech, which has a salary ceiling of less than what my wife is making right now, to say nothing of her salary in a few years. I’m working short-term, brain-numbing office jobs in the interim to help pay for my tuition.

    We’ve been married for four years, and I can tell you honestly that it’s really never been a big issue. The worst thing that ever happens is that sometimes I feel some anxiety for not contributing enough towards our expenses/tuition/beer money, but it’s certainly nothing that’s ever really effected the core of our relationship. It sounds like you and your dude have a pretty great relationship and he seems like he’s really understanding of the demands your degree places on your time. Mostly, it sounds like you need to take the Captain’s advice and tell your “friends” to go jump off a cliff. Because, after all, how DARE you not fit their ideals of what a good relationship is supposed to be. I have to say, it sounds more like jealousy on their parts than anything else. I’ve had friends of both genders in academic paths who couldn’t keep a relationship together because they either couldn’t manage their time well enough for it, or they straight-up just didn’t actually have the time for it. So the idea of dating “outsiders”, so to speak, probably seems like a total impossibility for them, and we all know how well people generally take it when somebody goes outside the box and it actually works for them.

    tl;dr- Keep the guy, ditch the shitty friends, fuck bitches, get money.

  75. I never got a degree, I’m a successful IT engineer, I’m creative and I can hack into most any system. I took many classes out of curiosity. I’ve only ever regretted it once, I missed out on my dream job years ago. It was r&d and with one exception everyone on the team held a MS or a PhD. Although the manager and 3 others interviewed me and wanted to hire me I lost the job when I interviewed with their boss, the PhD in maths, when he discovered the degree I was working on was an Associates rather than a BS he dismissed me out of hand. I cried over that one, their efforts failed and I consoled myself with the thought it was due to far too many ivory tower people with no one experienced with the actual way things work to help. Sometimes the highly educated think school is the only path. Some of us self learn pretty efficiently. I’d also say that Steve Jobs might be a good person to bring up when ppl get weird about education. Quick search gives me this, which is good in other ways too: http://www.lewrockwell.com/2011/08/steve-jobs/im-glad-i-dropped-out-of-college/

  76. So appreciative of this letter + response + comments!

    I’m in a relationship with a career/education disparity, with me on the receiving end of elitism and classism. Gender plays out slightly differently because I’m perceived as a woman while having an androgynous identity, while my partner is a cis man.

    Me: child of Thai immigrants (family background: farmers, street food vendor, chef, teacher, designer), 2nd in family to go to university, state school, BA History of Art (Asia, Europe, Africa), writer + babysitter.

    Him: comically posh white British dude (family background: civil service, lawyers, teachers, academics), public school (not Eton, but close), Foundation Art at Chelsea, Classics at Oxford, some temping, then the law. He’s a practising barrister.

    He doesn’t see what the big deal about this is. ‘Even you could do it,’ he said to me, when, god, you need truckloads of money and the ability to participate in conditional poshness to get by at minimum. He tries to be socially aware, but is sometimes still naive about structural oppression in his own life and our shared one.

    Now, I’m pretty proud of my humble roots, but all this is was complicated by my jerk brain when I started going out with someone super posh and terrifyingly awesome. Some of it was just straight-up nasty (‘So, you’re going out with a white dude 9 years older than you. You’re a cute, young-looking Thai. Seems legit. This will end well…’) but some of it seemed reasonable in that tricksy jerk brain way: it makes sense to want someone who’s on the same level as you, right? someone who’s in your league?

    The very idea of leagues can eat a hot bowl of dicks.

    ‘He might like you exactly because you’re different,’ my therapist said to me, ‘Sometimes people try dating within their field or educational level and they go, “Ooh, it’s not my cup of tea.”’

    A few of his friends who are of his demographic assume things about me—that I cook ‘for’ him, or they smirk when he says we met over the internet because of ‘what that means nowadays’ (i.e. mail order brides), and they mostly ignore me in conversation because–well, what would I have to say about anything?

    And that’s absolutely their problem. They’d be chatting shit even if I were QC. Neither of us would actually want these people’s approval, anyway, because they add the world up in such a boringly shit manner, and are rude.

    LW, I wish you every happiness!

  77. Just to further tip the weight of the evidence: During the course of my doctoral training (with predominantly female classmates) I watched two get married to men who worked retail without any degree, one have a baby, and 10+ date people not in academia. They all completed their doctorates and found full time jobs in the field within a couple years of graduation.

    You also indicate worries that time not spent on academia = failure. Please remember that feelings ≠ reality. After one year in gradhell I intentionally sought out and joined a highly active social group that had absolutely nothing to do with my degree field. Within a year of joining my professors were giving me improved professional reviews and stating they noticed a significant increase in quality of work. Emotional health influences cognitive capabilities!

  78. Just chiming in here. I have a master’s degree and my husband has a bachelor’s. Currently I have a higher paying career, as well. Periodically I consider going back for a Ph.D., which my husband ardently supports even though he has no interest in doing the same. This has never been a problem for us, and fortunately, none of our friends have ever said a word about it or seemed to think it’s strange (if they were snarky about it they’d quickly become non-friends). Then again, when I think about it I have quite a few friends with advanced degrees whose husbands don’t. My mother has a degree and my father has only a high school education. They have been exceedingly happily married for more than 50 years.

    Do what makes you happy, and what you know is right for you. The Captain is right–having someone who loves you, who has your back, and who supports your happiness is worth more than having someone with the right letters behind his name.

  79. Dear Letter Writer,

    I hope that you are reading all of these responses (as time permits) and finding some that resonate. I am extremely interested in the side tangents about academia (and I’ll add a link about “dual [academic] career” couples that happened to be open in my browser: http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/06/11/dual_careers_worry_academia/?page=full). You may be helped by investigating all of these issues on the horizon now–or you may just want to focus on doing good work and being your best self right now. (Academia has a lot of problems, and it’s unlikely you will face ALL of them in your early career.)

    I hope you do continue to socialize with people in your program and at your school. You’ve mentioned fears about how it might/does feel hanging out with them with the specter of your boyfriend’s educational status… but it doesn’t sound like they have directly mentioned it. They might be cool with it, but just awkward; grad students (and many other humans) are often too tired to think creatively, and the question of “What does your s.o. do?” is a lot easier than “What do your s.o. and you enjoy doing together?”. (On the other hand, I’ve heard horror stories about how female grad students in particular are treated in the sciences, and perhaps you sense this is not a safe group to discuss any part of your social life with, lest they call upon the gender stereotypes.)

    Does your school have any student groups or offices that concern women in the sciences, or women in academia? I ask because it may provide a place to hear that this concern is not yours alone, and/or a place to find that you share many of the same concerns as your fellow students, regardless of whether their personal relationships look similar. (Also, they may have helpful programs around Impostor Syndrome; I know the one on my campus covers that at least once a year.) Also, more experienced students in your lab or your program may be helpful in knowing what expectations to set; e.g. I have heard that lab sciences often genuinely require longer hours than other fields, because there is a lot of physical work to be done (due to the evolved labor structure of labs…) and the idea that you cannot be creatively constructive for more than 40 hours a week may not apply to all of this work.

    Now for my own stories of anecdata, from dating a master’s student while I was working, then from the first few years in my doctoral program. I was not completely inexperienced in academic and professional situations nor in romantic relationships, but BOY did I have a lot to learn, and do I still! I can be idealistic (and too hopeful, and have played the Nice Guy type before I knew better); I may value stability too highly (bird in hand > 2 birds in bush?); and I have had issues with self-esteem and being driven by others’ judgments. (And academia is the land where the worth of your work is colored by others’ appraisals of it; yikes!)

    Anecdata 1:
    I moved to a new city, and a few months into my new job I met someone pretty awesome whom I started dating–a 2nd year master’s student in a lab science. I listened earnestly to what he told me about his day-to-day life (and many other cool things!), but it was hard to shake the myth that he had free time all the time, was paid to think, and all these romantic notions about grad school, while I was chained to a desk for a more-than-full-time job. Things did not work between us for many reasons, and it would have been less painful if I had had Captain Awkward’s advice on SO MANY SUBJECTS. He got to a stressful point where he was not accepted to continue into the doctoral program, and while I tried to comfort him, I may not have understood the landscape well enough to do so effectively. (Hopefully I didn’t blunder into some of the classic “DO NOT ASK A GRAD STUDENT THIS” questions, but I cannot remember.)

    I also had some guilt complexes about maybe he spent too much time on me, at the expense of his program.

    Anecdata 2:
    Just before my doctoral program began, I started dating a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. He was upfront about not having finished college, and may have been a little on edge about it–it sounded like this may have been a dealbreaker on other first dates. I accepted it, and he was intelligent in a number of ways that belied this status marker. He, too, worked at a startup (and another, and another…). In his case, with 2 professionals as parents, not finishing college may have been some complex combination of frustration, mismatch with the colleges, expectations, bad luck, rebellion, and genuinely finding a better life path for himself; it’s not exactly the class story that others have brought up.

    When talking with my sister early on, she said that one possible reason he might be dating me was because he liked the idea of dating someone with a snooty degree, training for another snooty degree, related to feelings of inadequacy or status that, as it turns out, were probably part of the story for him. (This played out a bit like a lawyer commented above: he seemed to resent and devalue my academic knowledge. He was in the REAL world and was blazing his OWN path and his value that he was not one of the sheeple; yet perhaps a partner with snooty degrees would give him some of the status he craved from certain quarters, showing that he was SMART enough to have an academic partner, just didn’t choose to get those degrees.)

    A big difficulty in that relationship was I started out with little idea of what a good student would be doing in my program beyond the coursework and had little guidance, and he expected to come home after work and just hang out with his partner. I often compromised on worktime when I shouldn’t have; and other times he provided very difficult circumstances to study a room over from.) While he seemed understanding at first, he never wanted to hear anything about what I was working on, even when it was stuff I had poured a lot of energy into. I would sit watching him play videogames for hours trying to maintain our relationship, and he wouldn’t take 10 minutes to hear about the project I had been working on for weeks.

    LW, I’m highlighting the red flags in my anecdata, and really they are variations on every relationship issue CA routinely discusses. Perhaps the main added difficulty in academia is that the expectations of your actual job and the work you must do are almost always ill-defined (and at some point, you take the lead role in defining them); but if they can be difficult for you to define, they may be extremely opaque to an outsider. Setting your partner’s expectations about what you are going through will be crucial going forward, and you may need to set firm boundaries around your time. The work dates are great and suggest you’re already heading in that direction.

    Good luck! You were NOT an admissions mistake, or whatever your jerkbrain likes to tell you. In academia, you rarely find anyone walking the exact same path you are (same background, experience, current life, priorities, and goals…), and whether you are trying to figure out your professional or personal life, direct comparisons with others really don’t hold. You deserve to be happy, and for you it sounds like that includes a life that includes both academic challenges and an emotionally rewarding personal life. You can do it!

  80. Captain, this was a stellar response.

    I wanted to add something. Grad school is silently reinforcing the poisonous classist assumptions of LW’s “friends” because grad school itself is, as well as being vampiric and more than willing to hang the students out to dry like substandard laundry (students: you are not substandard, and you are not laundry), exceedingly classist.

    In grad school:
    You are expected to work — which is only classwork, library work, fieldwork, or labwork — 40-80 hours a week.
    Anything which is not academically related is not work. Period.
    This includes work-for-money which you might need to do to cover such minor things as food and rent.

    Those of us who need to support ourselves and who did not get support from the University system (which support is thin on the ground these days, I am sure we can all agree) need to minimize and hide the fact that we also work for money;
    may need to actually hide or LIE ABOUT that work (the “no moonlighting” rule that some Universities have, while not giving you enough support for rent, let alone food or books or clothes);
    while putting enough academic hours in.

    This is impossible for many who do not have family support. Sometimes you can just kick against it (I did; I worked my way through grad school and it was not easy and my Department was not happy about it and let me know it). BUT at least some of this prejudice against having a partner who is not indoctrinated into this system is not only straight-up class bias, it is also the academic devaluing of any work that is not academic, which is HIDDEN class bias, because at the grad school level academic work is not paid work, mostly, so what the hell are you living on?

    Thus the system attempts to ensure that you need to come from a leisured class in order to participate.

    So, valuing work that needs a degree over work that doesn’t is kind of classism squared.

    This is entirely overlooking the fact that a Ph.D. does not, in fact, demonstrate that one is more intelligent than anyone else. (I have one; I know.) I once worked for someone with a Ph.D. who didn’t know how to find the local post office (and couldn’t be arsed to find out as long as she could bully poor grad students, who were supposed to be teaching assistants, into running personal errands for her). I’ve known rocket scientists I would class among the dimmest people I have ever met. There are probably millions of people in the world who have incredible forms of intelligence who will never participate in academia because of our insane gatekeeping rituals, and it is academia which is the poorer for it.

  81. As an advanced degree-holder married to a non-degree holder having just celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary, tell your “friends” to jump in a lake.

  82. PhD candidate here, but in the humanities. My partner didn’t go to college and does minimum wage manual labor. My problem has nothing to do with social appearances (being gay, I stopped caring if other people approved of my partners a long time ago) but with the fact that, if all I get is adjunct work once I finish (a likely possibly), we will literally be unable to feed and house ourselves. So there are very real economic stressors in relationships like these. So I’m hoping the LW will have better job prospects in the sciences, and/or that LW’s partner makes above min wage or lots of tips or something that can support them!

  83. Hi LW. I recently moved in with my boyfriend. He has a college degree, but doesn’t use it for his job. He works as a sales rep in a big box retail store. I recently completed a doctoral degree! Hurray! A doctorate! It’s pretty cool. But guess who, in this current job market, is the one bringing in the money that pays for our rent and our groceries and food for our dog? In totally unsurprising news: it’s him! I’m looking, but currently unemployed. You have to realize that his contributions and work are just as important as yours. They might not come with a fancy piece of paper, maybe, but they are honest and they matter. It sounds like you’ve got a smart, fun, hardworking, supportive partner. What a find! Someone who supports you and wants to help you accomplish your goals and dreams means way more than credentials. I can’t tell you how nice it was to have my boyfriend while I was completing my degree. Like the Captain points out, someone outside the fishbowl who can remind you what is important and what you really care about is vital. Good luck!

  84. For a story somewhat further down the pike: While I was finishing my PhD my boyfriend was dropping out of college. I moved here for my postdoc and married him a year later. My family was concerned, and I imagine my colleagues were too (though they didn’t push on it).

    We’ve been married 22 years. Won’t say there weren’t some rocky spots, but I’d do it again in a flash.

    Now, my scientific career has not been what someone ambitious would call optimal. I have a soft-money position without tenure, and this makes my life unpleasantly exciting from time to time. But that had more to do with wanting to stay in this city and put down roots, whereas the “correct” career path definitely involved repeated moves and taking a job wherever. (That’s how my parents ended up in Alaska–they had the two-body problem and that was the two jobs they needed. They lived there 27 years and *never* liked the place, though my siblings and I did.) And I’ve done good science that I’m proud of, and I’m still in academia, and lately when I had a grant crisis I found out that my department would dig up support for me–that helped my morale a lot.

  85. The two-body problem: my supervisor and her husband (they’re both university professors) live in different cities in different countries. Yes. They have the money/salary to support themselves independently and they can fly to visit one another fairly regularly, but. Two different countries.

  86. I needed to read this letter and the comments. I’m going into my last year of undergrad and feel like I should be applying to grad schools. Because I do really want to continue to do research! I really, really love research. I love reading the academic papers and working in the lab and the wacky, flexible hours. But at the same time, I’m not sure I want to jump right into a PhD program where research is expected to be my life–I definitely have a life outside of the lab now and I want it to stay that way. I have a hobby and a second job that are extremely important to me, and I needed reminding that that is okay. Especially since my mother has been bugging me about how School Must Come First Because it is the Only Important Thing and the Key to Success. I get enough pressure about that from my (admittedly delightful) friends that are mostly all science-majors also looking at grad/med school and the whole environment of competitive undergrad.

    I just needed an outside reminder that deferring grad school does not make me a Failure. Having a job I enjoy and the flexibility to do my hobby does not my me a selfish, terrible person (though to hear my mother talk about it it does). I also needed a reminder that my parents’ gross elitism (okay, really it’s mostly my mom) about whoever I date is actually gross elitism and that doesn’t mean that dating someone who is older and has less education and/or a less “prestigious” job than “My Inevitable Research Position” is a Terrible Idea.

  87. I know a lot of couple with different degrees and I cannot really understand what the problem is. If you feel really good with a person, you should not bother about what people say. Actually I would stop to go to that parties because places where a lot of snobs brag about their success are really boring….

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