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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.