Love among the Books: Relationships in Academia

April, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

We might only learn the practical elements of survival at grad school by, well, surviving grad school. Some of the most important handy hints and warnings never make it into orientation materials and grad handbooks: Research trips can be lonely – you might gain weight. Conferences can be dull – it’s ok to skip panels. And no one tells you that grad school can make relationships hard, really hard.

Relationships often involve long distances. But, if you find yourself in a successful relationship of any length during grad school, it is almost inevitable that you will be separated from your partner for a lengthy period. Research trips sometimes involve months abroad and fellowships might require solo relocation of up to a year or more. And unless you land a job in a convenient location immediately upon graduation, the reality of term positions and adjunct work, not to mention the current job market, means that you might have to move to places you never expected to see let alone live. And on the job market, balancing career opportunity with relationship priorities can continue to be challenging.

This is where I have found myself, in a fulfilling and committed relationship, but one which emerged toward the end of a research trip. I was able to spend two years in the UK with my partner, but with the knowledge I’d have to leave. I’ve returned again after completing my PhD, but am faced with going back to Canada in a couple weeks until such time as work or funding make it possible to return. Confronted by the reality that it will get harder before it gets easier, I’ve surveyed friends, and friends of friends, who have successfully made a go of it. What’s the trick to making these long-distance grad school or academic relationships work?

Erin and Shane* met as students in Canada, but went on to different grad schools with Erin relocating to the US. Living in different countries for an extended period, they have always had to prioritize communication. They devote at least one hour every night to online cam chats using skype. And when Shane finished his exams, he was able to spend weeks visiting Erin while writing his own dissertation, something nearly impossible in non-academic long-distance relationships.

Karen and Adam similarly live apart and also emphasize communication. They prioritize spending time with each other as much as possible, and treat trips to visit each other like an investment in their relationship, and not a cost to one partner. So, if Karen is free but can’t afford to fly abroad, Adam chips in to help since they both benefit. They also work each other into research and conference trips, using their careers as opportunities to bring them together more often.

So, while grad school can make many relationships almost impossible, it also opens up a world of possibilities available only to a lucky few. As junior scholars we are poor, but travel a lot, and can potentially bring our partners. We can take random days off to enjoy a sunny Tuesday afternoon in April together simply by working on Saturday instead. We have built-in summers and extended Christmas and Spring breaks, all of which give us time to enjoy with our partners. I’m learning from these surveys and friends that even though I’m returning to Canada in a few weeks, with no definite plans to return to my partner in the UK until work or funding permits, there are ways to make it continue to work.

* All names are altered.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
8 April 2010.


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