If I get a PhD, should I expect a broken heart too?

it can never be

When I started as a doctoral student in 2012, I attended a slew of orientation sessions at the university. Among other signposts, like preparing the first year proposal, and how to access your research funding, I heard not once, but on a number of occasions that in the PhD process, it could be expected that your personal romantic partnerships might fall apart. There was even real live testimony from someone who started married, and finished divorced.

Now this blew my mind. First I was terrified because WHAT HAVE I GOT MYSELF INTO?? I also wondered if I would ever share something like that with a room full of shiny new first year PhDs as it seemed almost cruel…but it seemed to be a trend that was being illuminated for our consideration. Break ups weren’t exactly the point of the discussion, which was more focused on shedding light on our prospective journeys from the other end of the tunnel. Here was someone who FINISHED and from what we could see, he was intact. Maybe malnourished, pale and exhausted, but intact. It certainly made an impression, and kept me thinking for days after. I definitely went extreme down this line of thinking. I wondered: Am I going to become unrecognisable? Will I see the world so differently that I can no longer see eye-to-eye with those I love? Will I know that it’s happening, or will it be a gradual process of distancing? and Will it be too late before I realise? I have this recurring dream—nightmare actually—that I am on a raft floating away from a deserted island. It’s a pristine blue sky when I climb aboard, and as I float farther and farther, the clouds roll in. I wake up when I can no longer see the island and everything goes black, terrified and sweating.

Then I thought, wait, wait, wait. The factors involved are so many, and complex in every relationship that there’s no way to know whether you, you partner or the circumstance will guarantee a future together, as at any other time in the lifespan of a relationship. It may just happen that the stresses that characterise the doctoral journey place particular pressures on a couple’s ability to navigate tough times together; it just happens in the time period over which you complete your degree, on top of the normal challenges of relationships. It’s not a small matter if things go wrong because in my experience the amount of invested time, money, diligence, distance from family, energy and passion means that small matters are more accentuated and concentrated in their intensity. This is when we begin to develop our professional reputations and hold ourselves responsible for success, and failure. And if there’s anyone who can feel the inward struggle of working through the confusion of taking yourself seriously, it’s our nearest and dearest.

In light of this, it is something to keep in mind that for anyone who loves what they do, the lines between you and your work are so blurred that it is hard to tell the difference. That is especially true when for PhD students, your research topic is inextricably tied to who you are (as is the case in my work, and many other Indigenous PhD students I know). What we were actually being warned about, is not that my relationship is going to fall apart, but to contemplate and think about who we are when we enter into this enormous task. It was a warning of the nature of the challenge before us and its potential to be all-consuming. If you allow it to consume you, it will. The cold, hard truth is, it is a long road and you’re the one on it—the one who chose to be on it—not your loved ones. This choice has all sorts of implications for the way you choose to adopt this particular student identity, straddled somewhere between the students we teach (and were) and the researchers we want to become. Whether or not your relationship(s) last(s), no one can know for sure, but the real cautionary tale is not to lose yourself in the process because we also know, it’s only the beginning and there’s a lot more to contribute beyond the ivory tower.

P.S. Oddly enough, nothing came up when I googled “broken hearted academic” for my image. I guess they don’t exist.


    1. Nimbus A. Staniland

      I think I know exactly which PhD workshop you are talking about here! I had all the same thoughts and concerns, I’d even had people tell say that just mentioning you were completing a PhD could scare potential suitors away!? Jason Mika (Massey) talked about his experiences with this (in Getting on with a PhD: An account from ‘a’wanabe academic’) and likened doing a PhD on his own to “going to the movies on your own; you get the experience but not the ‘buzz'”. Which I thought was an interesting take on the process. I wouldn’t say taking the PhD home to talk about has ever been a good decision, but it’s important to have balance, particularly something outside the PhD to look forward to and I don’t think it matters whether you share that with a partner, children, other relatives or friends. Love this post!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Abigail McClutchie

    Ha ha, mine didn’t even make it to the start of the PhD. The advice I was given is don’t start a new relationship during the PhD or you may get distracted and not finish. I can recall a number of divorces amongst the Drs I know but also a number of new marriages and relationships as well. It’s all a matter of the meaning we attach to these type of significant events or circumstances in our lives, that ultimately determine how we feel about them. So I have learned from John Assaraf …. the ability to develop a philosophy that everything that happens including perceived failures (no matter how painful, confronting, or lonely) serves the higher purpose, spiritual growth and development in my life. My blue narwhal ultimately wasn’t meant to be with this purple mane and rainbow horned unicorn.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Amber Nicholson

    What I see in the beauty of K.I.N (and other relationships) is the ability to keep each other grounded. If that talk could be re-told in the wholehearted way you just described, then I perhaps more groups like this could be cultivated. The PhD is an individual journey, but it need not be a lonely one (which happens to be a great title for another blog…).

    Liked by 2 people

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