This post is by Moira Hansen who is currently in the 3rd year of her Lord Kelvin Adam Smith-funded PhD at the University of Glasgow. As a graduate of both literary studies and life sciences, her research project – ‘”Melancholy and low spirits are half my disease”: physical and mental health in the life and works of Robert Burns’ – indulges her passion for arts, sciences and Scotland. Tireless support of her academic dreams and a firm grounding in reality is provided by her husband and her 12-year-old son. Respite from research and domesticity come in the form of the family’s two rough collies and the on-going battle to get to grips with her new patterns, having earned her black belt in taekwondo earlier this year.
Research proposals, funding applications, research trips, conference attendance, journal articles, writing up, editing, viva prep, corrections, final submission…a doctorate is a long process, physically and emotionally draining, but worth it for the degree, the postnomial letters, the graduation celebrations.
But what if you don’t get these? What if, at the end of the three or four years, the sum total of what you have to show is a line or two of thanks in the acknowledgements section of the thesis and a seat halfway up the graduation hall where you can just about see what’s going on?
Such is the lot of the academic spouse. Truly the unsung heroes of the PhD journey.
Now I do have to confess a vested interest here; my husband undertook his PhD between 2009 and 2013. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I entirely underestimated the impact I had on that journey. I wasn’t a supervisor, a mentor, a funder, a colleague. My own specialism (literature) was entirely outside his field of research (microbiology of paediatric inflammatory disease).
It wasn’t until I started my own PhD in 2015, and found him doing for me things I had instinctively done for him, that I really gained an appreciation for the importance of this unique role within the PhD experience.
So what does your significant other do for you? Think about it. Really think about it.
Many things your partner does are come naturally within an established relationship and you might not even realise it. It might be dropping the kids off at school so you can make that early meeting, keeping dinner warm because you’re late leaving the lab (again!), making that long overdue dental appointment or remembering to send a card for a friend’s birthday. The kinds of things that happen in any relationship, not just ones with an academic.
But think about the psychological impact of such practical activities. You’ll not find a supervisor doing these things. It’s a different kind of care, care of the person and not the researcher. Yet, it is vital; we’re only too aware of the issues around mental health in academia, and these little things are just one less thing for you to worry about.
One of my favourite things to do was packing for conference or research trips. I’m now a dab hand at getting a week’s worth of clothes, toiletries and a laptop into hand luggage (useful for my own travels!) For both of us, it was my way of making sure he was looked after, even from a distance; the subconscious signal that I supported his trip, that I recognised its value to his research, even if it was another few nights away from home, from me and our son.
However, it’s not just about these practicalities. Your academic spouse will also recognise
and help you manage the emotional demands that research places on you. You still can’t get your experiment to run, your statistical analysis to make sense, or negotiate access to that treasured-but-vital manuscript? It’ll be your spouse who becomes the release for those frustrations. They’ll let you scream, cry, rage and complain then quietly put the kettle on and never remind you that none of it is their fault.
They’ll develop some understanding of your research and become a sounding board for new ideas, a friendly ear for all the ‘thinking out loud’ as you try to make sense of your latest results, a test audience for your conference paper, the copy editor for your next article (or even your whole thesis). Yet, they remain distant enough that they can spot poor explanations and excessive jargon in your writing, ask questions from a different perspective that provoke alternative ways of thinking and prevent you from disappearing completely into your research bubble.
Keeping things grounded in this way is probably one of the most important things your academic spouse will do for you. They’ll recognise that, at times, there are looming deadlines which necessitate late nights and long hours but they’ll also be the first to tell you that you need a break, albeit in a roundabout way. It might be the bottle of wine in the fridge on a Friday evening or it might be that this is the weekend where you absolutely need to cut the grass, put up the new bathroom shelf or go shopping for a new sofa. It’s important that you listen to these ones; it may also be your partner’s way of telling you that they’re feeling a little neglected!
As a PhD student, your spouse will be on that journey with you every step of the way. Your worries will also be their worries, your victories will also be their victories. They’re probably the only other person as invested in your research as you are. I insisted on going with my husband to submit his thesis. The night before his viva, he slept better than I did.
But the nature of the role of the academic spouse is that you’ll be the only person who really sees what they do. Those sentences in the acknowledgements will never do justice to the sacrifices they have made for you. So make sure you tell them.
We couldn’t do it without them.