Experiencing a PhD journey by proxy

This is a post for all the partners of PhD students, going through many of the ups and downs of the PhD process with their student-partner.

Our partners – boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, lifepartners, good friends even  – are a very big part of our PhD journeys, and they share in the anxieties, the lostness when we don’t understand what we are trying to do, the foundness when we work it out, the elation when a chapter gets good feedback, the despair when it doesn’t, and so on. In many cases a partner is an unofficial part of the supervision team. They often have to listen to us bleat on (and on) about data and fieldwork and theory and confusion and ‘aha’ moments, while nodding and smiling and being encouraging (ideally). And, they often have interesting and useful insights and questions that can help us to see things differently or more clearly. This was definitely so for me, as I spent a lot of time talking to my husband about various parts of my thesis, and his advice, questions and insights made a big impact on my own journey.

As a partner you don’t have to be an academic or knowledgeable about the field of study to help a PhD student. A friend and colleague told me recently that one of the people who helped her most with her thesis thinking was her daughter, who was in high school at the time. Another colleague took long walks with her partner, a banker I think, and their dogs and talked and talked about what she had worked on that day while he listened, asked questions and just spent time being there for her as a sounding board. Often, the most helpful thing is to have someone other than just ourselves or our supervisors to talk to, someone who doesn’t know our work as well as we do who can listen, and perhaps also ask for clarification or make observations, but really just listen. We can often make connections or clarify our thinking just by talking an idea or a problem through with someone who is able to just be there for us as a listener.

What also helps is tea, hugs and knowing when to say ‘I know, theory sucks. Stop reading and come for a walk on the beach rather’ and when to say ‘I know theory sucks but you need to keep going. One more hour and you can have some cake’. It’s not easy living with a PhD student – the ups can be so lovely and cheerful and the downs can be really awful, with (if you were my poor husband) lots of sulking and sighing and wandering around looking morose alternating with hysterical claims of ‘I will never get this! I shouldn’t even be doing a PhD! I don’t even know what epistemology means!’ The point is that partners are important, whoever they are, and they are needed, even if they have no clue what epistemology means either. So, if you are a partner of a PhD student, take heart. The madness doesn’t last forever, you will get your girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife/lifepartner/friend back again, and your help, in whatever form it comes, is really appreciated even if we are too self/PhD-absorbed at the time to say so. And to my husband, who reads this blog, thank you love. You rock.

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