when to finish?
November 6, 2011 4:08 PM   Subscribe

Should I postpone my last semester of grad school? If so, how?

Here's the situation. Being apart is becoming so stressful as to be detrimental to my mental health and his academic success.

Me: Studying towards a professional masters degree for May 2012 in NY state.
Him: Studying towards a research-based masters degree for June 2012 / research-based PhD program for [some date years into the future] in Boston.

We have been engaged since starting grad school, and our date is set for right after my May graduation. However, long distance really sucks. As we're both working on our final theses/projects, and as getting between our two towns is pretty time-consuming/expensive, we really don't get to visit each other very often. He needs to maintain a certain quality of work/grades in order to gain acceptance into his PhD program, and I really want to help him.

One idea is for me to spend next semester with him in Boston, taking courses at that school (which is also my alma mater) and trying to apply those to my degree. Or if not that, then just working my way through, then coming back to NY state together in a few years so I can finish my degree.

I am going to visit some course administrators tomorrow to try to get a sense of my options. But in the meantime I have some questions.
  • Have you ever taken a hiatus from a professional masters program? How was it? I'm envisioning spending no longer than 5 years out, but are there things I should know before taking any time off?
  • In this case, how does loan disbursement work? Right now I'm maxing out on federal loans each semester. Do I just tell them I won't need them for spring, and then just reapply later..? Would I have to start repaying my loan because I'll be "out" of school?
  • Is this just a bad idea all around? I only have one semester left, but a big part of our future does hinge on him getting into this PhD thing. Is taking a hiatus from a professional program a big deal, or can I come out and in without much trouble?
I do really want this degree. Change is scary. But if I can make this work then I'll postpone...

Optional possibly relevant information:
  • We started grad school August 2010, so have been long distance for this school year and the last.
  • He'll be supportive of whatever option I choose; there's no coercion here.
  • He cannot come spend the last semester with me in NY because of the nature of his work and his job (physically tied to the lab, and a dormitory).
  • We would not be in a dire financial situation if I were to move in with him - his stipend+job will cover our housing and probably enough food for both us.
  • I have some connections in Boston which potentially makes finding jobs in my field a bit easier.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer to Education (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You'll have to start repaying loans. You might get a semester or so, but they'll kick in if you're not enrolled, regardless of your intentions of going back.

Taking years off might require that you retake classes from early in your program. Check with your advisor. In the masters' program I did, once classes were more than X years in the past, they no longer counted towards graduation requirements.

Could you just transfer completely to a similar program in the Boston area starting with the fall 2012 semester? That might be better than a vague plan of returning to NY for a single semester of coursework, even if you had to repeat a course or two. If it were me, I'd never make it back to finish, despite good intentions to the contrary.
posted by donnagirl at 4:40 PM on November 6, 2011

I can pull the stats for you, but just FYI, if you do this the chances are like... zero... that you will ever go back and actually finish this masters. This leaves you with loan payments for 3/4ths of a masters and... no masters. You need to be really, really sure you are okay with this outcome or you will come to resent the snot out of your SO.

Can you arrange to spend all of Christmas together? Because I have to tell you, that's like... four weeks away. On an academic schedule you should be able to spend almost a month together over the holidays. That leaves you four months apart before you finish your program. Four months is nothing. Four months is something your really need to be able to cope with. I am not saying it doesn't suck out loud, but from sailors to soldiers, research postings to sequestered juries, millions of couples have endured this. You can too.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:43 PM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Or if not that, then just working my way through, then coming back to NY state together in a few years so I can finish my degree.

Depending on your partner's future career goals, returning to New York (or the right part of New York), well, ever might be a pipe dream.

It sounds like next semester is the only time you are both guaranteed a location. (What if he gets into a PhD somewhere that isn't Boston? You could try transferring from the New York university to University of Not-Boston, or you could just be done.)

It seems like your best options are reconciling yourself with being apart for the next semester or resigning yourself to some crazy combination of Greyhound and Amtrak. (Can you arrange your schedule so you have long weekend?)
posted by hoyland at 4:53 PM on November 6, 2011

1 semester? JUST FINISH.
You'll be done in April or May.
posted by k8t at 5:07 PM on November 6, 2011 [8 favorites]

It's a bad idea, you're almost done.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:23 PM on November 6, 2011

Not only should you stay, you should also take a good look at how dependent you are on your fiance and possibly check for other underlying reasons why you want out of your program. Because this is an astonishingly bad idea.
posted by anaelith at 5:51 PM on November 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Terrible, terrible idea, if you want your degree to happen.

You should finish your degree, and he should maintain his "certain quality of work/grades" without your help (it's not clear why you think your presence would help with that; the opposite seems more likely.)
posted by ook at 6:09 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Many terminal MAs will not let you take a leave of absence or take classes offsite and transfer them. Before you even think about whether it's a good idea, you need to know whether it's even an option. And after a 6 month grace period, you will begin owing on your loans. Even if you go back to school after that and therefore qualify for in-school deferment, you only get one grace period as far as I know.

But yes, this is all-around a terrible idea. If his ability to get into a PhD program hinges on you "helping" him by dropping out of school, there's something really off here. And while you have my sympathy on the LDR thing, moving there is going to probably create an entire different kettle of issues for him/you to deal with.

Seriously. Finish your degree(s) and get married.
posted by sm1tten at 6:12 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I quite love my program. I hear about people taking hiatuses from school all the time (usually undergrad) and was just wondering if anyone could speak to that experience in a grad program context. Thanks to those who've given advice so far.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 6:31 PM on November 6, 2011

I can only see this eventually causing you to resent him while he's getting his career on track and you're stuck barristering or whatever job you're able to land (if any). Like others have said, it's easy to say "we're going to move back someday" but eventually you are going to have to successfully convince him to put HIS career on hold so you can move back to NY State for 4-5 months to finish a less advanced degree.

Right now you're tired, you're sad, you're lonely... but if you can make it through this, you're home free. And you don't have a semester of grad school hanging over your head the next X years of your life.
posted by ista at 6:59 PM on November 6, 2011

Now that I'm at a computer, here's a more detailed answer.

Leaving your grad program is worse than picking a book back up 1/2 way through, or pausing a movie and starting it from that point the next day...

- Logistically - content:

Curriculum changes, professors change... it is really hard.

As an example, a woman in my terminal MA program had to leave our program 1/2 way through because of a health issue. She came back into my year (so like 9 months later?) and I know that it was tough for her -- having to move again, making new friends, getting back in the groove... and that was less than a year.

- Logistically - approval:

Without a medical reason, I don't see the university/your department granting you a leave of absence either. They're pretty tough on this stuff.

When I had to take a leave of absence from my grad program for maternity leave, I lost access to loan money, access to loan deferment, access to paid-for health insurance (and I would have lost access to health insurance altogether after a semester), library access, parking...

Resolving problems:

If he is so tied to his lab that it is hard to visit, I can assure you that this won't really change even if you're physically co-present. He'll still be at the lab all the time. The difference will be that you'll be there to help feed him and do his laundry, I suppose. Ask Mr. K8t. He'll tell you that he barely sees me and we are in the same house.
(My own life, as an example of what the academia time commitments are like)

As I said above - this is just a few months! And then you'll be done with your degree. And you can march down to Boston with a Shiny New MA in hand and (hopefully) have much better access to employment opportunities.

I don't understand why you would want to go to Boston to live with Mr. Dreamer, work at Starbucks or whatever and have this massive loan debt for 3/4ths of a degree.

And a word to the wise about PhD programs -- as a holder of a Shiny New PhD -- once Mr. Dreamer is done with school, he will likely have very little control over when he (you) will live. A lot of research positions - faculty or otherwise - are in places that some people find undesirable to live in. So 1) your hopes about being able to relocate back to NY State to finish are ill-founded and 2) bigger picture - you may want to think about how portable you and your career are.

As an example - I have friends Betty and Bob. Betty move to Boston so Bob could go to Harvard Dental School. Then Betty and Bob moved to Southern California so Betty could get her PhD in biology. Bob started his dental practice in SoCal, but they assumed that once Betty finished, they'd move to Big University town and Bob would start a new practice.
Bob realized after a few years that starting up a practice is really really hard.
Betty realized this as well. Thankfully Betty was able to find a full-time research position in the biology department after she finished her PhD. Was that her dream? No. But did she do it because of all the work that Bob put into his dental practice? Yes.

I'd strongly recommend the book Mommy PhD -- despite its feminine title, it is an excellent introduction to what professional academia means for families/relationships/stress/etc.
I hate to stress you out more, but I can assure you that all the work he is putting in now just to get into a PhD program is likely to stick around for a very long time.

Another example - I have friends Irma and Alex. They both have PhDs. They also have a kid that is my kid's age (3). Alex is now a postdoc in a lab. Alex works over 12 hours a day. He never puts his kid to bed. Irma, also a busy academic trying to get tenure, does 80% of the parenting alone. This is just the way it is in the serious sciences.
posted by k8t at 8:02 PM on November 6, 2011

Suck it up, finish your masters, get a good job at boyfriend's city until he graduates.

I've seen "leaves of absences" at both the MSc and PhD levels. It's about 50/50 whether they come back (figuratively, 50/50 finishing degree, even at another institution).

Your having an MSc, unless it's excessively narrow and you have a deficit of skills, is going to put you in a good job-acquiring situation - and if you move in with your bf with a ^gt;decent paying job, you'll definitely decrease his stress levels which will help him complete his PhD and also inform his future-affecting decisions for something that is good long-term rather than something that might be closer to "I'm going to starve if I don't do this right now" or at least bars waiting for an ideal situation that'll give him the best post-doc position that may afford him to publish at the highest level (or work with the niche technology) that will let him be competitive for tenure track positions.

If both of you can wait until you finish, it'll be worth it. Statistically speaking.
posted by porpoise at 8:54 PM on November 6, 2011

My husband and I are in the same situation; both working on degrees (my Ph.D., his Masters), and we have a semester to go. I think rather than up-ending your life to move there, you guys should focus your resources on getting to visit each other more frequently. We are super poor too, but we made it a huge priority to visit each other once every two weeks. Yes, this means getting on a plane. But it's worth it for our relationship, and you sound like you guys are desperate enough to be together that it would be worth it for you too.

I know how much this sucks, but you guys have already made it through so much time apart. A semester will fly by, especially if you have frequent visits to chop up the time. When we visit, we pretty much both still do a ton of work, but at least we are in each other's company and we feel more like a normal couple.

Hang in there. Finish your last semester. This will end up being a tiny blip in the history of your relationship.
posted by LizzyBee at 9:17 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can pull the stats for you, but just FYI, if you do this the chances are like... zero... that you will ever go back and actually finish this masters.

DarlingBri is telling you the truth here. Most people who leave school think they will return to finish some day, that they will be the exception. Life still marches on, though, and it is really, really hard to go back. You'll have bills. Kids. Emergencies. Bouts of laziness. A full-time job. Comfort in your job and economic situation. If it does happen that you return, it will be a totally different experience -- as a person with all the adult responsibilities, trying to squeeze it in with all your other commitments.

The way you present your idea, it seems that your educational goals are a little more disposable or put-off-able than his. I hate to see this line of thought in women, but let's say that's true. If you can't bear to stay in school for a few more months for yourself, then do it for him. Staying in school until May gives you the degree and hopefully a better job market to enter into. He needs you to be financially stable, and a good financial contributor, when you move in with him so that he can focus on his studies.

May seems far away, but it really is not. You can do this! This finish line is in sight -- don't stop now!
posted by Houstonian at 2:16 AM on November 7, 2011

The best way you can help the both of you (as hard as it may seem) is to finish your degree where you are. You mentioned that you are both thesis writing/completing final projects next semester. Is there anyway either of you could spend an extended time (couple weeks) working in Boston or him spending time where you are? I have friends in Masters programs who wrote/finished in different cities than their university and traveled back to defend. If there are no major commitments requiring you to be in person for an extended period of time, definitely consider asking your/his adviser if this would be possible.

I quite love my program. I hear about people taking hiatuses from school all the time (usually undergrad) and was just wondering if anyone could speak to that experience in a grad program context. Thanks to those who've given advice so far.

I have heard of one or two people who took leaves of absences during their graduate studies. One was medically, one was to take care of a dying relative. The one with medical issues went back after 6 months, and sucessfully defended last April. She felt it was diffcult to come back and intially had a bumpy couple weeks/month getting back into the routine of graduate school. The other never came back. Your ability to do this will hinge on having program support from the right people and how your program is structured.
posted by snowysoul at 3:54 AM on November 7, 2011

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