December 18, 2012 6:58 AM   Subscribe

How do you handle developing relationships in grad school?

I’m getting a PhD in a demanding, top-15 program in my field. I am halfway through and in hot water; I have hit the rough patch that many people encounter after quals/third year and I want to finish or leave in no more than six. I’m working on issues the best I can in hope of finishing with both my sanity and the degree.

I dated for the first three years of grad school and it yielded short term things only. This is ok/to be expected with dating, but I am a LTR, monogamously oriented person. With friends and the people I date, once I decide I like someone, which happens rarely enough as it is, I tend to want to invest deeply in them, and I don’t spread my social energy too wide. Since grad school is so rough I crave the intimacy in a LTR, but I’m wondering if I should hold off on dating until I have the degree in hand. For one, I am not the happiest possible person at the moment – I’m functional but very stressed some days and it brings out personality traits I don’t like, and would make me a terrible partner sometimes. Furthermore, two of the short term things I wanted to turn into long term things were a major distraction. I crushed hard, got excited and distracted, and then got dumped in the span of a few months, which was not great for productivity and I don't think I can afford that once I'm ABD.

But I’m in my late 20s and won’t finish my program before I turn 30. These should be prime dating years and the time when a lot of my peers seem to be meeting their future spouses. I seem to be aging minimally for now except for a few grey hairs, but I don’t kid myself that my attractiveness has a shelf life and that meeting the right person only gets harder as you get older. I also don’t know where I will end up after grad school, and right now I’m in a city thick with “my type” and I feel like I should take advantage.

I go back and forth on turning down flirtatious chats with new people and taking down my OKCupid profile. I just don’t know how to balance these opposed life goals and protect my emotional energy if I keep dating. Should I take a romantic hiatus until I’m a PhD or did you manage to be a good boyfriend/girlfriend and a good grad student at the same time? How did you do it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The successful relationships I've seen with grad school students were either ones that started before grad school, or were with people in the same grad school program. The reason the first works is because you know what you're getting into as a couple before it starts, and the not-in-grad-school partner is supportive. That type also fails. The reason the second works is because you have similar life goals, you're both very busy, and your hangout time is often studying together. So I'd suggest you leave your OkC profile down, but look at the people around you as potential partners. Even if your Phd program is small, your department may have eligible masters students.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:04 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should date because it's fun to get to know people. You can understand that you're not about short flings, but LTR, but you can go very slow with the right person.

Perhaps start out with someone you're friends with, and really work to get to know that person.

As for your program vs your life, you need to get a better balance. Yes grad school is demanding, but you can't be at your best mentally if you don't have down time to refresh and recharge.

Get friends, get boyfriends, but keep it all in perspective. If you're getting asked out a lot, and you're meeting interesting people, then roll with that. They should understand that your time may be weird, but maybe they have a demanding job too, and it might mesh well.

Don't worry about your shelf life. I met and married Husbunny in my very late 30's (I was 39 when we married.)

Concentrate on befriending interesting and nice people, not your potential mate. Don't stress so much about "future mates' or crap like that. A lot of people may be meeting their "future mates' but they may also be meeting their "future ex-husbands".
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:05 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Having seen others go through exactly this, I would take a break from "actively" dating, and focus your energy on reaching out to already-existing friends and family for your connections with people. Being in a demanding program is demanding to the level that only those who have gone through it can understand, and as you mentioned, you yourself may not be the most desirable to be around right now from the perspective of someone new to dating you, thus adding unneeded drama at the moment.

Prime years of dating? Ha! Knowing what I know now, I think the prime years start at around 30, not end. People are too experienced to put up with games, people at that age are more open, honest, blunt, and don't mess around.

I understand not knowing where you will end up after grad go where the jobs are. But you will still find people of your type anywhere you go, because after 30 you may actually know what your "type" is. Then there is the possibility of finding someone who never was your type until you met them...
posted by TinWhistle at 7:08 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

My boyfriend and I are both in PhD programs at the same school, but in different departments. This is probably close to an ideal situation: I avoid the "don't shit where you eat" problem while also being able to date someone who understands exactly what I'm going through. We read each other's grant proposals and spend a lot of time hunched over our laptops in various coffee shops. We met on OKCupid, but you could also try getting involved in whatever graduate student organization your school has.

Don't cut yourself off from dating unless that's really what you want to do. My relationship has added so many layers of richness to my life; I'm glad I didn't fling up my hands and decide I didn't have enough time. (There is enough time. If your PhD is really eating your life, take a step back. You need and deserve a personal life.)
posted by baby beluga at 7:21 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would not recommend dating people within your same program. I have seen this done multiple times, and I have done it myself as well. When it works, it works fine (just the same as any successful relationship) but when it fails, it fails miserably. You can't escape the other person. It's even worse than usual workplace romances because in grad school, people's social spheres are often somewhat limited to... their grad school coworkers. If you find your soulmate in your department, good for you, but be really really cautious.

I really understand where you are going with the crushing, wanting to get close, and then getting rejected. If you're anything like me, you end up spending a lot of your time thinking about the other person when you should be working, and that's bad for work. I would recommend that you keep your OKC profile up but try to practice detachment with nascent relationships until you're sure that the other person is really into you too. Schedule time to spend with that person on clearly defined dates or hangouts. Compartmentalize! When you find yourself thinking about the new crush, ask yourself "If I had not met this person, what would I be doing right now?" and then do that thing, which is probably working on your research.

As a relationship does develop (which I hope will happen for you!) keep setting appropriate boundaries. If there are going to be times when you are stressed with work, tell your new partner, "Hey I've got some pretty hard deadlines right now, and I'm not going to be super fun to hang out with for awhile. Let's try to hang out next week." If the person is a good partner to you, they will understand.
posted by permiechickie at 7:31 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a similar disposition and had a really rough false start to a PhD that got me the Masters I have now, but found the conventional wisdom on partners never being able to understand the absurd ridiculousness of the commitment to not be the case. Transitioning from my happy go lucky and comparatively unencumbered undergrad life I suspect that being forced to slow down on OKC by a lack of time for OKC bullshit probably didn't actually meaningfully reduce my rate of success on OKC as it simply forced me to be pickier and more willing to cut bait early on. The trick seems to be little different than for most people, determined patience - just on a more extended time scale to accommodate your stress and lack of time.

Also, let the results from OKC's massive data set reassure you about any conceivable time limit on your perceived attractiveness, you really do have at least a decade or three - seriously. However, if you intend to pursue an academic career, post-docs if anything seem to have a somewhat harder time dating, but pre-tenure professors maintaining existing relationships much less forming new ones is like the mating habits of the Dani people of Papua New Guinea - surely they must do it somehow, but all of the speculations about how exactly are easily dismissable and nothing solid has yet been described in the literature.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:39 AM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yes, take a break from dating and work on your degree. At some point, working on your degree will suck, you will be frustrated and not making any progress, and you should take a few weeks to recharge, which might involve flirty chats and dinners out. If that happens to turn up some fabulously promising relationship, so much the better.

Mostly, I dated other grad students (different departments); it was a plus/minus. On one hand, we were very understanding towards each other, not very demanding about time/priorities, complete lack of suspicious "where have you been" when he pulls up in the driveway at 2am and sits there for another half hour talking on the phone. (clearly he's been in lab finishing a data run, and is now bitching to his buddy on the west coast who is also writing a dissertation, so he doesn't have to tell me all about how his statistics aren't good enough, whew!) On the minus side, I was a typical grad student with a ton of worries and insecurities, not a storybook grad student superhero, and tended to date people I could relate to; this is how I learned that dating people who need therapy even more than I did is a bad idea. But it can work out really well, especially if you have reasonable expectations.

I think trying to find the love of your life in grad school is tricky. Grad school relationships worked best for me in the medium-term, dating people I met (at parties, at events, friend-of-friend, etc - i.e. not really going looking, but still being open to the idea) for a year or two. Doing short-term dating was hard because (as you say) it's very intense and distracting. Doing long-term "find the man/woman I am going to marry" dating is hard because there is a lot of uncertainty in the grad student's life, and all the looming decisions of what will happen next, as well as the fact that people change during and after grad school - your routines and attitudes are likely to shift a bit once you're out of that pressure-cooker of expectations.

In short, I think you're probably wise to stop actively looking for dates (until some summer that you need a different hobby). But don't try to swear off dating entirely.
posted by aimedwander at 7:45 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

The most productive times for me as a PhD student were when I didn't date or socialize at all, so if you feel the need to take a break, don't fight that instinct. You can't be a great partner with the "guilt gap", always thinking of what you should be doing instead of being on a date.

I think the best scenario for dating is a PhD student in another department. Second best is a student in your department*. Third is a non-student with a demanding job.

Do not date self-employed, underemployed, or unemployed people, artists or musicians. They really can't grok not only the time commitments, but the need for just total decompression of sleeping/fucking/extreme self-care when you manage to squeeze in free time. I dated a comedian who expected me to go to his shows or friends' shows when I had a night off. I just wanted to lay in bed, have sex and watch Hoarders on my nights off.

Really, the most important thing is to find someone who understands and respects your time. The turning point for you should be dumping someone when they fuss or don't respect that your schedule is hectic, rather than dropping everything to be with them. I definitely added stress by slacking to keep a boyfriend or two happy, because I was constantly thinking about how I was failing to do more important things.

*You can successfully date--and even amicably break up (maybe)--in your department by following my system (patent pending):

-DO NOT KEEP YOUR RELATIONSHIP A SECRET. Dear God, it's a recipe for gossip and drama. If you act like it's a BFD, so will everyone else. You spend a lot of time evading questions, making people lie for you... it's just ugly. Just be as transparent about the relationship as you would be if you were dating outside the department.

-Set boundaries. Like, actual, physical boundaries. "We shouldn't visit each other during our office hours." "Let's limit having lunch together to Tuesdays and Thursdays."

-Do not create a little love bird bubble others are intimidated by. Your other grad students and professors shouldn't feel like they are intruding on couple time if they see the two of you having coffee on campus. Invite people to join you, spend time doing stuff with your colleagues separately. People are weirded out if you're joined at the hip.

-Watch PDA. Don't bitch about you SO in the grad lounge. Don't talk to professors about your relationship. At least one will ask outright, another will smirk and make knowing comments. Goes double for the secretaries AKA the all-knowing and all-telling.

-If things aren't going well, break it off clean and quick, and be honest. None of this "I don't want anything serious/don't have time." then roll up with a new person 2 weeks later bullshit. If it's them, tell them.

Honestly, the only thing that got my love life on track was dropping out. I was so miserable that I made anyone I dated miserable. I don't mean to suggest dropping out, but if you aren't in a good mental/emotional place, forcing yourself to date isn't going to help matters.
posted by peacrow at 8:50 AM on December 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

Of the older students and younger professors in my program — people in their early 30s — a surprising number have a partner who's a doctor or lawyer.

I think part of the deal is that people in those professions Get It in a general way: know what it's like to be in a high-pressure high-intensity academic program, understand what the career stress is like, and are sort of preselected for being like "oh of course that's something important and worth doing even though it's overwhelming sometimes" rather than "dude, you've got it so easy, that's not even real work, just chill" or "well if you hate it so much just drop out" or whatever. But at the same time, they're not actually in your field or your profession, so you still get to have separate identities and interests and all that.

I'm not necessarily saying "date lawyers." But I am saying "look for other people who will already understand the situation you're in — and recognize that it's not just other academics who will understand."
posted by and so but then, we at 9:04 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

peacrow has great advice, especially the parts about dating someone in your department. I would approach dating someone in your own department very cautiously - it adds additional stressors on your relationship and on your studies.
posted by k8lin at 9:18 AM on December 18, 2012

Just chiming in to agree with the overall consensus that dating grad students in other departments might be the ideal situation. It's also worth pointing out that (while they suck in other ways) long distance relationships can work surprisingly well in grad school, because the everyday relationship things that would take the most time away from your schoolwork aren't available to you anyway. Also, if you're planning on an academic career and dating another academic, long distance is probably in your future anyway, what with the job market and all.

(I didn't mean for this to be a depressing answer, I swear!)
posted by dizziest at 9:20 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Overall, I think what you need in a relationship is what makes every relationship successful: open and honest communication of both people's needs and being sympathetic to what the other person's needs are.

I completely agree with both and so but then, we. People like doctors and lawyers are more likely to understand what you're going through because they've finished a demanding program themselves. They understand the need for flexibility in a relationship during grad school. I (a lawyer) started dating my husband in his third year of his Ph.D. As someone who had been through a very demanding graduate program, I completely understood when he was feeling really stressed out. It helped that I had already finished law school so I wasn't in the thick of it myself.

And like dizziest suggests, long distance can help. Our relationship was long distance at first, so we only saw each other every third or so weekend. It gave him plenty of time to work when I wasn't around, so that wasn't an issue.

I really think the key to our success was our ability to be honest with each other. You have to be able to say to someone that you need to work all night or all weekend and have the other person understand. At the same time, you also need to be able to understand that you do need to give some attention to the relationship. You can't just work all day every day with no end in sight and expect the other person to just be there when you want them. For me, my husband was able to be very clear about a particular time being really busy and when it would be over. For example, there was a period of a month or two where I basically never saw him. But I knew that there was a paper deadline and so he just couldn't see me. But I also knew when the end was. (And it helped that we took a vacation together after the deadline.)

I think you can absolutely meet someone and date in grad school. My husband and I were able to do it, and I know of several other people who met their spouses while they were in graduate school.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 10:45 AM on December 18, 2012

General PhD dating rules-

* Don't date people from your own lab/floor/building. When things end, these situations can become extremely exhausting and difficult.

* Don't get into or out of a relationship during high-stress times/years (for instance, around qualifiers or graduation).


But I’m in my late 20s and won’t finish my program before I turn 30. These should be prime dating years and the time when a lot of my peers seem to be meeting their future spouses. I seem to be aging minimally for now except for a few grey hairs, but I don’t kid myself that my attractiveness has a shelf life and that meeting the right person only gets harder as you get older. I also don’t know where I will end up after grad school, and right now I’m in a city thick with “my type” and I feel like I should take advantage.

Do you remember the time when you were a teenager- maybe 14 or 15 and 22 sounded too old, like life ended at 20 and it was unthinkable to be, gasp, t-w-e-n-t-y t-w-o ?? If you remember it, keep reminding yourself of it. Life does not end at 30, or 40 or 50 or so on...unless you are pronounced dead clinically. Just because everyone shops on Black Friday because, hey, you get good deals on flat-screen TVs on that day and in this one store, it doesn't mean that you cannot get the same on any given day of the rest of the year. So while it may seem "logical" that these are your "prime dating years" and you are in "a city thick with your "type"", please don't be so unrealistic or short-sighted. Your goals (monogamous, stable relationship etc etc.) and your attitude (highlighted paragraph) are mismatched. When you are able to align the two, your concern above will dissipate.
posted by xm at 11:07 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you expect for some reason that you will have an sudden abundance of free time and/or "emotional energy" after finishing your degree? Time can get tighter and job-related emotional demands can grow in your post-degree career.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:15 PM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a PhD student (5th year) in a very good relationship right now. I'm able to maintain this because I don't work as hard as I used to, but I'm also more efficient at scheduling my time -- on nights when I know I have a date, I know that working through the evening is out, so I work harder during the day. My productivity hasn't changed that much. But my career outlook has shifted appropriately, and it's leading me in direction that's more personally fulfilling rather than high-status/high-achievement. I've gone through a big shift in mindset in recognizing that I will always be "busy" and there will always be more work to do and it never ends until you cut it off. Post PhD the work will still fill all waking hours if you let it, especially if you aim for tenure-tack jobs.

This is a really personal thing obviously, and I understand that you're under a lot of pressure - more than me, it sounds like - but I'd suggest that working towards finding a balance now, rather than in some distant future that may never come, might be a good idea. And yes there are plenty of people out there who will understand the constraints you're under and will be understanding about the need for you to guard your time.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:27 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know what you mean about prime dating years. If you have interest in having children, grad school and early tenure track life can be really hard.

My grad school peeps dated:
- people before they entered graduate school that are civilians (who have to be very understanding about the realities of stress of this life)
- other grad students in other departments (seems to work well because understand each other, but not shitting where you eat)
- other grad students in program (sometimes works well, sometimes does not)
- tried dating civilians via OKCupid or whatever, which didn't seem to work very well

This is a terrible lifestyle to bring another into. Godspeed.
posted by k8t at 4:50 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't know whether this has been said, but if you're interested in a long-term marriage/kids type partnership and are planning to work in academia, I would strongly caution against getting involved with another grad student, even in a different department, because you'll eventually run into the dreaded two-body problem. This does not apply to all fields equally, but is worth noting. I like the doctor/lawyer suggestion as well as the just not dating suggestion.
posted by désoeuvrée at 1:51 PM on December 19, 2012

Huh. Interesting perspectives.

In contrast to peacrow's response, I dated an artist townie while I was in grad school (astronomy top-10 program), and here we are 12 years later, married and two kids (awwww).

So I guess people are different, and your mileage will vary.

I wonder if there might be some gender dynamics involved - a male scientist dating a female artist worked out better for me than it might have if it was the other way around? I, at least, benefited from the non-grad school perspective and support.

(Also, best grad school date was someone in Toxicology - "Don't mess with me, I can put arsenic in your coffee..." She was just kidding. I think.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:28 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

What mr roboto said.

I don't know what your future career holds, but my personal experience is that grad school was the easiest time of my career. Postdocs have to churn out basically another PhDs worth of work in half the time, just to stay in the game. If they do let you keep playing, you still have to keep your research up, but now you are also teaching. And there are students and postdocs who depend on your successful grants for their livelihood.

I would make time now, and stop waiting to live your life.
posted by pizzazz at 9:33 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

An interesting post because it’s something i can relate to (love the title!). I agreed with others on taking a break. Make sure you have a fulfilling personal life. I would suggest focusing on yourself for now, e.g. making yourself happy, improving yourself and traveling. It’s important to have supportive friends and family who can be there for you. Make as much friends as you can (including younger people) while you’re still in the university. Get to know different types of people and shortlist the qualities you want in a partner.

I was in a long distance relationship during the first year of my PhD. It didn’t work out mainly because my ex had issues with the distance (we’re in different continents). I never regret it because it taught me many things especially love. But the truth is… it is time consuming and emotionally draining! If I had transferred all the energies I spent in this relationship to my PhD, I would have gotten my degree by now.

Dating grad students from same/different department is not an option for me because grad school in my university is a really small community. Almost all my friends in grad school are single just like me. Dating other professionals is a better option because they are less intimidated by a PhD holder. Although there are times i carve for intimacy and a shoulder to cry on, this worry seems insignificant when i count all my blessings. Recently I’ve decided to stop worrying about finding the right one and focus on achieving my dreams. :)
posted by liltiger at 8:46 AM on December 23, 2012

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