Help me help my partner in grad school
November 13, 2014 7:06 AM   Subscribe

My partner is struggling as a new post-grad student. I don't know how best to help them. Details inside.

My partner of ~3 years is in the first term of a research qualification in a STEM subject. It's not grad school as such, but it is a post-grad qualification. It will be completed by July 2015. Partner is finding it hard to cope with finding a suitable direction for the project to take, with the exhaustion of being in labs all day, and with the social and political side of working at a research center and basically not being an undergrad any more. It sounds like partner's supervisor is super busy and not very helpful, and partner seems very concerned about performing badly or even failing.

Partner has expressed that they feel they aren't working hard enough and don't have enough theoretical knowledge to excel at doing the research. I know partner is very able in labs and I'm sure their colleagues don't realise how lost they feel. I've tried to encourage partner to read more around the area, but apparently it's quite a small field and hard to get general information about. I think they want to work harder but aren't sure exactly how to do that.

I really know nothing about partner's field in even a layman's way- it's a closed world to me. I don't know what kind of support is reasonable for them to ask for from their supervisor; to me it seems like partner is floundering and needs to ask for more guidance, but that doesn't seem to be an option.

Partner is also quite a chronic procastinator and is spending a lot of time zoning out playing video games in the evenings. It worries me, because I feel they need to put more time into studying when they're at home. Partner says that they are too exhausted from being in labs to want to work at home, plus the problem of not really knowing what on earth they should be doing.

I know this is super tough to be dealing with and I want to be as supportive as I can. I haven't got a lot of stress in my life at the moment so I'm trying to step up and take over things like cooking and shopping, so they don't have to worry about that as well. But to be honest, it frustrates me when I see partner clicking away at a game all evening, before half-heartedly reading half of a paper just before going to bed. I've been trying to encourage partner to ease off a little on the games, or at least time their activity so they can have a real picture of how much time they soend on them. But at the same time I don't want to take away their downtime which is obviously also needed. I've also tried to be generally cheerful and reassuring them, and reminding them that it will be over soonish and it doesn't matter to me what grade they get.

(I was aware of partner's avoidant work style previously, and I'm very similar so feel a little hypocritical, but it didn't seem to matter so much when they were an undergrad, and we weren't living together at that point so I didn't witness the bulk of the avoidance/guilt/despair/last minute scrabble to success cycle. Partner is very gifted and always got good grades even with this not-ideal work style. A long term-project is very different from cramming for exams, though).

Basically, I don't know what I'm contending with, and I don't know if I should just let partner deal with it themselves and continue to be supportive in practical ways and listen to their worries, or if I should encourage them to take more steps like doing more studying and/or trying to get more support from their supervisor. I don't want to nag, but I don't want to just go along and comfort them in their pessimism when it seems to me they could do more and break the cycle of avoidance and despair. I know what it feels like to be burnt out and not wanting to face the work ahead of you, and I know partner is very engaged when they are in the labs- but I take them at face value when they say they're not doing enough.

I'd like to hear from grad students or post-docs who can remember what it's like to be doing research for kinda the first time. I want to know more about what partner is dealing with, and how best to support them on my end. What do you wish your partner had done for you at a similar time in your life? Contributions from partners/spouses of researchers also welcome.
posted by mymbleth to Human Relations (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: As someone who's occasionally struggled with this flavor of avoidant work style, and knows many people worse than myself: avoidant behavior followed by last minute scrambles is mostly incompatible with having a successful and enjoyable experience in STEM PhD program. Unless your partner is just wildly overstating how bad they're "failing" (possible), he or she needs to figure out how to pace better and to ask for help. If not from the direct supervisor, from one of many other people in or around their lab. A lab manager? A tech? A grad student? A postdoc? Someone probably has more downtime, and it's worth it to get over the sense of "I'm doing terribly" and ask questions. As for recommendations of best papers to read given what your partner's thinking about working on. Ask about that step in Technique X that you're he/she isn't sure about. Everyone in this lab knows your partner's new to this thing. Questions are good.

What your partner does to unwind in the evening is almost irrelevant if they're not actively trying to engage with everyone they can when they're feeling confused or directionless during the workday. If/once your partner has that covered, then it's time to assess whether they're realistically assessing how "badly" they're doing, and whether their expectations of how they use their time away from lab are a) aligned with their goals and b) realistic considering that human beings needs downtime, and that people living together need to work out a reasonable division of labor that doesn't leave one party super-resentful.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:21 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's impossible to know whether he's doing OK. When I was in grad school, I felt like I was pretty on-task, and now in retrospect, I feel like I played a lot of games back then. So maybe he's doing fine. As for his feelings of being lost and technically not up-to-snuff: those feelings are universal. Which means that people who are doing fine have those feelings (I sure did) but then again, so do people who aren't doing fine.

Frustrating as it is, I don't think you can step in to start managing his work life. But I do think you should stop doing all the cooking and shopping. When you're an overworked scientist, yes, there are days when you come home and your brain is too jelly-like to do more science. And what you do at those times is you do the cooking and the shopping.
posted by escabeche at 7:33 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Man... where to begin. First of all thank you for taking an interest in your partner's well-being and success, and for asking this question.

The fundamental thing to understand here, from my perspective which comes with a lot of experience, is that the battle is not against the workload, or the research, or the advisor. The battle is with himself, in his head. What is stopping him from doing the work is anxiety and fear. I can say this because I've been there and I recognize it.

The things your partner is saying come down to this: "I can't do this, and I'm going to fail, and that is going to destroy me". Grad school, or similar situations like this, is dangerous for anxious types. Because the workload is heavy, there is immense pressure to do impossible things, and the work output is intrinsically tied to the self, so that if your thesis sucks, YOU suck, you fail as a human being, and your identity as an intelligent, capable person goes up in a puff of smoke. What does it mean for a person who believes themselves to be smart and capable to suddenly fail at the sort of thing they are supposed to be best at? It means that suddenly they have to confront a lot of very scary ideas, like the idea that their life has a story that makes sense, that they will get a nice career and live happily ever after, rather than crashing out and living on the streets. Anxiety is very all or nothing, black or white, by the way. Any hint of divergence from the assured path of safety brings on a swirling vortex of worst-case scenarios which suddenly feel not only possible, but certain.

In the grips of anxiety, everything becomes a test. Every single day, he is telling himself, today I am going to do a whole bunch of things and read all these papers and make all this progress and that will prove that I am not failing, but guess what, that's way too much for him (or anyone) so he always fails to meet his targets, and thus every day comes home feeling like a failure and terrified about what that means. And likewise, every time he faces the task of trying to pick up a paper and read, his entire future is at stake. It is not just one paper. It's the next 50 years on his shoulder, every day.

And what if he does manage to do the work, and fails anyway? What if he really isn't good enough? What does that mean about his life, his career, his conception of himself? What about the gifted student who got good grades and was supposed to sail through life and make everyone proud, but who always feared he never deserved any of that praise? Facing this crisis -- trying and failing -- is too much. So the answer is to avoid. Self-sabotage by refusing to engage in the work, so that when failure comes, it has a cause that is not "I tried and I wasn't good enough"; rather it's "I just couldn't find the will to try somehow". The second one leaves the self intact. It's seductive. It calls to him every day, when he stares at his research and feels the weight of the next 50 years. And it takes the form of pleasing comfortable addictions which blank out emotions.

These are the things I did that allowed me to get through my PhD thesis under similar tortures.
- I set up regular working sessions with some of my peers. It was way easier to work in a group on my own stuff, than work alone. Anxiety really only ramps up when you are alone.
- I went through therapy. Your partner should seriously consider this, if he can.
- At the advice of my therapist, I stopped making gigantic task lists and tried to do one thing a day. Just one. Write one paragraph, read one paper. It helped a lot. For a while I really could only manage one thing a day.
- I put as much structure into my day as I could. So there was work time and rest time. The worst is pseudo-rest-time-when-I'm-supposed-to-be-working-but-can't-bring-myself-to-so-veg-out-in-front-of-the-computer-but-feel-like-shit-the-whole-time. If he must work in the eveving, let it be for one hour of focused work, and then stop and rest. His avoidant stuff is not really rest. I bet he's exhausted.
- Along those lines, self-care activity, eating well, exercise, all help a lot when I could manage them.

I don't think you should crack the whip for him, nor should you be the one to impose this structure on him, because then if he fails to meet your expectations it is just one more person he is failing. So it becomes more pressure. The best things you can do is to take the pressure off of him as much as you can, and encourage him to go easy on himself, not to beat himself up, celebrate the small victories and the small achievements (which are really way bigger than they seem -- remember, the weight of fifty years weighs on each of them). Point out the signs of progress that you see, and call out catastrophizing when you see it. Encourage boundaries around work. Make him feel loved. Schedule partner activities in the evening sometimes, to give him a break and to force him to stop working/avoidant-working. Send him articles to read about Imposter Syndrome. Encourage him to find peer support if you can. If he does get sucked into video games, don't nag -- the fact that he's in there means he lost the battle for that evening, adding more pressure won't make him suddenly able to win it. Expect him to lose a lot of battles, because he's facing an impossible burden right now, and his only hope is to re-jig things in his head so that it feels less impossible. Good luck.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:57 AM on November 13, 2014 [24 favorites]

Best answer: I was your partner when I was in grad school. I agree with Percussive Paul above that the list of things he did when in school are absolutely the way to get through it. But, that's advice for your partner, not for you.

The absolute best thing my partner did for me when I was in school was to love me absolutely and never nag me about work. Everytime I would complain about how I wasn't good enough, he would say YOU ARE AMAZING and make me give him a high five. When I would say I wasn't working hard enough, he would say "Tomorrow will be better" but wouldn't try to problem solve or fix things. Grad students (even if this isn't quite a grad program, but sounds like there are many similarities) have plenty of people in their lives to knock them down, give them suggestions, etc. If and when your partner wants to obtain help, there are plenty of places to get it (student counseling center, peers/coworkers, etc.). But, you can't force that upon them, and I think setting up a dynamic where you're always trying to come up with solutions to their problems is a bad one. If you can be the one person who is always supportive, that is a truly awesome thing.

I also think you should stop trying to take over all the household chores. Among other things, this program is NOT forever, and you don't want to set up an uneven distribution of household work for your entire relationship. When I was in school, it was actually fantastic to have SOMETHING in my day that I could actually accomplish and finish properly, even if that thing was cooking a steak or getting the toilet clean. By becoming a "mom" in the relationship, I don't think you're doing anyone any favors. Obviously if there is a short term issue (i.e. partner has a deadline in 3 days, partner gets really sick, etc.) it's appropriate to briefly take over some big tasks. But on the whole, a relationship should be about equals. I actually don't think it is very helpful for someone who is already feeling inadequate and like a failure to ALSO feel like they are taking on a child-like role in their romantic relationship where they are taken care of/babied but they never get to be the one providing/taking care of.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:27 AM on November 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Partner is very gifted and always got good grades even with this not-ideal work style.

This is exactly what I have struggled with as a grad student after years of easy success academically, all the way through college. Your partner is going to have to put in some hard work figuring out how to treat their coursework and learning as more of a job, and move away from the kind of college/procrastination study habits that might have worked well in the past. What has helped me the most is getting diagnosed with and treated for the ADHD I never knew I had, because my giftedness in school actually worked to cover it up through elementary school, high school, and most of college.

I've also had to actively change my own work habits so that I DO get work done during the daytime, even on days I'd rather just kind of dink around on the computer and put off my work until the evening. Just like your partner, when I do that, I get to the evening and I really can't do quality work because my focus and energy are pretty much gone.

I had a professor recommend Time Management from the Inside Out to me, which wasn't some sort of magic fix, but it was helpful in getting me to think more about how I planned my time so that I could actually enjoy my free time - play video games without a nagging sense of guilt in the back of my mind the whole time, read the books that I've had in my "to read" pile for years, get back into knitting and cooking, two things that I love, without feeling like they were just adding more crap to my to-do list.

These are mostly things that your partner's going to need to take ownership of, because ultimately these changes need to come organically from within them. I think the best role you can take on is support in the sense that you let your partner know you're there for them if they're feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, and that you love them regardless of their academic work and progress. I agree a lot with PercussivePaul that you really don't want to take on a kind of "life coach" role in the relationship, because becoming your partner's scheduler, therapist, parent-type person can put a big strain on any relationship. I wish you guys the best - this is a hard life transition to make, but can be very worth it for both of you!
posted by augustimagination at 10:27 AM on November 13, 2014

I'm in a similar position of finding my feet in a graduate degree course while working full time, and running a home an two dogs, so I know how things can get a bit heavy!

Unfortunately for me my partner works 60+ hour weeks as a restaurant manager, so I'm the one working, studying and doing all the chores too!

The key to success here is definitely consistency and good habits, and chunking out work so you always do a little bit at a time, so always feel you're achieving, but combining all that without it feeling like a complete chore, especially after a long day, or finding time to balance this with your other commitments, events and your mood and motivation is a real art, so I know where your other half is coming from.

I think your instincts are good as far as offering non judgmental support but I agree that taking up the slack in the chores while noble could be counter productive in becoming his mum and shoudering the responsibility for logistics he's liable to forget these even exist, and you're liable to create a rod for your own back, and potentially lead to resentment and friction between you.

To be honest rather than trying to be a domestic fairy out of sight I'd be up front about it and have an explicit conversation about how things are going for him and how you can work this out together, the studying side of things is up to him, but just discussing your needs, requirements and the physical logistics could be productive.

My other half and I don't have much to worry about on this score as I run the house pretty much single handed, but I do expect him to help me when he can. However somewhat counter-intuitively, the biggest support my other half provides is in not trying too hard, and leaving it up to me to get on with.

What really helps me is knowing that he will try and give me whatever help and support I need, but that he's also living his own life and doing his own thing, and loves me irrespective so the weight of expectation and ambition is firmly off our relationship and purely an academic issue.

In loving me he is naturally inclined value me and to be helpful, and to understand the hard work and stress that come along with what I'm doing and giving me the time and space and independence I need to get stuff done without worrying that he's taking it personally, can't be underestimated.

He also understands that I also need "me" time away from all my other responsibilities to relax and unwind and recharge my batteries away from everyone and doesn't take it personally or resentfully.

What really helps in the most stressful times is his knowing that there are times when I need time and space to study, and specific help during crunch times at weekends where he keeps the dogs out of my hair, brings me food, cups of tea and listens to me patiently while I rant and rave about my assignments or drops in to give me random encouragements are really appreciated, then returns to whatever else he is doing.

Your mileage may vary, but in terms of support on this sort of thing, less can be more, and being less engaged in the process and certainly the outcome could actually be the most supportive thing!
posted by Middlemarch at 10:39 AM on November 13, 2014

By the way -- apologies for assuming a male pronoun for partner. I think it was very easy to project my (male) self into their shoes.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:09 AM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: PercussivePaul's is the best comment (in the world) and I wish I could favourite it more than once.

The best thing your partner can do for themselves right now is to see a therapist. Preferably one associated with the university, if they can, as they are more likely to understand the special problems of academia. The therapist will help them come up with strategies to manage their anxiety and avoidance, and you can ask your partner to let you know how you can support them in those strategies. But you can't find those solutions for them.

For example, it really helps me to have an external person I tell about personal deadlines and research plans for the day or week and so on, as a bit of accountability, and my husband can be that person. But that's something I have discovered for myself that I need, with the help of therapy. And I think it would have been completely inappropriate for him to suggest it if I hadn't asked.

And yeah, the video games in teh evening might actually be valid decompression rather than avoidance. Lab-based research, as I understand it, is very different from non-experimental fields of study. There might not be that much in the way of "studying" outside the lab that needs to happen. And there's less down-time when you are at work, so totally relaxing at home is probably good. That's not to say your partner shouldn't pull their weight around the house, of course. That's still mental relaxation, even if it's physical work.
posted by lollusc at 4:43 PM on November 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, all great answers. Partner spent all of last night wide awake conjuring up any number of worst case scenarios and working themselves into a real state. They definitely need help with their anxiety. They're meeting with a mentor today and I'm encouraging them to access university counselling asap.
posted by mymbleth at 12:47 AM on November 14, 2014

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