Monday, August 23, 2010

the last year

Today I start what I hope will be my last year of school (as a student, at least).

It's been a very, very long road and there is still a lot ahead of me. For example, maybe I should get my books out of the box that's been sitting ominously on our dining room table for 2 weeks or so.

Seriously though. What scares (and excites) me about this coming year is the amount of work that falls squarely on me. I am [somewhat] in control of whether I graduate next year. I say "somewhat" because there's a committee of very busy people who are going to be helping me out (and by helping, I mean criticizing my every move). But in reality, it is mostly ME leading the way. MY decisions about how to spend my time over the following several months are going to shape the way my year goes.

It's going to be a ride, that's for sure.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

5 years in north dakota

Five years ago today, I arrived in Grand Forks with an SUV-load of stuff and an 18-month plan:

Step 1: Get Master's degree
Step 2: Move back to the west coast.

I guess plans were made to be... modified.

I did get the Master's in 18 months.
But life happened.
I met my husband and he was in school.
So I started my next degree.
And then we bought a house.
And then we got married.
And then he finished one degree and started another.

And here we are.

Maybe for another year. Or another 3. Or who knows? Life's pretty good right now, so I won't complain. :-)

Thursday, August 05, 2010

all your weight, it falls on me

Through people I know, I have derived that a lot of people are in a situation where their spouse or significant other is in school. Either you've gone back to school, or your spouse has, or one of you has been living the 'student life' for the bulk of your relationship. On the other hand, it's somewhat less common for me to meet couples who are both in the active pursuit of academic degrees (or professional certifications). As you probably know, my husband and I are one of those couples.

When we met, I was finishing up a degree and husband was applying for his. Then for a few months of our friendship (and later, dating), I was not going to school, while he was. Then I got accepted to my Ph.D program. Things have picked up a lot since then.

Now we're both full-time grad students. But we don't live the 'grad student life', because we're also both gainfully employed. I hear a lot of people vent frustration about how their spouse quit a job to go back to school, and now there is a financial burden on their lifestyle. We did not want that. We figured: if we're going to essentially give up our twenties with our noses buried in books, we might as well have some financial security and savings when we come out of it all. Our decision to keep working equates to no change in financial lifestyle, but also means a lot of stress and very little free time.

So anyway, about that work. Each of us holds a full-time, professional position that is somewhat-related to our area of study. (But it's not like a 'research assistant' job or anything: it's an actual job in the industry, unrelated to the time we put in academically.) So at any given time (including summer), we're each working 40-hour weeks while also taking between 6 and 15 credits.

This can cause some issues with time management, specifically in terms of how "free time" (what's that?) should be spent.

In fact, here are some "cons" related to the dual-school-working-marrieds lifestyle:
  1. We're both too busy to 'pick up the slack'. With a single-back-to-schooler in the household, the non-schooling spouse is often expected to take on extra responsibilities like cleaning, cooking and errands-running. But for us, there is no 'non-schooling spouse'. Chores will sit undone, forms unfilled-out, laundry unwashed. We run our cars' gas down to fumes because neither of us wants to spare the 10 minutes to stop at the gas station.
  2. Our families and friends suffer. This ties in to "picking up the slack". One spouse can't be the "liaison" (a.k.a. ass-coverer) for the spouse that couldn't make it to cousin-so-and-so's birthday celebration due to some crazy-huge project. 
  3. School costs money. We could pay off either car with the amount of money we're going to spend on tuition and books for us both this fall alone.
  4. Courses are designed as if each one is the only thing going on in your life. Class meetings during work-time, hours-upon-hours of legwork required outside of class, collaboration required with people who work strange hours and thus can only meet on weekends or late at night... today's classrooms are not just reading, writing and examinations. There's groupwork. Interactive projects. And tons of time. They say that each credit hour you take requires 3 hours of outside-of-class time to study each week, minimum. So let's say you're crazy like hubs was last spring, and you take 15 credits. That's 45 hours you should spend on the homework. On top of working 40 hours a week. It's like having 2 full-time jobs.
  5. Where is the love? When you're stressed about work and you're stressed about school, and your evenings and weekends are taken over for the foreseeable future, how do you think that translates to your overall happiness, ability to relax, and desire to hang out with your spouse (or friends, for that matter)? When you do get free time, you're torn: you haven't spent an hour with your spouse in weeks, but you also have a list of "when I get time" tasks, needs and wants that have been gnawing at your brain. (For me, it's usually crafts, photo or home projects. For hubs, it's often reading or playing computer games.)
What it comes down to is personal sacrifices. We don't often get to our "free time" lists. And when we do, we have to choose whether we want to indulge our own desire, or spend the time with our spouse instead. Sometime we'll end up wasting a good chunk of the free time just trying to figure out what to do with it.

There are also sacrifices we share.
  • We do not have cable TV or any reception for network programs. Husband did manage to get the Olympics broadcast to come in, and we made an effort to watch a few of those events. I honestly think the Olympics is the last time we watched a TV program. (We know almost nothing of pop-culture, in case you haven't noticed.)
  • We rarely see a movie in the theater, and almost as rarely watch one at home (our Netflix discs regularly collect a little dust before we either get to them, or mail them back, unwatched, in a fit of guilt).
  • We eat out too much. But not for entertainment, for convenience when we're too tired to cook (or when no one has had time to go to the store).
  • There is no 'weekend downtime'. We work and have class all week, come home and do school work, then the weekend hits and we spend it doing schoolwork (and the chores required to keep our house from getting gross). Then we're back at work and school on Monday. (And if we travel during the semester - for work or personal purposes - we have to bring school work with us.)
  • We have to be very very patient. If one of us needs something done that only the other can provide, we have to wait a long time and/or expect less from each other, understanding that the other person has just as much homework, or more).
  • We can't shouldn't have kids. We are frequently asked when we're going to have children. Hahahahahaha. I know people who have kids, and who are in school. But their spouse isn't. I am pretty sure that "but" is the key. Meanwhile, my clock is ticking and the amount of birthday candles we each need are nearing the point where they could be confused with a bonfire.
Now with that out of the way, some "pros" of our situation.
  1. We know what each other is going through. Even though we have different programs with different requirements and expectations, we're able to sympathize. Neither of us has the right to get upset with the other when things get particularly heavy, because we've been there too. Or we're going to be there next week. Or we're currently in that situation and we not only understand, but are very busy dealing with it. Either way, we're both well aware of the strain full-time work+school can put on a person, because we're both living it. We don't have to try to empathize: We get it.
  2. We're both getting it done, ASAP. Even though we know other couples who have done this, we cannot stomach the idea of leap-frogging off each-other (one getting a degree and then working while the other goes back to school, and vice-versa) until we're 40 and one of us is still in school. We want it done now so we can move on to new things.
Yeah, there aren't a lot of pros. But they're big pros that far outweigh the triviality of the cons. Another note as far as the cons and sacrifices: we're used to this. Our whole relationship has been this way. It was not a recent change for us. This makes many of those negative things a lot less noticeable.

I suppose I ought to leave you with a few tips. If you or your spouse is in school, or if you're nuts like us and you're both in school, you're going to need to practice a few key attitude attributes to make it through while still on speaking terms. They are:
  • Patience. Patience. Patience. Seriously.
  • Compromise. (And agree on what it means to each of you to do so.)
  • Sympathy (or empathy, depending on your sitch).
  • Generosity (with your time, your skills, and your overall attitude).
  • Calmness. (Don't blow up. keep your temper.)
  • Ability to schedule anything. (You'll find yourself penciling in time for things you never thought you'd have to schedule.)
  • A shoulder to cry on. (School may not seem like a dramatic type of thing, but sometimes the stress can overwhelm.)
  • An eye on the prize. (Why are you doing this? Have a goal. A pretty picture in your head. An ideal future situation that justifies all this.)
Most of the time, we practice all of those tips and more. Some of the time, they all go to hell and we get crabby (me, mostly). But seriously: in a matter of a few years, we'll be greeted by two Ph.D.s hanging on our office wall. We'll have good, flexible jobs (with good salaries), recognition in our fields, and will be well on our way toward providing a nice, comfy life for us and our future children.