Things No One Told Me: Live Your Life

Pursuing the Ph.D. While Living On Your Own Terms

Posted Oct 24, 2020

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This is part 4 of the "Things No One Told Me About Getting a Psychology Ph.D." series (see part 1, part 2part 3, and part 5) developed and co-authored with Jessica P. Montoro. Jessica is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Just as a reminder: Several of the topics discussed are specific to pursuing a Ph.D. at a research-intensive institution and in a full-time, fully funded program. With that in mind, a “dialogue” is shared between an advisee (Jess) and her advisor (Debbie) to provide two perspectives on a range of different topics. We don’t claim to have these figured out, but we think these posts could be used as springboards for conversations between mentors and mentees.

#4: It’s hard to witness others’ milestones while postponing your own.

Advisee: While pursuing my PhD, I have had friends and family members get married, have children, get promoted, and buy their first home. Meanwhile I was swamped in literature or analyses, or applying for a grant, all while being away from my family, living through my first snowy winter, and relying on a stipend. It is common to have friends in long-distance relationships with a significant other, and waiting to complete their PhDs before settling down together in a different state or country.

This is not to say that you cannot also experience those life milestones while in graduate school; they are simply more challenging to live through while also pursuing a doctoral degree. It is frustrating to witness others’ milestones and stability, while you remain in a sort of limbo as you start out your career. Everyone has different priorities and timelines. It is just a matter of time before you land an awesome job postgraduate school, and your life will eventually achieve some stability.

Try reframing any toxic narratives around graduate school not counting as “real adulthood” or just being an extension of your undergraduate years. Keep this in mind when you scroll through your high school friends’ baby shower and wedding engagement posts on Instagram. 

Advisor: I hear you. I remember feeling “in limbo” during graduate school and then again as a postdoc. Actually, I looked around and realized that my own graduate school peers were “adulting” more than me. Ultimately, I figured out that the best time to [fill in your life milestone] is when it makes sense for you. Period.

I know people who bought a house/had a baby (or more than 1)/took that trip/got married while they were in graduate school, and I know those who felt they wanted to wait. Later on, I knew people who did all these things while on the tenure-track, and others who felt like they couldn’t.

Some people say, “I am not going to wait to start my life.” Others frankly don’t have the option to put anything on hold, because they are already partners, parents, homeowners, caregivers (e.g., to older parents), etc., and getting a Ph.D. is just another part of their reality. All of these choices are valid.