Sunday, May 20, 2012

On Relationships in Postacademia

A commenter on my post from last week asked me to write a little bit about how my partner and I were able to make our relationship work while I transitioned out of academia. Zie writes that the transitional process has been tough for hir relationship, and is looking for tips on how those of us who have left have made it work while keeping a relationship intact.

Before I get started, I'd like to mention that it might be helpful for some of the postacademic bloggers who have kids (Jet? Jen? Lauren?) to write about how this transition can be navigated with kids in tow. I can't speak to this issue at all, obviously, but I think it might be helpful for others.

Anyway, Currer already posted some great thoughts on this, so I urge everyone to check out her post. I don't think I can add much to what she wrote, although I'll ramble on for awhile anyway. :)

Obviously ... I am not a counselor or relationship expert. Take my advice with a grain of salt.

Also, keep in mind that my situation is a bit different than other postacademics. I had a job immediately upon leaving academia, which is a very unusual situation for most academic leavers. (See - ignoring your department's rules and getting a part-time job while you're in school can pay off!!) So my partner and I never had to deal with the stress of unemployment, and rather than facing financial strain when I left academia, we've actually benefited financially. So I can't offer much advice about how to negotiate the concrete pressures of unemployment or financial strain. I can, however, offer advice about making a relationship work while you're dealing with the emotional process of leaving academia.

As Currer writes in her post ... communication is key. The transition is going to be hard enough without you and your partner keeping things from one another or carrying resentments and frustrations around in your heads without talking to one another. If money is tight, you need to communicate clearly about your finances. If you're feeling frustrated and angry or sad about academia or about your job search, tell your partner about it. On one level, he or she might be able to offer some advice that can help you get through whatever is frustrating you.

More abstractly, though ... if you stay quiet about what's bothering you, your partner may begin to think that you're angry at them or might be confused about what's going on, and that simmering resentment and confusion between you might explode into anger. Talking openly about your feelings can not only put it all out in the open, but can help purge it from your own mind so that you aren't dealing with low-level resentments that might get taken out unfairly on your partner.

Communicating clearly with your partner through this time will be particularly important if your partner isn't an academic. Non-academics might have a hard time understanding why you have to do all of this emotional work when you're just "changing jobs." Of course, we postacademics know that leaving academia is more complicated than leaving a different kind of job ... but non-academics won't always realize this unless it's spelled out for them. According to my partner, the time I spent explaining the culture of academia to him really helped him understand why it was so hard to adjust to leaving and to move on. So ... communicate!!

At the same time, though, you can't expect your partner to be the sole receptacle for your anger and frustration and sadness over your career transition. As we've been over a million times at this blog, you're going to have a lot of feelings about this process - both positive and negative. Obviously, your partner is going to hear a lot of it. But you can't possibly expect them to be your sole audience for everything. That will start to wear them down and frustrate them after awhile.

So my second piece of advice is to find an additional outlet for your feelings. This blog has been a critical outlet for me, of course. Being able to write down my feelings and reread them later on has really helped me purge some of my feelings from my system without burdening my partner with all of it. So starting a blog or just a private journal might be a good second outlet for you. I also have a good friend who left a grad program a few years back - and has therefore been a terrific help to me through this process. I also saw a therapist for awhile, which was really helpful. So don't be afraid to go to friends or to a professional for additional advice and support.

All of these outlets not only helped me individually, but also helped take some of the burden for listening/comforting me off of my partner. This has definitely helped our relationship stay strong.

Next piece of advice ... get out of your house and do things together. Whether you're totally unemployed or if you find a "next job" right away like I did, the last thing you're going to want to do is spend all of your free time at home, surrounded by your academic work and your computer and the memories of your life as an academic. That will probably be depressing and frustrating, and those kind of emotions can put strain on your relationship.

More importantly, though ... getting out and doing stuff with your partner can remind you of why you two are together. So that even if you find yourself arguing or being frustrated with each other sometimes, you will still be reminded that you enjoy spending time together, and you will be making good memories alongside the rough patches.

If finances are tight, just do free stuff. Go hiking, check out art galleries, do volunteer work, start walking or exercising together, etc. If you're not struggling financially, you can think a little more broadly. But don't let your entire relationship take place in your home, where the ghosts of academia will probably linger.

And finally, I'll offer this last piece of advice ... not from personal experience of this exact situation, but based on my experience of what hasn't been a strain on our relationship.

Go find a "just for now" job.

I know this is easier said than done in today's job market, but I think it's worth offering up as advice for keeping a relationship strong during this transition. If you're struggling financially, just finding a part-time gig or a temp job can help ease the financial and emotional strain a little bit. You might not be bringing in half of the household income again, but at least you're bringing in something. You will be a more equal partner than you are now, and that can help your relationship stay stronger. So don't turn up your nose at that crappy temp job just because it's not a Ph.D.-level position. Easing the financial strain even a little bit can help your relationship stay strong.

But even if you don't need a job right away for financial reasons, it might help your relationship for you to find a "just for now" job. It'll get you out of the house, give you some income of your own, and give you a schedule to follow and something that you, alone, are responsible for doing. It might help you feel emotionally better to have something to get up and go do, and some kind of paycheck coming in. And if you're feeling better about yourself, your relationship will also benefit.

So even if you aren't sure of what career you want to pursue next, and even if you don't need a paycheck to make ends meet in your household? I'd advise that you consider finding a "next" job. It can help your self-esteem, but can also help your relationship by making you a fully participating partner in your household once again.


Overall, my relationship with my partner is still good. He's an easygoing guy by nature, so as long as I was bringing in a paycheck and was generally still an upbeat person, it would be really unlike him to be upset with me for making a life decision that I felt was right for me. And he really never did.

He did admit that there were times when listening to me complain about academia got frustrating, but he said that since I'd been talking for several years about how overwhelming and isolating academia was, he understood that "leaving would be really hard and frustrating for you." So he just tried to be supportive and let me figure everything out.

And in the end, he said that since we'd been together for so long, he knew I would never do something crazy to jeopardize our lives and our relationship ... so if I'd made such a drastic decision, it must have been something I really needed to do. So rather than fighting me about it, he says now that he decided to trust that I was doing something I really needed to do and to support me no matter what.

Yeah, he's pretty great. I'm very lucky to have such an amazing and supportive partner.

Obviously, there's no way to make someone an easygoing and trusting person, so if your partner isn't that way by nature, it might be a little tougher to navigate this whole thing. But hopefully by using some of the advice Currer and I offer, you can minimize the stress in your relationship while you break away from academia.

And ultimately ... relationships don't always last forever, but you're stuck with your own life forever. There's no breaking up with your own life. So if your partner refuses to be supportive, you might need to do some careful thinking about if there's a way to keep them happy while also making sure that you get the life you want. And if there isn't? Well, it might be time for some hard decisions to be made. Because a good partner should love you no matter what - whether you're a professor or a janitor, and whether you continue down the same life path or take a slight detour. We all deserve to be happy with our own lives.

Good luck!


  1. Thank you so much for this, JC.

  2. Great and well considered post. And yes, I think now that you've prompted me, I shall think about putting together some thoughts about the experience of the transition out of academia with kids in tow. What I will say to this point briefly now, is that working with children in tow must be easier outside the sphere of academic life. While it would appear that flexibility and the chance to work at home in your dressing gown/bathrobe comes with academia, the reality of work taking over your home life is impossible to escape, and this is what I have found most difficult and stressful. In my time in academia, I have met very few women with children who seem happy in the game. Yes, the reality is that men in academia with children seem somehow to still survive unscathed. And if they are suffering they have been pretty quiet about it. More of course can be said around all of that! My experience of transitioning while in a relationship and with the responsibility of kids, has been more of an emotional challenge than financial as my partner and I have made careful financial decisions early on when we had kids (two of them) that would help us cope with a manageable mortgage and other things while I was working part-time and him full-time in an established career. But he's had to listen to me drone on an on, cry, have sleepless nights etc, around my transition and decision to leave that has included the long haul of job hunting, soul searching, and all that comes with it - endless reading of career guide books, self-help books and meditation tapes! He has admitted he couldn't stand another minute of my moaning one evening and then resolved himself to listen to me again when I needed the shoulder to cry on. But as JC has said, the bloggers that I have discovered here have really made a difference for helping me cope! The advice form the author of What Color Is your Parachute advises career changers/job seekers, to write, write write! As I read this after I started my blog, I realised he was onto something meaningful there. So, yes, my advice is keep up with reading and responding to the bloggers here and write as a way of helping yourself find your path to sanity. And your partner will feel a bit less stressed as you have another outlet. Good luck to all - we all know what you're going through. Now, on to writing a very quick update for my much neglected Blog at the moment!

    1. You know, it's funny ... I've always assumed that (despite the flexibility) it would be incredibly difficult to balance kids with an academic work schedule.

      I know how much my *dog* would begin to annoy me on my "work at home" days, with all of his "I want to go in! Now I want to go out! Here's my toy; will you play with me! I want a treat!" nonsense. Every time I'd have to get up for even a minute or give him attention for a few seconds, I would totally lose my concentration.

      I've always figured that it would be a million times more difficult to concentrate with actual children, with their multitudes of demands and needs and activities. I think the frustration would be overwhelming.

      I look forward to reading your thoughts!

  3. Thank you, JC... I needed this

  4. In some ways, quitting took strain off my relationship. My partner isn't an academic, we had moved away from the university-- quitting made me more like him and the people around us, especially once I got a part time job.
    There was stress around the job and money though-- because we were, obviously, cut off from student loans, and because while I had let go of the fantasy of an academic job a long time before quitting, my partner was weirdly still clinging to some strange notion that I was giving up a job by quitting. So I spent a lot of time repeating phrases like, I WAS NEVER GOING TO GET A JOB! Which was, not surprisingly, not great for my self esteem/identity.

  5. I don't want to hijack the thread, but what do people think about choosing to have kids while still a grad student if you aren't planning on staying? I am torn whether to bail now, find a job, and work the six plus months in order to be eligible for maternity leave, or whether I should use my grad student health insurance to get pregnant now. Thoughts?