Living with a PhD student…

Here is a handy guide on how to approach your spouse or partner as they undertake a PhD. In fact, this would apply to anyone living with somebody undertaking intense studying. Bear in mind, the context of this blog post = a family unit who hasn’t left the house since the middle of March, with the exception of dog walks in a secure paddock and medical appointments. We’re all a little tightly wound at the moment.

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>> How long will that take you?

Try instead: never asking this question or any other that relates to timescales or speed of work.

Nothing will take me from feeling focussed and on task to exuding misty-red-rage quicker than this question. I have no idea how long it will take me. But I do know it will now take me a lot longer because I have to remember which figurative thread I was pulling on and which of the fifty-billion-million-tabs-I-have-open I was working on. Why do you need to know how long it will take me? You are a bonafide adult and you can occupy yourself or solve your own problem without any input from me.

>> Oh, I thought it was ok to talk [at you about my work / a meme I saw / the man-child] because you looked up from your screen…

Try instead: smiling, if there’s a brief moment of eye contact. That’s it. Nothing else.

Looking up from my screen doesn’t mean I am not processing something. PhDs are weird… you are holding so many ideas in your head at the same time and sometimes trying to push incongruent ones together. Looking up from my screen is usually an indication I am stretching my back, resting my eyes (which have always preferred to read on paper) or I’m sorting and moving things around in my mind palace. Ok, I’m no Sherlock Holmes but I do often visualise things. I will also say that this equally applies to reading for pleasure. Don’t interrupt me and pull me out of the world I was enjoying!

>> Bringing cups of tea or coffee and then moaning or being cross because they go cold.

Try instead: using one of the many lidded thingymabobs that we have (affectionately called stay-hots, in this house).

I realise this example paints me as a bit of a cow. I’m not ungrateful and I will frequently go without nourishment and hydration for many hours because I am in the zone (reading and thinking for several hours in a row so that I can write, literally, a single sentence). So, bringing me beverages is great and much appreciated. But, if I didn’t ask for one, I’m unlikely to even notice it arrive. Whacking it in a device that keeps it hot for longer increases my chance of drinking it. Also, the “telling off” for letting it go cold is another interruption which makes the answer to “how long will that take you?” even more volatile.

>> Offering to tidy up piles of work or books.

Try instead: doing nothing and leaving things exactly as they are.

For a start, in this marriage, I am not the messy one. In the past, I have had to tidy and clean her many offices because she likes to work in chaotic squalor. We are talking a penicillin level of neglect. The idea of her implying I’m working in a mess evokes words such as audacity, arrogance, cheek and delusion. I am methodical – it might not be obvious but there is always a method. So the piles are thus organised because they denote something: the order in which I plan to read, connections between authors and papers, topics or themes. If you touch them, you affect that organisation.

Also, this is an example where a partner or spouse looks like they’re being kind and helpful but the implication is that you’re somehow affecting the household because of the space you’re occupying. I have enough self-imposed guilt about being a 39 year old student without others piling onto it.

>> I thought you were going to work on [x, y, z], today?

Try instead: not commenting on when and how I choose to take time off.

See aforementioned references to self-imposed guilt. Sometimes, I am just not motivated to start or to climb back into the-monstrosity-of-an-office-chair-I-was-forced-to-buy-to-placate-my-fickle-spine. I just want to scroll through social media, watch Hamilton on Disney+, read a book for pleasure, play a game or message my friends. I know I have a deadline. I know it’s immovable. It is better that I take breaks, even unplanned, during my low motivation moments rather than arbitrarily having a planned night off that risks breaking a flow. Essentially, I don’t need a project manager; in this situation, you are my spouse and you are not responsible for my timesheet. Cheers.

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I can guess that anyone reading this who knows me will automatically take my wife’s side… and fairly so. She is lovely and (usually) just trying to be sweet. This blog was more about explaining what goes on in my head when met with these comments, questions and actions. Also, we’ve hit 20 years of “how long will that take you?” It has been applied to my undergraduate degree, my PGCE, classroom planning and marking, coursework and controlled assessment marking, exam board marking (there’s been a lot of marking), DIY and decorating, MA assignments, and my MA dissertation. The answer is always the same and I’m surprised she hasn’t learned it yet.

It. Will. Take. However. Long. It. Takes.

2 thoughts on “Living with a PhD student…

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