5 Tips for Having a Healthy Relationship in Graduate School

by Aria S. Halliday

Graduate school is a great place to learn more about yourself—your intellectual interests, your mentorship style, your desired working environment, your best times and places to write, your favorite coffee shop or de-stress meal. For me, graduate school was also a great place to figure out whether I could balance the lifestyle of an academic, in which you are constantly writing, and meeting, and collaborating, and thinking, and discussing, and teaching, and lecturing, with an “adult” relationship. For many of the hetero women I met along the way, my intimate relationship was a novelty, an anomaly in many respects. They wanted to know my secret—not just because I was in a relationship, but because as a Black woman I had successfully nabbed a Black man. I wish their questions were as facetious as my tone; many of them really wanted to know what had I done (or not done) to somehow have a relationship worth taking note of. The sad thing is, I’m not sure that I could ever answer that question. The question I answered for them, and that I will answer here is: “how do you make a relationship work in graduate school?” Here are my 5 tips for having a healthy(ish) relationship while pursuing a graduate degree.

  1. Date someone with similar intellectual interests. No, they don’t have to be in graduate school or even want a degree after a Bachelor’s. But your partner should at least be interested in talking about what you’re studying and why you’re studying it. They might even inquire about all those meetings you have to attend or whether your major advisor is being an ass or not. In short, you want to be with someone who at least cares that your “job” as a graduate student requires much more attention and care than a typical 9-to-5.
  2. Date someone who can hold their own. In academia, you get invited to a lot of shit—dinners, banquets, gatherings, brunches, department outings. It’s important that you’re with someone who has their own interests, their own things to talk about, and can handle a room full of awkward ass nerdy folks. Don’t get me wrong; there are some wonderfully engaging people who work in universities and colleges, but that is not most. Therefore, your partner will have to either handle themselves in a room where people don’t know how to talk about anything but their upcoming conferences and their article that is being reviewed or they will never accompany you to anything.
  3. Date someone who understands your “job”. This goes with #1, but it’s important to say on it’s own. Many of the folks I met with graduate degrees before I got to graduate school mentioned their failed relationships. Most of them noted that their partners struggled with how much work they have to do and, specifically at the dissertation stage, why their focus had to be almost laser-focused on this monumental piece of scholarship. They need to understand that graduate school requires a certain amount of isolation to think long and hard about new knowledge. Not understanding this can cause a whole lot of hurt, especially because of all the communication, activities, and overall passion that is required to maintain a relationship.
  4. Date someone who cares about you. In addition to graduate school being a stressful place, it can also be isolating. You need to date someone who is willing to let you work in isolation when you need to, but also cares enough to push you to be a human too. Many of those failed relationships I mentioned either suffered because partners didn’t realize when they needed to step in. I won’t say that they didn’t care, but they didn’t care enough to recognize when isolation became separation. You have to date someone who cares enough to give you a hug just because, make you laugh with a stupid joke, and bring you back to life when you’ve isolated yourself too long. They also have to care enough to tell you when they need attention; in many relationships, we expect our partners to know us well enough to know when we need attention. We assume that they know; however, graduate school distracts you from even knowing when you’re birthday is. It’s hard to notice the signs that you’re neglecting someone you care about; they have to care enough to call you out.
  5. Date someone with whom you have great sex. Yes, I said it! Studies show all the time that sex is a great way to relieve stress and better your mood. Graduate school is a huge amount of stress and agony for any person; I believe this is exacerbated by not having enough sex. I’m sure you can make it through graduate school celibate or single; however, I don’t suggest it. Sometimes, you need to be able to come home, laugh, drink some wine, and have amazing sex that puts you to sleep. I think it’s required to a productive graduate school experience and for a healthy relationship.

If you can date someone who can do all of these things while you’re pursuing a graduate degree, I believe that you’ll not only have a better experience in graduate school, but you’re also be in a healthy relationship. The Black man who I dated in graduate school did many of those things and we had a pretty great relationship while in graduate school. Of course, you have to be able to reassess your relationship once graduate school is over. I’ll have to let you know how that goes…

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