A month or so ago I requested a guest post that might speak to the misery and angst of the partner/spouse of someone on the academic job market. I had received several requests for such a post, generally from non-academic partners/spouses trying to figure out how to cope with the stress and uncertainty. I published one guest post about two weeks ago. Here is another. I think it captures splendidly the Alice in Wonderland nature of the Ph.D. process and job search from the perspective of anybody who is not actually in it.
by JJ Koczan
So where’s my piece of paper? Maybe even a title: S.Ph.D. “Spouse of a doctor of philosophy.” After a decade of charting my wife’s pursuit of degree upon degree, it seems the least “the academy” can do. Notwithstanding the crippling debt in which being married to so many student loans left me entangled, they owe me. If need be, I’ll book an auditorium or a conference room and give a Prezi slideshow to tell them why.
When it comes to being married to an academic, maybe I’m the wrong person to comment. She wasn’t an academic when I married her. We met at the tender age of 16, long before the innocent girl who’d later become my wife decided to make a career out of being smart. She was a high school student, good at taking standardized tests. How was I supposed to know she’d go pro?
At first, she didn’t. By the time I meandered my way out of an undergraduate degree at a pace that could best be called “creative professional,” she was employed full-time as a juvenile probation officer—a hard job that she still draws on for street cred in a, “See? I used to not spend every waking hour in front of a laptop screen!” kind of way. She made a good salary. State benefits. Opportunity for advancement. I had a dumpy editor’s job in the music industry. When I was asked at our engagement party by a distant cousin how we planned on surviving, I actually had an answer. The luxury!
Can you imagine? If so, you’re probably not married to an untenured academic.
She left that job, of course, in pursuit of her doctorate. It’s a peculiar and special kind of joy to wonder for months on end whether your spouse will have “funding” for the next year, or will work in what I as an outsider see as the unjustifiable indentured servitude of teaching assistantship and be expected to be grateful for the opportunity, putting in all the effort of a professor while reaping none of the prestige, years not ticking past so much as punching you in the face on their way by while you wait for—what, exactly?—I don’t even know at this point, it’s been so long since an entire league of people I knew didn’t define my existence by my wife’s ambitions. Oh yeah, him. He’s the one whose wife just got funding. Cue sigh of relief.
I can still recall the day my wife said to me in our small one-bedroom apartment that she was going to take an online class through the local state school; an idea thrown out so casually that I only paid any attention whatsoever in hindsight. In my mind, I see her flicking her hair back, carefree, her tone no more significant than if she were to have said she was going to make a sandwich. Like any trade that consumes the entirety of your being—see also your proctologists, plumbers, single-cell bacteria, etc.—the academy changes who you are, shifts your perspective, and in my experience, makes you more than a little bit of a weirdo.
To wit, us at a party. Oh, she was glorious. Uncomfortable and misanthropic as I am in every way imaginable and a few that aren’t, my wife could work a room like no one you’ve ever seen. Helps that she’s smokin’ hot—even now she can wear a professor’s scarf like it’s (ever) going out of style—but more than that, she had this charismatic ability to have a heart-to-heart with someone, a genuinely meaningful conversation to both people involved, in a crowded room surrounded by empty smalltalk. It was amazing to watch, and I can’t begin to recount the meaningless drivel it saved me both from hearing and from saying.
Now? Well, it’s hard to keep up conversational momentum when you’re pointing out the “problematic” statuette in the hallway, isn’t it? Or if you’re taking the full 45 minutes to answer a question as naïve as, “So what do you study?” I laugh every time I hear, “So what is your dissertation about?” The inquiry of an amateur! Who’d have thought to singular devotion to one idea for a span of years would result in a declining ability to relate to everything else in the world that isn’t that one idea? Crazy, right?
She of course wears this awkwardness as a badge of honor. It’s something she’s earned through years of effort. It takes a lot of thinking to become so strange.
When she earned her second Master’s degree, it was a non-event. The watering station a quarter of the way through the marathon. I don’t even think we went out to dinner to celebrate. There was reading to do.
Each semester brings horror stories of her peers who’ve graduated into the academic job market only to wind up with non-tenure track positions at the South Pole. “So-and-so got an adjunct gig at Someplace You’d Never Want to Live. Isn’t that great?” Well, I guess if you look at it on the level of that’s one job I don’t have to worry about you getting, sure. And the thing is, it’s supposed to be a good thing! She’s serious! My understanding of the academic job market is that it’s like the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. When they designed the infrastructure seven thousand years ago, nobody imagined there’d ever be so many people, so you funnel fifty lanes to two and hope that most of those who’d be foolish enough to attempt to cross the Hudson give up before they actually get there.
I paint a dark picture and stand by it, but I might be more in a position to criticize had my own professional choices not been SO terrible. “I’ll go work at magazines, because they’re bound to last forever!” We left that apartment because we couldn’t afford to keep it and moved back in with her mother, who fortunately for us had the space, where we’ve lived now for the majority of our marriage. I tell my friends I rent, or I mumble anything that isn’t, “I’m in my 30s and I live at my mother-in-law’s house because I chose my career based on the number of free CDs I’d get and I’ve failed at life really, really hard,” though I know that’s what I should be saying. Most of them get the idea anyway.
Of course, none of this would be worthwhile if I didn’t also love her more than I ever thought one as emotionally crippled as I am could ever love a human being. Perhaps too it’s something unique to the experience of someone smitten with an academic to be constantly floored by their partner’s brilliance, or to crouch and be astounded as I am to witness her dedication on a daily basis in a pursuit of something that… well, if you didn’t really believe in what you were doing, you’d be a fool for chasing.
After all these years, my understanding of what she does is cursory at best, and I’ve watched as our pillow talk has gone from, “So how was your day?” to a recitation of whatever abstract concept she wants to remember for the morning but is too tired to actually write down, but my admiration for who she is, this single-minded weirdo she’s become, has been more than enough to carry me through the wait for that dissertation to be finished, for the defense date to be set, for time measured in four-month groupings into perpetuity. I love my wife. I loved her before and I love her now.
Like any interpersonal connection worth half a damn, it can be frustrating as all hell, but my relationship with my hyper-educated academic spouse is the best part of my life. She makes me a better, stronger person, or at very least challenges me to become one despite the stubborn resistance she’s met with every step of the way, and I consider myself lucky she even talks to me, never mind occasionally lets me pick what takeout we get for dinner. It’s not always easy for me to remember how important her work is to her, but I make an effort, because that’s the part of it that means something to me: It’s who she is.
If that’s what I have to go on, so be it.
JJ Koczan is Managing Editor of New Jersey’s The Aquarian Weekly and genre-blogs music nobody cares about at http://theobelisk.net.