Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How to Have a Personal Life in Grad School

I am going to stay short on personal details here. But, sure, this might be helpful to some of you.

In truth, I am not so great at this. In some ways, breaking up with my long-term, long-distance college boyfriend in the middle of my junior year of college was helpful, because then I focused on feminist activism, getting all of my credits out of the way (I had surplus by the end and was able to take philosophy classes "for fun"), and my two senior theses and honors programs. In law school, I hardly dated at all, and again, focused on school. I called it a "man moratorium."

That was rather productive, but also kind of sad and lonely at times. It is far, far better to be alone, self-sufficient, productive, and enjoying your own company (no one to argue with) and those of your friends (lower maintenance than a significant other) than to be in a bad relationship. But being in a good relationship has many benefits too. If you eventually want marriage and children, well, that doesn't miraculously happen when you finally graduate and have "free time." And you don't really have free time, because you'll be working. Meeting people at school is hard enough for most misanthropic social misfits (who make up the great percentage of grad students), try dating in the liberal arts college town/"flyover" state in which you start your first tenure-track job while teaching a 2-2 load and writing your tenure piece and serving on multiple committees.

So, unfortunately, this all takes work and time, and dating is no different. It is highly inefficient to me to date so many people in order to find a compatible partner, and yet, it seems, that is the only way. HLP told me that the economically rational approach is to date widely until you're 23, and then marry the first person who comes along who's better than all the rest. This time consuming process is still the most efficient and rational, and so he is right as usual.

Thus, no time like the present, even if you think law school/grad school sucks up all of your time. It doesn't really, not if you don't let it. Of course, I am way behind in my own research, and have several informal reviews of other people's work due, and actual coding work for which I am paid. But really, it's possible to go out on dates and have dinner with someone else, if you actually work when you're supposed to. Which is a lot to ask for, I know.

Anyway, some tips:

  • Don't date within your cohort/mod/section. Try to date outside of your department, if possible. Unless the person is really worth it, the gossip won't be, and breakups will be fraught with drama and awkwardness, especially if you keep the same social circle. Which I discourage.
  • How to meet these outsiders? Take classes in other departments. Attend public lectures in other departments. Volunteer for some kind of organization. Join an organization. Join online dating sites, which have lost their stigma, at least in the urbane big cities/college cities. Go to big parties where friends of friends of friends will come. You can try hanging out at cafes or bookstores, but if you are like me, you will exude some sort of cynical misanthropy that will repel all people and no one will come by to ask what you are reading or offer to buy you a cup of coffee. Truly, that is inefficient.
  • Make sure you get your work done. I am a super flexible partner who thinks that it's perfectly reasonable to only see each other after the day's work is done. Thus, sometimes we bypass dinner together and meet up late at night for a bit of conversation before we both pass out, and we wake up at 6 am and start all over again. Making "seeing each other" a priority means being flexible about what "seeing each other" and "quality time" means. I also push back dinner till 9:30 or 10 pm if he wants to go to the gym after work, which means I get to go for a run before making dinner as well. You're not the only priority for each other, but you're an important one. So making time for each other means being flexible about work, health and other social commitments. But if you live apart, you should agree with each other about how much is too much, and how little is too little in order to balance all of your other commitments. It'll only increase once you decide to cohabitate/get married, so find someone you want to see regularly and yet understands that seeing each other can mean working in the same room together or being unconscious.
  • Double duty: it's easier to do all of this if you can include each other in social engagements with other friends, so that you can kill two birds with one stone. Thus, it is helpful to have a partner that not everyone hates, or a complete social misfit even by grad school standards.
  • Scheduling: while I would love a fixed, formal schedule, I have found that I must be flexible--sometimes, his Blackberry demands work turned back by 11 pm or 7 am, and I must be open to this. My deadlines are more clear or more flexible, but occasionally I'll get a meeting that suddenly pops up that I have to prep for too. Be flexible. You can always do work on the evenings/weekends that your partner suddenly bails on you, or try to see other friends and gasp, have an independent social life that you had pre-partner. That said, it is funny how professionals assume that graduate students don't really operate on a schedule.
  • Be honest, flexible, and communicative about your budget. Dating can be expensive, even in our feminist/post feminist/I have no idea where we are times for either gender. If both are grad students, both will understand budgetary constraints and living on loans/fellowships. Cheap dates abound, and if you are the nerdy type who likes to hang out for hours in bookstores without buying anything, then don't date a diva type (dude/ette) who thinks clothes shopping is a fun date (no matter how hot s/he is, not worth it) and always orders expensive drinks. There are different ways to conceptualize "contribution," and making dinner (together, if possible) is cheaper and more fun than going out. TD has a "real" job, but our best dates are hiking for free and wandering around flea markets near the industrial part of Gritty City and people watching and eating food off of carts. This is good advice throughout life though. He understands my budgetary constraints, neither he nor I are insistent on absolute equal contribution (again, elastic definition of "contribution," and we are both generous in the ways we can be. But it's not like he or I are diva-esque high rollers, and there's a lot of variety in our activities, and the activity itself is never the focus, so much as the time spent together. Being compatible in your shared activities and financial outlook means more than liking the same book.
  • While we're at it, no you don't have to like all the same books, movies, music. Get over it. Life is not a Gen X'er movie. You just have to hate the same things, although I have yet to find a man who does not hate country music or Boyz II Men. But a shared hatred of Enya and cutesy decorations will get you far in a relationship.
  • I got nothin' else, other than "don't date jerks who demand too much of your time, money and energy whom all of your friends hate."