By Marie Burrus
Whenever a couple asks my husband and me for advice before pursuing a doctorate, it feels a bit like asking Frodo and Sam about travel plans while they’re still on the side of Mount Doom. My husband and I are at the end of a long doctoral journey and have experienced many highs and lows along the way. At this point, however, we’re due to return to the Shire soon with more strength, love and wisdom than we knew we could find.
We’re also very ready to be done. Fortunately, my husband has done a stellar job ensuring I’m okay, we’re okay, and that we make it through his PhD with our family and souls intact. But it’s been a learning curve. Higher education isn’t for the faint of heart, and I want to see every person come out the other side of their degrees all better for having pursued them.
So I’ve written some tips I’ve given to those looking to do doctorates and doctorates by proxy. With some consideration, the process can grant so much more than just a title and a degree. School can be an immense season of growth and flourishing for your family—if you do it the right way.
Frodo and Sam wouldn’t have made it far without their fellowship, and my husband and I certainly need our tribe.
Commit to it together. A doctorate should be a full-family mission because it will affect everyone. If your husband or wife wants to pursue a doctorate, it’ll require much more than your ambivalent assent. You need to believe in what your spouse is doing and why they’re doing it. Otherwise, it’s easy to resent the degree or even your spouse for deciding to pursue it.
Have a general goal in mind. Consider if this degree is something you really need. There are plenty of reasons to pursue a doctorate, but just having finished a Master’s degree is not motivation enough. Instead, consider the purpose of this degree and some possible outcomes. Talk to advisors and those who have a picture of how a doctorate can be used in ministry. If your family is in it for the long haul, it helps to have a ministry goal to journey towards.
Seek wise counsel and input from your community. Once you have a general goal, talk to your community about it. Do you want to be a professor but aren’t particularly gifted at teaching? Do you want to be a scholar but also want to stay home full-time once you have children? Are several advisors encouraging you to write in a particular area even though you’re not yet convinced?
Your specific degree, timeline or emphasis may need some tweaking, and community can help you better discern. Seeking the advice of trusted friends and those who have pursued these degrees will help you decide on the right course of action.
Ensure open, honest communication. At times, the burden of a doctorate may fall heavier on one spouse than the other. You both need to be able to say to one another, “I’m not okay right now,” and be met with a listening ear. Have regular dates or simple check-ins where you share your feelings with honesty and gentleness.
It also helps to know each other’s temperament, stressors and needs. For example, my husband is an introvert. If he’s been working with people and writing all week long, inviting strangers to our house for dinner on Friday will only add to his stress. I, however, am an extrovert and need to arrange times to be with other adults. So, we talk about it and agree on a schedule in which we can both thrive.
Develop a schedule. Be willing to adapt. This point follows from the last. A predictable rhythm helps you get into a simplified groove that everyone enjoys. As needs arise, however, a change of tune may be helpful. For example, Sunday Sabbaths, YMCA memberships and weekly babysitters are just a few things we added along the way. One of my best friends regularly comes to eat with me so our husbands (both doing PhDs) can get focused work done. It’s a win for us all.
Find a community of people who will encourage, listen, and ask hard questions of you and your spouse. Thanks to the wonderful people in our church and the larger community of Southeastern Seminary, I can discuss challenges, swap childcare, problem-solve, laugh and even shed some tears with people who understand our situation and those who have made it through. Their encouragement, reminders and warnings keep my husband and me healthy on our path. Frodo and Sam wouldn’t have made it far without their fellowship, and my husband and I certainly need our tribe.
Communicate your expectations. If you don’t have good communication, you and your spouse may attempt to make things easier for one another without actually helping. You might keep the kids out past their bedtime so your spouse can get extra study time only to return (completely frazzled) and find your spouse has taken the evening off. Your spouse may be working overtime to finish the semester early when what you really want is their presence at dinner. When you do these things without communicating, it’s a recipe for bitterness and resentment.
Accept that your graduation timeline might need to change. During the course of my husband’s PhD, we met, dated, got married, had a baby, bought a house and had another baby. All the while, work and ministry continued. Each time we pushed back our graduation date, we had to grieve a bit before encouraging one another to see the bigger picture. We had to remember that God holds our plans and timelines, and forcing our original plans would not have been the godly thing for us to do. Ultimately, these moments strengthened our relationship as we remembered we were united as a team.
Communicate your expectations.
With the right commitment to the program and to one another, your season of higher education can fortify your relationship with Christ, your relationship with your family and the calling God has for you. The enemy would love to attack gospel workers on the road, so we must take care to establish good habits along the way. Now is as good a time as any.
Whether you are carrying the One Ring or helping your spouse to do so, we should expect to see our spouses stretched to their limits in new ways as the journey unfolds. We need to have the health and commitment to support, listen to and encourage one another to complete the task well. Watching your spouse endure, rise to the challenges they must face and trust God more deeply really is an amazing process.
As my husband and I finish our doctoral journey, I’m glad I can heartily echo Frodo’s sentiment, “I’m glad to be with you . . . here at the end of all things.” I wish this kind of solidarity for every other couple pursuing higher education.