Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Caring for the academic in your life

The title of this post makes it sound like having an academic in your life is like having a pet, or a tank of sea monkeys. I promise, that even a challenging kitten like ours (who's always had a lively personality to say the least), is still easier than coping with, encouraging, and supporting someone looking for a profession in academia. I got the idea of putting together this post after having coffee with an acquaintance who also moved to the Boston area thanks to her spouse (he's only starting his PhD, so I found myself in the advice giving/experienced position).

A semi-recent PhD comic gives an not-so-inaccurate look into the life of the partner/spouse of an academic:

Andrew was still home when I read this comic (I think he was getting ready to leave), so I informed him that I was his academic groupie...which of course lead to some inappropriate conversation about whether or not I'd been living up to my "groupie duties."

Anyway...Andrew and I moved to Edmonton in order for him to complete his Masters (and then we stayed for his PhD), and we're now in Somerville for his post-doctoral research. Although we didn't make either of these moves without consultation, we probably wouldn't have lived in either place if it wasn't for him. As Andrew looks for a full-time job we're expecting to move once more, but again, it won't be without mutual agreement. I don't generally travel with Andrew when he goes to conferences as I usually have to work/I know I won't see him if I do come, but I've been left at home with the kitten on numerous occasions.

So, how does one care for the academic in your life? Well, to start, not unlike a pet, you make sure they have food, water, and shelter. I often joke that if Andrew and I weren't married, he'd be eating ramen noodles for most meals, and finding himself doing the "sniff test" every morning to help him figure what to wear. This isn't to say that Andrew's incapable of cooking or doing laundry, but he'd got experiments, analyses, papers, meetings, etc., that tend to take priority. He's not the "Absent Minded Professor" either, it's just that being an academic never stops. It comes home with you from the lab/school/conferences.

The next thing I would say that's important is listening and NOT give advice. I can't help Andrew if he's having a problem with an experiment or his analysis program, or marking assignments. I'm a librarian and know nothing more about superhydrophobic surfaces (surfaces that really, really repel water) than what he's told me. Often, Andrew just wants to talk out what's going on, and listening is the best thing I can do (although I do have enough scientific understanding that I can occasionally suggest something useful).

Listening and offering support/encouragement is also important, and often very tricky. Throughout much of Andrew's academic career, he's been very certain that he enjoys the teaching aspect, and is okay at the research aspect (I mean he's received a TON of scholarships, so he must be all right), but not quite sure if he really wants a full, tenured professor position. This has become an even more difficult problem since he's now applying for jobs and attending interviews. Sure, I want Andrew to have a job, but I don't want him to take one just because I WANT him to be a professor. I'll love him no matter what he does as a career, and it doesn't hurt to remind him of that every now and again.

What's really frustrating for me is when I'm left to fall back on cliched/stock comments, like "Everyone has to go through this [the feeling that his PhD work will never end/job hunting/interviews/doubts about being a professor]". Recently I basically resorted to saying "Suck it up, Princess," but sometimes I think that's necessary, too.

The last thing I'm going to suggest as important in caring for your academic, is having an understanding and flexibility around the demands of their workload. As I wrote above, academics take their work home with them almost every night, and frequently on the weekends, too. Luckily for Andrew, I usually write in the evening and need to be at my own computer, too, so it works for us. I would also point out that I'm not saying the non-academic spouse should be left to do all the housework/child care, but you may need to accept that your academic can't veg out on the couch with you all night, or go to a movie/shopping, or whatever else people do at night.

Ultimately, I'm extremely proud of Andrew. He's one smart cookie, and I can now say that I'm married to a doctor (even if he's not the kind that helps people).

Andrew J.B. Milne, PhD, in his full University of Alberta academic robes.

Ciao, Andrea

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