Discuss Graduate School With Family First

Don Martin Dr.

This week we address the fourth in a series of questions that admitted graduate school students often ask with tips for communicating with those frequently affected by the decision to pursue a master's or doctoral degree: a student's family.

As dean of students at both the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and Teachers College at Columbia University, I held regular open office hours. During this time, students were able to meet with me to discuss concerns and issues related to their student experience.

One of the challenges they most often discussed with me was the toll their decision to attend graduate school was taking on their spouse or partner, their parents or their children.

[Prepare for grad school challenges with these tips.]

These challenges, and others related to them, contributed to a very high stress level for many students. They were not keeping up with their studies, were feeling resentful of their loved ones and in some cases, felt the only viable course of action was to withdraw.

One major mistake graduate students make is not doing adequate research before they apply. Another huge mistake is not taking time to discuss their graduate school plans with others who will be affected by them.

Ideally, before submitting your enrollment deposit, you should take some of the following steps to discuss graduate school with your spouse, parents and children.

1. Thank them for their support thus far: Be sure they know how much you appreciate their encouragement. And don't just say "thank you," show you mean it with flowers, dinner, theater tickets or a card.

2. Sit down and thoroughly discuss your program of study: The amount of time the student was required to study, attend classes and seminars and interact with the academic community were some areas students reported concerns from their partners. Some students with children said their children felt they had been abandoned or neglected, and a common complaint students heard from parents was that they were out of touch.

Talk about the courses you will be taking in the first term and how much time you believe it will require for you to succeed academically. Ask how your loved one feels about this, and be prepared to do some negotiating.

[Head back to school as a midcareer professional.]

3. Plan for every part of the transition: Some students reported their spouses did not like the location of the institution or did not realize how large a financial sacrifice would be required, or that their parents were not pleased with the institution the student had chosen. Ask yourself: Have you openly and honestly discussed finances? Have you included your family in the decision about where you will live? Have you shown them the campus?

One common concern I heard from students is that their children were having trouble adjusting to the move and a new location. Have your children seen the school or preschool they will be attending? Have you discussed getting ready to move?

Many students came to me after hearing financial concerns from their spouses or parents, such as about asking parents for financial help. Some parents felt the student should be working and not adding to their undergraduate debt load by taking on additional grad school loans.

Have you assisted your spouse or partner with looking for employment? Have you made sure all is in order for aging or ailing parents? Perhaps you should schedule a weekly meeting to discuss how plans are coming along.

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4. Make sure your spouse or partner is connected: Some students said their spouses or partners struggled with feeling comfortable around students and faculty.

Many graduate schools have a group for spouses and partners of students. Make sure your spouse has been added to the group if they wish to do so.

5. Keep everyone updated: When you receive information about financial aid, orientation or academic advising, ask if they'd be interested in hearing about it. Make every attempt to help them feel that they are part of the process, not on the outside looking in.