We made it through Jake’s first year in his Economics PhD program at UCLA! Now just 4 more years to go… lol. He’s still got 3 comprehensive exams to take this month, so we’re not quite out of the woods yet. But he’s done with classes and finals, so we’re counting year 1 as done!!
Over the past year, we’ve shared a lot on this blog about all the fun things we’ve done– the vacations and trips, the date nights, the activities… all the good stuff. For this post, we want to reflect on some of the things we were worried about or struggled with when we first started this program and how we dealt with those things throughout this past academic year.
- Our financial situation. One of the big concerns we both had when starting this program was our financial situation. Jake goes to school full time, and even though his tuition is covered and he receives a stipend, we were taking a huge cut in income. We’re fortunate Cindy has a full-time job but with the loss of Jake’s income, this meant we had to make some changes to our spending habits. In the beginning, we had some tough decisions to make…like do we want to move into University housing to save money, how much should our monthly spending budget be, how much do we give to our church, etc. While our financial situation was our biggest stress prior to starting the program, we quickly adjusted to our new income amount and it wasn’t as big a concern for the rest of the year. How we do it is by keeping a monthly budget where we keep track of our spending. We are each given an “allowance” that we jointly agree on and are allowed to spend that “allowance” however we want so long as we don’t go over it. We still talk about “big purchases” so no surprise Lambos lol. But this is so we don’t get antsy when one of us decides to go on a shopping spree or when the other decides to buy coffee everyday. It’s not the most romantic when we sit down to talk about money and we still get into arguments about how the budget should be worked out, but overall our budget has kept us living within our means and even saving!
- Quality time. One of Cindy’s biggest concerns before starting this program was having enough quality time together. We knew what a big time commitment a PhD program would be and while we jointly made the decision for Jake to do this program, Cindy was still worried we wouldn’t have time to do “normal married things”. There are so many blogs and articles online about how graduate programs can be hard on marriages and this freaked her out. But as our blog evidences, we’ve had lots of quality time and amazing experiences together this past year. Cindy is grateful Jake struck a nice balance between his program and our marriage, along with his other responsibilities. It wasn’t easy in the beginning and we had a lot of long and not fun conversations where we both laid out all of our concerns, worries, and expectations. But talking about our concerns and listening to one another made working through the worries easier. Some practical things we do everyday to make sure we’re feeling connected and on the same wavelength include: going on runs together, eating breakfast and dinner at the table together, and going to bed at the same time as much as possible (although sometimes Jake needs to stay up later, especially around midterms and finals).
- Study habits/math ability. One of Jake’s worries was being able to handle the level of mathematics involved in an economics PhD program. Because he took the majority of his math courses online or through community colleges, and had less math preparation than the average econ PhD student, he was worried he could not catch up. Further, he was worried that because he never developed stable and consistent study habits in undergrad, that he would not be able to study his way out of his mathematical knowledge deficiencies. Thankfully, after a rough first quarter, Jake learned how to study for his tests, and also learned to not underestimate graduate level content. He also learned that repetitive application goes a long way towards improving.
- Jealousy. This was something Cindy struggled a lot with in the first few months. It’s not something she’s proud to admit, but knows it’s something a lot of spouses of PhD students experience. She was jealous of the attention Jake was getting for being in a PhD program and she was jealous he would come out at the end of all this with a Doctorate’s degree. She was jealous she’d be the doctoral recipient’s wife and not the doctoral recipient herself. But over this past year, she’s been learning to find her self worth not in a degree but in something much higher and much greater– God.
- Mental Balance. One of Jake’s biggest concerns was and still is maintaining what he calls mental balance. Just like it is important to balance time, Jake was concerned that his thoughts would be consumed by the program – whether that be comprehensive exams, coming up with original research ideas or understanding difficult concepts. This area will continue to be an ongoing battle, because Jake has realized that academia at large and economics in particular has a culture that encourages getting lost in your work. But with Cindy’s help, he has been able to avoid the tunnel vision and remember the bigger picture: this degree is meant to help him pursue his dreams, but it is also meant to support our marriage and glorify God. The moment it starts undermining our marriage or becoming an idol is the moment it is not serving its ultimate purpose. Keeping this in mind has allowed Jake to put aside the latest assignment or project and focus on the other aspects of life. A lot of online advice says something to the affect of: “you SHOULD be feeling overwhelmed and your life SHOULD be dominated by your first year courses.” Jake thinks this is bad advice, and that it is possible to live a balanced life while also making it through the first year.
We’re SO happy we survived Jake’s first year! We’ve grown and learned a lot together and have had so many unique and wonderful experiences. We’ve even made some new friends! But this is just the beginning. Jake still has comprehensive exams and 4 more years to go. But for now, we’ll celebrate the end of PhD Year 1.