Surviving a Long-Distance Relationship as a Grad Student

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Visiting the Grand Canyon together.

Today, a big life change is happening. My partner is finally moving in! Although we got married last year, we’ve never lived together for a long period of time. The reason? School and jobs. For 3 years, we were students on opposite coasts of the US, and for 2 years after that, we had jobs in different cities. We finally sorted out the job situation (it’s common issue for academic couples, since there aren’t many university positions), and he’s showing up tomorrow! I wanted to write down how we made long-distance work for so long, and my hopes and fears for finally living together.

Advantages of being long-distance

  • Social freedom: I think there’s a big advantage of having your own life, especially when you’re a student and still developing your own character and career. Call me an independent woman, but it’s nice to arrange your own life and not have to check in with your partner for any social events, trips, etc. Although I’d rather be together, it also feels good to have the confidence to survive on your own and not be dependent on your partner.
  • Work freedom: As a grad student, there is a lot of pressure to get results and publish. You bring your work home with you in the evenings and on weekends. One advantage of being long-distance is that the fun and work times are more cleanly separated, so you can focus on one or the other. It’s also a bit easier if your partner is also a grad student, so that they understand the pressures of the job and can listen to you rant about your advisor :/
  • Your own space: If you’re an introvert, it’s nice to have your own space. When I had roommates, we would get along great and hang out outside of the house, but at home, I like to flop on the couch and not talk. A quiet space is great to unwind at the end of the day, especially if your partner is relatively talkative 🙂 Also, as a minor benefit, you can furnish and decorate the space exactly as you like it.
  • Building trust: Although 5 years is probably a bit too long, being long distance helped us build trust in our relationship. Any feelings of jealousy got killed long ago. (And also, it helps that his field is 90% male 😛 ) This helps build confidence that we can handle future bumps in the road.

Challenges of being long-distance

  • Loneliness: While independence is nice, having someone around is also definitely nice. Especially after moving to my current city, where I don’t know anyone outside of work, it would be comforting to have another body in the house. Although I haven’t gone to the movies solo yet, I’ve come pretty close! Table for one, please?
  • Duplicate living costs: If you maintain separate households, there’s no economy of scale. We have to duplicate all costs: housing, utilities, groceries, cars, and so on. I’m definitely looking forward to my partner moving in, helping with errands, and not having to eat the same leftovers for days on end. Although I’m not looking forward to de-duplicating our furniture. My condo is a mess right now!
  • Daily habits: I’m definitely a bit nervous about living together. Although we’ve been able to handle long-distance for so long, more conflicts will probably come up from living in close proximity. We did live together for one summer in NYC, where we had to adjust to each others’ habits – cleanliness, trash, cooking, etc. I’m expecting there to be a similar adjustment period this time around too. I’m especially worried about our sleep schedule – I’m a light sleeper, and my partner tends to go to bed late and snores. And about cleanliness – I’m a bit OCD, and my partner is pretty messy.

How we made long-distance work

  • Talking often: What works for us is talking often and casually. Sometimes it’s a quick 2-minute call when one of us is walking to work. Sometimes it’s for hours in the evening. We don’t talk continuously; there are plenty of comfortable silences. I think this kind of casual conversation is essential for keeping your relationship normal – really, it’s impossible to keep up an interesting conversation all the time!  Along the same lines, another thing we do is to watch online movies/shows together. We watch with Skype turned on so we can see the other person’s reaction, and synchronize the playback time by counting off “1,2,3!” Lame, right? 😉
  • Regular visits: A huge advantage of being a grad student and doing long distance is the flexible schedule, especially when you’re not taking classes (mostly true if you’re a PhD student). There aren’t any fixed vacation days; as long as you don’t have meetings and you get your work done, your time is your own. We probably visited each other once every 1.5-2 months, for a week at a time. I think this makes you appreciate the other person more, since the time you have together is extra special. In the downtime, you can focus on your own life.
Chicken bag, a gift from my partner…

Finances of a long-distance relationship

  • While dating: As grad students, we were making about $30k per year. That isn’t a lot to support a long-distance relationship, especially cross-country. What worked for us was splitting the costs evenly – whoever was flying would pay for their own ticket, and the person hosting would pay for all the local costs, like eating out. It all evened out in the long run. Luckily, we both lived near major cities, so the airfares were reasonable even though they were cross-country. I estimate that the flights cost $300/trip * 8 trips/year = $2400. Divided between two people, this is still a hefty $1200/year, but it was totally worth it.
  • Gifting: Although there’s no need to send extravagant gifts, small surprises are nice to know that the other person is thinking of you. We originally made the mistake of over-utilizing Amazon, which resulted in a lot of plush animal donations later on. So don’t go overboard! The best gifts are the funny ones – once I sent my partner a bouquet of flowers to his workplace, just to embarrass him in front of his colleagues 🙂 And he sent me that rubber chicken purse pictured above.

Have you ever been in a long-distance relationship? How did you handle it? Any general tips for co-habitating with your significant other?



2 thoughts on “Surviving a Long-Distance Relationship as a Grad Student

  1. How exciting to finally be able to live in the same place! As someone who (only very briefly) considered a PhD (without actually thinking hard about it, because it would have been in an arguably… less practical field) I was always in awe of how two-academic couples handled it. There were professors at my undergrad alma mater in long-distance marriages because of their jobs, and that seemed so hard.

    With my law friends and colleagues, shorter-term long distance relationships (usually because both people want to attend the best professional school they got into, regardless of where that is) are somewhat common. I’ve heard of other people doing the watching TV together while Skyping thing.

    I feel like the biggest thing that makes cohabiting work well for us is, well, that we work too much and don’t have the energy or inclination to “sweat the small stuff”. This is only really possible, admittedly, when the couple is childless and lives in an apartment with good management/landlord/maintenance, but there isn’t much fuel for potential problems.


    • Thank you! It’s been an interesting few days so far, but so far so good, fingers crossed 😉 In grad school, I knew of one prof working on the east coast, and his family living on the west coast, and they had been doing it for 10+ years :S For the profs at my school, most spouses are either stay at home, work in administrative jobs at the university, or they live in a better area with jobs for their spouse and commute to school for an hour, several days a week.

      Haha, working a lot is one solution. We usually spend our evenings plopped on the couch with our respective laptops, so I think we have been following that rule. We are actually at a risk of working too much together, because my partner is at the same school as me, and in fact his office is just down the hall. I suppose this raises its own sets of challenges!


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