What It’s Like to be a PhD Student.

Good evening! Every time I actually sit down to write a post, I feel like I should begin with something like “it’s been a while, huh?” Well, it has been a while, and that’s because I’ve been so busy as a first year PhD Student in Nursing Science! It’s hard to believe I’m here and this is really happening.

I want to dedicate time to talking about my dissertation research and potential topics, but first I want to post about what it’s like to be a PhD student and what it’s like going to school full time for a PhD as a spouse to an active duty service member.

I am in a very lucky circumstance where my PhD is completely paid for by the School of Nursing. It’s not entirely a free ride, though – I have to work 20 hours every week for the gerontology professors in the department. Gerontology is the study of aging adults, which is my specialty. Thankfully, the gerontologists are won-der-ful and they care about my interests and betterment. Yes, I do a lot of research for them, but it’s far from menial labor – frequently I do research AND make products with that research. It’s great experience for my (likely) future as a nursing professor and academic researcher. Since I work for them, I was also given the best desk on the floor – I have a corner cubical with neighbors across the dividers who are rarely there. It’s usually just me and lots of professors. I have floor to ceiling windows on both walls and plenty of daylight everyday, and my view is interesting. I. Lucked. Out.

Beyond working those 20 hours, I also do some work for my advisor. My advisor is a professor in the department and one of the department gerontologists, so I am fully immersed in gerontology work. What I do for my advisor is the most “fun” I have, because I have the opportunity to build and update websites, write blog posts (for our gerontology blog!), put together bibliographies, and perform other duties that are more “Millennial” and next generation. I’m big on bringing the classroom into the 21st century, so this is all going to be so helpful for when I become an instructor at a University.

I mentioned that I’m fully immersed in gerontology research, and that is, in fact, the whole purpose of doing a PhD. Everything I do – literally everything – is meant to provide meaning and information for my dissertation. So, for example, I am in a masters-level course that is about disabilities. Since many older adults are disabled, this is a great class for me to be in. However, the papers I have to write aren’t helpful for my dissertation, so I asked the professor if I could write different papers that investigate disability related to Navy SEALs and/or aging veterans. We are still negotiating, but it’s likely that she will approve this major change in paper topics because she has a PhD and therefore understands that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

All of my classes are geared toward learning about my dissertation population of interest: aging Navy SEALs who have pain. I have already written several papers about aging Navy SEALs, their rates of injury in service, specific issues SEALs and UDT veterans in Vietnam and Korea faced in the field, how training for SEALs has changed, etc. If you name a topic related to pain/injury and Navy SEALs, I’ve likely considered it at some point so far this semester: training, fitness, pain management and treatment, pain reporting, injury reporting, rates of injury, surgical rates, longterm outcomes, supplementation, BUD/S and SQT training and injury rates, etc. I’m on my way to becoming an expert on Navy SEALs and pain – and this is exactly what is supposed to happen.

My professors are SO excited about my research topic. At first I was surprised, because it’s so far outside the box, but then I realized that they’re excited about it BECAUSE it’s so far outside the box. When we have class discussions, other students get really interested in the topic, too. Most PhD students stick to the straight, narrow, and traditional because there is so much information available on those kinds of topics. They’re the smart ones 😉 And then people like me come along and choose a topic that is not just outside the box but down the street, across the railroad tracks, and several floors up. I also think that the professors are excited about the population, too. The University is trying to build more bridges with veterans, so my topic fits right in with that new mission.

The University I attend is 6 hours away from where my husband is stationed right now. I am living with my parents while I attend school this semester. We will move to our next location during winter break, and then I’ll come back here for most of the spring semester and live with my parents again. My husband will be doing tons of traveling through the spring and summer to get ready for Command, so it would be optimal for me to take advantage of the fact that he won’t be home much and spend time at school. I have an agreement with the School of Nursing that I don’t have to be on campus all semester, every semester, but it’s so helpful to me when I’m on site.

It’s really hard to be away by choice, but I don’t think anyone is better prepared for this kind of life than military couples. At one point we did 4 deployments in 4 years, and he was away on work-ups and training even when he was “home”. Military families just make stuff work. We know the logistics will pan out when they need to, so we just jump. This is an extreme circumstance, obviously, but my PhD shouldn’t take me more than 5 years, and my advisor thinks I can get mine done closer to 4 years, since I’m funded and going full time.

Yes, I’ll be working on my PhD full time while he’s going through Command as an XO and then as a CO, but this is what we have to do to get to the life we envision. We are a super easy going couple and we are like this on purpose. We have very few strings attached and are very good friends above all else. Having this kind of relationship really helps us be flexible and supportive of each other. I think these are all qualities that make military relationships hold up through all of the hard times, too, so if you’re a military spouse and you have a strong relationship with your spouse, I urge you to follow your dreams and choose to do the hard things.

At the end of the day, whether we pursue our dreams or not, all of us military spouses have to do a lot of hard things. So, if we’re already doing hard things, make sure at least one of those hard things is for you.

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