How to Support Your Loved One as They Pursue a Ph.D.

1. Let them talk.

If this person is pursuing a Ph.D., you can safely assume they are enthusiastic about their subject of study. Since these subjects are often quite niche, it is easy to feel like no one else cares about what you love. By letting your loved one talk about their subject to you, you are validating their enthusiasm and ascribing value to their interests. You are fanning the flame of passion that keeps them going when the work gets tough!

2. Ask them questions about their field of study!

This is a step beyond #1 that can make their day. Asking questions shows active listening, yes, but it also indicates that you are also interested in their work and you care about actually understanding what they do. It feels really good to know someone wants to understand what I’m doing! It tells me they think that my work and my knowledge is valuable.

3. Do not ask when they will be done/graduate. Don’t.

At least in the U.S., this is not a simple question or answer. It’s just pressure. A Ph.D. timeline can be incredibly variable and unpredictable, especially in the dissertation phase.

4. Get to know what a Ph.D. program looks like.

It is difficult to support someone’s pursuits when you have no idea what you are supporting. It’s also difficult to feel supported by someone when they continue to ask the same questions about their program over and over and otherwise indicate that they have no clue what you’re doing. Going into details is one thing, but it is exhausting to repeatedly explain the basics. Do some research on what Ph.D. programs look like! You can start with my basic breakdown of a Ph.D. program here.

5. Take care of some basic chore for them. Literally any one of them.

Chances are, your loved one has a lot on their plate. Most Ph.D. students have a mixture of coursework, teaching, and research to balance… and that’s just school. Even if they technically have time to do household chores, cooking, etc., it is still yet another thing they have to take care of. Anything you can take off of their plate, no matter how small, is a blessing to them.

6. If they have children and you have time, offer to babysit.

This one goes hand-in-hand with #5. I personally do not have any children, but I have watched some of my peers balance lab work and parenting. It isn’t easy! Babysitters are their lifeline. Watching their children for them can give them a little more time for focused work, which is especially difficult when your work is in a chemical-filled, no-children-allowed kind of environment!

7. Keep inviting them (even if they don’t usually accept your invitation).

A Ph.D. can take a lot of time, especially when deadlines are approaching. This often means you have to turn down invitations left and right. But the last thing your loved one needs when they are busy is to feel like no one wants to spend time with them anymore. Your invitations remind them that their presence is valued. Honestly, this is something you can do for any busy person in your life!

8. Be a distraction for them when they need it.

This one can be difficult to balance with #1 and somewhat depends on your relationship with the person. When in doubt, let them talk. But sometimes, if your loved one is stuck on a problem, they need you to be a distraction. Many problems can be solved with thinking, but few, if any, can be solved by complaining and wallowing in them. If you are incredibly close (i.e. their spouse), you will probably be able to tell the difference between productive thinking and unproductive thinking. (Whatever you do, do not ever invalidate their struggle or downplay the problem… chances are, you don’t know much about it.)

9. Keep track of their scheduled milestones, and do 1 – 8 even more when deadlines are close.

Approaching deadlines are high-stress times! During finals weeks, preparation for qualifying exams, proposal writing, and final days before the defense, any of the above 8 will be twice as meaningful.

10. Come to their dissertation defense! (not just their graduation)

When the Ph.D. is coming to an end, your loved one will defend their dissertation. This will be the last major milestone they reach before graduating. It is the culmination of all of the work they have done throughout their Ph.D. program. And it is the time their committee decides whether their work is deserving of the degree they seek.

A dissertation defense typically begins with a public presentation–anyone can go to this part. That means that you can go to this part. Of course, if you are able, go to both. But personally, if I had to choose whether to have guests at my defense or graduation, I would pick the defense hands down. I need more support when my committee is deciding whether I will pass than when they have already decided that I passed. Maybe others have different opinions on this, so it never hurts to ask them, but I promise your loved one wants you at their dissertation defense in general.

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