Love and its Trials during a PhD

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Granted, Charles Dickens was referring to the French Revolution, but this also applies to the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships during your PhD. How about we treat Valentine’s Day as a chance to reflect on how romantic love fits into our busy academic lives? Here are some reflections and practical tips Jenny Mak has gathered from personal experience and conversations with friends—for the ones who are single and ready to mingle, the attached, and the ones who are facing difficult times…

Work isn’t Everything

We’re a hardworking and ambitious lot as PhD students. Many of us start out determined to focus primarily on our dissertations, and if we’re single, we might find less reason not to put in late nights and long weekends at the office or the lab. At some point though, you might want someone special to spend your downtime with. A friend who went through this in her first year told me, “You just realise that work isn’t everything.”

Wanting to find a romantic partner doesn’t mean you’re any less dedicated to your PhD. (If you’re happy being single, keep doing what works for you. I believe that singlehood is one form of practising self-love—a point I will ultimately come back to.) Yet for those who want love but who’re holding back out of guilt, remember that we’re social creatures with desires. Being in a university environment can be a wonderful opportunity to meet your future partner: join some research groups, societies, departmental activities, or welcoming parties at your campus accommodation. Be proactive in meeting like-minded people and expanding your circle.

Love Languages

Doing a PhD is often stressful. If you’re attached, your PhD can add extra pressure to your relationship. I’ve found that how you and your partner communicate makes a big difference. My own experience has been positive, especially in my final year. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, my partner encouraged us to talk, even if he was at work. Feeling that I could reach out to him at any time—even for a midday five-minute Skype session—helped me calm down quickly and re-focus on my research.

Contrast this to my friend’s ex-partner who, despite having done a PhD himself, would put her down with comments like, “Everyone goes through these difficulties during a PhD, why are you making such a fuss?” Coming on top of other personal challenges, my friend concluded that doing a PhD was “fundamentally incompatible with having a relationship”. She felt that a PhD required her full attention and found that she’d to give less of herself to her relationship than she normally would.

Different communication styles, then, can make or break relationships. One way forward might be to pay attention to what relationship counsellor Gary Chapman has called our love languages: the different ways in which we express our love for our partners and vice versa. Chapman’s five languages (‘Words of Affirmation’, ‘Acts of Service’, ‘Receiving Gifts’, ‘Quality Time’, and ‘Physical Touch’) offer a simple but effective way to build empathy between you and your partner during this stressful period.


Major romantic shifts sometimes happen in the midst of your PhD, and the messiness of life can potentially derail all that you’ve worked for. Break-ups occur from geographical distance, pre-existing dissatisfaction, emotional abuse, financial dependence, affairs with other colleagues, and so on. It can be immensely difficult to keep going with your PhD when life threatens to push you over the edge. Because of the complexity and variety of these kinds of challenges, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But a gentle reminder such as this might help: be kind to yourself. This can mean spending time with your loved ones, exercising to get those endorphins going, pampering yourself with a relaxing bath, watching something funny that makes you laugh—anything that nurtures you. Discomfort can also develop our emotional resilience, as the psychologist Dr. Susan David’s book Emotional Agility finds, which can be a valuable life skill. This goes onto my final point about…

Practising Self-love

When you’re undertaking a PhD that requires a lot of investment—time, energy, financial, psychological—practising self-love is important. Yet we often neglect to do this. Valentine’s Day emphasises showing your love for someone special in your life, but you cannot do this without also loving yourself. For a busy academic researcher, self-love habits could mean catching up on sleep, exercising, giving yourself positive rather than negative self-talk, even having a nutritious, well-cooked meal instead of another cold sandwich! Simple habits like these can make a big difference over time. When in doubt, keep in mind this quote by the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg: “The most important relationship in your life is the relationship you have with yourself. Because no matter what happens, you will always be with yourself.”


Did you meet your partner during your PhD? What are some challenges you’ve faced in your relationship during your PhD and what did you learn from them? How are you taking some time for yourself this Valentine’s Day? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.


Image: book-calendar-notebook-leave-1945499 / ulleo / CC0 1.0

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