Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mrs. PhD: how to plan your wedding and complete grad school without losing your mind

Big thank you to my bloggy friend Elizabeth of A Barefoot Bride, who was among the very first bridal blogs I followed.  I adored her journey of environmentally conscious wedding planning and her overall love for life and her partner.  Plus, she was also completing her graduate school education, so I could relate to her on so many levels.  Then her wedding came and it wow-ed my pants off!  Just wait till you see her bodacious dress omg!

 In the past 18 months, I completed a doctoral degree, planned a wedding for 100 guests, got married (yay!), and started my first academic teaching job. I really can't recommend cramming that number of life changes into such a short amount of time (especially as it puts you at risk for developing stress related illnesses.) However, it seems rather inevitable since the years when one is most likely to be in graduate school are also the years when one is most likely to get married. I even think there's something about being in grad school that prepares you for marriage (more on that shortly...)

 So when Jes asked me to write a guest post, I thought the most useful thing I could do was to reflect on what I learned while planning a wedding and finishing grad school simultaneously (I'm sure she has thoughts on this topic, too), in hopes that my crazy year might benefit those of you working on the same juggling act. Do come visit me at Walking Barefoot for further musings on weddings, marriage, academia and living green (and to see why the blog was originally called One Barefoot Bride).

 The most important thing I learned was to let go of perfection. It was not going to be humanly possible to produce a perfect dissertation and a perfect wedding at the same time, while maintaining my relationships and my health! Letting go of perfection applied equally to the wedding and to grad school. In my dissertation, there are sections that are kind of boring (even typos in the final draft! shhhh.... don't tell my advisor) and there are a few B's on my transcript. 

The old joke goes: What do they call the PhD graduate with the lowest GPA? "Dr."

Important caveat: This attitude may be less appropriate in law school or med school, where class rankings are important for future jobs. Nonetheless, there's probably some place where perfection is less important.

 Letting go of perfection was just as important in the wedding. It's so easy to get caught up in the gorgeous images all over the internet (I believe my entire first six months of planning were spent stalking Style Me Pretty) - but wonderful weddings come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of decor coordination. Decor was the major area where we punted: we just didn't have time or creativity to DIY a ton of details, and we didn't have the money or vision to get someone else to do them, so they didn't exist. No one seemed to miss them. And we were still got married.

The second key to success in wedding planning and grad school is values clarification. That is, taking time to actively reflect on what is important to you, and why, and what you're willing to sacrifice to acquire it. This is why I think being in grad school actually prepares people for marriage: by choosing a grad program and a topic to study intensively, you have connected with a passion (or at least a strong interest), and have committed to sacrificing your time and energy to pursue it. 

 Throughout grad school, and especially near the end, I found myself continually asking "Is this what I'm most interested in? Is this what's most important to me?" and then working to shape my research around my values. Being in touch with your values makes you more interesting, more real, and more ready to build a life with a partner. 

Second caveat: I'm not sure whether this applies to professional programs, or only to research-based academic programs. MBAs, JDs, what do you think?)

In wedding planning, clarifying your values about what a wedding means: deciding what feelings you want your wedding to provoke, what sort of atmosphere you want to create, how you want to celebrate the meanings of love, marriage, and partnership with your community, defining who your community is all contribute to simplifying the choices about details and logistics. 

As environmental professionals, being in an outdoor setting that had personal meaning to us was incredibly important. Similarly, we wanted the wedding to have a relatively small environmental footprint (ideas here...).

These values shaped our hunt for a venue, and subsequent decisions about food, flowers, and transportation (no limo for us!)

We were fortunate to find a florist who works with local, seasonal, organic flowers, and was willing to prioritize those aspects of the bouquet and boutonnieres. Her job became even more difficult when we realized that the National Park where the ceremony would take place restricted the kinds of flowers that could be used outdoors, lest non-native plants be introduced into the park!

In wedding planning, grad school, and life in general, it's essential to prioritize. At the beginning of the wedding planning process, a friend told me to choose three aspects of the wedding on which to focus my time, energy and money, and to let the rest go. 

Three Things - location, food, dress - became my mantra throughout the rest of the planning process. (The Mr. had his, too: location, food, music. So I guess we really had Four Things.)

When we were tempted to stress about some aspect that was not on that list, we just reminded ourselves that it wasn't one of our priorities. You'll notice that flowers and decor did not make it on to our list of Three Things. We had a tiny budget for flowers, and, after suggesting a general color scheme and a few flowers that I particularly like, I left the rest of the design up to the florist. I didn't have time or energy to worry about a trial run or specific flowers.

Balancing wedding planning and writing my dissertation meant that I truly had to prioritize my life. The Three Things for grad school were: writing, staying healthy (harder than it seems when sitting in front of a computer 12 hours a day!), and maintaining my relationship with the Mr. Anything that didn't contribute to these three priorities - including, sadly, seeing friends, going to departmental meetings, reading for fun - was out. Yoga, going to the gym, and watching reality TV were in, as they all contributed to the first two priorities.

In an odd way, planning the wedding also contributed to finishing my dissertation: I could use wedding planning tasks as a break from writing and thinking hard.   When I got tired of dresses, flowers and menus, grad school work became a break from wedding planning. Embracing the two very different hats I was wearing made each one more special and enjoyable. The writing I did on my blog helped keep the words flowing, which, in turn, contributed to my ability to articulate weighty concepts in the dissertation.

Fortunately, the wedding planning burden did not fall solely to me. Early on, I realized that we would have to work as a team to divide and conquer the wedding tasks, especially as the Mr. was facing his own work stresses, which culminated right before the wedding. The Mr. is mightily organized, and we used his ability to rapidly breeze through lists to our advantage. He was the main point of contact for the venue and caterer, as well as the ceremony musician and DJ. Establishing our household and shared responsibilities under the stressful conditions of wedding planning and dissertation writing forced us to establish egalitarian patterns of shared responsibility that I hope will last throughout our marriage.

We found that it was important to celebrate small victories and have fun together. When the Mr. received a prestigious award, I chucked my writing plans, and made dinner reservations to toast his success. We made a point of cracking open a bottle of Champagne or cava at any milestone, no matter how small, so that we could recognize the progress toward our goals.

Finally, I would say: Do NOT schedule your wedding for the first semester (or first few months) of a new endeavor. Much better to schedule the wedding for the final months of school than the first few months of a new job. For a variety of scheduling reasons, we ended up getting married just two months after I started my teaching job. Needless to say, I was not an especially focused professor in the fall, nor was I as communicative with our guests, and families as I would have liked to be. I would have liked to be more present and less scattered in the weeks leading up to the wedding.

My first semester of grad school, another student told me not to try to finish a dissertation and plan a wedding at the same time. I blithely ignored this advice, and lived to tell about it.
You can, too! 
All images by the sublimely talented Kate Harrison.


  1. oh Elizabeth! your wedding is so beautiful! I love that you wrote on perfection too. maybe we all need the constant reminder that perfect is not perfect. imperfect is so beautiful! thanks!

  2. This is fantastic advice. I can so relate to the letting go of perfection. LOL, days before our wedding, as I looked a stacks of DIY projects they would remain undone and as others were done, but not always in the way I envisioned them, my Man of Honor helped me let go of perfection and maintain perspective.

    In one instance, we forgot to wrap the 100 or so frosted Italian cookie favors in wax paper before wrapping them with brown paper and tying them with twine. The result: the brown paper became greasy within the hour. Like grease spots. I started freaking out when my brother started laughing. He said, "don't worry, they look rustic." After that, "it's rustic became the mantra of the week." Finger prints in the buttercream? It's rustic! Big nails sticking through the backside of our wedding signs? It's rustic! so salt or pepper for the S&P shakers? It's rustic! Letting go of perfection really helped me to have a great time at my own wedding.

    Thanks again for the fantastic post!



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