• Phuong

To LDR or Not to LDR: Starting Grad School When You're in a Long-Term Relationship (Pt. 2!)

Updated: May 22

We know several of you are about to embark on your next journey of pursuing grad school, and there are definitely important considerations to make before this leap. We were both in long-term relationships (LTR) at the point of applying to grad school, so this was a really important factor for us! Of course there’s the age-old question, ‘To LDR or LTR?’ Go check out Ayumi’s post about ‘The Talk’ she had with her partner. Here’s my story.

Our situations were pretty different, even though we both were in LTRs. Ayumi’s partner had already graduated and was adulting in the ‘real world’, while my partner was starting grad school with me. Given this condition, my priorities were a bit different from Ayumi’s.

My partner and I were STEM friends before dating. I like to joke and say that we met at a party, but in actuality it was more like 1.5 hours of straight ice breakers (yeesh). It was a Stanford admit party, and I knew absolutely no one. Thankfully, Alex probably sensed how awkward I was from clear across the room and introduced himself to me. We bonded over protein folding, string theory, and helped each other with our math homework. When we arrived on campus for the first time, my partner and I found out that our rooms were by chance directly across from each other (albeit in different dorms). As we were both interested in biology (check out the post about my pre-med days--boy, have things changed since then!) and took multiple intro classes together the first quarter of freshman year, I found myself walking over to his room every day. And the rest is history.

As a first-generation student, I am forever grateful for Alex’s constant support through it all. I’m talking all the ugly cries, ugly laughs, fountain hopping, and sharing endless late-night chicken tenders and waffle fries with me. Alex had always been steadfast in his interest in pursuing grad school, even from the day I first met him. I had gone through a whirlwind of leaving the pre-med career track to find another major that interested me a lot more. I took a gap year in my undergrad to work at a biomedical engineering startup and realized that I wanted to further my education in this awesome field called materials science. By the time graduation rolled around I thought,

hey, what is another two years of school to get a Masters?” Bonding over hard problem sets

Joke’s on me because I’m still in school.

There were two major problems we faced. First, while we both wanted to go to grad school, PhD programs had a faster timeline than Masters programs. Even if we wanted to attend the same school, I might not get accepted to wherever he commits to. Second, different grad schools have different strengths! A school that might have a great materials science program, might not have as many opportunities in computational biology (which is what Alex was interested in pursuing). Given these issues, we had to strategize which schools we applied to. When we had ‘The Talk,’ the most important wall to overcome was that it wasn’t entirely our decision to make. This was really hard to accept. Though there was a lot of uncertainty and stress, the fact that we both wanted to pursue research in biology-related fields made things a lot more straightforward. This means that it was 100% feasible to attend the same school and without sacrificing research opportunities. If possible, we wanted to continue to stay and study together!

We took two weeks to research and list out our top-choice schools without so much as a hint to each other. The next two weeks we put our heads together to develop a list of schools that had great research opportunities for both of us. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the list contained schools that were already on our top-choice schools. We could do it. We could make it work. With that, we submitted our applications and prayed that we were independently good enough candidates to be admitted to the same school. Alex was pretty selective and only applied to 7 schools compared to my 13 (yikes, I definitely didn’t need to apply to all 4 ‘backup’ schools). Every time my partner received an interview or an acceptance I got more and more nervous. Wow, that was a reach school for me, what if I don’t get in? It was like this for a painful 2-3 months (interviews for PhD programs started so early!). And then I heard back from my programs.

I was accepted to some schools that Alex didn’t apply to. I was also rejected from two schools that he got accepted to. But miraculously, there were three schools that we were both accepted at, and obviously we chose UW. Since we both agreed the ideal situation would be to attend the same school, it all came down to location. Out of our three choices, two are on the East Coast and one is on the West Coast. We were West Coasters through and through so UW it was! Maaaaybe we’ll move to the East after grad school. No promises though.

This whole process was the largest decision we both made for our relationship. I had taken his presence for granted during the four years of college. We both wanted to go to grad school, and there were many options for each of our respective fields. Though the decision wasn’t entirely up to us, we had to work together to research schools that would work for both of us. We took time in researching and applying to schools both independently and together, and this made a huge difference in how we tackled the uncertainty that came with grad school admissions. Our goals aligned in going to a strong research institution for grad school, so that made narrowing down lists easier.

West Coast Best Coast!

If you and your partner are both considering grad school, it’s really important to discuss what your research goals are. This is especially true if your fields of interest are different. The programs at each grad school are different, and one school that might be strong in your field might not have many opportunities for your partner. Also, grad school is a huge commitment, so make sure that you are ready to take that leap with your partner! If for whatever reason, one of you is not ready to make a career decision to attend grad school together, you probably shouldn’t.

I am so grateful to have Alex who has been there with me and for me, and who shares similar research goals. If possible, please discuss your future goals with your partner as soon as you know that you’d want to go to grad school. Alex and I had both known that we wanted to pursue grad school even before senior year, so it wasn’t a huge shock for us. We are both fiercely committed to our research goals, but also fiercely committed to each other. We moved together because we were ready to take this leap, and because we found schools where we could BOTH thrive. I didn’t make a sacrifice and neither did he.

It bothers me when people assume that one partner (usually it’s the woman) sacrificed her career to be with her partner. Please don’t assume that. For us we prioritized both school and relationship, and this is entirely possible. We are both happy with where we are, and we are both happy to be with each other.

Can you tell we like to match?

Have ‘The Talk’ with an open mind, and an even more open heart. It is a big step for both of you, and don’t come to a decision expecting sacrifice. Your partner is your closest friend, whether from afar or at the same school!