Balancing Act

I was engaged on December 24, 2017, in the romantic courtyard of an Orange County museum. The floor was decorated with white rose pedals, wooden crates held beautiful crystal vases with white roses, pictures of my fiancée and I were hanging from the branches of an orange tree, and the amazing southern California sun was beaming down on us.  My fiancée spoke a few words (I don’t remember what he said because I was too ecstatic) and dropped to one knee…


Fast-forward 4 months, my fiancée and I are weighing out the options as to which PhD program would offer me invaluable opportunities and prepare me for a successful scientific career. Choosing a school to attend for the next 5+ years of your life is hard enough. Bringing someone else into the equation to help make this life-changing decision is a whole other thing. The plan was that we would both have to agree on a school.  At the time, I was living in Orange County and I had only applied to California schools. I wouldn’t have to move very far. However, making this decision was still difficult.

Elizabeth counting viral plaques, or “colonies,” on an agar plate in the Cripps Laboratory at San Diego State University.

Elizabeth counting viral plaques, or “colonies,” on an agar plate in the Cripps Laboratory at San Diego State University.

After weighing out my options, the Cell and Molecular joint doctoral program at San Diego State University (SDSU) and the University of California San Diego (UCSD) seemed like the best fit. An awesome choice! The program is unique in that you take graduate courses and complete three lab rotations at SDSU during your first year. Then, you attend UCSD during your second year to complete your graduate courses. You get a little bit of both worlds! Afterwards, you return to SDSU to complete your dissertation research. This program offers a high quality education and amazing research opportunities. Plus, they’re close to the beautiful San Diego beaches.

My first semester at SDSU consisted of lab rotations, literature reading, classes, working as a grader, and moving to a new apartment. It also involved A LOT of wedding planning. We were going to get married during the winter break and go on our honeymoon before the Spring semester started. We were on a tight deadline, on top of all the responsibilities that comes with being a PhD student. It was stressful for both of us, but we managed to pull through it! We planned an unforgettable wedding!

Elizabeth and Ronnie’s wedding was a huge success. Photo credit: DnA Wylie Photography

Elizabeth and Ronnie’s wedding was a huge success. Photo credit: DnA Wylie Photography

Now married, finding the right balance between marriage and a PhD has been challenging. Here are a few things that have helped along the way:

  • Priorities. My husband is the most important person and marriage is the most important thing to me. What about the PhD? It comes second to my spouse and our marriage. I do not want my husband to feel like he is second to the PhD. That’s just the way I chose it to be. Don’t misunderstand me! I still pour a lot of hours into my research, courses, and working as a teaching assistant. A PhD is very demanding and requires a considerable amount of your time. I’ve had to get much better at managing my time.

  • Support. My husband has played a key-supporting role in my PhD career. Before starting my PhD program, my husband took the time to talk to scientists about their career and what graduate programs are like. This helped both of us understand the work-life challenges of pursuing a graduate school education and a scientific career. Most importantly, don’t forget to support your spouse! I do my best to support my husband as he rises through the ranks in his career. 

  • Integrate. Incorporate your spouse in your academic life. I have given my husband a tour of the lab, explained (as best I can) what my research projects are, and kept him updated about my findings. I also invite him to hang out with my cohort so that he understands that there is a fun side to the academic life.  

  • Relax. Take a break! My husband works full-time and he can easily track how many hours of vacation he has. In graduate school, you don’t accumulate vacation hours the same way. In fact, vacation is a big no-no in graduate school. At first, it was difficult explaining that I don’t get vacations. However, if you have a super awesome PI, he/she may let you take a few days off to enjoy a nice little vacation with your spouse. 

  • Fun. Set a few hours aside each week (or biweekly) to catch a movie, go out to dinner, watch a sports game, visit an amusement park, go on a hike … anything fun that you both enjoy. Forget about research and work (only for a few hours it’s not so bad) and just have fun. My husband and I have recently taken up weight lifting. Because of our busy schedules, it requires getting up at 4:30am, but that is the sacrifice we are willing to make in order to live a long, healthy and happy life.


There are many challenges that come with being married in graduate school, but it is possible. These are a few things that have helped strengthen my marriage while tackling the everyday stresses associated with pursuing a PhD. Everyone’s marriage is different, just like everyone is different. Do what works for you and your spouse.

-Elizabeth

A good reminder to all grad students: your life is not defined by your PhD, and your life outside the lab should not be neglected. Photo credit: DnA Wylie Photography.

A good reminder to all grad students: your life is not defined by your PhD, and your life outside the lab should not be neglected. Photo credit: DnA Wylie Photography.


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