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My Name Is What?

Should you change your name during graduate school?

April 25, 2017

Kristina Gavin Bigsby is a doctoral candidate in Information Science at the University of Iowa. Her research centers on recruiting networks, and her dissertation is about the use of social media in college football recruiting. You can follow her on Twitter @kgbigsby.

 

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It’s springtime, which for graduate students might bring to mind dissertation defenses and on-campus job interviews. Yet outside the academic bubble, springtime—in addition to bunnies, tulips, and baby birds—marks the beginning of wedding season.

 

Don’t worry, this is not a Martin Short-as-Franck Egelhoffer guide to getting married in graduate school. Soon-to-be-weds face many choices during the planning process, from centerpieces to catering, but I want to focus on one critical decision: changing your name upon marriage. While ultimately an individual choice, the process of changing your name has attracted a great deal of attention and opinions. A simple Google search of “whether to change name” produces more than 800 million results (including a 2014 article from GradHacker). For my contribution to this conversation, I focus on the personal, practical, and professional ramifications of changing your name in graduate school.

 

For me, the choice was not set in stone until I applied for the marriage license. My indecision was not a sign of taking this process lightly, but instead due to needing time to examine the nature of my motivations and consider any possible repercussions.

 

My first motivation was the desire for a more unique name. Those of us born in the late 1980s may remember sitting in classrooms with multiple Emilys, Ashleys, and/or Jessicas. But as Kristina Gavin, I had always thought I had a ‘special’ name. Kristina with a K is less common than its holier counterpart Christ-ina (though more common than the Romantic spelling Cristina). In the hierarchy of Irish surnames, Gavin is fairly rare, at least compared to Kelly, Murphy, or Sullivan. However, in college I had run into my first namefellow. It was a strangely unsettling experience, and my thoughts ran wild with potential problems. What if important university emails got sent to the wrong student? What if she had a really embarrassing MySpace that was the first search engine result for our name? What if she was arrested for throwing a stick of butter at her roommate and it appeared on my background check?

 

While none of these feared outcomes came to pass (that I know of), getting married presented the perfect opportunity to once again stake out a unique namespace. My fiancé’s last name, Bigsby, was even less common than Gavin. According to the website HowManyOfMe, there are approximately 17,000 Gavins in the U.S. but fewer than 1,000 Bigsbys. Before making my decision, I ran the numbers: I would be the only Kristina Bigsby in the U.S.

 

Of course, I could have changed my name to anything in this pursuit of a one-of-a-kind name (Bunny McSnuggles was suggested at the time), so why pick my fiancé’s name? My second reason for changing my name upon marriage had to do with self-definition. How did I want to be known to the world? A surname traditionally denotes familial membership, a fact I understood all too well growing up as one of seven children. By deciding to take my fiancé’s last name, I sought to signal our shared identity as partners. While we could have both changed our names or he could have adopted my last name, this decision was, like getting married, about each of us being free to make a choice about our futures and identities.

 

When deciding to whether to change my name, I also experienced anxiety about the way members of my personal and professional networks would perceive my choice. According to a recent New York Times article, approximately 20 percent of women married in recent years have kept their birth names, a figure that is on the rise compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Did I want to keep my name and join my feminist sisters?  If I took my fiancé’s name, would this signal that I—an independent woman—was conforming to an outdated social norm?

 

In the end, reactions ranged from indifference to mild confusion. My family and friends were supportive (they mostly fall into the 80 percent who changed or hyphenated their name upon marriage). My fiancé tended toward the opinion that a name change was inconvenient, but, like a modern-day Sir Gawain, left it up to me to decide. Contrary to the judgments I had feared, most people in my academic network were blissfully disinterested. When I got engaged, I was finishing a master’s degree in library and information science in a heavily female-dominated program. It was a close-knit group, and I received many congratulations and thoughtful inquiries about my wedding plans. Eighteen months later, when I got married and changed my name, I had just completed my first year of doctoral study. In the more quantitative, research-focused (and male-dominated) environment of the informatics program, the most common question I received about my wedding plans was how many days I would be taking off of school. My advisors were most interested in whether the name change would impact my academic reputation or publication history. Since I had not published yet, this issue was mostly avoided.

 

In addition to the minor inconveniences of the legal name change process, there has only been two other negative outcomes of changing my name. I was gently chided by department administrators mystified at the sudden appearance of Kristina Bigsby in the student database (which would have been avoided if I had proactively notified them of the change). Also, I elected not to change my electronic identity at school (ID and email address) because I had been using the same email for almost a decade. So each semester I have to explain to my students that my email address does not follow the common first name-last name format. I have had one or two students who have tried to email “kristina-bigsby” to no avail, but no major communication issues.

 

During graduate school, we are all going through a process of defining our identities and finding our place in the world. Like other decisions we make, such as which program to attend or what to research, changing one’s name is ultimately a personal choice. Three years since my wedding and name change, I’m glad that I took this decision seriously and spent the time to examine my own goals and fears. I learned more about who I am as well as who I want to become.

 

Readers, what are your thoughts on the pros and cons of changing your name in graduate school? If you have changed your name, what reactions did you receive from your classmates and professors?


[Image by Wikimedia Commons user Eviatar Bach and is in the public domain]

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