Grad student support networks: finding friends in unexpected places

The internet is now full of advice for new and prospective PhD students. Go visit your lab before you agree to work there. Talk to the other postgraduates to find out what the lab is really like. Start your reading before you matriculate, but don’t expect it to help you understand anything. Begin writing early. Make sure your support network is in place, and understands what you’re doing…

But wait a second. What support network? Sure, if you’re staying in the city where you did your undergrad, with friends and a boyfriend and maybe even family around you then that’s a silly question. But what if you’re moving somewhere new? What if you’re travelling cross country to a new city where you know nobody?

I have often said that I don’t know how non-Christians cope with moving house. When I moved here, the first thing I did was find a church. No, really. I had a church before I had a house. Not so much because of a conscious effort: I just happened to be house hunting on a Sunday and really liked the first place I tried. But if you don’t have  a waiting community to walk into, and you don’t have a spouse moving too then you’re starting in a new place, completely alone. Despite a talent for striking up conversations with people I barely know (I’m not yet sure whether this is due to a lifetime of small talk with little old ladies in the Church of England, or the fact that I’m so socially inept I genuinely don’t notice when people are uncomfortable talking to me) I really struggled to make firm friends in this city.

It didn’t help that there were a mere 12 postgrads starting at the same time as me, many having just graduates from that same university. Six in the same group. Another 2 international students who I never saw after day 1. Two married, and living a long commute away with partners.

But I guess what this rambling introduction is saying is that the people I was most grateful for in my first several months here were not the ones you would expect. In an unhappy houseshare, and an unhappy labshare (now much better, thank-goodness), I wouldn’t have got through the first month without Drew, who has the first shift on gym reception. (When unhappy, my gym habit is even more extreme than usual). And I wouldn’t have made it to Christmas without the technician who runs stores, who always has a smile, and invited me to play with his band. And I wouldn’t have survived my first rotation without our department cleaner, Chrissie, who is somehow always having a cigarette outside of my lab when I needed to vent.

Sometimes our support networks arise from unlikely places, and when you feel lost and alone in a new city, doing a PhD you’re not quite sure you ever should have started, it’s worth remembering that you will find strength from unlikely people in strange places.

Here endeth the baking biologist’s twee Friday evening rambling!

One response to “Grad student support networks: finding friends in unexpected places

  1. This is almost exactly what I was thinking…I’m a non-religious person moving from one of the most liberal states in the country to one of the most conservative. Everyone around me is married and have been for years.

    The gym has really helped me out though. I been working out with a bunch of people from work (all super friendly) and playing basketball with some med students.

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