Starting Grad School: There’s a fine fine line

There’s a fine fine line… between a post-doc and  a friend

(To paraphrase Avenue Q)

Starting a PhD, especially if your most recent degree was your undergraduate Bachelors, and not a Masters degree, can come as a little bit of a culture shock. There’s the working hours (Forget watching Countdown. Forget being home in time for Hollyoaks! Actually forget being home ever). There’s the lack of deadlines. But there’s also a very different relationship with your professors.

I was fortunate to have a very good working relationship with several academics at the university where I did my undergrad, but of course there’s always going to be a certain amount of distance. You don’t know their wife’s name. They don’t know what your Facebook profile looks like. 

Labmates vs Friends?

All of that changes when you start a PhD in science. Within a 10m radius of my desk are three other PhD students, four post docs, two technicians, my supervisor and the pet bioinformatician, whose job title I’m never entirely clear on.*

Regular readers might have noticed that compared to June when I posted most days, recently the baking biologist has been really rather quiet. Long story short: housemate is in some major trouble; housemate is falling apart under the pressure; the baking biologist is slowly disintegrating in the background while trying to hold her housemate together. You don’t need to know me very well to spot the signs: I’m exhausted all the time. I can’t concentrate. Even when I’m at my desk I’m reading statutes (aka legal bull****) or making appointments with the CAB or talking to my housemate via email. It’s impossible for the people in my office not to notice that something is very wrong.

Ordinarily, it seems like people who spend a lot of time together develop an understanding. They’re friendly even when they’re not friends. During finals, lots of my friends ending up talking to the people in the same area of the library as them about problems, even when their ‘real’ friends were only a phone call away. But you can’t do that when you’re working in a lab.

The fine line

My lab is pretty good at maintaining the line between colleague and friend. There are a lot of parents within the group, so we’ve always kept more normal hours than other labs. We don’t go to the pub. Even the four PhD students have never added one another on Facebook. Yesterday, the one PhD student who’s in a lot at the moment asked me what on earth was going on, and I started talking. And once I started I couldn’t stop. Even when the postdocs turned around to listen. Even when it became obvious from the glazed expressions that they didn’t want me to talk about tribunals and bailiffs and suicide threats: they just wanted me to say that I was fine. They wanted me to say that I was tired and stressed but I would be okay.

It can be very easy sometimes to think that just because you now see the people in your lab more than anyone else that you’re all friends. In work after I graduated I didn’t have this problem: it’s easy to stay on your guard when you’re suited and booted and sticking to a rigid schedule. Somehow it’s harder to remember these are work colleagues when you’re taking another 45 minute coffee break in jeans and a hoody. This is especially true when the rest of your support network consists of people who are unsympathetic or people who are too close to the problem to talk about it with, or even people who are being amazingly supportive but you just feel too guilty to lean on any more.

But who’s writing your references?

Can I just thoroughly recommend that you don’t? At the end of the day these are work colleagues. You have to work together. They will be around for writing letters of recommendation and they will be around for lab crises. My supervisor has never quite looked at me the same since the day I burst into tears in a lab meeting because I was exhausted after I came home to the houseshare I had moved into to find people having sex in my bed and an unannounced house party that lasted til 3am. Your personal life, no matter how traumatic, is not worth jeopardising your working relationships for.


* Random aside: what do you call people who are very experienced and well established scientists but not yet Professors?  There are others in the department at similar levels who I would just call a Group Head, but Bioinformatician is not a group head because he is sort of absorbed by our group. Equally, calling him a post doc or an RA seems almost derogatory given his scientific experience.

3 responses to “Starting Grad School: There’s a fine fine line

  1. I hope your housemate is ok or on his/her way to being ok. Same for you.

    Also, thanks for writing this. It was something that I needed to hear. My lab and department are close knit groups. All of the grad students are FB friends and hang out together, so it’s easy to forget that they are you colleagues and will someday be writing you letters of recommendation or competing against you for jobs.

  2. Thanks 🙂

    Housemate is still not in a great place, but as of Friday we finally have her benefits sorted, which takes a whole load of stress out of the equation, so I’m praying we’re on our way to happier times!

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