Starting Grad School: Get Sociable


Moving to a new city to start my postgraduate studies was one of the most daunting things I have ever done. Going to uni in the first place as an undergrad was a piece of cake: I’m musical, I’m sporty, I’m religious and I like giving people food. I’m not amazing at making close friends but I am very good at making friendly acquaintances. And everybody else was in the exact same boat, desperate to meet their new best friends and super keen to be involved with everything.

After I graduated I worked in a lovely, supportive school, that expected all of the staff to be involved in much more than just teaching. Even if there hadn’t been the immediate camaraderie of bitching in the staff room about disruptive kids, I got to know people through the musical side of the school, and Duke of Edinburgh, and Christian Union.

Moving here was a whole other ball game. The postgrads separated out neatly into: 

– Those who had done their undergrad here

– Those who were older, and came with partners in tow and family commitments

– Those who were away on field work for much of their PhD so weren’t around, or were just plain antisocial

– And a small handful who were actually keen to go to the pub.

Unfortunately that small handful existed pretty much in just two labs, and my lab was distinctly unsocial. (At the time there was only me and one other PhD student, who fit into both Category A and Category B). The problem was compounded by the fact that there were only four PhD students starting that autumn in the entire department! On top of this I found the undergrads here horrendously clique-y in a way that just hadn’t been true at my undergrad university (I had several postgrad friends), and I was living with somebody much older.

In short, I was lonely, and fed up. I didn’t need somebody to tell me to make new friends in the department, because I didn’t have any anywhere else, but apparently a lot of people do. In the past week, not one but three of my friends have more or less broken down and told me their woes about PhD life. In fact, only one of them is a close friend: it may be a testimony to the fact that I am a good listener and freely distribute hugs, but I can’t help wondering whether the other two don’t have any closer friends to confide in. Actually though, I don’t think they do. They haven’t got to know other people in the department.

My point is this: it’s easy to start Grad School full of hope and optimism, convinced that everything will be fine and dandy and you won’t need a support network. It won’t be. You will need one. Obviously. You will at some stage (hopefully not by this stage, but maybe!) enter what the Thesis Whisperer calls The Valley of Shit (incidentally, one of my favourite blog posts ever). And at that stage you need a support network, yes. But you also need a group of people around you who understand exactly what you are going through. My mum, my other half, my undergrad housemate are all good at listening and trying to offer constructive advice. But more often than not I find myself wailing you just don’t understand!! 

So here’s Piece of Advice for New Grad Students #4: Find yourself some friends or at least friendly acquaintances in the department even if you already have plenty of friends in the city already. PhDs are very good at making you feel isolated and alone: you need people around you who can empathise with your situation. A lot of people may feel they’ve missed the boat for socialising within the department. Pro-tip: the Christmas party is coming up, right? So grab the quiet grad student in your lab, who never socialises either, tell her you’re going together, and then drink wine and start making friends. You’ll thank me!

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3 responses to “Starting Grad School: Get Sociable

  1. My friend L is a lifesaver in this regard. When the RA has used up the last Western blot gel JUST AS YOU THAW YOUR SAMPLES, it’s L I go to for a massive bitch. Sometimes it’s an email that says “Coffee?”; sometimes I go along the corridor, haul her out of her office and go off for a walk so I can raaaaaage loudly. Sometimes we summon the other PhD students in our cohort for wine and whining after work. I know I would have dropped out by now if I didn’t have another person in the same boat (or perhaps a parallel boat) to share the high and lows with!

  2. I completely agree!! I’m a 6th year and in my program, the 1st year is the only year where you have classes with people from other departments (everyone takes the same BioChem class). My lab was distinctly unsocial so I made friends with all the other labs on the hall. The plus side is you know more people to brainstorm with when experiments aren’t working or you ran out of critical Reagent X. The best part is that you ave options when you need a night or lunch away from the lab. For me, this was critical for my survival in grad school, it’s not an easy road!

  3. Pingback: Starting Grad School: You don’t have to wrestle the snake! | bakingbiologist

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