Imagine you’re at the start of graduate or doctoral training. You’re thrust into a new and exciting environment and begin mentally preparing yourself for the journey ahead. Before you know it, the familiar routine and unambiguous measures of success you had in your coursework are over. Instead, you now struggle with defining and shaping your project while staying motivated in an unstructured research environment. Inexperienced in navigating these challenges you intensely focus on a singular goal for years, resulting in an endless chase for a proper life balance and the foregoing of a personal and social life. It’s a competitive environment, and the odds of reaching your goal of securing a good postdoc, and eventually a tenure track position, are slim. Regardless, your interest in the subject matter, the prestige of earning a doctorate, and the prospect of career change keep you motivated towards success, no matter the cost.
The incredibly isolating experience of graduate school is built into the structure of the institution itself, and may result in students leaving their program prematurely. Among many other drivers, a healthy social life has been discussed as an important part of the graduate experience and connected to the overall well-being of students. However, challenges unique to the graduate environment, like financial limitations, time constraints, and feelings of work-related guilt may limit engagement and the enjoyment of social activities, preventing the establishment of new relationships. Additionally, the time, effort, and uniqueness of the graduate environment may also disrupt already existing relationships with old friends.
Emotional difficulty and program attrition are unlikely to be the result of isolation alone. The reality is that the graduate and university environment is complex, competitive, and fraught with uncertainty. In my experience, healthy friendships, and the support they bring, are effective counters to these challenges.
A sense of being a part of a supportive community is a crucial secondary benefit when developing friendships during graduate school. Early on, and throughout your training, this support can come in the form of useful advice on how to overcome the many challenges unique to the university and graduate environment. Thankfully, it can also come as informed assistance during periods of career frustration, program disillusionment, personal grief, and profound loss.
I made sure to start making friends right at the start of my program, a time when others were similarly eager to form relationships and get to know their peers. The relationships I developed were vital in my early attempts to learn about this new and confusing environment I found myself in. By chatting with friends early on in my program, we were able to exchange useful information related to things like crucial scholarship deadlines, tips on how to write applications, how to navigate university procedures, and identify useful seminars.
As my acquaintances became good friends, the support we were able to provide to one another became more substantive. I’ve experienced the value of engaging with friends and colleagues during periods of loss and grief. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of this type of support. I believe this willingness to provide support comes from a place of collegiality and solidarity that can develop as a cohort completes their training and overcome challenges together.
By reminding me of the responsibilities I had to my close friends and colleagues, this sense of connection I developed with peers frequently acted as a counterweight to the burden of graduate training and other career pressures. Of the many lessons I learned, the most important thing this sense of responsibility taught me was that providing support doesn’t have to be complicated. Never underestimate the value of a kind word, a supportive conversation, helping someone move, or sharing a meal. I promise, generously providing support with zero expectations has this funny way of still generating all sorts of unexpected dividends.
Social exchange is likely to be effective at alleviating some of the mystery and difficulty you’ll face over the course of your training and career. While these interactions are important, there are also professional resources specifically designed to help with issues common to the university environment. At times, these challenges may require sustained career advice, personal counseling, and expert knowledge on how to leverage a variety of university resources. Friends and peers are unlikely to be adequately equipped to fully assist you with everything you’ll encounter. Taking the initial step of reaching out to knowledgeable university staff, in addition to putting in the effort to develop a functioning network of support with them, may be one of the best decisions you ever make.
Most universities try to offset the demands of graduate training through the maintenance of a culture in which experiencing the consequences of failure are natural, expected, and often forgiven. The insulating benefits of this culture can sometimes make us forget that you’re never fully protected from the inevitable eddies of modern life. It’s more than likely that you will have to deal with frustration, major life events, uncomfortable change, setbacks, and loss over the course of your graduate degree. Developing strong relationships with friends and peers will ensure you don’t have to face these challenges without support.