Disclaimer: I am not a relationship counselor. But since this is part of my 10 more things I learned in gradschool, these are a few pieces of advice based on my own experiences. Psychology/counseling friends, please feel free to add your academically-informed advice in the comments. :)
Okay, with that out of the way, here goes.
This doesn't seem to be a topic everyone is super comfortable talking about, but when it does come up in conversation, everyone seems to be on the same page: whether it be a friend or a romantic partner, or even a professional relationship, finding and maintaining relationships generally gets a little harder in grad school. Why the heck is that? How can you start combat that?
Between undergrad and grad school, a lot of things change that affect our relationships. Some are more obvious than others: you may have moved further away from your home town, you're not in the dorms anymore, and you have smaller and fewer classes; all of which result in fewer, and sometimes slightly more uncomfortable encounters.
I mention "more uncomfortable" because a lot of the time, grad school takes you to a different region of the country, if not the world, than where you grew up. And even if you didn't leave home, your new peers may have. So, when you meet someone new, there's not going to be that instant familiarity blanket that came with meeting someone from your home town, or someone who shared the same background or set of experiences as you. As an important aside, for STEM students, there's also having to adjust to the drastic change in gender balance in grad school, or more accurately, imbalance, that affects relationships in a variety of ways as well.
But there's one more thing that may be a little less obvious. For many, grad school begins just as you've finally decided on a direction you want to take your career. It's a time when you're actively trying to establish yourself as a professional, or at the very least, a responsible adult.
In other words, grad school comes at a time when you've decided on a path you want to take, but have only just begun the journey. The combination of actively trying to establish a confident, independent, and professional "new you", while not yet having any experience, understandably leads to some feelings of insecurity (THE definition of imposter syndrome).
So, when you go to meet a new person, in any new relationship, it ends up feeling a bit... awkward. Everyone wants to make a good impression, and show them the "new you", but you're also trying to be genuine and stay true to yourself, all while making sure they don't pick up on those feelings of insecurity.
And then, even if you get past that initial meeting without any hiccups, and the relationship is off to a great start, grad school inevitably gets in the way, at some point, in some way or another, creating a whole new set of challenges.
So, this isn't an easy thing. But it's also not a new problem. There are tons of articles, lists, and even entire reddit threads on how to have and maintain personal relationships in grad school. But to add my two cents, as a millennial, unapologetic feminist and woman in STEM, and someone who is currently in a PhD program, here are a few things I've learned along the way:
#1) If you want to make new friends, you're gonna have to leave the house, and try new things.
We're not on the playground every day for recess anymore, so it's not like you can just walk up to any random person on the street with a note that says "Be my friend? Circle 'Yes' or 'No' " and be done with it. If you're an introvert, you might feel like it's even harder for you to make friends, but... good news! There are plenty of ways for introverts to make new friends too. :) But for both extroverts, introverts, and everyone in between, if you want to meet people outside of work, the gym, or the local brewery you frequent, you're gonna have to get creative.
As hard as it is to find motivation to go out after a long week in lab, or a stressful day of [not] writing, if you want to meet new people and create new, lasting friendships, you're gonna have to say YES to those random invitations to social events every once in awhile. And don't rule out things that you've never tried before. In fact, seek out some of those things you've always thought about but have been to busy/shy/scared to try.
Essentially...you'll have to make an effort. New friendships, or romantic relationships for that matter, don't just happen if you're sitting at home playing video games all the time. Unless, you're into MMORPGs or Tinder/Bumble/etc, then that's a great way! But for the rest of us, here are a few alternatives:
As a grad student, most of the student orgs, intramural sports, and free events on campus are still open to you. Some are even for grad students and postdocs. Or, if you can't find anything that looks interesting, start a group of your own! Try saving up a little cash for a photography class, kickboxing, or the city softball league. Volunteer at the local shelter, or your favorite political action group. Start a book club, running group, or game night at the local beer garden by creating a public Facebook group and sharing to a few public local pages. Attend a local concert, poetry slam, or biscuit festival.
Wait..is that only a Knoxville thing? Whatever, you get the idea.
Then, during any of these events where you'll possibly meet new people, try reaching out to someone who feels unfamiliar or different than what you're comfortable with. Shed that familiarity blanket and find new friends! Broaden your perception of who might share an interest with you, and you instantly broaden the pool of potential friends. :)
If all else fails, when trying to make new friends, there's always an app for that.
#2) Once you do meet someone new, prepare to be offended...
...and then take it in stride.
Scenario: you meet someone new, you share an interest with them, everything's hunky dory, and then one day... you find out their favorite band is Nickelback.
When we were younger, we could say something like "I hate bees" and no one really thought anything of it. Because when we were younger, our opinions were broadly seen as transitory or uninformed.
As an adult though, a statement like "I hate bees," could turn into an hour-long philosophical discussion about how pollen is really just nature's golden dust, and "without bees, human civilization as we know it would cease to exist!" Trust me, I've seen it happen.
Our opinions, and our understanding of what an opinion means changes over time. As people get older, they all-of-a-sudden start to associate fleeting opinionated statements like these as informed opinions that OBVIOUSLY align with that person's core values. Because, opinions NEVER change over time or anything. /sarcasm
In reality, until someone is told something different, in a conversation among friends for example... these types of statements could be just as UNinformed as when they were five years old.
So here's my advice when it comes to conversations with new friends:
Don't be afraid to question someone's opinion about something, and if someone questions yours, resist that subconscious tendency to become defensive. Even when you think you have an informed opinion about something, I'm here to tell you, as a scientist, our knowledge about EVERYTHING is constantly evolving. There are always nuances, and context matters.
We have GOT to stop being so afraid of possibly having a different view than someone else we're close to, and we have GOT to stop thinking that just because someone sees something differently than we do, that they're "less than" in some way.
Some of the closest friendships I've seen formed in graduate school have been between people who are on completely opposite sides of an issue. The thing they all have in common: after getting offended by something said in conversation, they still figure out how to talk to one another the next day.
If you want to make new friends, and you want to grow as a person, surround yourself with people who think differently than you do, and be open to listening to their views on things...multiple times. Just because someone previously voiced a view that you disagreed with at the time, that doesn't mean the topic needs to be off-limits for your relationship to work out.
In fact, relationships are usually better off if you don't avoid the topic, and actively make an effort to discuss it more than once. People change their minds about things all the time. We are always growing, and always learning.
#3) And finally, there's also that whole just NOT getting along with someone.
Don't feel like you have to hold on to a friendship if it becomes toxic. There are lots of reasons folks just don't get along. Unfortunately, and in academia especially, one thing you'll see all too often is the "overly competitive grad student". It's usually when someone is insecure about their own achievements, and so they see your ambition or success as a personal threat. And sometimes, they don't even realize it.
This is an actual conversation I overheard recently between two grad students (GS):
GS 1: I finally finished my dissertation proposal! It feels so good to finally be done.
GS 2: Oh, was that hard for you?
And there are COUNTLESS other examples I've seen in just the four years I've been a grad student. I'm not sure if its the culture in STEM, or just grad school in general, but before I realized that it's just a thing we all have to deal with, it was exhausting.
Never apologize for owning your ambition. And shake off anyone who can't own theirs without tearing you down.
#1) If you're in a committed relationship already, make time for YOU-time.
It seems like common sense, but once you're in a committed relationship, there's suddenly a ton of cultural pressure to always have your partner with you. Especially if it's a new or unique experience. And especially if you're a woman in a heterosexual relationship.
Me: I think I'm gonna travel to Europe by myself this year.
People: ALONE?!?! WHAT ABOUT YOUR BOYFRIEND?
Me: Shows up stag to get-together with friends/colleagues.
People: WHERE'S YOUR MAN, IS SOMETHING WRONG?
But here's the thing, even if you've found a person you want to be with forever, you're still going to have different things that you like to do, alone. If both of you are in grad school, or harder still, if only one of you is, just like you carve out time to hang out with each other, make sure to carve out time to do things by yourself.
Being a little selfish with your time, and doing something that you love, on a fairly regular basis, is so crucial not only to maintaining your sanity in grad school, but to maintaining a healthy relationship with your significant other.
#2) If you're single, but don't want to be, don't blame other people for why you feel lonely.
For all y'all (hey, I live in the South) that use phrases like "friend-zoned" or "nice guys finish last" ALL people are not "potential partners". They are PEOPLE. With thoughts, feelings, and goals just like you. If you go into a conversation with a new person thinking "omg, this might be someone I want to sleep with", of course it's going to be awkward!
Look, I understand physical attraction is a thing that can happen before anyone says a word, but just because you're physically attracted to someone doesn't mean that they're physically attracted to you. And you have GOT to be okay with that before you even start speaking. Set your attraction aside and focus on the thoughts, feelings, and goals thing first.
#3) Try to embrace the awkwardness (but don't add to it).
You're not going to know whether someone could be a match after the first time meeting them. It's going to be weird. Taking time to get to know someone is kinda par for the course. But don't add to it...
Pro tip: When you meet someone new and they ask you what you do, try to not sound like a condescending asshole by saying something like "Oh, it's really complicated, you probably wouldn't understand."
And dudes. Stop interrupting people. It's f*cking irritating.
Whether it be with your adviser, a fellow grad student, or a new colleague you just met at a conference, creating and maintaining professional relationships is more important than we often realize.
All too often, I see students sacrificing a social life for more time in lab, skipping the departmental happy hour, or waiting until their fourth or fifth year to find funding for that conference they want to go to. Other times, they do go to the conference or networking event, but then never follow up with anyone they met.
Networking isn't easy.
Reaching out to complete strangers might feel artificial or forced at first.
But it's something all successful grad students learn how to do.
And once you've made those contacts, maintaining them is the next hurdle.
Communicate often and communicate well.
This is especially true for your most important professional relationship in grad school: the one you have with YOUR ADVISER.
Some grad students prefer their adviser to be more hands off; others would prefer she check in with them every week to help keep them on course to publish/graduate/etc. But in either case, frequent and clear communication is key to avoiding some of the most common challenges grad students and advisers have throughout a graduate degree program. Here are some things I've learned along the way:
- Keep a running list of things you want to ask your adviser the next time you meet. Both you and your adviser have busy schedules, so popping in to 'ask a quick question' every day isn't always the most effective use of time. And anyway, by giving yourself a few days or a week to think about the questions you have, you'll develop the skills necessary to be an independent researcher, and oftentimes, figure out the answer yourself before even having to ask your adviser.
- Set goals and expectations you have for each other, at the very beginning. You don't have to necessarily write them down in a contract or anything, but explicitly stating them out loud, and then revisiting those goals and expectations from time to time, will help avoid either party feeling like they aren't getting what they want from the relationship. And yes, you can, and should have expectations for your adviser.
- Check in at least once a month. Sure, some advisers are busier than others, but touching base about the progress of your research, new funding opportunities, conferences you'd like to attend, and vacations you have coming up, are all topics that should be easily discussed, on a regular basis.
EVEN IF YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING NEW.
Grad students tend to get nervous thinking about going into a meeting and having to tell your adviser "the experiment didn't work", "the instrument is down again", or "I'm still working on it." But, advisers, more than anyone else, should know that research takes time and that everything rarely (read: never) goes to plan. Whatever it is you have to tell them, own it. Go in with confidence and be ready to explain why you think things aren't working and what you're next steps are.
Bottom line: relationships are hard. Especially in grad school. But whether it's a new friend, a new boo, or a new colleague, communication is key. So, however you have to make that happen, start there and the rest will follow.
What have y'all learned? Add your stories in the comments!
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
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