2010-07-23 11:01 am

Relationships & Grad School

The hardest thing for me, when I moved to grad school, wasn't even on my list of "things that could possibly go wrong". And being an inveterate worrier, that list was pretty long. That hardest thing? Developing a successful network of relationships.

I mean, after all, though I'm not exactly socially ept, throughout high school and college, I'd dropped right into a large, nerdy, friendly group of people to hang out with and to get support from when I needed it. I assumed the same would be true in grad school. And that was false.

Before grad school, the largest group of my friends at any given time came from school, as I suspect is true for most people. Neither my high school nor my college was particularly large, but contained people with varied interests—writers, linguists, theater folk, biologists, historians, musicians, sailors, etc. I took classes in a wide range of things, and made friends in those classes. However, in grad school, the people I saw day in and day out, in class, doing homework, in the lab—they were all physicists. And since grad school is such a time suck, I pretty much spent all my time with physicists.

Now don't get me wrong. I love physicists. I am a physicist—it's not just a job, but also an identity. But I was starving, socially, when all my social activity came from my department. It took me the better part of a year to figure out what was wrong and how to start to go about fixing it. I'm not even sure I've fixed it now, but it's much better than it was that first year. The fix was really to focus on generating and maintaining relationships outside of school: the variety of people I need in my life to be happy were mostly there, but because I didn't see them every day or around campus, those relationships were withering. It's not easy, particularly for someone as introverted as I am, but the payoff has been worth it.

So, three tips for building and maintaining relationships in grad school:

1. Build boundaries about when you work and when you don't. If you schedule time that isn't for work/work people, it's way easier to find and see people outside your program. Also, it's good for your sanity.

2. Find a good coffeeshop or five. Or a good bar or five. NOT on campus. Hang out with people there. Even if you are hanging out with grad school people, the mere fact of being away from school tends to loosen people up and bring out the parts of them that aren't about school.

3. Hobbies are hard in grad school, because of the time factor; however, they are a great way to find people outside your program. But be careful about your institution's various clubs and teams: many will be full of undergraduates, which isn't a bad thing, but can be disappointing in its own way.

All those are pretty general, but I want to have one last word about relationships and identity. I was also starving because, though I am white and male—typical in physics—I am also trans and queer and Christian—not typical, to put it mildly. I don't necessarily feel comfortable among my physics friends being vocal about those identities, not because people are bigoted or mean, but because my physics friends just don't Get It. This put extra emotional pressure on me. I can imagine that people who are gender minorities or racial/ethnic minorities or other minority categories in their field might feel the same way. I don't think the solution is any different—make a variety of friends, probably some of whom are those minority categories—but I do think that it's important to be aware of that effect and that it can wear you down, even if you don't think it will.