Reflections on Isolation in Graduate School

Graduate school tends to insulate us from the outside world – I often think of it as Neverland for Nerds. There are benefits to this: we get a few years away from the constraints of real-life to study hard, invest in a topic of interest, and hopefully produce some academic work of consequence. And life inside the ivy-covered walls (or ivory tower if you so choose) is not so bad. The people are interesting, life is fast-paced and energizing, and you are almost constantly surrounded by the best and the brightest. That being said, this life has it’s downsides and isolation is foremost among them.

When you enter graduate school you will probably be shocked at how many friends you make in a short period of time. In that way, it is much like your first semester of college. People are open, fun, interesting, and invested in setting up a new life in the place they have ex-ante committed 5-7 years of their life to. You will go to dinner with scientists and historians and lawyers and mathematicians. You will talk about your field of study ad-nauseam. You will drink beer and complain about the size of your stipend. Things will be good. This is the glamorous honeymoon stage of graduate school. It will not last.

Within a month of arriving in your college-town-of-choice, you will be buried under a mountain of essays, lab-work, readings etc. And here’s the real kicker – all of those awesome new friends you made will also be buried alive. The thing is, you came to graduate school to work so you cannot even complain about it (not that this will stop you!). Coffee dates will be rescheduled, movie-nights will be pushed further and further into the future, and regular exercise will be a thing of the past. But there will still be the beer. Graduate school generally involves a lot of drinking – not in the binge & blackout manner that characterizes your college-bound peers – but in an almost methodological and plodding manner. Before you know it “going out for drinks” is the only way you can pry friends away from the computer screen. You will rarely have more than 2 beers or a glass of wine in a sitting but you generally try to be asleep by 11:00 – so this is not a big surprise.

Adventures take a back-seat at this point too. If – like me – you are taking 4 classes (each with a weekly reading response or problem set), you will probably be working round the clock – or at least procrastinating and then getting everything done on Sunday. This means that your hiking boots will get less and less use, your love of cinema will be placed on the back-burner, and those oh-so-naively planned trips to NYC will seem somewhat amusing (although you  could probably read a few journal articles on the 3 hour round trip to NYC)!

And before you know it – isolation! You hang out with people, have a few beers, eat some food, go on a walk, text, etc. but at the end of the day, most of your work is necessarily solitary.

The real question here is – how to cope? My suggestion is to keep your head above water, to force yourself “out of a funk”, and to find people – or at least person – with whom you have a lot in common and who is willing to keep you sane. That person will encourage you to strap on your hiking boots, plan trips to the big city, and encourage your creative side. If you look at your graduate life and see one person or a few people as indispensable – you are doing things right.

Here’s the final catch – you have to be that person for someone else! Isolation works both ways and if you are ever feeling lonely, chances are someone else is feeling that way too. Because our lives as academics can be solitary (even in otherwise collaborative environments such as labs and universities), narcissism and egocentricity can sneak in around the edges. It certainly has for me. The irony is that isolation can lead one to become self-centered and selfish behavior further isolates you. If you are caught in this cycle – you may find yourself pushing friends away by opening up their rawest wounds, pouring in salt, and waiting for them to inevitably run in the other direction. Here’s a hint from a champion of the art of ‘rejection by default’ (or – in the common tongue – ‘self destruction’) – think twice. Think three times. Think ad-infinitum if that’s what it takes to stay your tongue and stave off isolating behavior.

This all goes to say that graduate school can be tough. Truth be told, the only thing that can make any challenging life decision worth your while is the relationships you form along the way. The people you can talk to any time about any thing and with whom all your angst and idiocy slips away. It is to these people in my life – few though they be – that I extend a big digital hug and this message: I saw another owl today. it was large and greyish-white and sleeping in a tree… all I could think of was telling you about it.

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3 responses to “Reflections on Isolation in Graduate School

  1. Pingback: The Berkeley Science Review » What we could learn from industry.·

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