Preventing loneliness, burnout, and other miseries

Before coming to graduate school, I read a lot about how depressing and frustrating and difficult it is. Not just the coursework or the research, in fact, few of the complaints I had read even mentioned those things. They talked about feeling alone, depressed, unsupported, and especially poor. Every week or so on the forums, there’s a post like this, about quitting. Just today, a friend shared this article about the hidden cost of graduate school with me (hint, it’s your mental health.)

This was interesting, since the first doc students I met were notable and inspiring because they loved their work so much. They definitely had a lot of late nights and anxiety about comps, or the job market, but at the end of the day, they loved their work and got a lot done.

So what is the difference?

Here’s what my friend shared, along with that article, on Facebook:


Research suggests social support networks are among the most reliable predictors of happiness and success, that social support networks prevent people (and even rats!) from forming debilitating addictions, and are more productive, engaged, energetic, and resilient (see: this TED talk about addiction and Happiness Advantage for the rest. No, I won’t stop citing that book.)

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many of us moved thousands of miles (even over oceans) to come to graduate school, and maintaining old friendships is hard when they are far away. Many graduate students report feeling less engaged with their old friends after starting a new routine and lifestyle with different concerns. Many people tend to pull away from their social support network when work gets tough. Breaking in to new friend groups is challenging, especially with limited time and money, and it will still be a while before you may feel comfortable being yourself around new people.

So what’s the solution?

I think the only thing to do is acknowledge that making new friends is scary and difficult, and that it will take a long time, and commit to doing it anyway. We have a weekly cohort social event, even though there are so few of us, and some of my lab mates have been really welcoming. I’ve started attending a church I can walk to, and I’m planning to start and host a meetup group when I get up the nerve (and money :) It’s going to be hard, but it’s too important to give up on.

The risk here is feeling rejected and exhausted when you can’t immediately replicate old, close friendships, and I certainly get that feeling. That’s a perfectly healthy way to feel, and you don’t need to feel guilty or weak if you experience that. Be compassionate with yourself and remember this day 5 years from now, when you meet a first-year :)

A friend of mine (now a PhD) suggested to me that perhaps it would be best if all graduate students checked in with a therapist occasionally, and especially at the outset. I did exactly that, and I now feel much less alone, and much less afraid of failure. Find some Emotional hygiene habits and techniques that work for you– prayer, meditation, exercise, art– and defend your self-investment time consistently. This resilience you’ll build won’t just help you fearlessly befriend new people, but also bounce back from setbacks and failures in your research, finish big projects, and weather the job market.


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Day in the “life”

For my first act as Blogger, I shall recount to you one graduate student day. Namely, today.

Today, I woke up, like any other day, at 7:34. Then, I shut off my alarm and went back to sleep for another 3 hours, because I could. Before you judge, know that I had great reasons for this:

  1. 7:34 am is early
  2. I do what I want!

Just kidding. I stayed up late skyping with my partner in California, and I was working on a project with Californians, so I figured it would work out.

I did NOT figure that the maintenance guy would show up with my apartment a mess and me in my PJs, but you know. Oh, well.

So I made some coffee, fed my cat, darted into my room to change while the nice man got some part from his truck, and sat down to work. (Of course, he fixed the thing in moments, so my switching from comfy pants to jeans was a debatable choice.)

Work today consisted of finishing and submitting a poster to a conference. If all goes as planned and our submission is accepted, I will get to fly to San Jose in March, stand next to a large poster, and talk to scientists and students who walk by and ask questions (presumably fascinated by my ability to cram a papers worth of motivation, methods, and findings on to one page).

From what I hear, this event will be just like a middle school science fair, but with fancier clothes, bigger words, and much(!) more wine.

The goal for presenting a paper at this conference is to get feedback on some work we are doing while it is still in progress so we can frame it differently, do more analysis, or even gather more data before we submit a full paper somewhere.

Our submission consisted of a draft of the poster itself, and a 4-page “extended abstract” about the work we were doing. The extended abstract was very challenging to write: I took an 11-page paper draft and tried to get across what was going on in less than half that length. Also, the abstract itself has an abstract– what? Writing the abstract, I really internalized the value of the Shitty First Draft: getting something complete on paper will be a great foundation (even if it is indeed shitty.)

The poster was also challenging: trying to fit the content of the 4 pages in an even further reduced area, and trying to make as much of it visual as possible. It was somewhat easier for me than the abstract, which was nice. (I wonder what software people use for this– I used Illustrator, but I think there’s got to be a better way.) I learned the value of starting over on a blank sheet, of starting with the easy stuff and of laying things out visually before you try to write about it. So I worked on these things all day, corresponding with my co-authors along the way.

At 7, my cohort was scheduled for our weekly hangout, and I was hosting. So after I had a passable draft of both in my collaborators email boxes, I cleaned like a maniac. Once my apartment was in shape, I read and incorporated most of the feedback I’d gotten, and went out to shop for snacks and wine. I met one of my cohort along the way and she helped me carried the spoils back to my apartment.

She and I chatted for a few hours before we realized it was well after 7. The other two had bailed, for good reasons I’m sure (such things happen when your cohort consists of 5 people :) So my friend and I talked and ate a bunch of snacks– worth it.

After my friend left, I pour myself a glass of wine, finished my final round of edits, and submitted the abstract and poster. I learned that it feels substantially better to file a submission hours before the deadline than minutes. What if I tried days?

Sadly, the world may never know.

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