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How to Avoid Feeling Isolated During Graduate School

Posted in: Survive and Thrive
feeling isolated

Try to recall the last time you were not alone in the lab at 11pm on a Friday night running an experiment. If you found that to be difficult, then this article is definitely for you.

Here are ways to avoid feeling isolated during your Ph.D. studies.

Build a Network of Friends and Colleagues

Building a network helps you avoid feeling isolated during graduate school. It also helps reduce stress because you have a group of people who can relate to your daily challenges. An added bonus? It can be a lifesaver when you run out of an antibody or media culture. This network will also be important later on when you finish graduate school and move on with your professional career. Maintaining your professional network is as important as building it.

Do you find that your time outside of lab is brief and only occurs rarely? You are not alone! Connect with your new friends to take a walk during your evening break from lab. Or you can just meet for a visit. Being around people who can relate to your trials in the lab allows you to move forward with a positive attitude quicker than dwelling over the negativity alone.  Knowing someone has your back and is there for you in times of stress is just as important as talking to them in those times. Having the support of others is crucial for success in grad school.

There are many different friends you can find during graduate school.

Become Friends With Your Fellow Graduate Students

First of all, make friends with your incoming classmates to avoid feeling isolated during graduate school. Start building your network early, during the first semester. This will come in handy later on when everyone splits off into their respective departments, and you start feeling isolated in your lab. It’s particularly useful for when you run out of a reagent in the middle of an experiment and need to phone a friend.

One way to do this is to join a study group; this was the best advice I was given in graduate school. Even if you prefer not to study in groups, in grad school it is worth it. Some people are stronger in some subjects than others. Study groups allow people to complement their study partners’ strengths and weaknesses to create a nice balance. Study groups also help you keep up with the material – meeting once a week ensures that you will not wait until just before the exam to cram. Even if you don’t think it’s for you, at least give the study group a chance. Then, if you decide it is not for you, just let your classmates know that you focus better on your own.

Make Friends in Your Lab

Another way to avoid feeling isolated is to make friends with other grad students and postdocs, particularly in your building and department. A great way to brush off some stress is going for a brisk five-minute walk with a friend to vent or grab a cup of coffee. Other grad students can relate to your grad school stress. Postdocs and scientists in your field can relate to the experimental challenges you face. It is also likely that other grad student are in their labs at 11pm on Saturday nights, so once you get your gel running or your imaging going, set your timer and plan to meet your friend for a chat, when you both have down time during experiments. This can make the time go by faster and boost your encouragement to stay positive.

Become a Volunteer to Prevent Feeling Isolated

Another great way to meet people and avoid isolation is to find events to volunteer for on your campus and within your community.

Universities Always Need Volunteers for Campus Events

Volunteer for recruitment activities and mentorship activities at your  school. Remember the people that were instrumental in your decision to attend the university you chose for grad school? Keep in mind how much it meant to you to have that student mentor during your first year. Offer to help with recruitment visits and/or mentoring incoming students. You will have someone who can relate to you and make a new friend. Alternatively, check to see if there are any other volunteering opportunities on your campus. Being able to walk over to another building, help out for an hour, 2-3 times a year, and only take 3 hours away from lab in an entire academic year, is well worth it in the end. You and your mentee(s) will all benefit, and the university will greatly appreciate it.

Volunteer in Your Community

If you find that you would rather separate your lab life from your personal life, if at all possible, then volunteer in the community. Local community service allows you to meet other people in the area and enjoy giving back to others, so it lifts up mood and spirit. It can also take your mind off of your next deadline, grant writing, committee meeting, or lab experiment. Since research keeps us busy in grad school, the best types of volunteering are the one-time events, instead of long-term recurring commitments.

For example, you may not feel like you have enough time to go visit the local children’s museum for a break. However, you could probably make time in your schedule for 2 hours to volunteer for a Saturday evening fundraising event at the children’s museum. Then, you get to enjoy seeing the museum while also giving back to your community. It is a win-win situation! Plus, you only commit yourself for the volunteering whenever you can. So, if you have a busy few months at lab, and only volunteer one hour every four months, at least you will look forward to when you can volunteer next.

Check with your local symphony to see if they need ushers. You can enjoy an evening of music and give back to your community. Check with the closest sports corporation to see if you can volunteer for a super bowl or football playoffs, final four and big ten basketball playoffs, and other sporting events. Once you get on the mailing list of a few local non-profit organizations, you will typically receive weekly or monthly emails to let you know about activities needing volunteers.

Always keep track of your volunteer date, position, event, and supervisor’s name. You never know when you might be asked for this information for a fellowship or even a travel award. This information is hard to pull from your memory at a later date.

Getting out Without Breaking the Budget

Another way to avoid feeling isolated in grad school is to look for student tickets. Most universities offer discounted student tickets for amusement parks and movie theaters, as well as music and sporting events. Become familiar with these early on in grad school, so that by the time you are ready for a relaxing break, you already have an idea of what events are ongoing and what discounts are available.

Have a Life During Graduate School

If you think of something you would like to learn or try, do not tell yourself that you will wait until after grad school to try it. Do not put your life on hold for graduate school, because you do not know for sure that your grad school will only take 5 years. So, build a little time in your schedule for cooking your favorite dish, trying a new restaurant with friends, doing yoga, going to an occasional movie, getting some exercise, and keeping up with medical and dental appointments.

If you have a life in graduate school, you will optimize your experience and look back on it with better memories. These relaxing breaks will refresh you and allow you to de-stress, which is quite important for grad school. Biomedical research is challenging. Grant funding is quite difficult in today’s economy. Experiments can be stressful. Having ways to release stress are crucial in graduate school.

Build a professional network, a personal group of friends, become acquainted with your colleagues, and add small breaks into your research schedule to promote greater probability of success. With all of these, it will be difficult to feel isolated.

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