January 19, 2020

Loneliness & Building Relationships in Grad School

Spoke about the loneliness, isolation, and other social challenges of transitioning to graduate school on an EDGE panel this past week. The attendees found hearing about my experiences and some of my learned lessons helpful, so maybe some of you, too.

In 2016, I moved across the country after working for 1.5 years in the same city that I finished college — away from friends and familiar spaces. I moved to graduate school and moved in with my long-term boyfriend. Graduate school was isolating and lonely, and I am an introvert.

As an introvert, I found the emotional energy required to form new relationships draining. In contrast to college where social life was ever-present life, grad school was isolating. My cohort was 10 people. I hadn’t joined a lab, so I didn’t feel like I had an academic home.

A lot of things have changed since 2016 — most of all is me. Through therapy, introspection, intentionality, and meeting some really key people in my life over the last few years, I feel better connected to, supported by, and loved by people both close and far away.

Realization #1: People have lived different lives and are different stages of their lives. They may need/want/expect different things from relationships: romantic relationships, friendship, work relationships, etc.

Realization #2: Creating new relationships and maintaining old ones take a lot more work than before, both logistically and emotionally. Just because someone flakes or ghosts me doesn’t mean they don’t want to be friends and doesn’t mean that I’m unlikeable.

Realization #3: To be able to expand the type of people I can connect to and understand, I could do a lot to improve my own emotional intelligence. Personally, I needed to practice empathy and managing conflict — this was really important both personally and professionally.

These realizations did not come all at once. They eventually led me to identify what was most important for me in different relationships, to create a system to consistently reach out to friends, and to think more intentionally about who I wanted to create new relationships with.

Now, I have a list of people who care about me; I make sure to see these people face to face or on a video call at least once a month. I have found it especially nice to catch up with non-scientists, because they feed other parts of my life and help put things in perspective.

To build new relationships, I have found people who share one hobby or interest and doggedly pursued them. Who is my go to yoga buddy? Food buddy? Errand buddy? Doing activities together gave me an opportunity to then learn more about the other person and build a relationship over time.

How I have decided to maintain and build new relationships isn’t translatable to everyone, because as I have stated — everyone is a little different. Perhaps what is most important is recognizing what we need and growing out of our comfort zone a little bit.

Hopefully anyone who has read this far realizes that they aren’t alone in feeling isolated or having trouble making friends in graduate school, or really any time in adulthood.

Finally, a shout out to the wonderful people in my life who have helped me on this journey and to the many new friends who have invited me into their lives since I’ve moved to Stanford.

Some useful resources I have found for introspection and evaluating areas for growth:

  • Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and other emotional intelligence/emotional quotient assessments: This tool evaluates our self and social awareness and management (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, interpersonal management). This is only useful, I think, if you take it really seriously and find people to mentor you in trying to improve.
  • MBTI, StrengthsFinder, and other personality assessments: I know that the validity of personality tests are heavily debated. However, with the help of a professional (therapist, career counselor), I have found them to be helpful in recognizing and articulating what my personal preferences are in communicating with others or in going about my daily life. Perhaps more importantly, taking these tests forced me to recognize that other people have may have different communication/work/other preferences and that their preferences are not wrong. Things that can give me comfort can be immensely stressful or confining for others, and vice versa. The best example I can give for this is that I find comfort in planning ahead and can find spontaneity (last minute changes) frustrating.

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