This is such an important topic I thought I’d pool a bunch of Blog Articles together just so you’d get a feel for how there is a HUGE PROBLEM with lack of social life in Graduate School. If you feel this way, you are not alone. One of the reasons for why the dropout rate is close to 50% is because of lack of social interaction which can lead to depression. This of course, depends on your personality and the dynamics of your graduate program and city you live in.
So what’s the solution? You have to make the most of your situation in every way possible. Sounds easier said than done. But if you truly seek social interactions, you have to go out and find them. You have to create them. Maintain your relationships with your friends. Make an effort. Don’t just eat lunch in your lab everyday by yourself. Make a call. Join a club, start a rock band, go to the gym, audit classes, join a softball team. Do whatever it takes. Have A Story? Share It!
“I’ve just realized one major reason graduate school was such a hard transition for me: most graduate students interact with fellow graduate students a lot like they’d interact with coworkers. We see each other at the university, chit-chat some, interact more during occasional happy hours…but we aren’t cornerstones of each others’ social lives. We usually aren’t even a primary component of each others’ social lives.
Some places it’s different, and your fellow graduate students are the major components of your social life. But not here. Too many other options, and too little compatibility other than our shared interest in a very broad subject area. (I mean, there are only 4 or 5 other graduate students in my department, out of 80 or 90, that really would understand or care about the basic motivation for my research. Let alone the techniques used and results obtained. And in terms of personality, sure, they’re more compatible with me than a completely random US adult. But they’re not more compatible with me than a completely random graduate student.)
I only realized this recently. It was one of the reasons I was socially completely unprepared for graduate school. I grew up in a small town in a close-knit family, so I already wasn’t used to the idea of casual acquaintances. And my very small liberal arts college, again around a very close-knit group of friends, didn’t teach me that much more.
What left me even more unprepared was that I moved across the country, to someplace where I had no existing social network. Sure, there were a few random connections. Some alums of my alma matter, though I’d never met them before. I didn’t understand how much of a difference this would make, given that I was going to be interacting with other graduate students like coworkers instead of like college freshmen. It’s so much harder to meet new people without an existing network.
None of these are really new realizations for me, I suppose. But time has given me a lot more clarity about what exactly the issues were, and continue to be.
I also think this is something that people heading to graduate school straight out of college should be more aware of. The people in your graduate program really just won’t be the basis of your social life. And unlike college, you won’t be taken lots of courses where you’re meeting lots of new people every quarter/semester. So you need to work a lot harder to meet new people and maintain important relationships. You need to be much more willing to make the first move meeting people and letting them know you want to become friends.
Of course, these are skills I am still very weak at, and need a lot of improvement on. Possibly the most important social skill I need to work on.”
“I’m in a humanities program, and I’m single and I live alone. I really love my program and the people in it and my school’s in a great city, so there’s no dearth of things to do. I am involved with various campus organizations, and I do theater stuff around the city. I also genuinely like my dissertation and, while working on it is not exactly “fun,” it is fulfilling.
But despite having many things to fill my time, I am four years into my program and still feeling socially at sea. Many of my fellow students are married or living with their SOs; the ones who aren’t tend to be the people who came here straight out of undergrad and have roommates they went to college with, so you can imagine what their social lives look like. I’m in my late 20s, and I just can’t find a place to fit. I certainly have friends, and while I like them lots I just don’t feel the connection to them that I have with friends in other places. I have no “group.” And if I want to just have a casual last minute drink some night, nobody’s ever up for it — I ask, but they’ve always got other plans. I’ve given up having birthday parties because the results are just lame and underwhelming.
I have a strong sense of academic community, but socially, not so much. It gets lonely round these parts. It makes me worry that this is what the rest of adult life is gonna be like (whether I become an academic or not). How do I work with this? Just keep on trying? Seek friends outside academia? How do you even do that? What’s your experience, w/ grad school?
EDIT: Thank you all so much for your kind responses. It has helped a lot just to know that I’m not some kind of pariah and that this is a common phenomenon. You are the best!”
Lack Of Social Life Effects: Depression
“Studies have shown that graduate students have some of the worst rates of depression, suicide, and other related illnesses. This is a combination of long hours studying, the loss of a social life, watching your friends become successful while you stand still, and the anxiety and stress of it all. You have no one other than other grad students to turn to since talking to your favorite aunt about your niche of study of the problems you’re facing will be met with confused looks or generic condolences.”
Graduate Students Are A Vulnerable Population
- 15% of graduate students surveyed in a 2011 survey reported experiencing depressive symptoms compared to only 6.4% of the General Population
- In a smaller survey by Daniel Peluso, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Regina in Canada, 33% of the 292 Canadian psychology graduate students surveyed reported clinically significant symptoms of depression.
Why Is There Such A Problem? One Major Reason: It Attracts The Socially Inept.
Graduate school demands that you spend an immense amount of time alone (see Reason 69). It demands sustained interest in highly esoteric subjects. And it demands that you approach those esoteric subjects with the utmost seriousness. You can see how this environment would be attractive to people who are more comfortable in their own thoughts than in the company of others. This applies across academic disciplines.
While some graduate students are involved in cutting-edge medical research, others are studying the subtle aspects of postwar Croatian cinema (see Reason 66). Oddly enough, the latter take their work as seriously as the former. Grad school can be compared to an endless fan convention at which all the participants cluster by genre or disciplinary interest, and where every individual is highly invested in a particular sub-sub-sub-genre.
In fact, graduate school is best suited for those who are fanatical, because devotion to one’s field (measured in terms of productivity) is what is rewarded (see Reason 38). The problem for most graduate students is that they are normal people. They do not thrive in prolonged isolation, and even though they may have an abiding interest in their subject of study, it does not amount to fanaticism. In the world in which they find themselves, however, they have to both co-exist and compete with the die-hard fans (see Reason 2).
Earnest discussion of obscure topics, irrational in-group status jockeying, and competitive devotion may be fine for hobbyists at weekend conventions, but graduate school goes on for years. It does not take long to spot the odd characters who inhabit this environment, nor to see its effects on healthy personalities (see Reason 50). Keenly aware of the variety of people who manage to percolate through graduate programs, academic hiring committees rely on an old-fashioned test: how will a job candidate perform in a conversation over dinner?
Solution: You need to go out!
“Many PhD students decide to abandon their social life at least at some points of their program. For me it was the time before my prelims. I didn’t go out almost two months. The second period was during dissertation stage. I would probably go out no more than once every month. I always felt – how can I go out and have fun when I have prelims/dissertation proposal/dissertation defense coming up soon?
Now that I look back I think this was the most serious mistake I made as a PhD student. PhD program is a marathon. For most people the marathon lasts more than 4 years. If you deprive yourself of social life at any point, you may be more productive for a week or two. But this will hurt your motivation and emotional health in the long run. Here’s why.
First, you have to take your mind off your work regularly. This is the most obvious reason for not isolating oneself for more than a week. Secondly, if you don’t go out for too long, you may lose your relationships with friends. And then when you are ready to go out, there will be no one to go out with. Everyone would move on with their lives and you will be on your own. Not only this will deprive you of fun, it will also deliver a serious psychological blow. You will start thinking “I’ve lost everything because of the program: time, money, friends!”.
So don’t make this mistake. By the way, I’ve known quite a few people who survived through their programs in spite of everything being against them simply by getting drunk like a pig every week. Although you have to be careful with this, as you well know.”
Share Your Story!
If you have any solutions, thoughts, or ideas (present or past) on how to improve the social life in grad school and what worked for you, feel free to share!