Starting a PhD is a leap from your undergraduate or taught postgraduate. Like going to a new school, you will be faced with meeting and getting to know strangers, which may eventually be more than acquaintances or may just remain as colleagues. Then there’s the feeling that you’re sticking to more education, while everyone else you know wants to head out to the real world and search for a real job. Your good friends have graduated and most have left the university campus. Or maybe it was you that left, and embarked on your adventure, leaving behind everyone that you knew. It is not surprising that some prospective PhD students are scared of being isolated and left all alone during their degrees. In fact, I don’t think you have experienced a true PhD without feeling isolated and alone from time to time.

At the end of the day, you cannot escape the feeling of being an insignificant part of the university. In a way, it’s all part of the selfishness of academic research. Everyone wants to succeed, without making an extra effort to give an adjacent research group the advantage. You may work on projects with collaborators, but those partnerships are not there to make your PhD any better. Your lab colleagues are there, but not everyone wants to have a conversation while trying to concentrate on an experiment. Not to mention several researchers are quite keen on using headphones while they work and are not particularly approachable. You become accustomed to seeing the same people everyday and probably like yourself, they are working by alone. And so everyone will be seen like working ants without individual personalities, just because there isn’t an opportunity to stop the working pattern. Be mindful that your PhD does not only revolve around the lab experience and your ability to collect data, it’s also about maintaining good mental and physical health, which can be gained from finding the best balance between actual PhD work, developing and working on your interests and free time. 

Here are some things that you should consider to avoid feeling isolated:

1. First impressions count in the long-run.

If you have started a PhD, it’s best to get to know people as soon as you begin. A simple introduction will do that trick, so you avoid the awkwardness of not knowing anyone’s name. The turn-over of research staff and students is high in university, so most people don’t make such a big deal out of it. It is then important to show that you are approachable and have passion for research, since you are likely to first connect through motivations for doing a PhD. It might not be an invitation to be someones friend, but an opening to share your research experience. I mean, who doesn’t like sharing their research experience to someone who wants to listen

2. Be flexible and understanding.

Picture this: you are working in the lab and need a specific piece of equipment to finish off your sample prep. So you walk to over to it, but at the same time another person walks over to it. Who gets to use it first? If one of the two had been using the equipment already, and they might have priority. Or the person with the shortest use-time would use it first. It really depends on a lot of factors. You must always be flexible when working in a large lab with limited equipment. It’s good to be nice and let others use the equipment you need, but don’t over do it. You must be able to show decisiveness from time to time. In the end, your research is important too and once in a while, it will be more important than whatever someone else is doing. But that doesn’t mean you have to be selfish and controlling. Always communicate your intentions to those researchers you think may use a piece of equipment around the time you expect to use it. This is particularly helpful for protocols with time critical steps; so be sure to plan ahead.

3. Don’t wear headphones all the time.

Granted, doing the same task for hours may be boring without listening to music or to your favourite podcast. The general view by most institutions is that you are allowed to use headphones/earphones so long that you are not distracted or unaware of your surrounding environment (i.e people talking or alarms going off). However, by wearing headphones you are also telling everyone that you don’t want to be interrupted. It’s not nice to ask someone a question and not get a response. If you are working in an office or a lab, be aware that people may need some information from you from time to time. If you cannot go without your headphones, at least make sure you can hear people who are standing next to you. 

4. Get involved.

Like I said, a PhD is not just about conducting experiments and collecting data. The success of your PhD and subsequent career will depend on your ability to network and have broader interests. It is also easier to get to know other PhD students in your university and  connect through sharing similar experiences. Just because you are doing a PhD doesn’t mean you are different from any other student on campus. You should equally be involved in societies and clubs and expand your social circles. Find people that like to do the things you like. Hanging around final year students may help you to take the pressure off your own research. And if you really want to keep busy, you can try teaching undergraduate practicals and get a feeling how information is passed on from researcher to student. 

5. Develop your own projects and work on them.

If your PhD is proving to be a difficult experience, develop other projects to work on. Not only would that look good in your career development, but might be a way to connect with fellow PhD students. Give them the opportunity to be interested in your project, but be prepared for everyone else to choose their PhD project over your initiative. Don’t let that deter you from starting your own project and working on it. A PhD is not meant to be a fun experience, but that doesn’t mean that you should stop seeking how to have fun altogether. I started a project during my PhD and got a few fellow PhD students on-board, but they all chose to focus entirely on their research. Had I counted solely on their input, Pressure Ink wouldn’t exist

By now you may have realised that this is not a guide to making friends during the PhD. By the end of your PhD, you will have made a couple strong friendships, but you may also be determined to get away from a few. This article was written to help you accept that even though academics and PhD students are thought to be mature, sometimes you might find yourself struggling to fit in, form meaningful relationships or even trust your colleagues. It’s also fine if you don’t want to make friends, but that doesn’t mean that you should completely isolate yourself from everyone else. Also you shouldn’t feel the need to compete with anyone. Yes, academic research is a tough business, with a lot of competition and people with trust issues. But just because its been like that for years, doesn’t mean that it’s right. It’s always better to be careful with your data and supplies, but that shouldn’t stop you from being an approachable, friendly and a mature individual. 

Acknowledgements:
Cover picture obtained from here, under the Noncommercial Creative Commons Licence.

About the Author Emmanuel G Escobar

Founder of Pressure Ink.

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