Getting along in Grad School: Navigating Friendships (or, Yes, you have to be happy for people)

By Sarah King & Tiffany Baugh-Helton

As part of our sub-series “Getting along in Grad School,” today we’re looking at how to sustain friendships as a grad student. Look for forthcoming articles in this series, “Getting Involved as a New Grad Student,” and “Creating a Cohort.”

Graduate school offers a rare opportunity to forge friendships with more-or-less like-minded people (who really, truly like school and history!) who are in more-or-less the same boat as you. When you eventually leave grad school for an academic or alt-ac job, you’ll be entering a workplace where your colleagues are at different stages in their professional and personal lives, and you may not have the opportunity to build the same type of camaraderie that is possible in grad school. You may also find yourself inhabiting departments for a short duration as a post-doc or as contingent faculty, and you’ll be happy to have a network of friend-colleagues to sustain and support you as you find your post-grad school land legs.

Image result for grad school friend
Your grad school friends actually understand what you do.

But grad school friendships can also be tricky. At some point in your grad school career, you’ll likely be competing with your colleagues — for TA lines or other forms of funding, for summer or intercession courses, or for department awards. How should you navigate the competition, scarce resources, and stress that threaten to complicate or derail your grad school friendships?

DO NOT VIEW YOUR COLLEAGUES AS ENEMIES. A recent Tweet went viral for urging grad students to avoid this mentality. It quoted this ill-advised advice, “you need to treat everyone, fellow graduate students & professors, as your competitors.” Don’t be that person. Academia, like a lot of industries, is in part about who you know and your reputation for collegiality. You may not realize it on the first day of grad school, but you need the people you meet there in order to succeed. You will need professors to serve on your committees and write letters on your behalf so that you can get research grants. You will also need professors to write you reference letters for the job market. You will need peers who are willing to read your work and give you constructive feedback. And unless you are independently wealthy, you’ll probably also need peers to split travel and housing costs with you as you travel for research and conferences. You will also need to be a person with social skills in order to get a job. No one wants to help or hire someone who views them as the enemy. Academic work might seem solitary, but departments are communities. Be a good member of yours. Not only will your mental health and social life be better for it, but it will actually help your career to be a person that other people want to help.

It’s not always about you. There will be times when you are the most stressed person you know. This will probably occur at some point during your prep for comprehensive exams, and again when you’re writing the final chapters of your dissertation. Personal circumstances can also intervene, and you need to do whatever you need to in order to stay sane and productive during these periods of peak stress and anxiety. However, when your friends are comping and you’re not, when your friends are dying at the end of a coursework semester and you’re ABD, when your friend is defending or getting married or having a baby — practice being a good, supportive listener and suppress the urge to tell them how bad you had it. In other words, just be a good friend. Does your friend have 250 books on their comps list and 4 examiners but you had 300 books and 5 examiners? Resist the temptation to one-up them. It won’t make you feel great and will probably make them feel defeated. Instead, practice encouraging them, reminding them about their past successes, and asking them what they need to get through the crisis at hand.

Yes, you have to be happy for people. This one can be hard. It’s a good bet that anyone who enters grad school has some ego and ambition. Even if you are a classic Type A and your colleagues don’t strike you as similarly alpha, it’s safe to assume that they are highly motivated and competitive. This gets tricky because in many departments, resources are finite. You may have to contend with several other grad students for an advisor or a chair’s time and energy. And you will probably have to compete with your peers for financial resources and awards. And it can be really hard to be happy for others when you feel that your work has been undervalued or that you’ve been unlucky. (We’ve all felt like Rachel Bloom in this video.) Our advice? Fake it ‘til you feel it. Congratulating your peers on their successes – a conference or internship they got into, a publication, an external research award, a summer course – takes nothing away from you and makes the other person feel great. And when you have a “win,” you’ll appreciate those who send a congratulatory email your way. If this feels hard, start by forcing yourself to congratulate everyone in your department who gets something you didn’t apply for. Is your friend getting published in the Journal of Women’s History and you don’t do women’s history? Congratulate them! Did your colleague win a research award at a presidential library that you didn’t apply for? Congratulate them! You’ll feel better and they’ll probably return the favor when you get into that conference that’s in your wheelhouse and not theirs.

Take a social media break. It can be difficult – especially when you’re trying to be happy for other people’s successes or remind yourself that it’s not all about you – to see evidence of other people’s accomplishments all over social media. Social media – especially Twitter – can be a great resource for networking as a grad student but it can also exacerbate negative feelings. If you feel like you’re entering a negative headspace with regard to your colleagues and friends, it’s okay to take a social media hiatus! Uninstall the apps from your phone, or turn off notifications, or take those friends out of your feeds for a bit. (There’s a way to do this on almost every social media platform without completely unfriending people.) When you feel like you’re in a better position and can be more generous with your feelings, log back on.

Assume positive intent. OK, this one is hard, too. If someone leaves you off of an email or invite, schedules something when you can’t attend, or seems to be dumping shared work on you, try not to assume the worst. This doesn’t mean that you should become a doormat, editing work for people who won’t return the favor, listening to someone’s problems who doesn’t seem to have time to listen to you, or sharing helpful tips with someone who doesn’t reciprocate. But rather than assuming that your peers are out to get you or exclude you, assume the opposite and address the situation. Tell them you’re sure they didn’t mean to exclude you, and that you’d love to be included. Remind them that you edited their paper and ask when they’ll be able to return the favor. Let them know that it disappointed you that you never heard from them after you landed a major award, especially because you’ve always cheered their successes. These conversations may be difficult to broach, but you will probably leave them feeling reassured and having cemented a new level of trust with a colleague.

Cultivate Circles of Trust. As we’ve already said, we all need friends and allies in graduate school. These people don’t have to be in your literal cohort or even your department, but you do need people besides your adviser and professors with whom to discuss the trials of grad school, the tribulations of writing a dissertation, and the ups and downs of your wider life.

Image result for comic strip friendship

Try to cultivate good relationships with everyone in your department. You can start with your officemates and people in your classes. And in your first year, you can always ask senior students about their work, or ask them for advice. Grad students love giving other grad students advice. When you’re no longer a first-year student, reach out to less-senior students and ask them how they’re acclimating to the area, what subfield they’re interested in, what questions they have about the department. And once you develop a group of friends, make sure you cultivate good relationships with other people. You never know who will drop out of grad school or move away, leaving you without the friends you’d counted on, and, as we’ve said, academia is not a solitary effort. When you get to the dissertation’s conclusion and the job market, you’ll be glad that there are multiple people whom you trust willing to read your work and your application materials!

Let us know how you’ve successfully navigated the social weirdness of grad school and avoided the dreaded frenemy scenario! And check out our related post on overcoming shyness in seminar.

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