One of the best aspects of a PhD is the independence and freedom. Meaning that most people don’t have to answer to a line manager, complete timesheets, or deal with office politics. The downside to this is that you can feel isolated, lonely, and demotivated when you are out on your own. I wrote another post about motivation and how to try to overcome that aspect of PhD life. Here I want to tackle the isolation and loneliness element of it.
Feeling lonely and isolated during your PhD is a common and normal reaction to the set up of most PhD programs. However, that does not mean it is an inevitable and unchangeable part of the PhD experience. There are lots of ways that you can connect with others and find ways to tackle feelings of isolation. As everyone’s situation is different, the specifics will look different for everyone, but here are some ideas for how you can start to reach out to different communities around you.
Who are you working alongside – You may be in an office with other PhD students, post-docs, or other researchers. You may spend a lot of time in a shared lab or other non-office research space. Your supervisor may also have others they are supervising. These are peers who you may spend a lot of time around and can be a great source of support. These offices/labs may already have a sociable feel, in which case you can link in with what is already going on. If not, then remember that the vibe of these spaces changes depending on who is in them. Therefore, if you want to get to know people more, you can be the one to initiate social activities.
Wider PhD communities – There will be lots of other PhD students in your institution who you can link in with. There will be a range of events run by the institution, and also student-led groups. These may include a range of general social events (ours run pub quizzes, weekly meet ups, local walks etc.), and also more specialised interest groups (sports, hobbies etc.). These can be a great way to meet others within the wider PhD community who are also looking to meet new friends.
Social contacts outside of PhD life – It is great to have support at work from those who understand the specific challenges of PhD life. However, it’s also important to have some people in your life who are totally separate to academia. You may be doing your PhD close to other friends and family, or you may have moved to a new area. In the same way that there are clubs for different sports and interests based at universities, there will also be a range of similar groups in the wider community. You can find these through exploring local Facebook pages or other local listing pages on the internet.
Online communities – There are some fantastic online communities which can really help with isolation, especially when you’re struggling with specific challenges. There is a vibrant PhD community on Twitter, and various Facebook pages that can link you in with others. I very much recommend joining Twitter for various professional networking reasons, and the link to a supportive peer group is one of these.
Hopefully, these have given you some ideas of how you can start to build a strong and supportive community around you during your PhD. Remember that we all have times when we feel alone and out of our depth. The trick is building a supportive network and accessing it at those times. You are not alone, you just need to find those who are there with you.