Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Building Your Tribe (Again and Again)


If you're an average-aged grad student or older, you're a full fledged grown-up by now, whether you like it or not. Like me, you've probably realized that making friends as an adult is not like making friends as a young person. When we lose the easy friendships of our high school tribe, our college tribe, or even our bar-going, concert-going, or [insert any 20-something activity here] buddies, the road to a graduate degree can get lonesome. The sobriety of adulthood and of the graduate journey are two strikes against us as friend material.

What I've realized is that adults, especially in our line of work, need friends with common interests and similar goals. The exuberance of youthful friendships and the energy of their bodies and minds (and their staggering amount of free time) makes friendships of all kinds enjoyable and sustainable.  We can still have our old friendships. But as graduate students, we have a specific goal shared by a small percentage of the population. Not only that, our most passionate interests are only interesting to an even smaller, infinitesimal percentage of the population. It seems like we need to bust out the Venn Diagrams to figure out which of the people we know should still put up with us as friends!

The First Tribe: Get One!

When I say we need similar people in our lives, I don't mean vaguely similar. Like "We are both success oriented and outgoing!" similar. I mean SIMILAR. Like, "We both study the genome of a rare species of Bolivian rat!" similar. ...I'm kidding. But students in your department who share the same journey are the first place to look for camaraderie, if you are newly doing the grad thing. Attend lectures, talk to people after class, join a group, go out for drinks. At first it will be awkward. But we're all old enough not to care about being "cool"! So try really hard just to soak it all up. Be observant, and don't be competitive.  You are all in the same leaky boat.

In the English Department at NIU, we had a broad core of classes, no matter our focus, and I met many like-minded people. Among the TAs in particular, our shared experience of teaching composition to freshmen created a strong bond. (Working on campus and being a part of the department is priceless.) The coursework experience, and the combined experience of the first few years of teaching with people I also studied with, won me a new tribe. I can only hope that coursework and GA work is such a social boon for all early career grad students.

End of Coursework, End of Social Life?

That tribe disappears, all too soon. The MA students were gone in two years. I miss some of them a lot. PhD students who entered ahead of me, core members of my tribe, are off dissertating, locked away from social interruptions. Some have finished and moved far away.  I stopped driving to campus for the drink nights that used to be so easy to attend when they were right after class. Today, I have the solid support of my office, and the vague support of my family who have no idea what I'm doing. But I haven't much in the way of comrades. I feel like I'm writing all alone.

All I can say is don't let that happen. The involvement will diminish, but the time spent together is still important. At the stage of the thesis or dissertation we need so much more than commiseration and shop talk. We need support, strategies, hope, and human connection. We spend so much time with our research and our laptops. It's odd, really. But you know who won't think it's odd? The other people who do it.

Facebook groups (friend everyone!) are a great way to plan events and stay in touch, even when you hardly see each other in person anymore. Part of the reason I dropped out of the tribe was lack of transportation.  Well, I've got a new car! Writing this post has given me the urge to get back on social media and find some real-life social activities to do.

Other Ways to Connect

I know I just said you need grad student friends. But there are other kinds of specifically like-minded friends! That's my main thesis here --  we are not the best friend material right now.  So we should seek friendship that is as supportive as possible of our unique situations.

I have a social life outside of school, almost solely because I'm in rock bands. This is another way that I surround myself with people of very specific interests. Do you play? If not, you're probably not someone I see very often. It sounds bad, but we only have so much time, and we need to fill it with the right kinds of stimulation.  So in addition to your efforts on campus, finding a hobby and focusing on it can round out your social life better than aimless bar-going or online dating. Most of us can't turn our brains off, right?  So find something that stimulates a different part of it.  Art, geo-caching, gaming, hiking, whatever. A specific thing to share.

Someday We'll Be Normal (Sort of)

Someday we will finish our theses and dissertations. We can nurse neglected friendships, balance our lives out, and maybe even start eating real food again! I'm not arguing at all that high-achievers have no use for broader social circles and diversity among their friends. I'm just saying that right now, you need grad school friends. And the best way to find the ones who will help you along your journey is to simply look around at your fellow travelers.


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