One of the best aspects of a PhD is independence and freedom. That is, most people do not have to answer a line manager, complete time sheets or deal with office politics. The downside of this is that you can feel isolated, lonely and unmotivated when you are outside on your own. I wrote another post about motivation and how to try to overcome this aspect in my doctorate life. Here I want to deal with the element of isolation and loneliness in it.
A feeling of loneliness and isolation during the doctorate is a common and normal reaction to the establishment of most doctoral programs. However, this does not mean that it is an inevitable and unchangeable part of the doctoral experience. There are lots of ways you can connect with others and find ways to deal with feelings of isolation. Because everyone’s situation is different, the specifics will look different for everyone, but here are some ideas on how you can start approaching different communities around you.
Who do you work for – You may be in the office with other doctoral, postdoctoral or other researchers. You may spend a lot of time in a shared lab or other non-office research space. Your manager may also have others who oversee. These are colleagues that you may spend a lot of time around and can be a great source of support. These offices / labs already have a sociable feel, in which case you can connect to what is already happening. If not, then remember that the atmosphere of these spaces varies 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 doctoral communities – There will be lots more doctoral students at your institution that you can connect with. There will be a variety of events run by the institution, as well as groups led by students. These may include a variety of general social events (ours hold pub quizzes, weekly meetings, local outings, etc.), as well as more special interest groups (sports, hobbies, etc.). These can be a great way to meet others in the wider doctoral community, who are also looking to make new friends.
Social contacts outside of doctoral life – It is great to receive work support from those who understand the specific challenges of doctoral life. However, it is also important to have some people in your life who are completely separate from 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 in universities, there will also be a variety of similar groups in the wider community. You can find them by researching local Facebook pages or other local registration pages on the Internet.
Online Communities – There are some fantastic online communities that can really help with isolation, especially when you are struggling with specific challenges. There is a vibrant doctoral community on Twitter, and various Facebook pages that can connect you with others. I highly recommend joining Twitter for various professional networking parties, and the link to a supportive peer group is one of those.
I hope these have given you some ideas on how you can start building a strong and supportive community around you during your PhD. Remember that we all have periods when we feel lonely and out of our depths. The trick is to build a supportive network and access it in those times. You are not alone, you just have to find who is there with you.