PhDs can be the loneliest places in the world. You may be part of a bigger cohort of students in your department, but ultimately it’s down to you to power on through, turn up every day, make decisions and deal with problems. It’s you that has to carry around the weight and anxiety that accompany your PhD, and it’s you who has to constantly find a way over what seem like insurmountable hurdles, problems and sticking points.
Coupled with that, you’re often working alone. Sure, you’ve got supervisors on your side, but it’s your project and there’s no one to make decisions for you.
To make things worse, the amount of work required often means that you may have to isolate yourself from friends and family. It may also mean putting your career on hold for a number of years or delaying big life decisions.
No wonder you feel lonely.
But there are two really important things to know.
The first is that you’re not alone. PhD loneliness is an epidemic and chances are people around you also feel the same. The second is that there are small changes that you can make to alleviate your loneliness. Read on to find out what they are.
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1. Work less and work smarter
If you wanted to put your finger on one reason why PhDs are lonely it’s this: you often have to isolate yourself, bury your head in books or data, and spend hours working alone. That, and people who haven’t done a PhD can’t understand the unique stress and anxiety you’re facing.
To counteract that, you should be taking at least one full day off a week. That doesn’t mean you should take two half days or a few afternoons off. You should take an entire 24 hour period off and away from your thesis. No emails, no writing, nothing.
Having this time off will reduce your overall stress levels and mean that when you return, you’ll be working more efficiently. Counterintuitively though, taking time off will mean you get more done overall so don’t fear to step away from your thesis.
It’s all the more important because, when we’re working alone and we’re stressed, our feelings of isolation and loneliness can increase, so getting a handle on stress whenever you can is an easy way to reduce those unwanted feelings from arising in the first place.
What’s more, having time away from your thesis will allow you to truly connect with those around you. Reach out to old and new friends, nurture relationships and give your family a call. You’ll be amazed at how connected you start to feel.
2. Don’t marry your thesis
There is a tendency amongst PhD students to make their PhD their entire life. Without realising it, you may have given up all your hobbies and personal relationships and instead focus all your time and energy on your PhD. That’s because you may feel that, to succeed, you need to marry your thesis.
Well, you don’t.
In fact, you must avoid this at all costs. Have at least one other thing in your life that isn’t related to your PhD. It doesn’t have to be big. A lot of people pick up a new hobby or start working out more.
Whatever it is, having this time away from your thesis gives your brain a rest and lets you see that there is a life outside of the thesis. It means that when your PhD causes you stress or anxiety, you have an escape and an alternative focal point.
3. Keep showing up
The more you engage in hobbies, particularly social ones like playing sport, the more likely you are to encounter other people. And, the more you do so the more you’re going to connect with them and start to form bonds and friendships. This won’t happen immediately though. You need to keep showing up, week in week out. It takes time, but eventually, if you show up often enough, you’ll start to form those bonds that you’re craving. And, because you’re meeting people outside of the academic/PhD circle, your connections will be a welcome distraction from the stresses of day-to-day PhD life.
4. Work away from the office/home once a week
If you can, work in coffee shops or co-working spaces once a week. Not only will getting away from your home or office (or wherever else you normally work) be a welcome relief from the monotony of your PhD, but you’ll start to meet new people and feel part of a community. This is particularly true if you choose local, independent coffee shops and keep going back week-in, week-out.
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5. Be vulnerable
Many PhD students are perfectionists. Often that’s a useful skill because it can push you to achieve great things and force you to put the hours in. however, it’s a double-edged sword, because it can mean that you feel compelled to maintain an outward image of perfection.
Depending on how deep your perfectionist streak runs, you may feel that if you don’t portray an image of perfection and composure you are in some way a failure.
What that means is that you may limit the extent to which you are vulnerable around other people and you may not be that willing or able to express your true emotions, for fear of shattering that elusive image of perfection.
The reality is that vulnerability is part of being human, and sharing vulnerability is a key way of building and maintaining meaningful connection. If you express your vulnerability around others, chances are they will start to share their vulnerability with you and, over time, the bond between you will deepen.
It may be as simple as sharing your frustration with a colleague or expressing to someone you see every day how lonely you find the PhD. You’ll probably find that they share a similar sentiment.
If we avoid sharing vulnerability in this way and strive instead to project an image of perfection, we miss out on valuable opportunities to connect. That’s because we aren’t presenting an authentic version of ourselves, but instead, one that is carefully curated to present the image we want. People can see through this, and what they crave from you is true emotion and vulnerability. Start small, but don’t be afraid.
6. Don’t expect a friend, be a friend
We sit around waiting for our phones to ring or for people we know to message us and send us invites. And when they don’t come, we remind ourselves how lonely we are. Instead of expecting a friend, you should aim instead to be a friend. You can be the one to send the messages, organise the meet-ups and send out the invites. You can be the one to phone your friends and family, check in with those around you and make people feel valued and welcome.
We often hesitate to do this, particularly amongst people we don’t know so well, for fear of being awkward or intrusive. But truthfully, do you really think people don’t enjoy being thought of or having someone reach out to see how they are? Do you think people don’t like to feel included and invited to events? Everyone does, so don’t think you’ll be imposing if you’re the one to initiate this kind of contact.
There are many parts of a PhD that are intrinsically isolating. It’s inevitable that you’ll have to work alone a lot of the time, and that your non-PhD friends and family won’t understand what you’re going through. As you progress through your PhD, you’ll also find yourself isolated from your supervisor and PhD-colleagues as you start to become more of an expert on your topic and as you start to claim greater ownership over your thesis.
However, by using these tips, you can find fulfilment and connection in other ways. You won’t ever change how isolating a PhD is, but you can put measures in place to counteract that isolation. As you do, you’ll find that you work more effectively, have more optimism and have better relationships with those around you.
The PhD will sap your social energy, but you can replace it. Be vulnerable, be kind to yourself, step away from your thesis from time to time, connect with people and be a friend to those around you. That’s the magic formula to managing loneliness.
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