Fighting Loneliness as a PhD Student

Nobody tells you about loneliness as a PhD student. But after 2 years of working on my PhD, I realized I was alone in this.

Welcome to the real world.

I am a grown-up and I know that life is not a fairy tale. But come on, why couldn’t my PhD experience be a bit nicer? Why should I suffer like this?

You know the drill, when a PhD student gets all dramatic, s/he goes all the way and it can be very hard to calm him/her down.

Every PhD is different and similar at the same time. When talking with fellow PhD students and postdocs I see that dissatisfaction has some common factors among PhD students, let me point out the most frequent ones I hear.

  • You are the only one that cares about your project.
  • You belong to a group, but feel like an island.
  • You see the how small is the dent you are making in the universe.
  • You don’t know much about the contents of you work, and nobody around you can help you.

There came a day that I though what would happen if next day I wouldn’t show up at the lab. Would it make any difference for my group if I am there or not?  Then everything turned grey and cold.

What’s the point of being here then?

I am a social animal. I like to interact with others, to be a member of the pack. I don’t want to be alone.

At the end of the day, I want three things, both in my PhD and in my life, like any other mortal wants:

  • I want to be part of something bigger than myself.
  • I want to mean something to somebody.
  • I want to be missed when I am gone.

And I know I don’t want to feel alone during the 4 years of my PhD.

I discussed it with some seasoned postdocs and all they share was that they also had a shitty time during their PhD, so screw me if I found it tough.

The answer that only looks for revenge “it was hard for me, so I want it to be hard for everyone”. Stay away from these people because they can suck your energy really fast.

Reach out for colleagues that are positive and empathic. That they tell you they experience the same thing, but that you can overcome it. Those that when you propose ideas say it can work.

You are the average of the people you are surrounded by, so choose carefully who you spend your time with.

This is my first piece of advice:

  • During your PhD, surround yourself with positive people that help you move forward.

I asked my PI what was the goal of everything, why we were doing what we were doing, who was going to use it.

He said there were people somewhere in the world that were excited about my research. They had been waiting years for somebody to tackle what I was tackling. When he showed in conferences what we were doing people in the audience were interested.

How could I know this? I still didn’t have enough results to present at a conference. How was I going to find those that liked my work?

I created a science blog during my PhD and posted my ideas, my projects and my publications on it. I let people find me via Google and also promoted my content the digital way and got some visibility as a PhD student.

This is my second piece of advice:

  • Create a blog, use social media to share with others and let people discover your work.

I got some feedback through my blog and social media. Also some questions that made me think and open my mind. It made me feel like other people cared.

But it was all online interaction and not offline, and as such, it still feels a bit cold and distant.

It all changed when I started making face to face appointments with some of these new online connections. Either I would meet them when they were in my area, or I would meet them at conferences. This made a big difference.

Interacting with people in the real world is 1000 times better than doing it digitally. You have more and better ideas exchanged. You understand each other better. And you see the body language, you feel how interested they are in your work.

This is my third piece of advice:

  • Meet members of your online network in the offline world.

In summary, if you want to fight loneliness as a PhD student you should:

  • Find in your network positive and motivating people.
  • Reach online for people interested in your work or who can encourage you.
  • Meet some of the new online buddies in the offline world.