Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Colleagues and Friends in Grad School

I love, love, love to have people over for dinner. I love to cook, I love to bake, I love to show off my cats. Before I had even moved to Ann Arbor for my PhD program, I had daydreamed about the dinner parties I would throw, the theme dinner & movie nights, the baked goods I would bring in to seminar. My program was small (accepting about two students a year) and I desperately wanted to be part of that group as a family, a network of support, a wacky group of supportive friends. 

And I was! But, I learned several crucial lessons in my first years of graduate school about how to cultivate colleagues as well as friends, and respecting the difference between the groups. And while I have gained several lifelong friends from my time in graduate school, I have also gained even more great colleagues. Both have their place. 

A few caveats: colleagues and friends can be separate categories, but they can also be two different roles that a person plays in different settings. This is not a hierarchy - friends aren't better, just different. I've found these patterns to be true in both my MA and PhD programs, and have heard from many in other states/programs/disciplines that these hold true. 

Your colleagues are coworkers

One of the helpful things about living with a non-academic partner was having constant access to other models of coworker relationships. For instance, when my husband is ill and cannot make it to work, or needs to give a heads up that he will not make a deadline, he does not send an overly detailed email with all of his diagnoses, and symptoms in order to justify himself. He simply says, "I'm not feeling well, I won't be in today." If the situation becomes more severe, he might give more information to his supervisor, but only so that he can get more support. 

This was a revolutionary idea for me. I was giving out WAY too much personal information to anyone and everyone in my department because I felt that I had to justify why I looked tired/needed to leave campus early/couldn't make that talk/etc etc. No one ever used that information against me, or was ever unkind, but they also didn't need to know that level of detail. 

You also do not need to socialize with your colleagues all of the time. This is another place where it was useful to have another model to compare against. After a few months of being on campus all time time, working in my shared graduate student space, and socializing with my fellow grad students often, I started to feel claustrophobic. But I also didn't want to "miss out" on any great bonding opportunities, or appear aloof. 

So I shifted to the mindset of collegial socializing - I made a huge effort to go to department sanctioned events (talks, receptions, recruitment events, holiday parties) and to host more informal gatherings at my house (where I picked the time and got to pick the snacks too!) but let myself off the hook for not working on campus or in the shared spaces, or missing out on some of the other more informal events. I was still present and active, but strategically so. This helped me get some space and actually enjoy the company of my colleagues, mostly because I wasn't with them 40+ hours a week! 

On a more practical note, the colleague mindset helped me navigate some of the complicated waters around alcohol consumption at events. I love a free glass of wine as much as the next person, but constantly reminding myself that I was socializing as a colleague helped me keep some good boundaries and prevent some uncomfortable situations. 

Treat your friends like friends

 Lucky enough to meet people in your program/university that you consider friends? There are also some things to keep in mind for treating those people as human friends, and not just "connections that might be valuable for networking one day." 

Lean into your non-grad school related shared interests. Some of my deepest friendships with grad school compatriots came because we bonded over a shared love of roller coasters, British boy bands, board games, the Step Up film franchise, or Pokemon Go. Having something else to talk about besides the grad school experience can help you create some space between your "work" life and "real life" friendship. 

Ask about family/personal lives, and then follow-up! I was hugely touched when friends asked questions about my parents, my brother, or my extended family, or came with me to visit them, or asked questions about my cats. In an academic culture that doesn't always recognize other facets of our lives as important (or as important as "the work") it was great to feel "seen" by my friends in all my complex glory. 

Seek friends out that are not in your immediate department. Some of my closest graduate school friends were in completely different programs than me - they were in the graduate experience, so they "got it," but we weren't directly competing for fellowships, and advisor attention. 

And if your friends are also in your professional networks, realize you may have to shift modes when in professional settings. Respecting that some information was told to you as a friend, and not as a colleague, has kept me from divulging personal information to others, even if it was told to me freely. I also make an effort to catch up with those I don't see as often when at professional events - I can always see and talk to my friends, so connecting with others helps me break out of my shell and expand that network without relying on my "safe" relationships. 

In short, treat everyone with respect and kindness, and invest in relationships mindfully. 

My rule for on-campus interactions was that I needed to be connected enough with everyone in my department so that I could have lunch with them and not have it be awkward. For me, this meant asking regularly about their scholarly interests, knowing a bit about them personally, and making efforts to stay connected. But it also meant that I didn't have to be a completely open book to everyone in the department simply because we were in the same program. Knowing and respecting the difference between colleague and friend has served me well, and hopefully will for you!