A PhD can be an isolated experience.

You’re about to enter a bubble that includes 2% of the population. On the one hand, your family, friends, and partner may not know anyone who has completed a PhD programme. On the other hand, your entire educational/professional life for the next few years may be constrained to academic settings, where everyone you know has a PhD or is attempting to obtain one.

And you’re stuck in the midst, between the inside and outside of this PhD social bubble, and it might be lonely.

Interacting with people outside the bubble

Graduate school is a strange world to anyone who does not hold a PhD or has never lived with someone who does. Relatives may ask a variety of questions, such as:

  • So, how long does your programme last?
  • Will you pay us a visit over your summer vacation?
  • How many months do you get off?
  • Are you still working hard in class? Are your grades still good? Do you enjoy your professors?

How much is tuition? How will you pay for it?
When will you be finished with school? When will you obtain a real job?When do you plan to begin writing your thesis?

When are you planning to graduate?

And such queries, while innocent and frequently well-intended, may be very alienating. Instead of telling your loved ones about your true accomplishments and disappointments (“My advisor finally responded to my email!” and “I might have to re-do this experiment next weekend…”), you spend a lot of time describing what a PhD programme is and isn’t.

No, you do not currently attend classes. Yes, you do receive a stipend. You do not have a summer vacation. You have no idea when you’ll graduate. Because your collaborator has this grant proposal due, and another team member has already reserved this microscope for the rest of the week, and you’re using mice, you’ll have to do studies on the weekend.

Of course, many people may relate to your difficulties as a PhD student. Your private investigator has been there. All of your fellow faculty advisers, colleagues, and postdocs in your lab have all completed a PhD programme at some point. Other graduate students in your lab and department are in your shoes. However, this bubble can also be very lonely.

Some private investigators are jerks who lack empathy. Or they view their PhD years through rose-colored glasses. Collaborators and faculty members may be too preoccupied to talk. Introverts who eat their lunch at their workstation may be lab mates.

So what do you do?

There must be a gap. There should be people close to you who are aware of your daily struggles with your experiments, your PI, your papers, your conference abstract, and your daily successes such as getting an important meeting scheduled, getting your bacteria to multiply properly, or receiving a $1000 travel award.

These persons could be close family members with whom you communicate frequently. If you’re single, it may be your significant other or some close buddies. It might be coworkers, as long as you have a relationship with them outside of the lab.

However, you must have access to people who understand your situation and with whom you can communicate.

Meeting with PhD students from fields other than my own works quite well for me. Someone studying chemistry, optics, or even architecture may not understand (or care about) what I research, yet they live the same life as a PhD student that I do. There is no need for competitiveness, and there is no need to maintain appearances. I can open up to them about my problems, and they can tell me about theirs, so everyone is happy.

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