Working and Playing Well With Others

We now resume our series on grad school survival by addressing Jadey’s question about how to get along and maybe even actually make friends with other graduate students.  This is one of those questions that’s actually refreshing to get, because I frequently feel like I am the only person on earth that has trouble establishing and keeping a more or less functional social life.  Like most nerds, I am frigging awkward around my peers, and tendency toward introversion usually means that I have no problem staying in on Friday nights watching The West Wing and talking to my guinea pigs (and possibly my spouse).  I often suspect that I am a rather odd duck indeed.  But graduate school seems to attract my kind, so you would think making friends among people who read Renaissance poetry for kicks wouldn’t be so hard.  But, in fact, it frequently is.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice:  stay in contact with or try to meet people who aren’t in graduate school. I haven’t been so good about this one, but my younger sister and her new husband recently moved into town, and I’ve been reminded how refreshing it is to get together for margaritas and a round of Settlers of Catan with people who aren’t boiling in the same fetid stew that is the Ph.D program.  It’s not that other graduate students aren’t wonderful, fun people to hang out with.  It’s just that you are all operating in an alternate reality, and it is extremely beneficial–mental health-wise–to get regular exposure to another perspective.

But when it comes to building friendships or good working relationships with other grad students, the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard is this:  resist the urge to think of the other grads in your program as your competition. This is going to be especially hard for you if you are in one of those sadistic programs that ranks their grad students every year or admits more M.A. students than there are spots in the Ph.D program, turning your first two years of grad school into Survivor (except you took out loans and put your future on hold to be there). But even if you aren’t in that sort of situation, it can be tempting to ruminate on the idea that these people are going to be applying for YOUR JOB when you’re all on the market in a few years. This is irrational.  The grad students in your department are no more your competition than any other grad student in your field in the rest of the world.  They are no more your competition than the people who graduated from college with your major.  Yes, on some level you are sort of competing, and yes, the pool is smaller, but there are going to be thousands of people applying for the jobs you’re applying for, so the person in the cubicle across from you isn’t really your biggest problem, and neither is the person who beat you out for the “TA of the year” award.  The only difference between that person and the thousands of other grad students who won their department’s award is proximity. Direct your outrage about your job prospects toward the dysfunctional university system, or better yet, channel your energy toward writing a really good thesis, and quit obsessing about the so-called golden children in your program.  Though we all still like to pretend that academia is a meritocracy, no one really knows why any particular person gets a job.  In terms of their impact on your professional future, the golden children matter about as much in the long run as the person who beat you out for Class President matters to you now.

Instead, think of the person in the cubicle across from you as someone who may wind up blurbing your book or writing a recommendation to the tenure review committee.  Think of this person as someone you might go to for candid advice about an article you’re working on or to help organize a panel for a big upcoming conference.  In other words, think of them as your colleagues.

Collaborate when you can, whether that means co-authoring an article or putting together a dissertation writing group.  Some fields are more congenial to collaborative work than others, but taking advantage of opportunities to work with other grad students even in the most informal way can be an excellent way to learn from each other and develop a network of people that you can call on in the future.  For example, myself and two other grads formed a little peer mentorship group at one point, concurrent with our first solo teaching assignment in the English department.  We got together once a month to get feedback on our teaching methods and just vent in general when we needed to.

Don’t ask people how their dissertation/prospectus/M.A. thesis is going unless they bring it up. This is a sensitive subject.  You may think you’re saying it out of concern or interest, but you may also be saying, “I just want to check and see if I’m doing better than someone at the moment.”  No matter how you ask this question, it’s bound to provoke a slight sense of hostility.  Also, think about how you feel when your parents’ friends from church ask you this question and you have to stammer out something that a) makes it sound like you’re doing something with your life, and b) doesn’t sound like you are plotting the feminazi-queer-socio-fascist-kill-whitey-revolution.  That’s right, you hate that.

Do stuff outside the lab/library/writing center/TA office.  During my third and fourth year, I had a tendency to look at my writing center hours (especially when things were slow) as “social time,” since we would often just be sitting back in the break room complaining about working in the writing center.  That is a sad, sad fact about my life, so do as I say, not as I do.  Go out for pizza and beers.  Invite people over to watch So You Think You Can Dance or something where no one will be tempted to name-drop a French theorist.  Then resist the temptation to name drop a French theorist.

And finally, recognize that ultimately, not everyone in your program is going to be your bosom friend. As in every work setting, you will click with some people more than others.  Hopefully, you will find at least one person with whom you can discuss the multitude of personal and professional crises you are going to be facing, but also know that you won’t be able to trust a lot of people with that sort of thing.  Figure out who is a friend and who is a co-worker, a distinction that feels sort of odd since graduate school occupies that limbo space between college and the workplace, where peer relationships are dramatically different.  Also remember that both types of relationships are worth having.


3 thoughts on “Working and Playing Well With Others

  1. Can I add “Find at least one person who knows and is interested in what you’re working on” and “Find at least one person whose project interests you”? I stumble across essays and books and footnotes that directly pertain to my colleagues’ work all the time, and every once in a while someone comes across a book pertinent to my interests that I somehow didn’t know existed.

  2. Marvellous! Thank you for this. I’m heartened that none of these took me by surprise – I’m less clueless than I thought! But the reminder can be vital. I’m sure I’ll forever be biting my tongue not to bring up theses and dissertations unwelcomed, just because I can’t think of anything else to talk about (one of the reasons that I do actually keep an on-going list of “interesting conversational questions!” – I’m just that bad at thinking on my feet).

    But graduate school seems to attract my kind, so you would think making friends among people who read Renaissance poetry for kicks wouldn’t be so hard. But, in fact, it frequently is.

    Ha ha, this is my life. I’m always hoping I’ll stumble through the looking-glass into a world where dorky is suave and awkwardness will cancel out instead of amplifying, but, alas, I only get that in small doses.

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