Finding (or building) community in grad school

I care a great deal about being a well-rounded person.

I didn’t get a lot of guidance about higher education while I was in high school, and I went off to college at a top institution without a lot of understanding of what possibilities existed. After I graduated, I made a really active decision not to go straight on to the next academic step. Part of this was uncertainty about what I wanted to do, but the other piece of this decision–and it was a big piece–was that I’d felt really sheltered. I’d spent my entire life in school. I didn’t really know what it was to be a “real” person.

I had a lot of silly, fun, ridiculous adventures over the next few years. I took circus classes. I did serious work with domestic violence org focused specifically on queer and trans communities. I performed burlesque. I learned to knit. I found family. I lived in a co-op with a yoga instructor, an angry anarchist with a day job in finance, and a beautiful poet with two of the cutest pet rats. The time I spent outside of school, the people I met–they filled in all of these gaps that existed in the insular world of my academic life. They reminded me that there are so many ways to live and move in the world, and that academic success isn’t everything.

I also knew grad students. Some of them I’d met while I was an undergrad, and others were my friends who went straight into PhD programs. They were brilliant, they were doing their best, and they were willing to grin and bear it, but they also had a tendency to be isolated. This isn’t exactly news–graduate school has a reputation of being really rough. People often work through the weekend. I know lots of folks who forget it’s a holiday until they realize they need their ID to get in the building. They talk about PIs dropping by the office early in the morning to make sure folks are around. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, and that means that it takes from other aspects of our lives–from time we might otherwise devote to hobbies or community.

I promised myself when I made the decision to come to grad school that I wouldn’t just completely backslide into an academic bubble. It was really important to me that I still have roots to community outside of school, or at least outside of my field of study. And this was hard at first, and wasn’t made easier by my 3000 mile move.

So I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what’s worked for me in seeking community, and gather some tips here so that others might benefit.

Student organizations

The first thing I did, before I even set foot on campus, was try to find a directory of student organizations and activities. A lot of schools offer these with at least some ability to filter based on interest–broad groups often include various arts, athletics, and political interests. I’m also fortunate enough that the queers tend to merit their own subcategory.

One tricky bit is that these student groups do tend, at least in my experience, to be more geared toward undergraduates–and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I have some anxiety about being that creepy grad student. The best thing I’ve found for this is to talk to people involved in the group. I’ve asked explicitly if I’d be welcome at events as a grad student, and if I’m told yes, then I’ll usually try to find a friend interested so that I’m not the only one there. The other option, though it can be a little rarer, is to find groups that cater specifically to grad students. But if you can’t find ’em…

Creating community

Sometimes the grad student bonsai club of your dreams doesn’t exist yet. And maybe that’s just because you haven’t been able to make it happen yet!

The unfortunate thing, as I mentioned before, is that being a grad student and doing research eats up a lot of time. The fortunate thing, though, is that you don’t have to totally devote your life to whatever activity you might want to see. I’ve found it really satisfying to organize low-key events, like board game nights, by inviting a bunch of people on facebook and picking a spot. It can also be as simple as discovering a common interest among a few classmates and deciding to spend an evening making something together. Maybe you start a book club!

If you do have more time or willingness, you can go a step further and try to do work with existing student groups, or even create your own. For instance, I didn’t want to try to reinvent the queer grad student wheel, but I did want to see events that had appealed to a broader range of queer folks. So I got in touch with organizers of my campus’s queer grad student organization, told them some of my ideas, and ended up on the board making those things happen! I think the honest truth is that a lot of the time, grad students running these groups are putting out their own fires–so if you have an idea and the drive to make it happen, there’s a good chance you can find an existing group with the means and resources to get you there!

Get off campus!

I know how hard this one can be. Trust me, I know. But I also know just how refreshing it can be sometimes to meet people who aren’t wrapped up in the same stressers that you are–be that quals, a big exam, or a trying to push a paper out.

Logistics aside, sometimes this can be daunting because the easiest connections to make are with fellow students. But I’ve managed to find cool events off campus in a few ways.

The first is by asking people who are local! I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a friend of a friend who grew up in the area where I’m going to grad school. She has a lot of similar interests as I do, which means she was able to offer up recommendations on dance schools and craft stores. Backed by a recommendation, I felt more comfortable venturing out into some new place!

Another huge help can be meetup groups. Same deal as student organizations–just toss in some keywords and go–but with the added benefit of getting a broader pool of people to interact with.

In short, I really believe that a key to doing well and staying healthy in grad school is making time for all of the not-student-bits. Meet new people. Try new things. Take classes. Find community. Be a whole person.

Do you have any other tips for finding community? Is there anything you’d like to share along the lines of balancing activities and school life?

One thought on “Finding (or building) community in grad school

  1. Pingback: Too Supportive: Fostering Allied Behaviour on Social Media, A Source List – Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

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