Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Since returning to school I've noticed something unexpected about life as a graduate student, it's very lonely.  I know it sounds odd.  I share an office with four other students, I go to classes with dozens of others, I have two professors I work with, there are research assistants, post doc's, undergraduate workers, but yet the fact remains I still somehow frequently feel alone.  Being social by nature I find it difficult sometimes.  Everyone is working so hard on there own projects you don't have some one to bounce new ideas off, share jokes, reflect on experiences.  Don't get me wrong, I love being here, being part of this fantastic group of scientists, but I feel like I've sacrificed something too.  The job I left for school was wonderful in that way, I had these really strong bonds with my co-works that were different than usual friendships.  Not really better, because they never really last after you leave the job, but still very strong friendships in their own way.

Now I find myself seeking out old friendships with people I've grown away from, trying to find a connection to help combat the loneliness, but it's difficult.  I get so wrapped up in school work and research that I'm unable to properly cultivate a friendship with people outside my immediate group of office-mates, mentors, and colleagues.  In a way I feel like the more I advance in science and knowledge the more I regress in social capacity.  Perhaps there is something to the stereotype of the socially inept out of touch scientist, but I really hope not.


Cobol said...

I was googling to see if I was the only graduate student who is starting to feel lonely. But after going through your post and several others, I realize that this could be a much wide spread issue among graduate students - especially students like me who had to move far my family and friends in order to attend a good school.

One thing I find frustrating when trying to make friends in college as a graduate student is my age. I am currently 28 and most of the people I meet and interact regularly are undergrads who are way younger than me and I find it nearly impossible to find any common grounds with them to mingle with. I don't blame myself nor anyone for it, since it is just a natural incompatibility. And most of the co-grad students of my age are too busy with their work to socialize (there is certainly a group of graduate students who do not seem to be too concerned about their lack of social life and are happy being workoholic!!) or married or in a very maure relationship where they cannot devote time for a single guy like me.

So the conclusion I have come to is this: face the fact that this is a mandatory phase in your life where you have to suffer loneliness and get done with it as soon as you can. Maybe my conclusion is wrong, but being in a university system where graduate students are unofficially branded as 'cheap labor', I do not see help coming in any other way.

MistressofScience said...

Thank you for your comment. I find it surprising how many people share our feelings of isolation after entering graduate school. I think I agree that it is somehow inevitable, and hopefully it's only a short period that must be endured.

But sometimes I look at the professors and post docs I know and wonder if loneliness and feeling isolated is always part of life in academia. I can't tell for sure if they feel lonely, but I think I would in their place. Perhaps you become adapted to those feelings in time and it is no longer is disheartening.

With the loneliest season of the year now upon us (at least for those of us who work through the holidays) I'm dreading the echoing hallways and inadequate companionship of my own thoughts. Perhaps I'll try to find solace in the knowledge that I'm not actually alone in my loneliness.

Avantika said...

I totally agree. Sometimes I wonder if being a woman in engineering grad school makes me more vulnerable to feeling isolated.I also think that although having a significant other makes it better, it doesnt replace the sense of community and close knit family and friends I always had in my hometown in India, many oceans away.
The holidays have been particularly depressing, since even the little hygiene factor of having someone around, even if you only share the occasional conversation or smile, is absent during this time. Its hard to make friends in a natural setting, in the normal course of taking classes or sharing lunch like during the undergrad years or at work.
I agree with Cobol. There are just too many people busy being so competitive that they have no time for the social connections that are so important.I also find myself slipping into self-absorbed selfishness with not many other people to care/think about. And all my old friends are busy getting married, having children, and striking roots in our home town.
The only ways to cope with this are to accept that this is a phase which totally tests our inner strength and it will pass sometime.
Meanwhile, make do with long distance calls that cost a fortune to connect with family and friends.
And it helps to use this time to cultivate a spiritual connection that , at the risk of making me sound new-agey , helps me feel less disconnected from the universe.

krishroy said...

I totally agree with MistressofScience, Cobol and and especially Avantika too. I too am a engineering grad student from far-away India and the loneliness of grad-student life is becoming quite overbearing.

It becomes especially bad once the student is done with course-requirements, as is the case with me now. During the holidays I do not really have any reason to interact with any one else on a regular basis, and that just feels too bad.

Being a outgoing and social person, I did manage to make quite a few friends while I was taking classes, but since then I haven't really made any new friends. And with most of those friends either graduated, or being busy with their own family, or coping with their own work-pressure/deadline to graduate, I at least feel kind or socially left-out.

I do hope that the optimism showed by you guys, that this will change once the grad-student life is over is accurate, as it will really suck if it is not. In the mean time good luck to all you guys ....

- Krishnendu

Anonymous said...

Even if you were to attend grad socials, grad students pod together with others in their department. Going alone just compounds the problem. I wonder if graduate school has become too removed from humanity to offer true growth. Maybe at one time the work:social ratio worked, but in today's world it lowers your chance of having a family, avoiding sickness from sharing laughter with down to earth friends and economically does not add up. Still, my mental processes would be too under engaged in a regular trade job and there does not seem to be an appropriate avenue to apply one's emotional, cultural and intellectual IQ. I hope I do not get deprerssed from this PhD process or lose myself to a competitive chamber of fools and tools.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post, I just finished my first semester at graduate school for an MBA. I did not do well in some courses because I became overwhelmed by lonelines and isolation. I moved a state away from my home into cold, harsh weather that I am unfamiliar with.

There are only 10 people in my class and every one of them are competitive and unhelpful. Sure, they will socialize on the weekends but you must never ask them for help with homework issues or share ideas. That might put you above them in the race for the top! I told my professor at the end of the semester that I felt completely alone at this school and he was surprised, thinking that I had certainly formed a study group.

Graduate school sucks because the people are overly competitive and they run around trying to get an edge like they are never going to die. I suffer from panic episodes as a result of the things that have taken place just this semster. I am single and miss a loving connection with other people that I had with my undergrad friends.

The carefree happiness is gone in this competitive, stab you in the back, might murder you in your sleep to advance world. Can't wait for next semester.

Anonymous said...

I'm a woman in grad school for an engineering discipline (well, computer science) and it's been lonely and isolating since day one. Doesn't help that the guys in this program tend to be of the opinion that if something doesn't affect them personally, it must not be real. Unhappy at school? Well, you must be incompetent, because THEY don't see what's so hard about being the only girl in your classes, about being stared at and whispered about (like you won't notice!), about the backstabbing and the constant jockeying for alpha status that passes for "male bonding." Coming here was the biggest mistake of my life.

I never felt this way in undergrad, why is it so much worse now? Why do people have to be so poisonous to each other? It's a school, not the Thunderdome. More than one person is allowed to walk out alive, but the other students are determined not to let that happen.

Anonymous said...

I am an engineering female grad student as well. I agree completely with so many views expressed here. I feel lonely, i try to reach out and organize social activities or movies or dinner, but in the end there are just 2-3 people who are interested and this happens not as often as I would like. I do try to go an trips and do activities on my own. they are all nice and fun, but nothing can replace having a group of friends to talk with. I am not a loner. I have a couple of friends, but not as many as in undergrad.

I also feel that as a graduate student, even though you may not have any immediate work, you always have this nagging deadline, research targets, in your head.

Another unique thing about my case is i'm 22 so i'm a mis-fit in the older graduate student group and i'm a mis-fit in the under-grad group because, im just not in the under-grad mindset or intellect. I also am not a complete fit with other foreign grad students of my country, as I do not relate with many things as I had kept going in and out of my country throughout my schooling. My personality is good, i smile and try to talk with people whenever I can in-fact I think I have developed a few good friendships over the years. But there just isn't as much social activity being a graduate student. I guess that is a fact of life.

Thank you guys for sharing and reading!

some grad student said...

Wow I'm glad I stumbled upon this. Well, not really, because it sucks we all feel this way, but at least I'm not alone (touche).

I'm in CS and you know what, guys feel lonely too. I'm disgusted with a lot of CS attitudes of just trying the other off and the bloated egos... In undergrad I thought the whole "oh, being a woman in CS can't be that hard", but I actually realized that it must be pretty tough on girls. I'm sorry for that.

The other thing I found, at least at this school, is that most people either have their own cliques already (think older students) or formed cliques because they're from the same country and can speak their native language. This leaves other American first year students and they seem to all have gone here for undergrad. Long story short, I always feel on the outside looking in... Oh well. I suppose it doesn't help I actually want something out of a friendship rather than a drinking buddy on weekends. I love sports, but no one else seems to be that interested... Tried joining a wine club and found it's all MBAs and even though I keep going once in a while, I still haven't found anyone to hang out with... Ok, whining over. sorry, just venting :(

MistressofScience said...

I've been dwelling on the responses to this post for weeks now. Trying to come up with a useful comment. Something reassuring would be excellent, maybe even some good advice. But I'm at a loss.

I have no advice to give. It sucks to be lonely, and I don't seen any way out of it with the lives we've chosen. If you can find comfort in the fact that lots of other people feel the same, awesome.

I'm sorry that's all I have, I'm really good at real science but I'm no good at the social sciences. Maybe that's a problem we all share :)

I do think life will get better, but I don't know when.

some grad student said...

heh I think just knowing it's a common feeling helps and venting. Some days are better than others. I wrote my comment write around the time I felt particularly isolated, but recently I did terribly on a homework, which I think is a sign that I've been moping around too much :)

Thank you!

P.S. I meant to say "trying to show the others off", but leaving out words has been an issue for me.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments, especially since I was one of the few female geology/Civil Engineering grad students in my school 20 years ago, with exactly the same issues. I got through with only my roommate, office mate and boyfriend as my social circle. My roommate moved, my office mate and I had a falling out, and my boyfriend and I broke up. "Isolated" doesn't sufficiently describe the intense loneliness. I started dating someone else, we married and moved away from my school while I was writing my thesis after he'd finished his and gotten a job. He was in another department and had known me as an undergrad. I was very glad to get out and have never been tempted to go back for my PhD, although all my life I wanted to achieve that, due to the negative experiences in school (bad professors, poor leadership, non-existent support). I couldn't have achieved what I have in my work without the additional knowledge and degree, but it was a long row to hoe. Do be careful about committing to someone during this time, though, as is very might well be driven primarily by loneliness.

Avantika said...

These comments have really made me feel better - atleast I know now that maybe there are some other friendly grad students out there looking for some sense of community too!
Over the past couple of months I have tried to cultivate the friendships I have had with people who seem to share things with me.I have started going out of the house more, atleast enjoying nature, the sunshine and some other fun things in life.I used to do my work from home but now I try going to work to complete it.I have been going out to lunch with friends, inviting them home to dinner and movies.
Also,I think women in every area of professional life which is dominated by men feel the same sense of isolation. Sometimes it works your way, and you get a lot of help and affection from your labmates just because you are a girl. Your boss doesnt yell at you as much!Sometimes you end up feeling alone, especially when all the men meet to drink or watch football games over the weekend.
I have to wait and watch to see how the rest of grad life turns out.

Anonymous said...

I am an English doctoral student and was amazed to find that I am not alone. Thank God for facebook, or I'd have no social life at all. My husband is awake and gone to work before I get up, and I am up way past him every night, reading or typing. I thought it was what "we" wanted, but now he hints that I could just stay at home or find a part-time job somewhere. He's a bit threatened, but I understand he's lonely too. I just hope that at the end of this dismal rainbow there will be a life worth all this sacrifice.

chutneysoul said...

Thank you much!!!

Here I was thinking I'm the only one...or that something is wrong with me! I am a fourth year grad student in humanities. the first two years were fine...I did have a reasonable social life. Then I just don't know what happened...some people got 'significant others,' some moved, and some just got into other groups. Suddenly, I woke up one fine day and realized I have NO life. And like Avantika and Krishnendu, I'm from India too. I had really close friends back home, but lately I've been feeling they just don't get me. When I complain about my loneliness or my lack of social life, they tell me it was my decision to join grad school (And don't get me wrong. I do love being a grad student, except the loneliness bit)...and so, I shouldn't whine or complain. And yes, they never quite get it when I say I don't have a social life. Then I just get to hear that I don't try hard enough. felt great to read the post and all your comments.

At least, I don't feel I'm the only one.

Anonymous said...

I know this was a post from long ago, but I just wanted to thank everyone who posted here. I am relieved as well that I am not the only one who feels this way. I am a first-year grad student with a boyfriend in a different city, a few close friends and my whole family in a different city from that, and a best friend in China. It is ridiculous!!! Whoever posted above that we might just have to cope with the loneliness as a part of the path we've chosen...I have to say I agree. It sounds grim, but it makes sense. And perhaps once that decision is made and I stop moping around, hoping that enough phone calls or episodes of Arrested Development will cure the loneliness, it will become easier. Thanks for the wisdom :o)

Anonymous said...

This thread is very comforting! I'm just starting my first year of medical school in California and my husband is working in Washington DC..I've just been so lonely because the other students go drinking and partying when they are free and after exams whereas I don't do that. People are constantly saying they don't want to deal with marriage while in school. It makes me feel like I have made a horrible choice of getting married. I started undergrad early so right now I'm 21 and starting medical school and everyone always makes the comment 'you are really young to get married'
My family are mostly in the east coast and flying there costs a lot of money. Not only that, I have to spend my holidays studying and preparing for exams so I don't even get a chance to spend time with them even if I were to fly back.
In addition of feeling lonely for myself, I feel bad for my husband too..He will have to be alone for a while and for the next 7-10 years even if we live in the same place, I won't have much time for him.
With the divorce rate also being so high for physicians and medical students, I'm constantly anxious something bad might happen to our relationship.
I feel that I'm not really able to make close friends here like back home..I used to be really social, hanging out with friends almost every, I feel like an outcast..I really want to make this grad school experience pleasant, but I'm not quite sure how..

monkijohnni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
monkijohnni said...

Wow, I am glad to read all your comments! I am a first year in my neuroscience program and I think everyone else in my program is dead inside. I am so lonely. I spend all my time with mice, and when I'm free I have homework to do. I want to meet people, but the hospital/university is not the place to do that. I guess that's why we go o conferences.
Actually, I think that hardest part for me is my new inability to talk about things outside neuroscience. If I go to the bars, it just isn't stimulating to hear some girl talk about how she likes the show "Glee". So how do you meet smart people who are also want to have some fun? -If I were to do it over again, I would choose a program at a school that had undergrads- at least then there are people who still want to act immature...

Anonymous said...

l am planning on attending grad school next year but was afraid of the loneliness issue. I have a friend who is ina phd program and she complains about the lack of friends a lot. I am confused because when I was an undergrad working at a research lab, the grad students there all seemed to have fun with each other and had lots of things going on. The postdoc I worked under told me she partied more when she was a graduate student than undergrad and she had many friends too. I guess it depends how lucky an environment you get. Would it be possible for you guys to join some clubs inside and/or outside of school? Try out different ones.

policy_this said...

oh my.. it's almost thanksgiving, everybody is leaving town but I can't because I'm from China.
I'm now in my second year in grad school and I have been having this feeling of loneliness for a while. I have a circle of friends, mostly from my own program but when I try to expand it a little bit it's just so hard. I'm a sociable person and this loneliness feels so bad that I don't even feel like working.
Did I mention that my university is in a very remote town called Ithaca, NY yet? Its location is definitely not helping.

Anonymous said...

I'm so lonely too. I spend hours online looking for clubs and organizations I can join. I heard that Bible study groups are friendly... But I am not a Christian. I just want to have a friend... This makes me feel sick that I might be smiling to people and pretend like I believe in Jesus while I don't. I'm sorry Jesus...

Anonymous said...

I'm so lonely too. I spend hours online looking for clubs and organizations I can join. I heard that Bible study groups are friendly... But I am not a Christian. I just want to have a friend... This makes me feel sick that I might be smiling to people and pretend like I believe in Jesus while I don't. I'm sorry Jesus...

rinaldi1985 said...

I am a foreign first year graduate student in Texas, i am married and i left my wife back home.

The feeling of loneliness is very immediate in my case, the culture shock, different food, weather, not very talkative class mates, missing for my wife is things that struck me down at the very beginning.

I am glad that i am not the only one who feel that way, and to know that it is temporary and just a phase that i have to go through.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to find there are still new comments appearing here three years later.

I left my girlfriend on the opposite coast to start a PhD program. The feeling of loneliness is pervasive and profound. I have to force myself to not sit in my isolation and sink deeper into depression. It would be nice to hear from some of you, if you find this page later, on how you did in your programs and what you did to stay sane.

Anonymous said...

Well. I am in the process of finishing up my masters. I used to have such a varied social life before i joined my program and since i started, i have slowly lost people i keep seeing. I try to keep in touch by e mail, but it is not enough

Its a combination of factors: a very small department with generally introverted people who are in long term relationships/married and do not wish to party and the constant workload. Even when i go out, I am always thinking about looming deadlines and upcoming experiments.

I am trying to compensate by partying in undergrads, but i am getting too old for that as well. Thankfully i should be done before christmas so i can at least enjoy holidays without having to hand in a committee meeting report. On top of that I have always been single and the few women i went on a few dates on interrupted my studies.

This is pretty much the reason why I would not do a PHD. I really would go crazy having to live like this for the next 6 years(the program is very long).

i just want to be happy from time to time.

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain. I found this by searching for loneliness in law school. I'm a slightly introverted person and I find law school to be incredibly lonely. It would nice if there was some organized and socially acceptable way to meet new people.

Anonymous said...

I am in my first semester of grad school in TX where I feel intense social isolation due to the different culture and not fitting into any particular group. Most students are in a serious relationship so they naturally do not have time to hang out with other people on the weekend. When I do go out with people in my program, they tend to complain about their life. It is so depressing to hear that others are not happy with life. I am not blaming anyone for my isolation. I guess it comes with the territory and I need to learn how to manage it better because this feeling will not go away anytime soon. Yesterday was Thanksgiving so I guess it's natural that i feel lonely today.

It is nice to hear from others that they feel the same way. This made me feel better in knowing that my problem is universally shared in academia.

Q-switch said...

I moved to the other side of the country to go to a pretigious PhD program in Physics and I have been miserable here since day 1. Like someone said in the comments, it seems that everyone at my school either has their own clique from undergrad, their SO taking up their time, or if they're international they just hang out with people from their own country. The grad apartments have social events and whatnot, but they always seem so artificial and fake to me... Don't get me wrong, they're nice people and all, and I try to talk to them
as much as I can, but I just don't feel comfortable just being myself. It also doesn't help that I was never "in love" with my research, so the fact that everyone only ever talks about research or academia drove me insane.

The loneliness and isolation eventually became so great that I decided that I just couldn't take it anymore and decided to just leave with an MS. I've become such a bitter person in the span of two years that I can't stand to think of what I've become. I'm planning on switching to a different school and doing an MS in Computer Science so I can try and get a job in software development (an MS in Physics is about as much worth as the paper the diploma's written on).

But even deciding to quit, I'm still overwhelmed with fears that there's something wrong with me and maybe it's my fault for why I feel so isolated and alone. I have to force myself to keep working some days and not let the depression and loneliness engulf me. It's reassuring to hear that I'm not the only one feeling this way.

Magus said...

Let me just say that I never post on these things, but I can absolutely relate to just about everything that's been said. Its really good to hear that I'm not the only grad student out there feeling this way.

I'm a male 2nd year phd student in experimental psychology at a competitive program, and the overwhelming sense of isolation that I've felt grow since starting up here has been pretty horrible. 90% of the people in our program are female, and of the remaining males only one has some shared interests with me. I'm actually amazed at how "high school-like" the cliques here have become. During my first year I used to go out with the girls. Over the course of this year any sort of social activity that included me got progressively more and more infrequent (starting interestingly when I got a pub before they did accepted) until it ended all together with them starting their ladies nights with the "no boys allowed policy". Now don't get me wrong I'm all for guys having their guy time together and girls having their girl time together, but when you do so in such a way that repeatedly isolates and excludes someone on purely the basis of sex that just sounds like a veiled form of social/sexual discrimination. I guess I just totally get how the women on here have felt when posting about the guys doing their thing and being excluded. It definitely sucks both ways.

I was really shocked to experience this to be honest. No one ever tells you when going into grad school to expect this, but I've never felt this lonely before, I'm a social friendly person but it seems that isn't enough to escape the grad school blues. Here's hoping we all make it through the tunnel! At least we know we're not alone.

Anonymous said...

This is an old post, but I'm glad I found this. I'm currently feeling such loneliness being a grad student myself. I did not read all responses here, but read many and felt relieved.
My school is a commuter school so many students already have a career. I'm working on my master in accounting. Some are already CPAs and have a couple decades of experience under their belt. I'm going for full-time. I have my spouse at home but I still feel very alone. My SO has his regular life, day time job, and a normal wk schedule like most working people. Once my regular semester is over, it gets more lonely. I am an older student, but most my friends work at their regular 9-5, and on the weekends they're with their family, kids, etc.
I feel very isolated. So the reason of loneliness can really be anything - young, old, male, female, foreign, etc.
My theory for this is that because the people who advance their education at a post-gradate level (for the most part,) already possess above average intellect and are driven. Frankly put, these are competitive people. Last time I felt like this was at my last job. I worked with many young bright people, and the atmosphere there was very cutthroat and inwardly competitive...resemble my current environment.