A friend of mine tells the story of her first day as a PhD student with equal parts amusement and horror. One day she had a busy life as an academic, working with a wide range of students and colleagues, the next she was a PhD student who just had to hand in a thesis in a couple of years. The lack of structure triggered something of an identity crisis.

She realised that she was having a crisis when she stood in front of the mirror that first day and literally didn’t know what to wear. Should she ‘dress down’ and become more ‘studenty’? Or continue to dress like her professional self? In the end she trotted off to uni determined to take her cue from the PhD students she was sure to meet.

Imagine her surprise when she fronted up only to find out she had no office to work in. Even stranger still, no one at the university could tell her who her fellow students were, or where they might be found. One person suggested that she might find some at the library. She wandered the halls in confusion until the staff at the faculty desk suggested that perhaps she might like to work at home.

Of course, my friend was not the kind of person to put up with this state of affairs and set about building community herself, but that’s a whole other story for another post. The point I want to make here is that undertaking PhD study can be very strange and very lonely.

It’s not until they are gone that you realise how important classmates are. Even if you didn’t get on with everyone, your classmates were an anchor in the vast sea of the university. For one thing,  they helped you in little ways: usually someone would tell you if class was cancelled or if the lecturer had offered an extension. If you want to have a beer after a Friday class, there was usually a bunch of people heading to the pub. At the pub you could indulge in some therapeutic moaning about the boring lectures and difficult assignments.

When you are a PhD student this sense of community can be tenuous. Of course, some of you lucky readers will work in the bench sciences and have a ready made community of people working on the same or similar projects. You might land in a large open plan office – which is becoming a popular way for Australian Universities, who are cognizant of the problems of isolation, to house the PhD student cohort. Some of you reach out on twitter, facebook and even this blog to find others like you. But being around people is only part of the solution to the loneliness of the thesis writer.

The thing that surprised me most about PhD study is how powerful the sense of being alone can be.  Many times it felt like no one cared about my thesis but me. As I wrote in my post on PhD rage, while my PhD was of great importance to me, to others it was just something I was doing with my time. On dark days, the days when I stopped believing in it, the whole thing would seem a bit pointless. As an aside, this is one of the many reasons why supervisors are so important – as back up believers!

Even on the up days I could still feel estranged from others. Sometimes I felt like I was bursting at the seams with fascinating insights I was dying to talk about. But it was terribly difficult to get anyone, other than my supervisors, to take more than a casual interest in them. Some people really did engage of course – and they have my grateful thanks. My sister, my office mate, my Actor network theory group all took the time to have a conversation about what I was finding out and – more important – do some wondering about it with me. Their interest seemed, in some strange way, to validate and give meaning to my PhD student existence.

We shouldn’t dismiss these feelings of loneliness and alienation in ourselves as ‘just whining’ because they can have real consequences. Barbara Lovitts writes about them when she explores the shockingly high attrition rate amongst American PhD students in her book ‘Leaving the Ivory tower’.

In her interviews with non completors, Lovitts was struck by how often people blamed themselves for their inability to finish a PhD – rather than, for instance, their supervisor or the university. There was a tendency for students to turn these feelings of alienation into feelings of inadequacy. Part of the reason students leave their studies, Lovitts claims, is ‘pluralistic ignorance’: a failure to recognise that the students all around them are having similar feelings and problems, partly because there is not much contact between students or opportunity to air the feelings.

So what can you do? I suppose I can only encourage people to talk about the feelings with others and look for opportunities to engage. Luckily, in many universities there are plenty of possibilities: peer writing circles, workshops, online courses,  lunchtime seminars and all the rest. Even if you don’t think you need to participate, the social contact could be seen as an end in itself – and it will help you to work out that PhD dress code 🙂

Thanks to @pedagogyofpop for suggesting this week’s topic

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