PhD loneliness will hit you when you are working at midnight on some research topic nobody in your continent understands (or give a damn about) except for you.
You are in a scientific micro-niche. So micro, you got nobody to talk with. And you feel alone.
After all, you are born alone. You do a PhD alone. You die alone.
It’s true that a PhD means doing independent research. YOU need to figure things out. YOU need to make it work (because your PhD matters).
We agree on that.
But from that to being alone in a PhD there is a stretch.
Who wants to suffer from PhD loneliness?
Yet PhD loneliness is rather common. We all feel alone during our PhD. Wanting attention from others doesn’t make us spoilt children that got too much attention from their parents in their infancy. On the contrary. Craving attention is a standard human feeling.
I am a born introvert and even so I enjoy being surrounded by people. I don’t know what it is but if I spend too much time working at home on my own I get cranky. I need to go back to my colleagues. Do you also have that?
Is the solution to PhD loneliness to do a PhD in a research group with lots of other scientists?
Yes and no. You will be more likely to interact with others. But you can still feel alone in a crowded room, right?
This made me think that there is not a single way of being alone in a PhD. Each sort of PhD Loneliness has a symptom.
3 Symptoms Of PhD Loneliness
You are alone scientifically …
… if your scientific discussions are too superficial
For my PhD I worked on some mathematical chemistry theorems. They were really complicated for me. Whenever I asked around for help on how to proceed with those theorems, people either panicked or tried some copy-paste answer like “have you tried some simulations?”.
I went as far as France and UK (I did my PhD in The Netherlands) to discuss with real experts on the topic and ask for their opinion.
You are alone emotionally …
… if you cannot bitch openly about doing a PhD
I was extremely lucky here. I had in my room, PhD buddy sitting next to me student, also Catalan like me, also struggling, who liked to listen and to share his struggles.
This might not be the case for you.
You might be the only PhD in your department. Or your fellow PhDs might be too self-centred. You might be doing a PhD from home or a PhD in the humanities. Whatever it is, it’s common to feel like you have nobody to complain to. Bear with me, you can change this, I will show you how.
You are alone in your growth …
… if nobody gives you feedback
Do you know what’s worse than screwing up? That nobody tells you that you when and why you screwed up.
Imagine you give a presentation. Half way your talk people are sleeping or looking confused. At the end, there are no questions. Well, yes. There was one question, but completely off-topic.
You start to think that you are the worse presenter ever. If nobody gives you feedback, your next talk will be as bad as this one.
What you want is somebody that tells you “You went too deep for this audience in the technical details” or “You described the methods part too fast and there the audience got lost. Next occasion take more time to make sure everybody is following you”.
These are tips that you can use. You can act on them and improve.
Now, let’s see how you can turn PhD loneliness around and feel connected and surrounded by great people.
Warning for lazy asses and scary-pants!!
If you expect an easy to swallow pill to fix PhD loneliness you can stop reading this post now and back to reading Facebook.
Becoming social and connecting with people takes time and more importantly, your effort. It is uncomfortable and scary, I admit it.
Good things in life don’t land in your lap by doing nothing.
Are you still with me?
Good, let’s get cracking.
5 Ways To Fix PhD Loneliness
I can’t stress enough how important networking is for scientists. Having a solid network of contacts in science can open many doors. In this case, your network can put you in contact with people who are experts in your field.
You’ll find experts if you talk to people in conferences. First you establish a connection and when you are back at home, you follow up.
No conferences in the horizon for you? If you have done a proper literature review you already know who the experts in your field are.
Send them a short email with a specific request: maybe a question on your topic of research, or if they can send you a pre-print of their latest paper.
Please, stay away from the uninspiring “please suggest me a research topic and guide me, sir”. Stick with offering your help, or asking questions, o even arranging a visit.
#2 Find a PhD buddy
You shouldn’t keep those negative feelings about your PhD inside. Let them out. Share them with somebody in your same shoes. A PhD buddy.
Ideally a PhD buddy is a fellow PhD student from a different group. Why a different group? Not sharing colleagues with your PhD buddy will allow you to bitch even more openly, since internal gossips and group politics are not affecting your conversation.
Remember, sometimes you will cry on her shoulder. Other times you and your shoulder have to be there for your PhD buddy to cry.
#3 Find excitement
Show your positive side to people. Of course you can bitch, I just recommended it in the previous tip.
Bitch only to some selected group. To the rest, you need to show happiness and excitement about your research. People will want to spend time with you and you will feel less alone.
Be excited about other people’s research. Challenge them. Ask them questions. Check now and then how their research is progressing.
Now back to your PhD, think of the opportunities you are creating for yourself by doing a PhD. Get excited about the cool ideas you will test in the coming months. Don’t see problems, see challenges. Challenges are opportunities for you to grow.
#4 Join a group
Nothing can activate your social being faster than joining a group. Yes, sport teams and dancing lessons are highly recommended for your general well-being. But here I want to draw your attention to some groups that will benefit your scientific baseline.
Let’s see what type of groups can help you fix your PhD loneliness:
- A journal club: to learn more about your field.
- A reading club: to explore new ideas.
- An association for international students: to help and meet students that need to socialize.
- An association for new students: to help young people when they are starting.
- The students council: to promote changes in your university.
- The Young “Your Field” Scientists Association: to network in your field.
- A conference organising committee: to network and learn transferable skills.
#5 Be the change you want to see
If you want deep conversations … start one. If you want to be listened … listen to others first. If you want to be helped … help other colleagues that might feel alone. If you want feedback … give constructive feedback.
I want to share with you something. One of the reasons I started NextScientist was to help others. I was stuck in the middle of my PhD, in the Valley of Shit.
I collected some good advice on getting unstuck. But it was not enough. I needed to share it. So I decided to blog about that advice so it could help other PhDs from far away.
And it worked. I felt better. More motivated. Less lonely. More importantly, NextScientist helped other PhD students. Now I get several emails per day from PhD students sharing their PhD stories with me.
So this is my last action for you
- Register to the newsletter and send me an email with your story or your tips to feeling less lonely in a PhD.
- If you don’t like emails you can share in the comments section below.