How to Handle Loneliness in Grad School Part 1: How I Beat the Blues
Psychosocial health is an important element of any person’s daily functioning, and it can have a significant impact on performance in many other areas of life. Loneliness is something that everybody has probably experienced in life, and it’s something that I often struggle with whenever I have to start over in a new social setting – for example, moving to a new city and starting grad school!
Although I am often described as a talkative, friendly, and outgoing person, I’ve had several experiences when I’ve felt extremely socially isolated and lonely, such as my first year of college and a job as a camp counselor. Although in these settings I was surrounded by people and opportunities to make friends and have fun, I spent a lot of time alone and struggling to find people to connect with. It’s a challenge I’ve continued to have in my adult life, but it’s also something that has helped me better understand myself and how I can be most successful as I continue to move around, start new endeavors, and meet new people.
This post was difficult for me to write, because it really puts all of the negative feelings, anxiety, and loneliness I experienced during my first year of graduate school out there. It’s not easy admitting that I had a hard time, and maybe to most people I seemed fine. But if I’m honest, my first year in graduate school was a challenging transition that I was not prepared for. Knowing that many of my friends from undergrad were also in the same boat (living/working in a new place without many friends) and talking to them about my situation made it a little easier, but I had to learn the hard way that life in grad school is NOT the same as it is in undergrad – or at least it wasn’t for me!
I think my biggest mistake when I started OT school was assuming that it was going to be very similar to my life as an undergraduate. I thought that going straight from undergrad into my graduate OT program would give me a slight advantage, since I was still in the “school mindset” and wouldn’t have much adjusting to do. While I was right about that, and my transition into academics and coursework was not difficult, I found myself floundering in the new grad school social scene. I had gotten used to having friends just a few feet away in my old apartment, seeing people every week in club meetings, and hanging with my buddies every weekend. So when I got to grad school and spending time with people was no longer that easy, I wasn’t really sure how to go about making new friends as an adult.
Instead of making an effort to invite classmates or others to events, I sat back and watched as other people made plans and had fun. Although I attended a few events with classmates, my lack of reciprocation quickly meant that I was no longer invited to many things, which meant that I lost the opportunity to build meaningful friendships during the first few months of my program. I couldn’t understand why everybody else seemed to have become such fast friends while I was left on the sidelines and apparently forgotten. This cycle of standing by while others enjoyed themselves and hung out continued for a long time, until I finally realized that I was the problem and decided to do something different.
Being lonely in grad school was not something I enjoyed, but a quick Google search tells me that I’m not alone in having gone through it. One story in this Grad Student Way article basically sums up everything I learned about the challenges of going to grad school straight from undergrad…if only I’d seen it sooner! The author wrote,
“…The people in your graduate program really just won’t be the basis of your social life. And unlike college, you won’t be taken [sic] lots of courses where you’re meeting lots of new people every quarter/semester. So you need to work a lot harder to meet new people and maintain important relationships. You need to be much more willing to make the first move meeting people and letting them know you want to become friends.”
Although in my experience, many grad school classmates do in fact become the basis of your social life (because of similar schedules, proximity, etc.), it still takes work to make that happen. When I started OT school, I fell into the trap of thinking that because I saw all the same people all the time, I would easily find people who I could hang out and establish strong friendships with. Like the writer above, I had to realize that I did have to work harder and actively try to make new friends and get to know people, even though I spent all day with them. While most of my classmates were fun, friendly people I enjoyed spending time with, I didn’t realize the additional effort I would have to make to form friendships that went beyond the classroom.
Several years after learning these hard lessons, I’ve made some changes and I’m much better off. Instead of waiting on an invitation to an event, I take initiative and invite others. I’ve also participated in Meetups, connected with friends and family members in my area, and made more of an effort to keep in touch with old friends. I’m a regular in my small group Bible study, and I make plans to hang out more often with coworkers and acquaintances I’d like to get to know better. And even though they may not be the same as the relationships I’ve had with other people in the past, the friendships I’m developing now have the potential to be just as fun, fulfilling, and important.
Although I still have a long way to go towards building the kind of solid, long-term friendships I’ve had in the past where I am now, I feel more confident in my ability to be successful not just academically, but socially as well.
How did you handle feelings of loneliness as a graduate student or OT student? What advice do you wish somebody had given you?
Stay tuned! Part 2 of this series will discuss strategies and tips for making friends and making it through what can often be a challenging graduate school experience.