UW Graduate School

April 19, 2018

Lonely and Isolated in Grad School

I am a first year Ph.D. student and feel lonely all the time. There are several days when I go without any human contact except with students in my office hours. It’s strangely suffocating. I am still not part of any lab, so there are no labmates to hang out with. My classmates go to their labs straight after class so can’t hang out after class.

—IsThisHowIt’sSupposedToBe

This post originally ran November 2016. It has been updated slightly. 

This answer is courtesy of Jaye Sablan, assistant director, Core Programs, Office of Student Affairs in the the Graduate School.

First off, thank you so much for reaching out. I know how hard it can be in academia to share emotional vulnerability, and I totally hear you. Graduate school and its demands can create an atmosphere that feels isolating and alienating to graduate students. No, this is *not* how graduate school is supposed to be, or how it needs to be, though we hear you that this is how it *is.* Know that your feelings are totally normal, and many grad students have similar experiences. When I was in grad school, the cues that I was feeling disconnected were usually a combination of headaches, not being able to eat, inability to focus, and generally feeling alone on a campus with thousands of people around me. It also didn’t help that faculty, staff, and grad peers were busy in their own work that they (unintentionally) failed to notice I was struggling.

Here are a few things that helped me manage feeling isolated, and I’m wondering if they would be helpful to you:

  • What do I need right now at this moment to feel connected to my body? A stretch, deep breaths, a healthy snack, a glass of water.
  • Whom can I connect with to talk things through or feel vulnerable with (this one is a tough one, but you’ve already reached out to me ITHISTB)? Family members or friends via a visit, phone call or Skype, my department’s GPA, off- or on-campus counselors (reaching out to more than one person is better).
  • If I can’t connect with peers in my department yet, what organizations on campus can get me those face-to-face connections with other grads? GPSS and their events, grad student organizationsCenter for Teaching and Learning (you mentioned being a TA, so that might be a place to start), Core Programs, etc.
  • What other interests do have I have outside of academia that I need to intentionally make room for in my schedule? Dancing, going to see live music, baking, visiting museums, town hall talks, getting to know the city that I moved to for grad school.

Again, ITHISTB, I am so very grateful that you reached out, and I hope this message resonates with you. Again, no, this is not how graduate school should be, and there are ways to decrease isolation — including connecting with others, which is so important and vital for all of us studying and working in academia. If you’d like, please let me know if you’d like a specific list of campus resources to connect with. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →