Finding your grad school family

Creating a 'family' in grad school can be a simple as cooking a meal together.

The scientific community is comprised mostly of transplants–people who work or study somewhere far from home and family. I find that grad school tends to take us even further from home. Many of my colleagues, myself included, received our bachelor’s degrees close to home, but traveled a much greater distance for a master’s degree or doctorate. That distance may be a 3-hour drive or a 30-hour flight; either way, we are separated from the places and people with whom we are most comfortable.

We all experience this difficult side effect of our profession, and so we naturally seek out and become a community in order to fulfill our longing for companionship. We live and work together as if we are related. We help each other with experiments and writing, but we also cook meals when someone is sick or babysit when a friend is giving a seminar outside of daycare hours. We have adapted to our circumstances. However, it can sometimes be difficult to find your community when you first arrive at grad school, especially if you are not accustomed to the local culture or if you’re a shy person. The question becomes, how do you overcome both the separation from your family and the hurdle of finding your grad school community?

The best thing you can do is to get involved. Yes, you will work long hours, but that doesn’t mean that work will consume your entire life. If you are an international student, many universities have organizations specifically for you; find that organization and join it. These groups will happily “show you the ropes.” They will help you navigate paperwork, living arrangements, learning to drive, and many other obstacles that may come with moving to a new country. They will become a valuable resource in your life. They will also become the people you celebrate holidays with, specifically those that are not popular in the country in which you attend grad school. They generally offer activities, such as day trips and outings, so that you can experience the country you are in.

Creating a ‘family’ atmosphere in grad school can be a simple as cooking a meal together.

Both International and domestic students can benefit from joining a graduate student association. This is generally an organization that is responsible for governing graduate student affairs, such as budgeting for special events or policy changes. By joining, you will learn more about your university as it pertains to you. You will have a say in those policy changes or how money is spent on events you’re interested in. However, it isn’t just for business; you will also meet many other graduate students. It’s important to find friends outside of your department as you’ll need a break from talking about lab woes.

Many universities are in areas with diverse populations, which gives rise to a diverse religious presence. If you identify with a religion, finding a place of worship is a great way to establish a community as well. These are generally places of acceptance and outreach. They will gladly receive you as family. However, if you don’t necessarily identify with religion but have a religious hobby, such as running, biking, soccer, or dance, you can find places to practice and develop a community. In my case, it was a local gym. Most universities have large recreation centers that offer daily classes. Regularly attending classes not only keeps you healthy but also puts you in a position to meet other students. If a gym isn’t the right place, search for a running group, a dance class, a book club, or a recreational soccer league. There is a group for almost everything, you just have to look.

If you’re a little more outgoing, don’t be afraid to establish your own organization or group. This may mean a formally recognized organization within your university, or something as simple as organizing celebrations within your department. Have a potluck, an event in which everyone brings a food dish to share. These create a social setting and allow everyone to experience food from diverse cultures. You know what they say about luring grad students with food. You could organize a group outing as well, such as a movie, a sporting event, or trivia night at a local bar. You may be surprised by how many fellow grad students will happily attend or join your group.

These suggestions will help you find your community in grad school, but they will not replace your family. Before you leave for grad school, or during your next visit home, make sure your family has a way of communicating with you. This can range from Skype, WhatsApp, iMessage on an iPhone, an email address, or a Facebook account. If you can’t do it, find a friend or cousin that doesn’t mind stopping by your family’s home to do it for you. Keeping in touch with your family will help ease the pain of missing big events, holidays, and birthdays. Skype or Facetime for your nephew’s birthday. Be available to talk and help with arrangements when there is a loss. It will also give your mom, aunts, and grandmas comfort hearing from you regularly, knowing that you’re eating three times a day and getting enough sleep.

Missing your family is especially difficult during grad school. It is a time in your life when you will be pushed to your limits; you will need comfort, the kind that most people find within the walls of their childhood homes. You’d be surprised to find that everyone around you feels that burden as well, or has previously. I like to think the separation from our families and the need for community is a large contributing factor to the acceptance found within the scientific community. To overcome the shared experience of loneliness within our profession, we must stick together and be a family.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Ashtyn Zinn is a Ph.D student at the University of Toledo in Biological Sciences. Her research focuses on the dynamics of cell migration. Ashtyn is also completing a Master’s of Public Health Administration