Tips for Making Friends at a New Research Institute

  • As the Autumn semester begins, Universities across the world will be filling up their lecture halls with new graduate students – you might even be one of them. Starting a graduate programme is an exciting yet terrifying experience (not least because of the academic expectations); it’s also a great opportunity to make new, life-long friends. Some of the people you meet in grad school will be with you for life both, personally and professionally; however, despite the optimism and excitement which comes with starting a new course, many graduate students report high levels of social isolation, loneliness and even depression during their time in academia. Whilst social isolation is a well-known problem in the graduate student community, doing a PhD (or Masters for that matter) doesn’t have to be a lonely business. Almost 5 years ago I was one of those eager new students, looking forward to starting my PhD in molecular biology. Like many others, I’ve experienced a whole lot of loneliness since starting my PhD, and for that reason I’d love to share, with hindsight, what I’ve learned about making friends at a new research institute.

    The best place to start making friends is at your induction events. In your first week or so at any new institute, you’ll have to sit through quite a few health and safety seminars, introductory talks and practical inductions. Most of the people attending these events with you will also be new to the institute – they’ll be looking to meet new friends too and will probably be extremely grateful if you choose to strike up a conversation. That leads me to Tip 1: Start at the beginning when it comes to making friends. Even if you don’t quite vibe with the people in your seminar, you will come across as friendly and approachable and this will encourage others to come and chat with you later.

    Personally, I found it hard to vibe with other students in my cohort and this caused me to recluse a little bit. I guess I felt like we didn’t have much in common, but on reflection we really did; at first I didn’t realise that what we all had in common was the institute we’d chosen, our working environment and the common issues within our field. In the first year of my PhD I became very involved within our student forum committee and this really helped me connect with other students over common issues and social events. Tip 2: Find common ground with others; if finding common ground feels hard, perhaps create some by joining a committee or group.

    It’s all well and good making friends with fellow committee members, but sometimes that’s still not quite enough. Once you’ve built a friendly rapport within the workplace, you might want to see if you can get along with your new friend/colleague outside the institute (this is the scariest part in my opinion!). Over the course of your blossoming new friendship, you may have had the chance to chat about your personal interests; taking those common interests and hobbies out of the workplace is a great way to connect on a personal, rather than professional level. If you’re interested in running, why not ask someone to join you at your local park run? If you love live music, why not see if someone wants to see a band? Of course, not everyone will say ‘yes’ and that’s OK! Which leads me to Tip 3: Don’t be scared to hang away from work! Ask people to share common interests outside work, and don’t worry if they say ‘no’ as it probably reflects on their schedule more than it reflects on you!

    Now, I’m not saying that if you follow my tips you’ll never be lonely in graduate school, but you will be off to a good start making friends. I’ve made some wonderful friends at my institute over the years but it wasn’t always easy. At times when I found making friends in my institute particularly hard I started using Twitter to connect with other students and academics in my field. Whilst I love using Twitter for academic growth (you can find more about growing your academic Twitter here, or check out my upcoming e-book all about Twitter for PhD students) it’s only one way to combat loneliness and in-person social time is extremely important too. I think that leads me to one final tip when it comes to making friends at a new institute – Tip 4: Persist with workplace friendships. In the modern world, it can be very easy to connect online (and I love e-meeting all of you here) but if you want to make friends at your new institute you have to invest in both yourself and others.

    Thank you for reading this short article. If you have any top tips for making friends within the academic community, please drop them in the comments below! Who knows, you might even e-meet some new people and give others the confidence to do the same!