“I get by with a little help from my friends”: Social support during postgraduate study

Dark silhouette of a bunch of people seated at desks by a large wall-to-wall window.

 

This week Tamsyn Hawken writes for the AMHC about social support. Simple or obvious as it may sound,  graduate school can be an isolating time in one’s life despite being surrounded by interesting people doing interesting work. Tamsyn talks to us about the difficulties and possibilities for finding meaningful social support in these contexts.

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As human beings, we have an inherent desire to belong, to seek connections with others. A quick review of the health psychology literature reveals many benefits of social support: It can mitigate the negative impact of stress on physical and mental health and can help individuals cope with major challenges in life, such as living with a chronic illness or grieving after the death of a family member or close friend. In the context of higher education, a recent study found that social support was positively associated with academic efficacy, and another showed that struggling students can flourish when they are able to access a secure support system.

Social support might be particularly valuable during postgraduate study. The Guardian stated that studying at postgraduate level can be a lonely experience, and Times Higher Education highlights isolation as a key challenge for postgraduate students. But how do we go about obtaining the social support we need during this stressful time? Below, I outline a few potential sources of support for postgraduate students. Based on my personal experiences and the experiences of others I know, I also suggest some strategies that might help you best utilize these sources of support.

Social Support from Fellow Students

Your first port of call could be your peers who are studying a similar course to you or are at the same stage of their studies as you are. Through these connections, you can begin to explore the ‘newness’ of the postgraduate experience together and support each other as you face various challenges. Your fellow students are likely to know your department and how things work, so they can be an important source of information about your program, your advisor, and the logistics of carrying out your research. It isn’t always easy to approach people, but there are some ways to break the ice:

  • Tell your officemates that you will be taking lunch at [a place] at [this time] and they are welcome to join you if they’d like to.
  • Organise a coffee – be brave and suggest a shared afternoon break. Go and get a drink at the nearest café. This might be mentioned to just one person in your office, or perhaps you can send out a group email to those in your cohort.
  • Walk and talk – it can be very easy to get into a slump when you are just sitting at your desk all day, and chances are someone around you would appreciate some fresh air and a catch up. “I’m going to go for a ten-minute walk, does anybody want to join me?”. Start with the small talk – what is your research on? Where are you living? What are you liking about your course? What are you finding difficult?
  • Go to departmental events – seminars, talks, social gatherings and connect with others. Share your email or business card and suggest getting together for a coffee or grabbing lunch together one day.

Social Support beyond Fellow Students

For some people (me included), you might need some distance between your studies and your friends. I like to keep boundaries between work and life and that is perfectly ok. Seeking out social support beyond your office or department can help you avoid falling into the comparison trap or feeling anxious about who is doing what and when.

You may find it useful to connect with someone who is at a different stage of their studies, studying a different subject, or pursuing postgraduate study at a different university. These contacts know what academia is like, so you can share difficulties or successes with them and feel understood while maintaining some distance from your own work, pressures, and deadlines. You might want to consider:

  • Study days – if you meet someone at an event or conference who goes to a university near you, why not suggest a study day? Book a room on campus, go to a library or set up in a coffee shop. Working alongside each other on different things can help you to stay motivated and on track. Factor in some nice breaks and reward each other when you accomplish tasks. Everyone needs a cheerleader once in a while!
  • University societies – perhaps you want to meet people who are completely removed from your area of expertise. University societies and groups can be a great start to meet people and give you something in common that you can talk about and connect over right away.
  • Diversity groups – university life is full of different people from all walks of life with diverse lived experiences and viewpoints, but more often than not, it remains a particularly isolating experience for students who belong to racial/ethnic minority groups, live with chronic physical/mental health challenges, or identify as LGBTQ+. Getting involved with diversity groups is a great way to connect with people who have navigated their way through difficulties and can share their experiences with others. Don’t have a group at your university? Contact your student services to see if you can get one set up.

Social Support Away from University

For some (again, including me), interactions with any student can feel overwhelming after a full day of studying. Coming back to Earth and speaking to a friend who isn’t even on the academic radar can be a fantastic way to gain some perspective and step out of your bubble. Unfortunately, these connections can be the hardest to make and take more commitment to maintain (because you are less likely to bump into them in the kitchen at work or on your way to the bus stop), but for me the extra effort is certainly worthwhile:

  • Social websites – consider signing up for websites like Eventbrite and Meetup, which advertise events all over the world. They might be general social events or something specific like a yoga workshop, cooking class, group run or film night. Dating apps are also branching into ‘just friends’ more and more, with options to be linked up with people based on hobbies, likes, dislikes and geographical location. It can feel nerve-wracking to attend an event with a group of total strangers, especially if you struggle with anxiety, but some sites (such as Meetup) allow you to connect with someone before going so that you have a friendly face to look out for.
  • Sports – many towns have local sports teams such as hockey, football and netball. Keep an eye out on community notice boards or look up classified ads for more information.

Professional Support

Friends and family who can listen, give advice, and offer a helping hand when you are struggling no doubt represent an ideal source of social support, yet there might be times when members of your personal support network are simply not available or can’t fully meet your needs. You may also find it difficult to develop or sustain a social support network, perhaps because you are nervous about reaching out. In these instances, don’t be afraid to consider seeking out support from a mental health professional. There are a couple of options for professional support:

  • Via university – all universities in the UK offer health and well-being services to their students. Usually these services are free and counsellors or therapists are trained to deal specifically with students and their issues. The only downside is that sessions can be time limited.
  • Private/external support – if you are in a position where you can afford to pay for private counselling or treatment and you are experiencing problems outside of university life this may be a good option. Sessions can be costly but they are usually offered on a long-term basis.

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Final Thoughts

It takes courage and vulnerability to reach out to others. It is normal to worry about being rejected, judged, or misunderstood, but we cannot let these worries stop us from trying to connect with people. After all, others can only provide us with the support we need if we show them our “tender spots” by being honest with how we feel and by openly sharing both our struggles and our accomplishments.

Several years ago, I was given support by someone for nearly a year at my university. When the time came to part ways, I felt incredibly sad. I felt understood by this person, and it felt like there was more connection to be made. I felt vulnerable and nervous speaking up, but I shared my feelings of sadness with her, and as a result we have been able to stay in touch. What resulted from that moment (which at the time was a tremendous act of bravery and courage for me) has been an incredible, mutually supportive friendship.

So be brave. Be a conversation starter and seek out the support you need during postgraduate study and beyond!

 I invite you to share instances where acts of courage and vulnerability have paid off, either in the comments or by responding to this post through your own blogs.

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