The first post in this mini-series dealt with my experiences with loneliness as a first year graduate student and how I eventually overcame it. It was a difficult year, and I wish I knew then all the things I know now – I would have been a much happier, more social student! In any case, I made it through my first year as an OT student, and now I have several good friends both in and outside my program who have become part of my new friend groups.
If you are struggling with feeling like you don’t fit in or you’re having a hard time making friends, I hope these tips will help! After reading this post, I hope you’ll find that making friends as a graduate student is easier than you thought.
- Stop waiting and speak up. If you want to make friends, make yourself heard! Share interesting events with your classmates and explore the area together. Even if somebody says no to your invite, you can ask another person or make new plans. The key is to keep the door open and actively pursue opportunities to develop relationships.
- Stop stewing. I spent a lot of time wishing I’d get invited to events or for old friends to check in, and almost ZERO time inviting people to hang out, and that meant I spent a lot of time by myself. It took a while, but I finally realized that sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring wasn’t going to work. The sooner you stop feeling sorry for yourself, the sooner you can start making friends!
- Get outside the classroom. Use sites like Meetup, Facebook groups, campus club directories, or an online search to find people with common interests who aren’t in your class. Taking a class or joining a group related to a topic you enjoy — or on something totally new! – can be a great way to meet new people and create a satisfying social life.
- Take advantage of technology. Need friends? There’s an app for that! Try using your phone to find friends, with apps that match you with potential pals by interests, geographical proximity, or even your pets! Just remember to put the phone down and actually make eye contact with another person at some point.
- Make the effort to make connections. Don’t expect that simply sitting by the same people or going to the same place every week is a good way to make friends. Instead of just attending church, join a volunteer ministry! Or instead of spending your lunch break alone, form an exercise or walking group that meets weekly. By connecting with others in a meaningful way, you’re more likely to stay involved and make long-lasting friendships.
- Brace yourself, and be prepared for change. Be forewarned: Grad school is not the same as undergrad! I came to OT school straight from college, and my expectations were somewhat unrealistic. My advice to anyone going straight to OT grad school from undergrad is to adjust your expectations. Unless you are going to school in the same area where you went to undergrad, you will have to work a little bit harder at making friends, making plans, and maintaining relationships than you did when you lived in the same room/area/apartment building/dorm as all of your friends. However, if you resolve to put in the effort, you can set yourself up for a very fun few years!
- Keep an open mind. Be open to making new friends of all kinds – over the past two years as a grad student I’ve learned that age really is just a number! Some of my closest friends from grad school are in totally different life stages than me, but the fact that we get along and have similar interests matters more than age, background, or anything else. You might be pleasantly surprised by the friendships that develop when you spend time with people who may not initially seem like “your type.”
- Don’t force a fit. Don’t feel pressured to attend activities you don’t have a real interest in simply because it’s a chance to hang out. Although it can be fun to join activities that are outside your typical interests, you shouldn’t spend all your time doing things you don’t enjoy just for the sake of having a social life. You’ll be better off finding people who have more in common with you to spend time with.
- Kick it old school. Keeping in touch with old friends when I moved to a new place is one thing that helped me stay sane and feel less alone. This year, I made it a habit to communicate with old friends weekly via text, Skype, Facebook, etc., and it made a HUGE difference! There’s nothing like sharing stories and laughing with the people who know you best to lift your spirits, and connecting with close friends or family more often has been shown to have benefits for one’s mental and physical health.
- Create a social schedule. I have at least two nights per week that I spend in formal social groups, i.e. my weekly Bible study and bellydance classes. Having regular social events to look forward to, especially with a group of friendly people, may help you feel less lonely in a new place.
- Take a long, hard look at yourself. At one point in my grad school career I began internalizing the lack of social invitations I received. Instead of seeing the situation as one in which I wasn’t invited out because I’d hardly made an effort to hang out with my classmates, I saw it as a rejection of me as a person. Reflect on your own behaviors to determine whether you may be inadvertently discouraging others from spending time with you: Do you always eat lunch alone? Know nothing about your classmates’ personal lives? Frequently decline invites to group outings? Considering your interaction style and social habits may give a clue as to why you don’t feel particularly included.
- Stop the social media stalking. If you spend all of your time following classmates online and seeing what they’re up to, OF COURSE you’ll feel like you’re missing out! The reality is that most of what people put online is only the “highlight reel” of their lives, and you can form an overly rosy picture of the lives they’re leading. So give Facebook a break and spend your time online searching for clubs to join, events to attend, or communicating with friends and family instead.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your feelings of isolation or loneliness are making it difficult for you to be successful academically or personally, don’t hesitate to talk to a trusted professor, adviser, or counselor. Being a graduate student can be very stressful, and not having a support network nearby can make it even more challenging. Talking to a professional can help you ease your transition, adjust more successfully, or identify ways to become more involved.
Starting (and living!) life as a graduate student isn’t always easy. However, grad school can be a great time to find new friends, foster old friendships, and expand your social circles if you are willing to put in the time that it takes. So get out there, and good luck making great new friends!
What was your experience with social life in OT school? Do you have any advice for people who may be struggling with loneliness or isolation? Share in the comments!
These links offer useful advice about how to cope with feelings of loneliness or social isolation in grad school.