Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

What I Wish They'd Told Me About Postgrad

This post was originally published on April 28th, 2016.

Postgraduate degrees can be lonely. Like, really fucking lonely.

It sounds trite, but I wish someone had warned me before I decided to do a PhD just how isolating it could be. In my final year of undergrad, I knew that I wanted to stay in academia, and so I spent my Christmas hols writing up research proposal after research proposal. I was lucky enough to receive four years of funding from the ESRC to study at Edinburgh, reading about expertise and authority and the internet, in the Department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies.

The city itself is excellent and my experiences of the department have been broadly positive. It’s just hard. Hard to drop all of the friends and relationships you’ve built up over the last four years and move somewhere completely new, many hours by train away from everyone you know and love. Hard to make new friends when most people around you are younger, or older, or busy with work, or has their own friends already, or has a long-term partner they live with.

Much of the isolation of a PhD is an extension of the kind of isolation undergraduate humanities students can already experience. Most of my work consists of sitting in an office, library, cafe or park, reading and annotating and trying to think of a vaguely original argument about something which people much more intelligent and harder working than I have dedicated their entire careers to. As someone who doesn’t deal well with being on my own much of the time, there’s an internal tension between wanting to surround myself with people and knowing that if I do so I’m unlikely to get much done. I end up sitting in the ‘collaborative working’ area of our little postgrad office, hoping to absorb some camaraderie and sociality by osmosis, not caring that people’s conversations prevent me from concentrating on my reading because at least this way I can pretend that reading paper after paper isn’t such a lonely fucking chore.

The isolated nature of the work brings with it the additional problem of making it harder to motivate myself to work in the first place. I used to be a science student with constant lectures and labs, and it was difficult not to see people. Getting out of bed was rarely a struggle because there was always somewhere I had to be at 9, or 10, or 11. Now the lack of deadlines or immediate pressure is just one more reason to stay in bed for another three hours and stare at the space on the wall. On a good day I’m in the office before midday. On a bad day I never make it in.

But it’s not just the work itself that’s lonely. It’s all of the baggage that comes with being a postgraduate student at a new university. Even as the youngest person in my cohort (I’ve just turned 23, the average age is probably around 26), most of my friends are undergraduates who are significantly younger than me. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that – I’m not so silly as to think that there’s something weird about hanging out with 18 year olds – but it does make some things difficult. It might be fine to be friends with undergrads because your hobbies coincide, but getting invited to parties gets a bit harder, and when you are invited you’re the guy who’s a bit out of place because he’s older and he’s been through this and there’s this disconnect of experience which makes you feel as though people are looking at each other as if to say ‘why is he here?’.

Worse, your schedules just don’t match up with most of your friends’. When you’ve just handed in a solid 15,000 words of work and you’re ready to unwind, they’re just getting into the meat of exam season. Then, just when it’s getting to the point where you’re starting to stress over your dissertation and could do with some company, everyone fucks off for the summer and you’re left in a half-empty city full of people you’ve never really had the chance to get to know.

As a postgrad, it’s just much harder to form lasting bonds with the people in your cohort. A lot of people are only there for a year, which means that no matter how fast you make friends, you’re going to find it hard to really get to know them, particularly when the workload of a Masters or PhD can be pretty intense. It’s exacerbated by the fact that a lot of people are holding down jobs or long-term relationships, so they’re not around much of the time. Add to that the fact that lectures and seminars can be somewhat scarce at this level, and the result is that you’re unlikely to even know everyone in your cohort. More likely is that you get to know a few people reasonably well, but you don’t necessarily hang out with them all that much because they’ve got other commitments and so have you and your schedules just might not collide.

When you’re an undergrad you’re thrown in together with whole hordes of others in your subject groups and your halls of residence. It’s (usually) pretty easy to have two or three quite large groups of friends from where you live, and nights out, and myriad societies and sports teams. That makes it easier to find people to hang out with at random times of the day when you’re feeling isolated, or to have an impromptu dinner or even to find people to live with the next year. I’ve been looking for one or more people to live with since around November, and I still can’t find anyone. It’s not for want of trying: most of my postgrad friends don’t know if they’re here next year, or if they are then they have partners they live with; and all of my undergrad friends have groups they’re flat-hunting with, and I get the feeling nobody particularly wants someone four years their senior barging into their pre-existing friendship groups. That’s totally fair, on all fronts. It’s just sad.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re considering a postgraduate degree, think really hard about whether this is something you can handle. If you’re really worried about moving somewhere new, maybe consider staying at your current university, or just go to bloody London because everyone seems to move there anyway. I don’t think I regret it (yet), I just wish someone had told me this before I started on a four year degree in a new city.

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