How do you form, maintain, and end friendships in the competitive environment of grad school?

Forming friendships in graduate school can be tough. Not only is it hard to establish friend groups, but also maintain them and know when to end them when they become problematic or unhealthy. Below we discuss our perspectives forming, maintaining, and ending friendships during our time in graduate school. Though graduate school can be a highly competitive, stressful, and individualistic pursuit, making friends does not have to be.

Forming Friendships

How can one form friend groups in a competitive environment? That’s a tough question to answer as not every group and environment is the same. I think it’s only natural that we search for meaningful connections and try to make friends with those around us. In the case of a competitive environment, I think that people will come together as they share common struggles as was the case with my cohort. A majority of us were GA’s and we were all new graduate students, so we were experiencing very similar things. As we moved more into the semester, we went from chitchatting to more serious topics like advice regarding papers. The more time we spent around each other, the closer we became. So how do you form friend groups in competitive environments? I think the first step is to remove the idea that because the environment is competitive you can’t make friends. Yes, you are surrounded by people who are in the same field and who may be after the same things as you, but that does not mean that you cannot create meaningful connections with them. As you come to work together more often, you will gravitate towards certain people and form friend groups. Don’t worry too much about it in the beginning. Just keep an open mind and the rest will follow.

Maintaining Friendships

Maintaining healthy friendships with those in your program can at times seem like a feat in and of itself. For one, you are going to most likely be a lot busier than you are used to, so keeping up with those in your cohort and beyond may present an extra taxation for your overall mental health. Added to this stress is the natural competition that might begin to foster between you and your colleagues. For me, it was hard to stop comparing myself to those surrounding me, both in my failures and successes. When I did poorly, I was afraid my new friends would think less of me, and when I did well, I was afraid they would resent me. I found that it got to the point where I rarely wanted to talk about my work at all, for fear that I may become upset or inadvertently upset someone else. This is also because it became common to begin debating with colleagues, and if you aren’t careful those small debates may grow into outright arguments. 

The first thing that helped me navigate these new relationships and emotions was to understand that these feelings are valid and normal. Graduate school at times seems like it intentionally pits you against others in your program, especially if funding is tight in your department, and so it’s okay to feel tension every once in a while. I also found that the key to maintaining the friendships I made was to be very open and honest about how I was feeling. Everyone around you wants to see you flourish and succeed, and by maintaining solid relationships you can discover a support system that celebrates with you as well as comforts you, and you can return that support just the same. It is also important to attempt to understand how those around you are feeling as well. It’s good to celebrate when a friend gets a good grade on a paper, even if you didn’t. On the other hand, if a friend doesn’t want to talk about an assignment that you might have exceeded at, you should respect their feelings and privacy. What is most important is to just be there for your friends and let them be there for you as well.

Ending Friendships

The competitive environment of grad school wears you down, and can often bring out the worst in people, or bring the worst people towards you. In a cohort of fifteen or more students, along with the rest of the graduate students you will meet, take classes with, and talk to, not all of them will be your friends—shocking, I know. Sometimes, though, you find someone you think is cool, or at least kind of fun, and then a few weeks later, you realize that you cannot stand that person. It can be for whatever reason, big or small. There are people I can still talk to in the office or in class, but I will politely refuse their invitation for lunch or to hang out. It may not need explanation but doing that for the smallest reason is perfectly fine. If you can’t handle listening to another self-absorbed history grad student who thinks that their ideas about Marx are groundbreaking—as though they’re the first person to discover his theories—then save yourself the trouble and avoid that person when you can.

Other, bigger situations take more consideration, but the answers are always the same: don’t force yourself to become or stay friends with people you don’t like. If the guy down the hall is a creepy, racist old man that makes you question how the hell he got funding every day, then avoid talking to him. If that girl you thought was really cool, who always had fun stories about her past, actually turns out to be someone always causing drama for drama’s sake, (obviously not as bad as creepy, racist guy) then take a step away and tell her off…or just quietly get blocked by her and shrug it off. Entering a grad program, there’s a moment of excitement where you’re finally surrounded by people who are interested in the same niche thing that you are. It’s only natural that some of them will become your closest friends, and some of them will be toxic, or racist, or sexist, or just too weird for your taste. End friendships (or just stop talking to people) when you have to and never feel guilty for it.

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