The lonely life of the academic

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I love being a student. Currently in the throes of my masters degree, I find myself frequently relishing what I see as the perks of remaining in school: my flexible schedule, venues for interesting debates, learning from those smarter than me, having a platform on which to present my ideas and so forth.Despite all of the stress that goes along with being a student and writing a thesis, having limited cash flow, etc., I am truly appreciative for my student status and the time it has afforded me to pursue my research interests. This summer I found myself in the fortunate position to work full time on my thesis. As a result, I have been confronted with what I consider to be one of the biggest demons of graduate work: loneliness.

You see, during the school year I had classes that were full of stimulating discussion! I had meetings that were full of ideas, compromises and arguments! I saw people, wrote and graded papers and exams, and held two jobs! In other words, during the school year I had a million commitments every day! Now I only have my research. And while this has done wonders for my productivity, I find the isolation to be more than a little depressing at times.

Luckily, I have (out of necessity, I imagine) figured out a couple of ways to combat this summertime loneliness. While it is still something I struggle with, these things have definitely helped improve my outlook when I start to get really blue.

1. Work. This may be the opposite of what you thought I might say, but I’ve noticed that the times when I feel most lonely are the times when I am procrastinating and only half-focused on my research (you know, checking Facebook and refreshing your e-mail every 10 seconds?). This makes me feel aimless and even more disconnected. When I notice this happening I force myself deeply back into my work. (Find you are easily distracted? Check out this previous Gradhacker article on Even More Distraction-Free Writing Tools for tips!) When I am focused and really into what I am doing, I find the work itself keeps me company and time seems to fly by. Don’t accuse your research of making you lonely- it can be your best friend when no one else is around.

2. Exercise. For me, this is a daily non-negotiable. No, I’m not headed to the Olympics any time soon, but any sort of physical activity (walking through a park, a sweaty 5 mile run, biking, yoga, step class) immediately improves your mood. I’ve found that group classes where you SEE OTHER PEOPLE (hot yoga is my new obsession) really help to offset the isolation I incur during the rest of my day. Plus we all know exercise= endorphins. And endorphins make you happy!

3. Talk to Someone. Connect with other people, either virtually or in real life. I find that arranging a Skype date for a random Tuesday afternoon is a nice break in my day and helps me remember that I am never alone as long as I have my computer. I even find that writing a social e-mail to an old friend helps. When I get really desperate I just go window-shopping at the boutiques down the street. Just making pleasantries with the barista at my local cafe helps improve my mood. (Here’s a great refresher on maintaining relationships)

4. Take Comfort in the Fact that you are not Alone. Misery loves company, right? I’ve spoken to professors and other students who all agree that this life can be lonely. Once I realized that it wasn’t just me, and that this is just the nature of the beast, it was easier to accept. “Oh . . .so people just get lonely doing this . . . ok!” Plus, everyone has had to make sacrifices in order to do good work: sometimes loneliness is required in order to produce amazing research.

5. Figure Out your Triggers. Then Avoid Them. For me, the biggest thing is not getting out of the house all day. If I spend all day inside I get kind of down, but since I work primarily from home, I won’t generally leave my home office without a reason. But being cooped up indoors can make me a little nuts, so I try to build a little “outside world” time into each day- even if it is just running an errand or going for a walk. I find this helps me connect to things outside my academic bubble and makes me feel better. (Admittedly, my butt has been glued to my desk chair so far today, so just do as I say, not as I do, okay?)

6. Be Grateful. I wrote this post for a reason: being lonely sucks. But, it really is nice that during the summer months some of us have the time to immerse ourselves in our research without annoying distractions. I try to be grateful and happy for this time even when I find I am craving some human contact because I know that in a few months my schedule will once again be full, and I’ll be longing for the “me” time that I now have in abundance. Every day, I try to just enjoy my own company and the pleasure and introspection that being alone can offer, both professionally and personally. I’m also looking at this summer as an opportunity to practice dealing with this issue for times in the future when I may also feel lonely because, as I said above, being alone is just the nature of the beast!

Megan Johnson is an MA student in Musicology at the University of Ottawa in Canada. She’s also trained as a classical singer and tries to balances her time between music performing and music research. You can follow her on Twitter @Majhnsn.

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