Academia Can Be a Lonely Place

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What causes loneliness in academia and how to deal with it.

Academia Can Be a Lonely Place

The April 11, 2005 issue of U.S. News and World Report has an article on psychological problems in graduate students. For example, 54% of Berkeley’s graduate students experienced depression in the past year, and 10% seriously considered suicide.

Depression has multiple causes. One is loneliness, which I define as a negative feeling caused by a lack of significant connectedness to others. You can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by others. The presence of people with whom you don’t feel connected may even intensify the loneliness.

I experienced this myself as I went through a divorce.  To me, that feeling of non-connectedness is one of the worst feelings in the world.

Let’s look at what it is about academia that can lead to loneliness, beginning with graduate school.

Graduate School

You might have navigated the first years of grad school well, armed with classes and student lounges, and satisfactory relationships with peers and professors. Nevertheless, the ABD years can be quite different, especially in the humanities. Students in the sciences have their labs to go to, and thus have forced contact with others. I have heard, though, that a chemistry lab can be a pretty lonely place at 2:00 in the morning. So science types should read the following section, regardless.

The Humanities ABD

In the humanities, once the proposal is finished, you are set free to work on your chapters. From that point on, you are presumed writing unless proven otherwise. Here is what I have heard from my dissertation coaching clients:  It is the rare professor that insists on weekly meetings, dispenses frequent helpful advice, or asks to look at a rough draft consisting of a few pages. The more typical expectation is that you will leave your advisor alone until you come up with a chapter. A month or so after handing that chapter in (if you are lucky,) you will get the opportunity to go over it with her.

In the meantime, you don’t have classes to regulate your day and your social life. This apparent freedom brings its own prison, since guilt about lack of dissertation productivity can cause some grad students to avoid others. And/or they spend hours alone, sitting at their computer, procrastinating.  When you have nothing to compare yourself it, it’s easy to assume that others are writing more quickly than you are. A weekly dissertation group may help propel your writing, but if you don’t make an effort to socialize and share your experiences, thoughts and concerns,  your group meeting won’t help you feel less lonely.

Loneliness: Antidotes for ABD’s

What can you do about this sense of alienation? Here are some ideas:

  • If you’re not in a dissertation group that meets weekly, start one. Either talk to the peers you like or post it on the grad student listserv. If you don’t get enough response, go outside your department to a related discipline.
  • If a group doesn’t work out, find a “writing buddy.” This can be one person who you talk to on a regular basis to report your progress.
  • Talk about the difficulties you’re having, including non-academic concerns. You will not feel connected with people who don’t know who you are. Reread that last sentence – it is key.
  • Reach out to those in other institutions working on similar issues. This will help with job networking, academic inspiration, and feelings of connection.
  • Go to conferences. Just this week, two clients in one of my groups went to two different conferences; despite doubts beforehand, both came back very excited about the connections they had made and the inspiration they had gained about their own work.
  • Go to online forums or chats for graduate students to connect with others.
  • Follow all the hints on this website about how to be productive — that will limit the amount of time you spend alone, procrastinating.
  • Shameless plug:  Check out an online community that focuses on daily check-ins in a small group environment.  Namely, the Academic Writing Club!
  • Make time for your social and romantic life.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance ABD

The circumstance of the ABD grad student who moves away from his or her campus to complete the dissertation is worth mentioning. Having survived this myself (in 1978,) I empathasize with the many ABD’s I work with who are suffering this fate. The above suggestions will work if you find local universities, and join an ongoing dissertation group, or even start one yourself. One of my clients has accomplished this quite successfully. She also found a local faculty member to be on her committee who has taken more interest in her dissertation than her own advisor ever has.  Again, I must mention that many of our Academic Writing Club members are writing their dissertations long-distance.

The Lonely Professor

Being a scholar requires some periods of time alone; again, this needn’t lead to loneliness. There are, however, certain situations that could cause one to feel isolated and lonely. For example, you might be:

  • The only woman in a male-dominated profession
  • A minority
  • From another country
  • A professor with a joint appointment who doesn’t “belong” in either department
  • The only single professor among a small department of married professors
  • Shy
  • In an unfriendly department

Nobody is going to rescue you from the loneliness that can occur as a result of these situations.  So it’s up to you to take a proactive step if you’re feeling lonely. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t exclude yourself by making assumptions about how others in your department feel about you – go to that cocktail party and act as if you belong, and you will be taking a big step towards actually belonging.
  • Get to know others that are in your particular situation outside your department.
  • Form informal discussion groups, writing groups or even dinner groups with people inside and outside of your department.
  • If you’re shy, take some steps outside your comfort zone. You’ll feel less lonely, and be more successful in academia, if you become comfortable socializing.
  • If you are truly being victimized or marginalized by others, decide whether you want to stay and fight this situation, or move to a more congenial institution.
  • Just as I suggested for graduate students, join the Academic Writing Club!  Thousands of professors have found it a warm, inviting, friendly environment.  We focus on the process of getting writing done, and you get to be anonymous if you choose.

Take a Step

Don’t waste another minute feeling lonely. If your lonely feelings have gotten so debilitating that you cannot take any of the steps suggested here, please seek help. For most people, it is possible to be proactive and stave off loneliness, just by making one or two connections to like-minded people.

And please, check out the Academic Writing Club, for a fantastic, cost-effective way to connect with a small group, become a more productive writer, and have more time to spend with friends and loved ones.  End the loneliness, starting today!

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