The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

in Articles from our Newsletter

Ahhh . . . the freedom of summer! Now you can escape the endless meetings, students who can’t get a D or they’ll be kicked out of their fraternity, and office hours. Now you can sit alone in your office and write.

Perhaps this is a good time to consider how lonely it can be to write. I’ve thought a lot about this, as I have continued to see the effectiveness of the online Writing Clubs that I offer. It has made me realize how important it is to have a meaningful connection to other people that understand and share what you are experiencing.

Because I’m still recovering from what turned out to be bronchitis, I have revised an old article of mine that looks at the subject of loneliness.

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 or non-lab sciences — students in labs 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 and Social Sciences ABD

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. It is the rare professor that insists on weekly meetings, dispenses regular 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 do not have classes to regulate your day and your social life. This apparent freedom brings its own prison, since guilt about lack of productivity can cause some ABD’s to avoid others. It is easy to assume that the other students are writing more quickly than you are. A weekly dissertation group may help propel your writing, but without a concomitant push to discuss the process and share your concerns, it won’t mitigate the anxiety. And it can be even harder in the summer, when people tend to disperse.

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 graduate 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.
  • Join an Academic Ladder phone coaching group. We have groups for humanities, social science and science ABD’s.
  • Join the next Academic Ladder Writing Club. Stay tuned to this newsletter for the announcement of the next one, starting May 30.
  • 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 online forums or chats for graduate students to connect with others.
  • Make time for your social and romantic life.
  • If you are writing your dissertation long-distance, contact local universities and join an ongoing dissertation group, or even start one yourself. You also may be able to find a local faculty member to be on your committee.

The Lonely Professor

Loneliness can be intensified as a professor if you are:

  • 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

Nobody is going to rescue you from the loneliness that can occur as a result of these situations. Therefore it is up to you to take a proactive step if you are 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 are shy, take some steps outside your comfort zone. You will 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.
  • Join an Academic Ladder Faculty Writing Coaching group. We have telephone groups that meet weekly and will really support your progress.

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.

End the loneliness, starting today.


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