Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tip #5 - Get Social

I really believe that there are a ton of good things about life in academia. It brings together intelligent, frugal, interesting people to (theoretically) explore the deepest levels of their undying passion...but one bad thing about it is that these people also have the tendency to be a bunch of antisocial nerds. I say that will all due respect and lovingness because I myself can be quite the antisocial nerd.

The problem is that all of these people are thrown together, Lord-of-the-Flies-style, and then create a hierarchy and culture of antisocial nerdiness. The main drawback of this culture is that, as you near the top of the food chain (i.e. moving from undergrad to grad student), you often encounter more and more people who believe life revolves around sitting alone, thinking, and working.

It's easy, when you are a sometime antisocial nerd like myself, to fall into this trap, but when work lets you down and sends you into a PhD Depression you may realize that something is missing...all of the friends and family you've been neglecting.

So here are some suggestions of things I've tried to do for myself:
  • Pick up the phone! If you can't do anything else, i.e. you don't have time or you're too far away from loved ones, then just call them. Do this while you're driving (but do it hands free and pay attention to the road), walking, biking, skating or busing to school. You have to commute anyway so dedicate those few free minutes to reconnecting - it'll give you a great out to hang up when you get to school if you don't want to spend too much time talking. Or figure out another hour of each day, or at least week, when you call (while eating, walking to the bathroom, taking a 5 minute break...).

  • Communicate electronically. Whomever thinks that e-communication is the downfall of society hasn't been a stressed, overworked PhD student - for whom it can be a lifeline. Of course meeting in person or even talking on the phone is better than just keeping an electronic relationship with someone, but it is a great way to keep a lot of people up-to-date on your life and/or communicate quickly. Start a blog so everyone knows what's going on, follow the blogs of others, tweet someone a quick hello, text a mass "Happy New Years" - these are not the actions that make a relationship deep or everlasting, but keeping up even small amounts of communication can keep you sane.

  • Make a date. You may be starting to see a pattern here (I made a similar suggestion in my workout tip) but that's because this is the best trick that works for me. Make a standing date with a friend to do something just once a week and don't break this date. Try to pick a friend who is reliable and also fun, someone who can take your mind off work. Make the date a dinner or lunch date if you want because you have to eat anyway. I have found that just having one standing date with the same one friend can make a real difference in my mood and outlook. The best part is talking to someone who has a total outside view of your life and a totally different life than yours, it makes you remember that there is life outside of your little academic world.

  • Accept all weekend invitations, or make your own. It is fine and, probably responsible, to not party every night of the week, but do you really have to work all weekend too? If you're really burnt out, then something's got to give, and my first suggestion is to give up weekend work. I didn't do that until recently when I met some very hardworking people who refuse, unapologetically, to so much as check their email on the weekends and the attitude has blown my mind. It's amazing how refreshing it is to just leave your worries at the door on Friday and let your brain relax for the weekend. Go talk to people, go dancing, go to a bar...let it all out and see if you don't feel more ready to work on Monday or even Friday when you're making a final push to the finish line each week (as opposed to a slow drag through the never ending process).

  • Ask others how they are doing. You can't keep up a genuine relationship with a person if all you do is complain to them all the time. Don't forget that you're not the only one with problems. Don't be an emotional parasite, be an emotional mutualist. It also can really put things into perspective when you realize everyone has different problems and can help you decide if yours are as bad as you thought.

  • Don't ask others how they're doing. And don't talk about your problems either. Make a promise to yourself to just not talk about it for a while. Talk about anything that isn't work.

  • Network! I hate that word, it sounds so slimy to make friends to help your career. But if all else fails, if you feel you can't take one minute away from work to revive (or begin) your social life, then think about the adage "it's all about who you know". Whether you like it or not, people get jobs, promotions and raises based on who they know and what those people think of them. It's only dirty if there's someone more qualified who gets passed up because of a brown-noser suck-up. It's human nature if you're a friendly, outgoing, intelligent person who pops first into someone's mind. The more people you know and speak to, the more minds you're likely to pop into when an opportunity arises. You never know who will stumble across what opportunity for you, so even hanging out with your oldest friend and continuing that relationship can be considered networking. If you can't think of any other reason to be social, at least think of it as something that will help your career as much or more than your next publication...

And don't forget, commenting here would be fulfilling the e-communication suggestion, so start your socializing now and leave me a comment about what you think!