When Friends Leave

August 4, 2014

At the end of my first year of graduate school, a friend -- almost out of the blue -- told me, “When I met you, I thought to myself, ‘Ugh, that guy and I are not going to get along at all.’ But look at us now, we’re friends!”

In an admittedly strange way, I think it may be one of the nicest things one of my fellow graduate students ever said to me. Our friendship continued to grow throughout five more years of graduate school, as we compared notes about dissertations, teaching our courses, and the mental and emotional trauma of the job market. We talked each other through breakups, shared a soulless cubicle. When we took our first faculty appointments during the same semester, 600 miles apart, we stayed in touch. Every few weeks or months we check in with one another, compare notes on the new phase, gripe about life as junior faculty, trade news about our mutual friends, themselves scattered across the country now as well.

Many times I commented on how common it is, and sometimes confusing or complicating, that in an academic career some of our closest friends are also our colleagues. That isn’t always the case in other fields of work, or perhaps not as likely. I’m not sure if I will ever get used to seeing friends move away, as they do when they graduate or take new appointments. It’s a bummer, frankly.

Of course, people come and go in all career fields. They move or are transferred, receive a better offer and leave, or even switch careers entirely. They might remain a few streets away or swing all of the way across the country. Unlike in the military, where even more dramatic and more frequent relocations are the norm, I think that many academics are initially surprised by the geographic contingencies of employment. The difference, I think, between the normal movement and the way people move in an academic career is dictated by the strange and limiting nature of academic employment. Academic careers are also punctuated by moments of high stress over which people bond -- qualifying exams, dissertations written and then defended, the strains of the job market, the perils of publishing, going up for tenure, to name some of the major ones. Strange circumstances and a truly odd employment landscape push unlikely friends together. Then, those same circumstances drive them apart.

Graduate school provides a cohort, a raft of other folks who, for better or worse, are stuck in the same situations that you are. They arrive in a new city, or at least at a new academic program, together, and navigate course work, the quirks of the faculty, and institutional bureaucracy together. Such crucibles do not necessarily forge strong friendships, but they often do.  There is comfort in the gossip of the familiar, and people who might never have otherwise sought out one another’s company are bonded together by the difficulty and travails of their studies, the maddening quirks of progressing through a graduate degree. Their proximity forces them to get to know one another, and friendships develop.

Then, everything unravels. The cohort is disbanded. Some graduates leave for tenure-track faculty positions, while others remain, still completing dissertations. After a year or two on the dismal job market, a few others leave off for postdoctoral or term faculty appointments, still angling hard for the tenure track. A few others parlay their grad school experiences into something else entirely, making sudden pivots into non-academic careers. A few folks wilt, stumbling at the final dissertation stage, or perhaps not even stumbling, but rethinking the whole thing, unwilling to throw in what is, for them, good time after bad.

In a slightly less intense way, the process repeats. The friend you make at orientation at your new job takes another post. Maybe someone who mentored you as a junior faculty member retires, and drifts or moves away. It seems to happen again and again. Even shorter term appointments, such as sabbaticals and temporary research postings add to the movement.

I’d like to pretend that there’s a silver lining here. I’d like to pretend that when our friends move on to appointments at other colleges or shift careers that it means we have an ever broadening network of friends, just a bit more geographically dispersed than before. And to an extent, I suppose that’s true, and that maybe it is a silver lining. But it’s a faint one for me.

I remember during graduate school when two dear friends, both academics, left, a year ahead of me, for their new life in a new city. Their possessions were all packed away. The car was ready for the next morning’s departure. We hung out in the city of our graduate school together, revisiting places we had frequented together, late into the night. Their excitement about their new horizons propelled them on their journey. I was simply deeply sad to see two people I had worked and socialized with for years leave. In order to sustain their dual academic careers, those two have had to move another two times since. I can’t imagine the combination of emotions they must go through — their excitement over their new opportunities, but also the heartache of leaving behind yet another group of friends, which likeable people such as themselves so certainly accumulate.

Similarly, as a junior faculty member, I had to grit through my disappointment and offer congratulations when a young family that had befriended me broke the news that they were returning to the Midwest, many, many miles away. Shortly before they left, I let their daughter scribble on a wall of the bathroom I was remodeling. I haven’t painted over it yet, partly because I’m avoiding that project, and partly because I like the reminder the scribbles provide.

I’m sure it’s all par for the course, and maybe not as unique to an academic career as I imagine it here. But the point holds, it’s no fun seeing friends leave. It’s only slightly better to be the one leaving, heading off into something new. It’s good when people make changes that improve their lives, but still sad to see them go. But, as old friends leave, new, soon-to-be friends arrive, and there is some consolation in that.

 

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