Caring Is a Skill We Need Right Now

Derek Attig describes the significant yet often untapped value of mutual support among graduate students.

November 30, 2020
krizz dapaul/digitalvision vectors via getty images

As the pandemic drags on, I regularly hear from graduate students that they feel at the center of a growing gulf of isolation, disconnection and uncertainty. They feel both mired in place and like they’re spinning out of control and out of the bonds that held them to others. That feeling shapes a person in myriad ways. It can negatively affect personal relationships, of course, but it can also gnaw away at your professional identity, academic momentum and sense of self-worth.

That’s why now is the time for networking -- just not the kind you think.

You may have heard people say that networking is more important than ever for your career, especially during the pandemic. And they’re right. But when we think about networking, it’s easy to focus on a hierarchical, transactional sort of thing: you reach out to established people in your field in hopes that they can help you get a job. That kind of networking is aimed up, and it’s aimed at the future.

But if we focus on a different kind of networking -- one that is horizontal and very much in the present -- a different set of possibilities emerges.

Graduate students need to build strong networks of mutual support among one another in order to thrive now, as well as in the coming months and years. Grad students can’t do everything on their own; universities and departments have a significant role to play in supporting students. But support that is lateral and mutual -- that enmeshes you in a network of reciprocal care and consideration -- has a vital role to play in fostering graduate students’ professional and personal growth during and beyond the pandemic.

Below, I suggest some ways of networking in this mode, as well as some short- and long-term ways it might pay off.

Building Networks

So what does building a strong network of mutual support among graduate students look like right now?

You could start with some targeted, individual interactions. One small way you can build a powerful network of support would be to reach out to a first-year student in your program to schedule a virtual coffee. First-year graduate students are experiencing the same isolation more advanced students are, with the added dislocation of having no established knowledge of or connections within their departments. Without the informal conversations with other students that would normally happen over coffee or between classes, they don’t know what’s normal and what’s pandemic weird.

While you chat over coffee, you could make yourself available to answer questions about the hidden curricula of your department. How do students pick advisers, and which professors are known for exceptional mentoring? What options and procedures exist when a student experiences microaggressions or bias? What should a student do in their first year to set themselves up for success later on? Extending a hand of support and a pipeline for information could make a huge difference in that student’s life, and it would give you a chance to meet someone new.

Moving beyond the one-on-one, you could organize a regular time for grad students in your program to gather and kvetch collaboratively. This virtual coffee/happy hour could help you and your fellow students feel less alone by identifying shared struggles and trading strategies for dealing with them. We’re all having to reinvent a lot of wheels this year, but we don’t have to reinvent them alone.

You could even institutionalize those kinds of gatherings by founding, reinvigorating or participating in grad student organizations in your department. I spend a good chunk of my week talking with colleagues about how hard it is to know what exactly grad students are going through and what they need from us. Grad student organizations are perfectly positioned to help us answer those questions. So you might work with your student organization to conduct a needs assessment -- with surveys, focus groups or town hall discussions -- and share what you learn with your department.

You could even start thinking beyond your department. Look for ways to shape conversations and actions happening in your discipline about the pandemic’s short- and long-term effects on academe. (Grad students involved in the American Philosophical Association, for example, compiled this list of recommendations for departments and universities.) Or you might work with students in your program to connect with grad students in other parts of the university, or with groups of undergrads or others who are coming together to address the needs that COVID-19 has created or exacerbated.

Building Yourself

Above, I’m suggesting you do more than you’re already doing, which I know is a big ask -- especially now. It really can start with a single, one-on-one conversation. But why should you bother with even that, let alone what that may grow into? Most fundamentally, because it will help you build a better career (and life) during graduate school, and prepare you to do so in the future. I’ve described below some of the things you’ll get out of it.

  • Systems thinking. The challenges graduate students are facing during the pandemic aren’t just personal problems. They are bound up in complex systems over multiple scales. Individual emotional states, physical living spaces, department cultures, university policies, local and national governance, economic structures, interlocking systems of oppression, and a particularly nasty virus -- they all interact and intertwine in complicated ways to produce the lived experience of 2020. That complexity will also mark the problems you will be asked to solve at every stage of your career. A strong capacity for systems thinking will help you untangle those wicked problems, and it can contribute to your long-term success and thriving, both during graduate school and after.
  • Satisfaction. Helping people feels good. And that’s more important than you think for figuring out how to build a satisfying career as part of a fulfilling life. Indeed, when graduate students come to me frustrated and burned out with their work, more often than not it’s a question of values: they want to have more of an impact, or to connect more with others, or to change the institutions they are a part of. Dissatisfaction often results when you expect your values to be satisfied entirely by the objects of your work (research topics, classes of students) rather than also by the contexts and communities in which that work takes place, and by the connections you forge at the fuzzy boundaries between your work and the rest of your life. Following the steps above can be one way of looking beyond just the what of your work to the who and the where, which will teach you valuable lessons about what you want now and in the future.
  • Mutual support. When I suggest building strong networks of mutual support, the mutual part really matters. You need aid and encouragement as much as your fellow grad students, but you may have to take the first step. Doing any of the things I described above can help build a culture of reciprocity, where giving is also getting, that could outlive the pandemic. One important note, though: as you develop that culture, pay attention to equity and keep the work from falling inequitably on women and students from minoritized communities.

Caring is a skill. You may not know automatically or without effort how best to do it. But it’s a skill you need to develop to make the most of your career and your community. The good news is that the process of developing it can make your present more sustaining and the future more sustainable.

And, even better, it can start with a single act of reaching out.


Derek Attig is assistant dean for career and professional development at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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