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Megan Poorman is a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on Twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.




Welcome back, GradHacker readers! Once again we kick off a new school year. Whether you’re a first-year student starting your grad career with excitement or an old grump like me, annoyed at the rush of returning students taking up all the sidewalk space, there’s something in a new semester for everybody.


An exciting new semester can also bring the challenge of figuring out where you belong. We’ve talked numerous times here on GradHacker about the importance of friendships and camaraderie in dealing with the loneliness and isolation that can come with a graduate program. Yet when you’re just beginning (or all your friends have succumbed to the black hole of qualifying exam prep) it can be difficult to find that support network, especially when you’ve just moved to a new city and are surrounded by strangers. Don’t panic: it’s all a part of the adventure. So, if you’re a first-year wondering where to begin, or a seasoned student looking to get more involved, this post is for you. Here’s how to start your first year off right by proactively pursuing friendships that will help make the next 2 to 5 (to infinite) years of grad school entirely worth it.


Getting in the right mindset:


First things first, I love a good Netflix binge, but you won’t make friends and learn to love the city you’re in without getting outside to explore what your new home has to offer. I’m this first to admit this is scary – it’s intimidating asking near-strangers from school to join you for fun things. Making the active effort to engage takes courage and you must put aside your fear. There will be plenty of time down the road for holing up at home and recharging – now is the time to get outside of your comfort zone. Small steps taken now will sustain you through the rest of your graduate career.


Softening the transition:


It’s okay to rely on your support system back home at first, especially if you move in before classes start and haven’t met anyone to hang out with on the weekends yet. Have friends and family help move you in and stay for a few days to explore the new city. Ask your network to introduce you to a mutual friend in the new city and ask them out to lunch. This small touch of familiarity in a new city will make exploring it less daunting. Try to avoid returning home every weekend – it’s okay to plan a return trip but traveling constantly will isolate you from people in your new home.


How to find your crew:


Now that you’ve officially started school and it’s time to be the initiator, the first step is to go to all of the departmental and graduate student council welcome-back socials, even if you don’t know anyone. These events usually have a high concentration of other new students who are also just getting integrated and are easy to invite your classmates to without the pressures of one-on-one plans. Best case, you meet professors in your department and engage with other students across your college. Worst case you get free food and maybe even the leftovers.


The next step is to connect with your fellow first-year classmates. Start a Facebook / GroupMe / Slack / social-network-of-choice group and get everyone in your year to join it. At best, you have a ready-made group of friends to organize social gatherings with. At worst, you have a place to ask curriculum and procedural questions. Get to class a few minutes early, introduce yourself to people as they come in, and start a conversation – maybe you’ll connect or maybe you’ll just have a study buddy for the semester.


You should also engage with students and professors outside of your year. This could be as simple as seeing if anyone in your shared office wants to have lunch in the courtyard. If you’re feeling up to it, ask another grad student or professor out to coffee. More advanced grad students and people in your lab are a great source of advice for navigating departmental politics, finding good lunch spots, or forming a sports team for the campus intramural league. If that seems overwhelming, see if your office wants to walk to the lunch seminar together and strike up a conversation while you wait for the speaker to begin. Also check if your department has a graduate student Facebook group and post events or questions as they come up.


Nothing says you must stick to on-campus sources, in fact it might be good to have an outside source of friendship to stay grounded. Look for groups that host events centered around activities you’re interested in. This could be joining a city-wide outdoor adventure group, signing up for city-sponsored rec sports teams, finding a church group, volunteering at an organization, or attending a event. An internet search for “your city + your favorite activity” will usually turn up some good options. Just make sure to always follow safe practices when meeting a group of strangers– meet in public places and tell a friend where you will be and when.


Never say no to a social invite, at least initially. Unless the event seems dangerous, illegal, or goes against your beliefs, do your best to accept all social invites. Your goal here is to get in the usual group of people who get informed when things happen. I know it’s hard to say yes when all you want to do is curl up on the couch, but there will be a time when you want to hang out but no one is free, and people will eventually stop asking if you always say no. It’s best to stock up on social interaction now and be choosy later once it’s already established that you are interested.


How to engage on your own:


Alright, so you’ve put yourself out there and made some friends, but no one seems to be free to hang out at the moment. This doesn’t mean you can’t get out of the house and explore on your own. Take your laptop to a coffee shop, go get ice cream from the spot on the corner, chase down your favorite food truck, or sample the free cookies at that famous candy store. Then maybe go for a run to burn off all that food. Find a green space nearby and spend the day wandering the trails, find the nearest farmer’s market, or drive to the next town over and hit up the shopping mall. Check out your city’s main website and find out what events are happening this week. Be a tourist for the day and check out what the museums have to offer. Actively pursuing hobbies outside of school will leave you better equipped to stave off the grad school blues down the road. Besides, now you’ll know the good places to go when other people do want to hang out.


How did you make friends when you began your grad program? How long did it take before your new city feel like home? Please, share your ideas with us in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user jridgewayphotography and used under Creative Commons licensing.]