Patrick Bigsby is a graduate, ex-employee, and wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.
The inexorable march to graduation is nearly complete and the freshest batch of alumni is set to be scattered hither and yon in a matter of months or even days. As one of those alumni, my most important graduate school relationship is about to be transformed. I’m not talking about my advisor, my coffee maker, or the department administrator I email a dozen times a day with clueless questions. I’m talking about my officemate.
We’ve been together three years. That’s three years of sharing office hour shifts, three years of swapping gossip and tips about free snacks in the breakroom, and three years of resisting office reassignment - forcibly when necessary. Sure, we’ve occasionally been joined by a third musketeer - some perfectly lovely strong, silent types and out-of-town ABD-ers, but, for one reason or another, no one filled that extra desk for the whole three years. We’re co-tenants by chance and friends by choice. While our relationship will continue to strengthen after moving day, the durability of the bond we’ve formed from sitting back-to-back for three straight years deserves to be commemorated here and, more importantly, analyzed and distilled into advice for officemates just starting their own three-year partnerships. Graduate student offices have the potential to allow us space to achieve our scholastic goals, give us legitimacy in the eyes of our students, and grant us an opportunity to express ourselves professionally. By keeping the office peace, we can devote our energies to our studies and even get some social benefit.
First, be realistic about your space. Is it just the two of you in a corner office, or a couple dozen teaching assistants scrambling for a seat at a conference table? What in the space is ‘yours’ and what is communal? Regardless of the setup, recognize that everyone involved is going to be excited about finally getting some real estate. If you’ve got room to stretch out, it’s probably okay to hang that full-length mirror but, if you’re packed like sardines, maybe don’t devote as much desk space to your Troll collection.
When possible, keep a predictable schedule. If your office has multiple teaching assistants in it, picking a schedule in advance can streamline office hours traffic. Or, if you’ve got drastically different work styles, a regular schedule can give your officemate a clearer idea of when you won’t be there yelling at your data to analyze itself. Remember the old sock-on-the-door trope from your college dorm? Sharing a space means occasionally surrendering it.
Pay attention to each other’s cues. This might seem obvious, but a little human intuition goes a long way in working as a team. My colleague Jonathan explained this strategy as it applies to interoffice communication and I’d say it only heightens in importance in a shared room. When your officemate’s student comes in obviously distraught, consider whether she needs you to hang around as a witness or whether excusing yourself to the restroom to give them some privacy might be more helpful. Every kind of relationship develops a code over time, and communicating with your officemate in this way will keep your partnership functional longer.
Share, swap, and collaborate. Did the department get a new batch of pens to hand out to campus tours? Grab an extra one for your officemate. Do you know the best lunch special in town? Share that tip. Want your own office refrigerator? Split the cost. Your office is a community and you and your officemates stand to gain from being loyal to each other and working together to create the best possible environment within your particular four walls.
Assuming they’re comfortable with you, learn about your officemate. Forget about work and school in favor of learning about her real life. Whose picture is that on his desk? What is she doing this weekend? I always knew my officemate was a ideal officemate because she was neat and polite; the reason we became close is that I discovered she is an inspiring, interesting person that I love to be around. There’s more to you than what will fit on a 5-foot-by-3-foot desk and the same is true of your officemate. In my case, I’ve enjoyed a pretty significant cultural exchange with my officemate that I would have missed out on had I not asked.
Dr. Phil was right: relationships take work and your officemate relationship deserves some effort. Make small talk in the hallway. Ask if you can get her a cup of coffee from downstairs. Give hanging out away from the office a chance. Even if you don’t end up as best friends, you can become supportive colleagues capable of sharing close quarters peacefully.
Do you have any tips for a fruitful, long-lasting officemate relationship? What about horror stories? Give your officemate a shout-out in the comments!
[Image from Flickr user Graham Brenna, used under Creative Commons license]
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