• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


In the Loop: Staying Involved as a Late-Stage Grad Student

Because no grad student is an island.

September 12, 2017

Florianne is a doctoral student in rhetoric and composition at UMass Amherst. You can follow her on Twitter through her handle: @bopeepery.


I started my fifth year of graduate school last week, which officially puts me in the “advanced grad student” camp. Being further ahead than most folks in my program has its pros and cons. Because I’m out of coursework, I don’t have to be at school at odd hours (goodbye evening classes during bitter New England winter!) or every single day like I used to. Instead, I have a five or six-hour workday where I teach, work in the Writing Center, and hold office hours, which leaves plenty of time for me to work independently.


The downside of being at school less frequently means that I feel a greater sense of isolation. When you’re in your first or second year of grad school, coursework is the default social hub. By being in a two to three hour seminar with people every week, you’re immediately getting to know them as thinkers, readers, and colleagues. People also tend to make plans to grab dinner or drinks after their evening classes, or build study groups or work dates around common subjects.


So what’s a person out of coursework to do? When you have fewer opportunities to run into people, and when you don’t always catch wind of what’s going on, how can you avoid the sense of isolation that comes with starting independent work? Here are a few lessons that I’ve learned as I transitioned out of coursework and into my qualifying exams.


Be an active participant.

As a late-stage grad student, you might feel a little burnt out on meeting new people every year, and prefer to receive invitations instead of making them. When you fall into this trap, it’s easy to start feeling forgotten in your program, and resent people for not asking you to hang out. Instead of sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring and pouting, make an effort to actually ask people to do something. You don’t always have to throw a huge party with over a dozen people (unless you enjoy that!) – text a friend about doing a hike, or ask a neighbor to coffee. By taking small steps to put yourself out there, you’re creating a small social hub around yourself rather than waiting to be pulled into one.


Say yes as much as time allows.

The first month of school is always filled with department receptions, meetings, mixers, and reunions with old friends. The thought of putting on your happy face and making light conversation in a professional setting might sound exhausting, especially if you’ve been doing it for several years. However, it’s important to keep up a presence in your social/professional circles, even if it’s just five-minute chats with your colleagues about their summers. As an advanced graduate student, you have the benefit of being a more familiar face to professors, and you can use this familiarity to break the ice (e.g. “How was that seminar on Renaissance lit last semester?”). Instead of dragging your feet and grumbling about how many events you have to go to in September (e.g. “I could be working instead of being at this awkward cocktail party!”), budget time in your work schedule for all the events that happen in late August and September, and accept that it’s a busy season. (If you’re feeling pressed for time, it’s also okay to leave an event a little early!)


Strike a balance.

The advice I’ve given above doesn’t mean that you have to say yes to every single social event, or fill up your calendar with coffee dates and dinner parties all semester. Remember that your first priority is still getting your work done, and schedule accordingly. Only you can decide how much and what kinds of socialization are good for you, and it’s important to figure out where your priorities and preferences lie. If you’re not a fan of huge house parties, don’t feel compelled to go if it will wipe you out physically and emotionally and keep you from getting work done. Alternatively, if you’re at an event and you’re really not having a good time, know that you can always leave or cut it short. Take ownership over how you spend your time and who you spend it with.


Remember, being an old-timer in your department or program isn’t always a death sentence for your social life. As you continue to build links with colleagues and faculty, you might find that the social ties you build can open up doors for you. Continuing to make connections offers opportunities for you to find new mentors, be a mentor to other students, and find possibilities for collaboration.


[Image by Flickr user GydruS and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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