The Lonesome Postdoc - Part V: The importance of friends
It was back to the usual ‘new move’ routine – try to make friends, try to find collaborators, try to find funding sources, try to understand the system. It was hard coming back. Things had changed. I had changed. Going overseas and learning how other systems work leads you to make comparisons, identifying aspects that you feel are better or worse, and hoping to make changes based on these observations. Below are some of the insights and tips that might help people find their feet in a new institution. They might also help people who have been at one (or few institutions in one geographic area) understand the challenges that new arrivals face.
The importance of friends: It’s no secret that as we get older it gets harder to make friends. Making friends requires common interests, structure and time. As young kids that structure and time come from being forced to go to school, but as we get older and other obligations and priorities creep in, we tend to lose a lot of that motivation. A study by Wrzus et al. (2013) indicates that our social network peaks and begins to decrease by our mid-twenties as we become more focussed on marriage, parenting and careers. While it has been estimated that meaningful social interactions require around 10 hours per week, it’s also important to balance this ‘cost’ with the health benefits gained from friendships (e.g., improved mood, reduced stress, support, increased self-worth). Never forget that a friendship is voluntary – that’s why they take effort to maintain.
How to meet people: Some of the classic ways of meeting people and making friends include volunteering, joining a club or sport team, and the age-old favourite of having a drink at a bar. Personally, I always loved walking the dog. Dog owners chat because they clearly already have a common interest, and dogs often do stupid things that spark up conversation. Of course, I haven’t had much scope for a dog in recent years what with moving between countries and all, but I would often volunteer to walk with someone else who had a dog, or even dog-sit. A few people I know have even used online dating as a way of making friends. A quick google search for social clubs or events in your neighbourhood usually gives you a good idea of what is happening around the place.
In terms of academic friends and potential collaborators, nothing beats the friendly ‘hello’ as you walk past their office. You can also initiate or become involved in discussion groups or journal clubs. If a graduate student or postdoctoral society/association exists, think about taking a position, attending a few of their social events or joining a mentoring programme. Make the effort to attend department lunches, award sessions and themed lecture series. Put yourself on the cake roster (if one exists) or suggest regular Friday beers. Even if you don’t drink, attending Friday beers can be a great way to chat about ideas and opportunities, and make friends.
For locals trying to make someone feel welcome and involved, let newbies know about what sort of activities and places of interest are around. Invite them out for a coffee/drink. Offer to take them to one of the local highlights. You don’t necessarily have to become best buddies with this new person, but it can make the newbie feel a hell of a lot better and more welcome.
Why doesn’t anyone call?: After a while of being in your new ‘home’ you might feel lonely and start to think about all the fun times you had with your old friends. Then you might start to wonder why you haven’t really heard from them. This can be hard to deal with, and if you are already feeling a little low it can make you feel worse. The hard truth of it is, YOU left. Life is ticking along just fine for your old friends, they are still in the same place, likely still doing all the same familiar things. They don’t mean to ‘forget’ you, they think of you at times, but they also have to focus on their own work and local friendships. It is much easier for a person or group of people who remain in one place (at least for a time, I am sure a lot of them move eventually too) to continue as usual than it is for the person who left and suddenly has no friends. So, before you get too upset about the lack of contact from people far away, ask yourself this: when did you last contact them? Friendship is a two-way street. Some people aren’t good at maintaining long distance friendships and that is ok, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t friends anymore. Take the time to video chat or call a far-away friend every so often – I’m sure they will enjoy it just as much as you.
For those that stayed behind, if the one that left seems to be constantly emailing you or trying to phone, it’s probably because they are lonely and they miss you. Don’t get frustrated, don’t ignore them because you are busy and you can’t be bothered at that moment, don’t complain that they are becoming needy. Understand that they probably don’t have anyone to talk to right now and they just want to say ‘hi’.
Understand that no one likes a know-it-all: You have probably met, and disliked, one of these people at some point. You know the one. The one that doesn’t shut up about “Oh, well, when I was at X…” or “when I worked with <insert prestigious name here>…”. No one likes a name-dropper, but people tend to like it even less if you spend all your conversational time telling them how things were done ‘better’ at your old institution. Don't misunderstand this point, people are ok with suggestions of improvements and they are generally willing to admit some institutional limitations, but they typically don’t like feeling as though their workplace is being trashed. They might end up thinking “why don’t you go back there if you think it’s so great?”. It’s perfectly ok to talk about your past experiences, just be conscious of how often you do it, and don’t overdo it.
For locals who meet a newbie exhibiting this behaviour, try to understand that they may not be conscious that they are doing it. They might be desperately trying to have some input into a conversation but don’t really know how to relate to the current topic without referring to their past. If the behaviour becomes like a broken record and really annoys you, it might help to point it out rather than avoid the person.
It’s hard to break into a clique: If you move to a place that has a strong retention of staff/students, or those people have never really left that geographic area, it is highly likely that they have a well-established group of friends. This can make things very hard. Worst case scenario, it takes what seems like forever to even get an invite to any social event because the group already feels as though they have enough friends. Slightly better scenario, you get invited but the group has so many in-jokes that you end up feeling excluded even though you are sitting right there. Be patient. Be polite. Breaking into existing friendship groups can take time. Sometimes it can help to organise a social event with just one or two from a larger group so that you get to know them a little more before taking on the whole gang. On the other hand, if you feel that the friendship exercise isn’t really going anywhere, you can always try somewhere else.
Just because you already have a group of friends, doesn’t mean you should stop looking for more. Dunbar’s numbers suggested that humans have relatively extensive social networks that comprise around 150 people… but that’s the number you might be able to invite to a party. When it comes to someone you can truly depend on, call any time of day or night, and ask those big favours, the numbers shrink to about five friends. A study by Ledbetter et al. (2007) found that ‘best friends’ will have moved an average of 5.8 times over 19 years. So, if you only have five close friends it’s likely that each of them will move at least once. How far away that move takes them… who knows. The point is, can you really afford to think you have the luxury of not making new friends? Also, if you do decide to invite a new person into your fold, remember to make them feel included! Most people like a balanced interaction, you know, one where you both have the opportunity to talk and the other pays attention when you do. It doesn’t take much to redirect the conversation if you notice that someone hasn’t had a lot of input – ask them about themselves, ask them what they think.
I have experienced all of these things first hand, and from both sides. I’m no expert on psychology/human behaviour, but I know how I have felt in these various situations and I can imagine that these are similar feelings shared by many other people in similar situations. There are times that I have felt desperately lonely, found it hard to make friends or know what to talk about, and there are times I have tried to extend friendship and had it work or not work. Four examples really stick in my mind.
1) When I moved back to Australia there was a couple in my new department – they were young, recent additions to the rank of Lecturer/Assistant Professor, and seemed like they would be fun people. For months I tried to get to know them, but they remained elusive and non-comital. After about four months it came that they had secured positions elsewhere, so they knew they were leaving town. On their farewell night we actually had a great time together! They admitted that they knew it was hard to make friends, they had gone through the same experience in town recently, but they felt like they just couldn’t be bothered making new friends when they knew they were leaving. We both said that was a real shame in the end because it had prevented us from having four months of good times.
2) I can still remember, very clearly, the first time I was invited out with people when I moved to Tasmania, Alberta and New South Wales. It was a great feeling of acceptance, relief and happiness thinking that I would have some friends and fit into these new environments. The best thing is that I am still friends with these people today, and they may not know it, but I am also still very grateful to them for opening up and essentially taking a chance on me. You can help someone else feel this way. I know that I definitely make an effort to invite new people out and introduce them to a variety of other people so that they can start to make their own friends.
3) I worked with a person who constantly made reference to how wonderful institution X was. How great the facilities were, how amazing the staff were, how there were so many more opportunities there. It drove people nuts. Was this person implying that the current institution was not good? Were they, by default, suggesting that we were not as good? If X was so great and they were so wonderful, why didn’t they stay there? As much as it drove me nuts, I’m pretty sure that I have been guilty of this at times – everyone is to an extent. We got around this by pointing it out - “yes, things are different in different places, but this is the system we have here at the moment”. If you are worried that you are doing it yourself you can just say “sorry if I am talking too much about X, how bout we talk about Y”.
4) I constantly battle the “I haven’t heard from anyone for ages!” feeling. When you move so much it’s hard not to. I try to remind myself, if I feel busy, so does everyone else. Making time to send a “friend” email doesn’t always make it to the top of the priority list. Some people feel like they really need to dedicate time to writing a long catch up email and so they put it off. Time zones can obviously make things difficult in terms of calling or video chatting. Let me tell you, not every email or call needs to be long! Sometimes, when you have those random thoughts of “oh, I wonder how X is doing”, extend that to an email/call. Even a quick “hey, how are you” can be very welcome and let the person know that you haven’t forgotten. So, stop putting it off! Contact that person!
Jump to the other Lonesome Postdoc posts:
Part I - moving abroad for a postdoc
Part II - living like a local... or trying to
Part III - putting down roots
Part IV - uprooting (again)
Part VI - is working remotely really that great?