This week, I got to celebrate Brandon’s defense. For four years we worked together, studying for quals, desperately rebuilding accelerators, taking data for hours ... and now he is done. I helped him prepare for his defense, sat in the front row, and even got nervous as he started. It hits me now that as he moves on to a postdoctoral position to do more exciting research, I will still be here without my lab best friend.
Grad school is hard. In many ways, friendships are what make grad school survivable. Labmates become like family; while I spent 8 hours before and after school with my brother growing up, I often spent 12+ hours with Brandon, staying in lab until midnight working on equipment problems. Other relationships become equally important, bonding with roommates that lounge around watching bad TV while avoiding problem sets, new friends that will go for a crazy 30+ mile hike when you need to escape the city, and old friends from home that surprise you with birthday visits and free bourbon. However, when labmates graduate, roommates get their master’s and leave, and another bridal shower invitation comes that you have to reject because you live 1000 miles away and are living on a pitiful grad student stipend, these relationships that used to give support, guidance, and relief start to become another source of stress.
There are a plethora of programs, websites, and people willing to offer support for grad students for many issues, including failing qualifying exams, struggling with mental health, and dealing with troublesome research advisors. But there is nothing out there to warn you or prepare you for changes that friendships undergo in grad school. I currently have friends in China, California, Maine, Germany, Illinois, and a dozen other places following their dreams. While my Facebook feed is a colorful mix of people from around the world, my daily life is less fulfilling. Phone calls and FaceTime and occasional meetups when paths cross can’t replace the friendships that form from living in the same city.
People in academia, MIT and elsewhere, have very transient lives. We pursue science to all corners of the Earth, from Boston to Colorado to New Zealand, looking for interesting collaborations and research opportunities (and other adventures) wherever we can find them. This inherently leads to a sort of inexplicable loneliness from knowing so many lovely people, but having so few permanent, local relationships. Friendship is easy when catching up can be done over dinner, drinks, or the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother, but it’s much harder when it requires planning. Scheduling Skype sessions around the crazy schedules of a grad student, a kindergarten teacher, and a police officer in different time zones is sometimes more difficult than calculating the rates of nuclear reactions. Figuring out how to meet up with a plasma physicist and a nuclear engineer for a backpacking trip requires 6 months of planning. These relationships are what sustain me, but they also are what deprive me of sleep and vacation time.
Brandon has his PhD, and I am happy for him. He worked so hard for this accomplishment, and I’m excited to see him take the next steps in his life. But for me, I say goodbye to one more friend, and keep going. Though loneliness and loss are a part of grad school, I don’t have to let it define my experience. I can see the blessings of my friendships, and how my life has been enriched by the diversity of my relationships without dwelling on the sadness that comes from parting ways. I can resist becoming bitter at the departure of so many friends and keep myself open for the new relationships. So I won’t say “goodbye” this time with sadness, but with hope and happiness. New friends are out there, and the old ones will always be there, with or without the ease that daily interaction provides.