On Loneliness in Grad School

“Grad school is lonely” was the warning I received from an advisor shortly after being accepted to the Millersville Master’s Program in English in the Spring of 2023. I had shrugged off the comment believing this would just be one more element of adjusting to graduate studies, but the remark has stayed with me and helped me evaluate decisions about program design, time to degree, and my awareness about my own well-being. Balancing what I need as a student and as a person is difficult particularly in a Master’s Program because it is, in my case, only meant to last two years. I have this feeling that I already have one foot out the door as I look at the next step in my career while also being aware of the pressure created by having the heaviest academic load I’ve experienced thus far with an expectation of completing that in a relatively short amount of time.

This has led me to ask questions like – how much energy should I expend to build connections with people who may only be a part of my life for a short time? Forming and maintaining connections in grad school is harder work –requiring more energy than in undergrad where it was easy to build comradery simply from being in the same space at the same time on a regular basis. Much of my schedule now is asynchronous and mediated by online spaces rather than in-person discussions. While online courses create room for flexibility that is key in graduate programs as many of us are balancing other commitments (family, work, etc.) it does create a barrier to building personal relationships that can help ease the feeling of going through this alone.

And in many ways, this is solitary work. From reading for class to researching thesis topics, much of my academic journey has been less dependent on peer-mediated discussion than in the past. This also enhances the burden of feeling personally responsible for my own education. Which in part is thrilling, I now have the power to investigate and create pieces that I want to and deeply care about. However, the trade-off is being constantly aware of all the things I feel I should be doing to complete my Masters.  The constant pressure of “I should be doing that essay or reading that book” rests in the back of my mind while I’m at work and reaches a deafening pitch when I am taking time for myself or trying to hang out with friends. I’m only in my second semester and grad school has already been the driver of canceled plans to the point where it’s become a running joke in some of my friend groups with shared memes and TikToks that mock the repeated default for canceling or avoiding social plans: “no they can’t join us, they’re in grad school. Didn’t you know?” This TikTok captures the feeling particularly well: https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZT8YG98yL/ .

Ultimately, my friends are understanding, acknowledging that we’ll catch up eventually but the social isolation from missed plans and spending yet another late night studying alone can contribute to the biggest danger the loneliness of grad school has posed for me –its unique ability to feed into imposter syndrome. Anyone reading this has probably shared in this feeling at one point or another –that they are in a job or classroom and have no idea how anyone thinks they are qualified to be doing what they are doing, like they’ve somehow fooled everyone around them into thinking they’re smarter than they are. For me, it creates an inward spiral of self-doubt that leads to sleepless nights wondering if I’ve somehow made an error in judging my abilities to complete a Master’s Program. I’m the first person in my direct family to go to grad school so I’ve even lost some sage advice from trusted sources than helped guide me through my undergrad years. My accomplishments and accolades start to feel empty and disconnected from my current studies, casting doubt on my decision to even enter grad school in the first place. As an English student particularly, there is also the awareness that we are living in a time and culture that does not value the humanities as much as other disciplines –particularly the sciences. This adds an element of anxiety about my future well-being because even after completing all this work am I going to be able to find a job with this? Am I going to be able to live with this?

So far the feeling of being an imposter has not entirely gone away. I don’t necessarily have an answer to overcoming the loneliness of grad school. Talking to people who have made it out the other side and recognizing that while the traditional route of attaining tenured positions is by and large not the norm for many anymore and that there are certainly many viable pathways to make a living can help, but the only advice I can give on surviving this loneliness is just to do things anyways.  I defer my feelings of inadequacy with the knowledge that my peers and professors are intelligent individuals and they would not have admitted me to this program if they truly thought I would be incapable of doing the work. So, in spite of my anxiety and misgivings, I try to redirect my attention to the present.  A recent phrase I’ve come across online captures this sentiment succinctly, “the time will pass anyways.” I don’t know what else I could have done in the two years it will take me to complete this program, I don’t know what sort of opportunities may be waiting for me after, but I do know I am here now so I might as well do what I can while I am here.


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