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Finding Community in Graduate School

Graduate school can be a lonely time. As your research becomes increasingly specialized, it is harder to find people who can relate. During your first year, you spend one to two hours every day with your classmates in lecture. This common experience organically creates community. You share notes, study together and prepare for graduate board exams at mock orals. But once classes are over and oral exams are passed, everyone takes unique paths through graduate school, choosing different labs and becoming immersed in divergent areas of research. The sense of community can dissipate.

This is unfortunate because much of your training lies in the people you meet. Johns Hopkins is a bountiful place, in terms of people, experience and collective knowledge. A strong community offers three important advantages.

group huddleFirst, a strong community is home to thought partners (outside of your thesis committee) that can powerfully impact your research. These partners make your research more efficient by influencing how you perform experiments or, even more excitingly, fundamentally shifting your thinking in important and interesting ways.

Second, a strong community offers important networking opportunities. The word “networking” makes me cringe. It feels like I am exploiting relationships for the purpose of professional gain and, curiously, everyone is OK with it! I have learned that when good networking happens, both parties benefit. The advising party may want to increase the pipeline for his or her field, recruit talent to certain geographical locations, or simply spare you from making similar career mistakes. Networking with senior graduate students, postdocs and faculty members can show you how to make the most of the graduate school experience.

Finally, a strong community fosters camaraderie. Isolation can lead to the feeling that you are the only one whose experiments fail while everyone else is curing cancer. Personally, my misery is the type that loves company. I do not delight in another’s struggles, but it is comforting to know that I am not alone and helpful to learn from other experiences. It is also a chance to celebrate each other’s personal and professional triumphs, which are just as important.

Opportunities to build a professional community in graduate school abound, but it requires effort. One of my friends participates in a student-run journal club, which helps participants keep up with the literature while socializing over wine. Some meet regularly over coffee for advice and mutual encouragement. I recently began participating in a writing accountability group, which occurs all over campus. There are numerous student interest groups and Johns Hopkins affiliates who participate in sports or other social groups to bond over something other than work and build genuine friendships so that networking does not feel so slimy.

In conclusion, avoid getting so focused on your research that you miss this important aspect of your training. Build a professional community. It will help your career and, consequently, your life. You spend a minimum of 40 hours per week at work, so if you are happy and supported in your career, you will be happier in your life.

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