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How important are friends/social life in grad school?


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I really like that article, thanks for sharing. 

It's one of the things I pushed really hard when I was in grad school and headed our GSA- that happy hours needed to be balanced out by some morning coffee and doughnut gatherings, or meal/snack gatherings that did not include alcohol. It's not that one is better or worse than the other, but they put people in different situations, and different groups of people will feel more comfortable or outgoing in one situation than the other. Having a mix allows everyone to have a time they feel comfortable. 

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One thing I appreciate about the school I'll be attending this fall is they have a mix of "official" gatherings available. They do the first thursday of the month at a local craft beer place that is also a restaurant, they do various dinner get-togethers on campus, and they have a monthly "graduate student writing group" where you just go and sit with other grad students (from all departments) and write.

I think these sorts of things probably exist on a lot of campuses if you look for them, even if they aren't "official" gatherings. If not, what's to stop any of us who want them from starting them? All it takes is a posting on a department/school facebook group or in the TA room, and I'm sure something positive can come from it.

Just my thoughts :)

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On 5/15/2017 at 10:09 PM, rising_star said:

My concern is more that someone who is singlemindedly focused on coursework and research misses out on some of the key learning that's necessary to succeed in academia. As much as I loathe drama and politics, academia is full of them and being able to navigate these successfully is crucial when you're junior faculty. Even outside of academia, every workplace has its drama and it pays to pay attention, even if only so you can avoid getting caught up in it. You don't have to take my advice but, maybe someone else on this thread will find it of value.

Here's what I've noticed about those who were from the city where I did my PhD and had a network outside of campus. They didn't make close friends with anyone but then would all of a sudden become very friendly when they needed something. This meant that they were a lot nicer to others when they wanted a copy of your successful fellowship application, for you to share a syllabus and set of assignments you developed, or wanted your feedback on their fellowship/grant materials. I... dislike when people do that. It's one thing to share with your friends and another to share with someone who is basically a stranger that you've seen in the hall sometimes. So, regardless of whether you make lifelong friendships, I'd encourage everyone to cultivate collegial relationships with others in the program so you gain these informal benefits.

I absolutely agree with this. I just passed my quals, but three people in my cohort are dropping out (two decided in the last two months not to take the exam, while the third took it but already wanted to leave before he took it). The one thing that these three people have in common is a strong disconnect with other members of the grad student community. They never attended colloquia or stuck around for wine and cheese afterwards, didn't attend meetings of the History Grad Association, and didn't talk to other students about the pitfalls of choosing your orals committee, taking classes in x outside department with x professor (who other grad students know). Two of them had very strong social lives outside of grad school, and the third isolated himself and really developed no connections in the city at all. 

As a result, all three of these folks missed out on very useful information, or struggled needlessly to plan or prepare things that would have been much easier if they had been in the loop. Although your major professor knows many things, other grad students are often very valuable sources of information when it comes to navigating university bureaucracy, meeting deadlines for things like funding applications and teaching certifications, and telling you about how to navigate setting up committees or informing you where to go for more information. If you don't take the initiative to get to know people in the first year, you could find yourself shut out of a valuable network (especially involving graduate students in years above you who know the system and are often happy to give new hands advice). I have no doubt that in the case of these three who departed, feelings of confusion and isolation contributed directly to their dissatisfaction and fear about taking their qualifying exams, ultimately persuading them that the Ph.D. was not a happy place for them. I'm not saying the result was inevitable, but their lack of support and connections with other graduate students definitely contributed. Just as professors collaborate and dialogue with each other on a regular basis to make their work easier, Ph.D. students have a better time of it when they network with each other and collectively support each other professionally and academically. 

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On 5/15/2017 at 9:13 PM, NoirFemme said:

I admit to being nervous about befriending my cohort. Mainly because the whole academia thing is brand new to me and I wonder how to connect with people who've known--and worked towards--this goal at the "proper" ages (e.g. undergrad 18-21; Master's or straight to Ph.D at 22-25). Half of the time while reading articles on Chronicle Vitae or Inside Higher Ed or whatever, I'm blinking in bemused confusion because I just don't see the anxieties and drama as that big of a deal! So then I worry that my learning curve--and my existing alt-ac career--will make me come across as not fitting into the culture. 

I was so nervous!!! 

I thought I was going to be friends with the other international student because, in my stupid head, being both of us new to the country would push us together. As a historian, I should have known not to generalize. I became with the youngest person in the program. My cohort was varied in age too, I think only one person came straight from UG, two from MA, and three others like me had been working before grad school. Age was never a problem for me. In my program (and this is for @kaufdichglücklich) it was a coincidence that the people most obsessed with age were the 25-. And not even all of them, of course, just two or three (I think that when they turn 30 they'll still be obsessed with age hahaha). Anyway, @NoirFemme I don't doubt you are going to be awesome.  

On 5/16/2017 at 0:41 AM, rising_star said:

Are you planning on continuing in academia? Because, if so, you may find that there are things to do besides go to class and do your work if you want to be successful...

Actually, you need to be professional. If you are building professional networks, I agree with @nevermind that this happens if you approach grad school as a job. From where I see it, you can have a job and then have a life and be successful. Actually, I find it quite comforting to have a handful of friends outside grad school with whom I go out, watch games, rant about whatever, and relax.

Now, @rising_star if you were referring that there are other things you can do as a professional to be successful in academia, I agree. I don't think @nevermind was suggesting that, but based on your post, it seems it was ambiguous. By "taking grad school as a job" I mean do everything you need to be doing to learn, do research, write your dissertation, and become a scholar. Becoming a scholar involves service, mentoring, listening, negotiating, being a colleague, etc. So, yes, there are many other things besides coursework: workshops, panels, mixers, and –recently– unions. 

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@AP, my comment was specifically about the poster's comment about avoiding departmental drama and keeping their head down to do their work and only their work. That doesn't prepare one well for dealing with the drama that all workplaces have. Some of that department drama can have a direct impact on graduate students so it behooves students to at least pay some attention. (For example, my department ended up having a multi-year external search for a department chair. As a result, other faculty had to take on that work, leaving fewer advisors for PhD students and slowing down their grant/publication activity, which also affects PhD students. Consequently, a group of us paid close attention to the search and would explain to the faculty how and why we were being affected by it. That doesn't mean that we got dragged into being on the search committee but, it was something worth being aware of as a member of the department.)

I also think some people have a different idea of what it means to treat graduate school as a job than I do. For me, that means yes, you have friends outside of school but it also means that you have to build a network in school (in your department and around the university). It means working with people in your department. It means not being so selfish that you only focus on your own work, never pausing to help out others. None of those things are useful in the long-term as a grad student (and same for any workplace because no one likes the self-centered colleague who can never help anyone out with anything).

This last part might be because I come from an interdisciplinary field but, here goes anyway. If you don't have a broader understanding of your field and how to make your work interesting to people outside of your specialty area, then you're setting yourself up for a rough time on the job market (whether that's academic or not). One of the easiest ways to start learning how to do this is by having informal discussions with other students about what you're working on. If you're only there to go to class and do your own work (which is what the person I was responding to said), then you may not be allowing this to happen or you might view such conversations as a waste of time. My advice was a caution against that.

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22 hours ago, rising_star said:

This last part might be because I come from an interdisciplinary field but, here goes anyway. If you don't have a broader understanding of your field and how to make your work interesting to people outside of your specialty area, then you're setting yourself up for a rough time on the job market (whether that's academic or not). One of the easiest ways to start learning how to do this is by having informal discussions with other students about what you're working on. If you're only there to go to class and do your own work (which is what the person I was responding to said), then you may not be allowing this to happen or you might view such conversations as a waste of time. My advice was a caution against that.

Agreed on the last point.  I've encouraged graduate students again and again the importance of talking not only across the department but also engage with peopel in other disciplines.  My MA was interdisciplinary and I learned a lot from my friends/colleague in Literature programs (English,Comp, etc) while trying to become a historian.  I also participated in a Social Sciences Research Council workshop where I had to ask the anthropologists and sociologists in my group to "speak English" when they fell into the disciplinary jargon.  Watching them inspired me to do even more to make my work accessible. More recently I interviewed for a fellowship that aimed to bring together different disciplines on a specific area of inquiry.  I wound up with a historian for one interview, which was easy-peezy and a Literature person who (from my view) gave me a rough time with her methodological and theoretical views on my work.  Quickly after the interview, I went back to the Lit person and brought up an important philosopher who I knew would connect us and the person was quit delighted to engage on the merits of this philosopher's work in connection to my research.  At the end I got the fellowship.

At the end, it is about striking a balance between staying focus on getting your work done while being involved with what's going on around you, intellectual conversations or plans of revolts against a change or an idea brought up by the (more often than not incompetent) higher ups (it'll happen, trust me) or whatever.  You'll learn along the way how to pick and choose your battles.  What may seem like a huge, huge deal to you as a first year may wind up being fairly insignificant after encountering bigger battles later on.  Graduate school is a wonderful time to experiment with social norms and workplace interactions.

As one of my professor joked, we should get 2 PhDs.  One for our discipline and one in Abnormal Psychology.

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  • 2 months later...

I know this is a super old thread but as I approach orientation I'm getting more and more concerned about this. We got our little "getting to know you" email from the department... which included the dates of our undergrad degree. I am the oldest by about 10 years. Two people in my cohort graduated last year. Having spoken to other older grad students from my group of friends, I found that they were either completely left out of the loop because people didn't know how to relate to someone who, to a kid just out of college, is just plain old... or they were involuntarily placed into the position of being the "mother hen" of the group... I don't have the time, energy or desire for that. I went into campus the other day to take care of some administrative things and was consistently mistaken for a staff member.  Getting a faculty discount at the bookstore was great and all, but I'm getting increasingly concerned that regardless my personality, willingness, or outgoing attitude... I'm going to be the odd man out either way. Maybe it shouldn't worry me as much as it does, but its going ton be tough to hang around for wine and cheese or an after class drink when I have a house to take care of and a kid to pick up.

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@SarahBethSortino did the email include all current grad students, or just the new incoming cohort? In my new cohort this year, I am definitely the oldest, the only one with a kid, the only one married, etc. However, when we all went into the TA room to meet the other grad students I was pleasantly surprised to find numerous, maybe almost half, of the other grad students are either close to my age or actually older. 4 are in their 40s or 50s. I think 5 of us have kids/families. You might find something similar once you get in and meet everyone. If not, that's okay, too. Be friendly as best you can, maybe you'll make better friends with an associate/recently graduated professor.

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I'm hoping to be too busy to try to be normal.  If nothing else, I can remind myself that Gary Hart was about 10 years older than I am when he started his DPhil.

Of course, he was a US Senator who might have slept with Donna Rice, so the situations aren't totally comparable.

 

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3 hours ago, SarahBethSortino said:

I know this is a super old thread but as I approach orientation I'm getting more and more concerned about this. We got our little "getting to know you" email from the department... which included the dates of our undergrad degree. I am the oldest by about 10 years. Two people in my cohort graduated last year. Having spoken to other older grad students from my group of friends, I found that they were either completely left out of the loop because people didn't know how to relate to someone who, to a kid just out of college, is just plain old... or they were involuntarily placed into the position of being the "mother hen" of the group... I don't have the time, energy or desire for that. I went into campus the other day to take care of some administrative things and was consistently mistaken for a staff member.  Getting a faculty discount at the bookstore was great and all, but I'm getting increasingly concerned that regardless my personality, willingness, or outgoing attitude... I'm going to be the odd man out either way. Maybe it shouldn't worry me as much as it does, but its going ton be tough to hang around for wine and cheese or an after class drink when I have a house to take care of and a kid to pick up.

You're making it out to be worse than it is. Don't get inside your own head. First, the students who are 10 years younger than you aren't fresh out of college, I imagine. I've personally found the age disconnect drops off rapidly at around 25 or so. Second, there's no rule that says you have to have anything other than a professional relationship with your cohort. It's a big world! Do you run or exercise? Make friends there! If you don't have a hobby, now's a great time to join a club and learn one. Maybe there are other older graduate students in other departments - go to events and colloquia and find out.

All that said, you are going to have to sacrifice a bit. Yes, you have a house and a kid, but if there's a regularly scheduled bar hour after seminar, for example, make that someone else's problem every once in a while. 

 

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@SarahBethSortino, I can't speak to your specific issue but, I will note that many of the younger members of your cohort are probably constantly being mistaken for an undergraduate (or even a prospective undergrad) student, which brings its own set of issues. Several members of my faculty cohort are frequently mistaken for undergrads, asked what their major is, etc., which leads to some real issues when it comes to getting work done.

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10 hours ago, SarahBethSortino said:

I know this is a super old thread but as I approach orientation I'm getting more and more concerned about this. We got our little "getting to know you" email from the department... which included the dates of our undergrad degree. I am the oldest by about 10 years. Two people in my cohort graduated last year. Having spoken to other older grad students from my group of friends, I found that they were either completely left out of the loop because people didn't know how to relate to someone who, to a kid just out of college, is just plain old... or they were involuntarily placed into the position of being the "mother hen" of the group... I don't have the time, energy or desire for that. I went into campus the other day to take care of some administrative things and was consistently mistaken for a staff member.  Getting a faculty discount at the bookstore was great and all, but I'm getting increasingly concerned that regardless my personality, willingness, or outgoing attitude... I'm going to be the odd man out either way. Maybe it shouldn't worry me as much as it does, but its going ton be tough to hang around for wine and cheese or an after class drink when I have a house to take care of and a kid to pick up.

I think it's pretty natural to be nervous about starting. Age is only one thing that sets you apart -- I'm coming in as a married international student who's spent a single semester at a US college and that's definitely a point of difference between me and others, but in any cohort of humans who've also decided to spend five to seven years getting a history phd you can usually find someone to relate to. It might help not to assume that people ten years younger than you are kids--for all you know there's a 26 year old parent in your cohort, or someone who's lived out of home since they were 15, or (as in my case) a 26 year old whose partner is in their late 30s and whose life might look a bit like your own. So far I've found personality and life experience to be more important than age when it comes to making grad school friends. 

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8 hours ago, telkanuru said:

You're making it out to be worse than it is. Don't get inside your own head. First, the students who are 10 years younger than you aren't fresh out of college, I imagine. I've personally found the age disconnect drops off rapidly at around 25 or so. Second, there's no rule that says you have to have anything other than a professional relationship with your cohort. It's a big world! Do you run or exercise? Make friends there! If you don't have a hobby, now's a great time to join a club and learn one. Maybe there are other older graduate students in other departments - go to events and colloquia and find out.

All that said, you are going to have to sacrifice a bit. Yes, you have a house and a kid, but if there's a regularly scheduled bar hour after seminar, for example, make that someone else's problem every once in a while. 

 

Luckily, I am from Massachusetts and most of my dearest friends live here. As well as many of my family members. So there's definitely life outside of school for me...it just happens to be in the town where I live now (about 45 minutes off campus), rather than where the school is located.

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If I remember where you are going, I would not worry at all.  Really.  Start grad school with a positive attitude and fight the good fight with a positive attitude.  Anxiety is normal but you will be so amazed how quickly negativity and "getting in your own head" can overtake your entire life.  Because... academia.

Know that you have much better world outside of the university and you should make an effort to meet graduate students in other universities in the area   There must be Facebook groups or something.

I agree with some of the comments above.  You may be able to relate to students much farther along as they may have gotten married and have babies in the process.  Also, don't be so quick to judge undergraduate degree years as there are indeed plenty of people who completed such degrees later in their lives.  My PhD program has several of those folks.  They find their own niche.

If I am correctly aware, your PhD program is also very small so no doubt that your cohort will have to stay in touch with one another to battle similar fights and celebrate common victories.

And yeah, I'd rather be mistaken for a staff member/professor than an undergraduate.  I honestly have to put on *real* and nice clothes while the undergrads wear their sporty attire and hoodies to avoid being asked inappropriate questions.

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3 hours ago, SarahBethSortino said:

Luckily, I am from Massachusetts and most of my dearest friends live here. As well as many of my family members. So there's definitely life outside of school for me...it just happens to be in the town where I live now (about 45 minutes off campus), rather than where the school is located.

That's... really not what I meant?

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You and I were born in the same year, and I also have a child. Based on my own experience, I would tell you that you may be able to get by without friends, but you'll make life harder for yourself if you don't have allies among the other students. These are the people who will share their successful fellowship applications with you, pass along their lecture notes when you're sick, cover for you when you have a conflict, etc. Please do your best to be openminded and humble -- just because someone is a decade younger than you doesn't mean you two won't connect, or that he or she does not have a lot to teach you.

I wish you luck!

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I am one of those students that will be finishing my undergraduate as an older adult. I work not to make age an issue. My peers are my fellow students, we are moving through an experience together. While literally I am old enough to be the mother of some of them, I don't want the role of mother hen, I'm not their advisor. There are many ways to find connections with others besides age, we discuss movies, music, class assignments, future goals, etc. I don't expect graduate school to be any different in that regard. Making time to get to know fellow students is important to me. I'm not usually the one staying out until the bar closes, but I like it when I know a group of peers well enough that someone will notice when one of us is having a bad day or be excited when something good happens. 

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I'm younger (entering last year as a undergrad) but I've taken split division classes with grad students, many of who are older adults. I've always liked them a lot and know I'd be happy to get coffee and chat with them! (okay admittedly I might be cautious of meeting up with a older grad man, but that's about it) I imagine a lot of younger grad students would feel similarly. There's obviously a lot of difference in living/life situations, but we're all historians and can find common ground with that and generally you find you share other similar interests too (food interests, pets, books, TV, etc). And I'm in the positions where I can't go to bars (I'm 20) nor am I much interested in bars, so I generally find coffee, lunch, etc, is a good way to socialize plus it's easier to fit into a packed schedule.

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IMO, one should make at least one close friend as a graduate student in history. Eventually, you're going to need someone to call you on your b.s. when you rant and rave for getting a disappointing grade on an essay that you were sure, absolutely sure, would make Richard Hofstadter jump out of his grave and say "THAT'S WHAT I MEANT TO SAY!" 

That friend doesn't have to be in your cohort -- it could be a faculty member. But that's different. Or should be. 

IME, being in the mix socially with fellow graduate students can be a mixed bag. If the group is good overall, there's the opportunity for synergy. But there's also the opportunity for a bull session turning into a grouse session during which a common concern becomes an overblown issue ("Professor Xavier, he's so mean") that could be solved by a five minute conversation with said professor behind closed doors.

Or, you could make a very close friend who ends up being bat shit crazy and you don't realize how looney the person is until you're in the passenger seat during a high speed chase as your pal talks about the felonies he's going to commit on the driver he's pursuing. Fun times. Or so I've heard.

@SarahBethSortino, I urge you to relax and to be patient. It's going to be what it's going to be. Just understand that if you opt out of too many opportunities, the invitations will stop coming and you'll be fair game for the gossiping that goes on when first- and second-year students get together and yak about the latest show and whatever because they don't quite understand that every waking moment should be focused on preparing for qualifying exams. (That's your out. "I'd love to talk, but I'm scared shitless about quals. Did you know that we're technically responsible for the entirety of our fields?")

 

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21 hours ago, Sigaba said:

IMO, one should make at least one close friend as a graduate student in history. Eventually, you're going to need someone to call you on your b.s. when you rant and rave for getting a disappointing grade on an essay that you were sure, absolutely sure, would make Richard Hofstadter jump out of his grave and say "THAT'S WHAT I MEANT TO SAY!" 

That friend doesn't have to be in your cohort -- it could be a faculty member. But that's different. Or should be. 

IME, being in the mix socially with fellow graduate students can be a mixed bag. If the group is good overall, there's the opportunity for synergy. But there's also the opportunity for a bull session turning into a grouse session during which a common concern becomes an overblown issue ("Professor Xavier, he's so mean") that could be solved by a five minute conversation with said professor behind closed doors.

Or, you could make a very close friend who ends up being bat shit crazy and you don't realize how looney the person is until you're in the passenger seat during a high speed chase as your pal talks about the felonies he's going to commit on the driver he's pursuing. Fun times. Or so I've heard.

@SarahBethSortino, I urge you to relax and to be patient. It's going to be what it's going to be. Just understand that if you opt out of too many opportunities, the invitations will stop coming and you'll be fair game for the gossiping that goes on when first- and second-year students get together and yak about the latest show and whatever because they don't quite understand that every waking moment should be focused on preparing for qualifying exams. (That's your out. "I'd love to talk, but I'm scared shitless about quals. Did you know that we're technically responsible for the entirety of our fields?")

 

Hey there! 

I just started classes this week and I can definitely say I've reframed my whole way of thinking. The whole being older thing seems to matter not one bit and I'm taking my boyfriend and daughter to a departmental BBQ this weekend. My cohort is very nice and supportive and we are all commuter students, so it seems that social outings will be well planned but worthwhile. Everyone knows I'm a parent and even though I'm the only one among the group it seems like it's no big deal. I'm very happy with the group I have. Given that we're all commuters I'm actually considering holding some sort of social event at my apartment now to get us all together. Long story short I worried quite a bit more than I should have :-)

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  • 5 weeks later...

I want to input something that happened in the last few weeks and may help this forum.

As many of you know, I'm in candidacy. For people who are not in candidacy, this sometimes means that I know what I'm doing. I don't. I moved back from the field two months ago and still find it difficult to settle back. I've been writing a lot and receiving nothing but negative feedback. Don't get me wrong, my production is not at its best, but there is only so much that I can take in a short amount of time. 

Yesterday I was in my regular job and just wanted to cry. 

So, I got home and called a friend of mine, who is also in academia (already with a job) and just cried in front of her. I ranted and she gave me perspective: This is just a job. Feedback is good. Turn feedback into a to-do list. This too shall pass. 

This too shall pass. 

As you transit grad school and you develop your professional network, also develop a support network. Two or three go-to people with whom you can get it all out and then resume your writing/research/whatever. I can't begin to say how important such a network is for your mental health. Just to be clear: this is not a network to vent and period. It is a network to give perspective, to 'translate' what is going on into effective results, to help you move forward. 

My two cents. 

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8 hours ago, AP said:

As you transit grad school and you develop your professional network, also develop a support network. Two or three go-to people with whom you can get it all out and then resume your writing/research/whatever. I can't begin to say how important such a network is for your mental health. Just to be clear: this is not a network to vent and period. It is a network to give perspective, to 'translate' what is going on into effective results, to help you move forward. 

Very good advice, and I'm glad you have this to lean on. 

I was at a faculty development workshop this summer, and they talked about the importance of building a committee to help you with decisions and difficulties. People that you trust as scholars and as friends that can help you navigate difficult times, whether it's dealing with struggles in your job, struggles in your scholarship, or struggles in your teaching/service. 

I know some of my friends from grad school are busy, and we don't talk as much as we should- but when I have something I need to talk about, I can text them and we will Skype that night- and I do the same thing for them. I have lots of friends outside of academia, but it's the ones that are in it with me that I trust to give me honest and tempered feedback when I'm making decisions. 

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I always start feeling guilty when I participate in social events or hang out with friends. I think, "You should be writing now. Yeah, you should definitely be writing now."

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