Social Networks

I describe myself as painfully extroverted. I know I’m really wiped when I feel the NEED for more than an hour or two of alone time. Thus, I’ve been very fortunate that building up a social network comes relatively easy to me. As an aside, I will say that being an introvert doesn’t mean someone ISN’T social, they just need more alone time to recharge.  But the point of today’s post is there’s value in making time to socialize, so there’s no need to feel guilty in taking some time out of the day to do so.

There’s the direct benefit of building up your social network to support you through thick and thin. There’s plenty of research to back up that doing so can help buffer the effects of stress. I used to work in a lab that focused on studying baboons, a very social primate, and had findings such as this (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2014.1261).

During my first year, in addition to the usual grad school transition, I went through a major upheaval in my personal life. I had come into grad school engaged to a long-term partner and six months into grad school was dealing with the financial and emotional fallout of canceling a wedding and grieving a would have been marriage. Part of why I made it through was that a lab mate and I had standing coffee dates once a week. That let me feel comfortable finally sharing what was going on with someone in my lab. After that conversation and support from her, it was even easier to let my whole lab know I needed help. I even found out one of my lab mates had gone through the same challenge her first year and I was relieved to feel immensely less alone.

In addition to building a social support system, you also never know what useful information you’ll come across. In between drafting and editing this post, I meet with someone to do an informational interview. My goal was to learn about volunteer opportunities to gain skills relevant to that path. Well turns out there’s a small paid position for graduate students to do some of this work and I’m in the market for paying gig to top off my stipend. This meeting ending with an introduction to the person who hires that position and better odds at landing this job.

Now that last bit might sound manipulative – make social connections so you can use them to your advantage! The system only works if everyone in the network is willing to contribute. My initial connection was because I volunteered for a panel organized by the person I was interviewing. I didn’t volunteer thinking it could lead me to a potential part-time job, but out of a desire to pay forward help I’ve received in the past.

Looping back around to my coffee dates with a lab mate, those meetups were just as important to her. Down the line, I would be one of the first people in our lab that she confided in that she was considering dropping out. We created a connection where I felt comfortable telling her my engagement wasn’t working and she felt safe sharing that doing a PhD wasn’t turning out to be what she wanted. Now she’s living across the country working in a data science job she enjoys. We’re still a significant piece of each other’s social networks through sporadic skype dates and novella-sized texts. Once I post this, I’m going to text her.

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