How to fit in with your classmates when you'd rather be independent
September 1, 2014 8:32 AM   Subscribe

My program seems really social. I'm not really a bubbly social person, and I enjoy solitude. How can I still fit in with the group while preserving my precious, precious alone time?

My program only has 13 people in it and all of us are in at least the 2 core courses together, if not more. All of our classes are in the same building as are the computer labs with the programs we need for some of our production courses. So, we will be spending a lot of time together and are expected to collaborate a lot (group projects, extracurricular activities, etc. . .)

My undergrad program was similar, there were less than 10 of us in the program, we had all courses together, and also were always in the same building outside of class due to needing to use the computer programs specific to that course, as well as spending hours in the practice rooms (I was in music) which were also in that building. I had mental health problems in my undergrad....but I was also unhappy due to this environment, which felt suffocating to me. ( I know I'm being a bit of a princess here. . . what I'm trying to say is that I feel more capable, more confident, more daring, more focused, when I am by myself)

There seems to be an expectation in the program that we will all become close friends very quickly. It seems like it's going to be a very social environment. But something inside of me is saying, "no!! I don't want to be tied down to these people!"

In my 3 years since undergrad I've learned a lot about myself as an adult...I enjoy luxuriating in solitude... I accomplish more when I work alone.... and I don't like having all my friends in one place or one group. I have more courage when I am by myself.

How do I take advantage of this opportunity to collaborate with people in my field while also preserving my ability to be my best self, which is my self when I am alone? How do I avoid seeming like that snobby, unfriendly one in the group? And how can I look at this in a more positive way?

posted by winterportage to Human Relations (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Socializing with your peers in grad school isn't about finding your new best friend, and it doesn't have to be about going out, getting drunk, or being together 24/7. It is about building your professional network, and done right, these people will support you (and vice versa) for the rest of your career. Look for opportunities to network and get close to each other in professional environments (networking events, volunteering opportunities, academic/professional groups, professional societies, etc.). Don't blow this off - the people who do it well have a huge leg up in their careers, and even while still in school.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:40 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: "There seems to be an expectation in the program that we will all become close friends very quickly"
Respectfully, that's your own stuff. You have to work together as a team, not mate for life. Building professional connections isn't the same as sharing deep soul secrets at a sleep-over. In such a small program, I'd predict that there will be a honeymoon phase where everyone loves everyone else, then there will be a withdrawal phase, and then you'll all learn to chug along as the work progresses. You may accomplish more working alone, but learning how to collaborate is part of this program, so you might as well figure out how to flourish in both atmospheres.

You make time for yourself by doing those things that you enjoy and that nourish you--yoga, volunteering, hiking, the gym, reading, drawing--whatever it is. You build that time into your schedule and you don't need to apologize for it or explain to anyone. I doubt you're the only introverted personality in the program.
If you're still in communications, knowing how to lead a team is very useful skill, as is knowing how to be part of a team.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:49 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My program is also quite small, and I felt similar pressures as you did when I first started.

Pick a few academic/extracurricular activities and show that you are a cordial, dependable colleague, as NotMyselfRightNow pointed out, you're not here to find new best friends (and, actually, neither are the others-- I think by the time people reach grad school, people are not necessarily at a point in their lives where they are trying to "find themselves" and find new friends)-- you're here to learn from your peers, understand the academic culture of your discipline and/or institution, and build your professional network. Despite how small your program is, and how it may feel that everybody knows everybody else's business, it doesn't mean that you have to share intimate details of your life. Instead, it can mean that you might have to learn how to build rapport with people through small talk so that collaborating on projects goes over more smoothly later on.

Setting a clear boundary as to how much you'd like to interact with your classmates can help you protect your alone time. For example, perhaps you can commit to one or two "social" meetings a week and not let it go over that amount. Try to meet people outside of your academic discipline so that things don't feel as stifling.

I, too, am an independent worker. But note that grad school is hard, and you can be missing out on a good support network if you cut yourself off completely from your peers.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 8:53 AM on September 1, 2014

Especially if you're not doing a Ph.D., grad school friendships just don't tend to be as intense as undergrad friendships. Both because you're generally not all (as others have said) at the "finding your social self" stage in your lives, and also because by grad school, a lot of students have spouses and children and already-established lives, so there's not as much pressure among classmates to be "everything" to each other.

I like gemutlichkeit's suggestions of setting boundaries about how much to socialize (and you can set those internally; you don't have to share them with your classmates). A good skill to develop as an introvert is learning how to bow out of social events gracefully and without guilt. "Oh, I'd love to, but I already have plans" is a good one -- staying at home to watch stupid tv and recharge is definitely a plan.

Definitely prioritize getting together for any group projects or assigned work, and be more judicious with the purely social outings.
posted by jaguar at 9:07 AM on September 1, 2014

Best answer: And there's no need to think of yourself as being "a bit of a princess." You need some amount of alone time to function well. That's it. Nothing princessy about it, unless you're making big dramatic swoony statements all the time about how you can't possibly work under these conditions!

The more matter-of-fact you can be, even in your own head, about your very reasonable needs, the easier it'll be to meet them.
posted by jaguar at 9:10 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are two different questions here.

The first is the general issue of being an introvert in a situation where you're required to spend a lot of time with other people. And there, the usual introvert hacks apply. Make yourself a sanctuary of alone time to recharge, where you can be alone. Schedule time for yourself. Be OK with turning down the occasional party invite. It's OK to say no to social stuff you don't want to do.

But the second question is a little harder, because you're basically saying you don't want to be friends with these people who you've signed up to spend years working closely with (and in a situation where you should have known this would be the case). And you seem to be catastrophizing a little about this. I would assume that you already have some friends who are not in this program. OK, so not all your friends are "in one place or one group". If you want to make more friends like that, you could also take up another hobby or activity that isn't related to your grad program. Maybe you have a side job? That's another good source of other friends. I think past about the third grade, most people don't only socialize with the kids in their class. But if you want to have other friendships, you're going to need to maintain those other friendships.

One of the larger lessons of adult working life is learning to get on well with your colleagues without necessarily being best friends. I work in a field which is a huge time sink, which means I often spend a lot more time with coworkers I may or may not even like than I spend with my closest friends. You just learn to get through it. Remind yourself that your classmates are colleagues, not besties.

However, one of the secrets to good relationships with your colleagues is sometimes doing social things outside of work. They don't have to be your main social circle, but you do need to go along to drinks or tailgating or someone's barbecue sometimes. You don't always have to go, but going sometimes will make you seem less like a snob who hates everyone, or whatever it is you're trying to avoid.

Also, if you don't want to come off as unfriendly, be friendly. You can be a pleasant and helpful person without spending every waking second with your grad school peers.
posted by Sara C. at 9:19 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

These people may be the people who get you jobs in the future. I'm also an introvert/loner, but I deeply regret not better getting to know my grad school classmates. Think of them as colleagues like Sara C. suggested, and negotiate with yourself about what activities you can do with them.
posted by wintersweet at 9:25 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd read Quiet by Susan Cain as a way of feeling the base ok ness of being introverted...and then fake it as much as possible. Extroversion is highly valued for teams and stuff right now.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:51 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It seems like this is the beginning of your program, right? I would suggest that you try to relax and enjoy socializing a little bit during the first few weeks. This is generally the time when the most emphasis is placed on social and extracurricular stuff; and there are some good reasons for that. It's good to get to know folks now, for example, so that later on when you need to collaborate with them on assignments, you'll be working with known quantities.

Even if you found the small group environment suffocating in your undergrad program, you don't know yet that grad school will be like that. It could be that there will be a few weeks in September when you're expected to spend a lot of time getting to know each other, but that after that you'll all be working more independently and will be too busy for there to be an expectation of spending social or extracurricular time together. You may be able to quite naturally pull back to a level of interaction that feels more comfortable and sustainable to you, once the regular routine of the semester kicks in.

One good way to put some preliminary boundaries in place now is to make it clear that you have other commitments. This can help you avoid coming across as a snob, because instead of saying "No, I don't want to get drinks tonight" you can say "Oh, sorry, I go to a class at the gym on Tuesdays" (or whatever--it should be concrete, and hopefully true). As well as being a graceful way to decline on one occasion, it also establishes a pattern of unavailablity that can protect your future Tuesdays as well.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:04 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first month or so of starting a program isn't representative of the amount of socializing that will occur for the duration of the program. There's a real push initially to meet each other and get comfortable, because you'll need to have each other's backs in core classes and be ready for collaborative group work and bouncing ideas back and forth. By the time November roles around, people might grab drinks informally once a week, if that. My department has a standing "First Friday" happy hour every month, but outside of that monthly happy hour, I don't socialize with most of the people from my cohort and rarely see them around.

One thing that you might want to check with older grad students is faculty expectations for socializing and showing up to department events. For example, our department chair is very particular about people showing up to that happy hour, department talks, and the receptions after department talks, so everyone makes an effort to be there present, friendly, and visible for those (otherwise it will negatively affect chances for funding and the like). You should get a feel for what expectations are in your department, and prioritize that way.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:11 AM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was about to write up a whole thing, but it pretty much comes down to "what ChuraChura said."
posted by pemberkins at 10:15 AM on September 1, 2014

I think you're kind of setting yourself up for failure with all that talk about you being your best self when you're alone. Hopefully, the reason you're going to grad school is to set yourself up for a successful career; no matter what field you're in, even if the work itself isn't usually done collaboratively, part of that success is going to be having a network of peers in the field who know and like you, and this is one of your best opportunities to start building it.

Not taking advantage of that falls into the same category as not doing the reading or not studying for exams, where it's ultimately a kind of self-sabotage however one rationalizes it. It's fine not to socialize with them constantly, but I guarantee into that if you do go into the interactions you do have with them with the attitude that socializing with them at all is an imposition that is tying you down and preventing you from being your best self, people will pick up on that and will indeed think of you as unfriendly.

I think the best way to frame it is just like, you're an introvert, you need lots of time alone to be at your best, and that's totally ok and nothing to be ashamed of, but introverts also need to be social sometimes just as extroverts need to be self-reflective sometimes, and part of maturing is to find that balance.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:57 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks. It's good to know what an opportunity I would miss if I stuck to myself. I'll just have to do my best to become friendly with my classmates while maintaining some semblance of a life outside of school as well. It's good to know I can change my mindset before entering school and wasting the opportunity. I'll come back to this thread when I need the reminder :)
posted by winterportage at 3:29 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

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