Feeling like the odd man out in grad school
February 14, 2018 12:06 AM   Subscribe

I started grad school in the fall and I constantly feel like the odd man out amongst my cohort. It's starting to affect my enjoyment of the program and I can't figure out what needs to change so I either a) fit in better or b) care less.

I'm in a professional graduate program and I just feel like I'm not fitting in. I'm in my late 20s and I actually feel like I'm in middle school again. I feel left out and I haaaaate it.

From what I can tell, so many of the other students in the program have connected and become fast friends. While I on the other hand have not made any new friends in the program at all (aside from becoming Facebook 'friends'), I'm friendly with people... but yeah, nothing beyond chatting in class.

Now, I suppose this is my "fault." As I am in my late 20s, so I'm older than lots of my classmates who have just finished undergrad, I've been in the field we're in for about 6-ish years now, and I work part-time (and when I'm not at school, I'm at work!). So... naturally it makes sense that people who are in the program and can hang out at the department full-time can become fast-friends, I get it. It makes me feel envious to see these people hanging out together, or mentioning their group chats in class, I want to belong... but I am old and have a job!!!! I don't really want to work less... or spend my free time hanging out on campus. I don't know what I want! I guess I just don't want to feel like I don't fit in.

What can I do to get over these feelings, because I seriously feel fucking pathetic for feeling like this. I feel like a LOSER in our classes when I see this "core" group chatting, etc. We keep hearing from our professors that we'll be working with our cohort in professional settings when we graduate, we'll help each other out, etc., etc.... well who will care about me if I'm not part of the "core" group and have, at best, tenuous connections with the people in my program? Will it be okay if I don't make BFFs in grad school, but make acquaintances? It's already the second semester of our first year and these friend groups seem "solid" already.

I've also been struggling with a bad case of impostor syndrome, which I think has also dulled my enjoyment of grad school.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm about 10 years out of grad school and the people from then who I keep in professional contact with now are not at all my BFFs from that time. We did have tight-knit groups of friends then, but most of those drifted apart, because you never do know who will actually end up working adjacent to you (geographically, or in the same organisation, etc). There are a handful of people from that time who I have actually grown quite close to over the past couple of years because we've been thrown together now, and the fact we were at least acquaintances from grad school broke the ice and gave us a head-start getting to know each other over the other people around us now.

So no, I don't think it's a big issue if you are only acquaintances with the others in your program, vs being BFFs. In fact, that way you keep out of any social drama. Chances are there will be a few fallings out in those cliques before the end of grad school, and those people will then be worse off for future networking purposes than you will be.
posted by lollusc at 1:14 AM on February 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

I was an MBA student from a non-traditional background, at a more conservative school, to boot. I did not really gel with anyone in my section, the 90ish students that I was in class with, for the entire first semester, which was rough. I started to make friends my second semester, and now five years out have a circle of about seven of us who are very close -- we vacation yearly together, for example. I first made friends with a couple of this group based on common interests and backgrounds, and this later gelled into the larger group. To the extent that I was able to, I joined clubs and social activities, which helped. More of the weaker tie friendships came from working on group projects in our second year, when we were choosing our classes based on interests. We also had "learning teams", with the expectation that we would review cases and study together. While my learning team never clicked, some of my close friends really gelled with their learning teams and have had longer lasting relationships with them. Can you try to form or join a study group? (It'll be like your own version of Community!)

We did not have a part-time program, but we had plenty of "mature ticket-punchers", mostly guys out of the military who needed a master's to move on/up in their careers, and these folks mostly hung out with each other and their families. It sounds like you would fall in this category, but maybe that means there are others who are feeling similarly and you can shout about the young ones getting off your lawns together.

I suggest that many, MANY of your cohort are also dealing with impostor syndrome and are just not talking about it (to you, anyway, but probably not much to each other, either). It is really difficult moving from being one of the smartest in the room, to being surrounded with peers who are as smart or smarter than you.

I wouldn't worry about making close friends with everyone for "professional reasons" because the sheer fact of you both having attended the same program is going to get you 60-70% of the network effect. "Hey, I'm an alum of $School, just like you! Yay! How 'bout them Tigers? Remember ol' Professor Whatshername? Yeah, she was a trip. Anyway, can I ask you about what it's like to work for $Company?"

There's a lot of ambivalence in your question about how much investment you want to put into making friends. I know it's difficult to juggle schoolwork, a job, and other existing social ties, but if you don't put in the facetime, you won't develop relationships with people. Some of these relationships just come from the pressures of proximity and time. I definitely think you can address the impostor syndrome by finding others who feel similarly, which may open some doors. I never felt like I fit in during my program, which was sort of okay because lots of them adhered to a philosophy of business that I vehemently disagree with. It sucked while I was there but it ceased to matter about a week after I graduated.
posted by emkelley at 3:44 AM on February 14, 2018

Every single friend I made in grad school came as the result of working on a group project together. I was working full time and attending classes at night, which was pretty common at that school. So we all had the same challenges. Surely you aren't the only person in the program that's a few years older and has a job too? Find those people. The kids going straight from undergrad to grad school are basically just extending college two more years and they are very much in a "college student" mindset. You really aren't.

FWIW, 20+ years later I'm still in touch with exactly one of those people that I spent so much time with during grad school.
posted by COD at 4:58 AM on February 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not sure why it seems so important to you to be friends with grad school colleagues as opposed to friendly acquaintances, but this is just kind of how it works for people out of college and over the age of 21 working in the world. You and your life and work obligations are totally within the realm of normality. You will no doubt become closer to and fond of some of them as you work together on various projects, but it'll be of-the-moment friendships, probably not "true" friendships, which are rare and generally found in unexpected places, usually not at work or school.
posted by Gnella at 5:43 AM on February 14, 2018

I’ve been there - I went to law school at 27 after working as a paralegal. I had been living on my own in a grown-up way for years and I felt so different from the 21 year olds just out of college. But in retrospect, it was all me - no one thought I was “old,” no one acted like I was different, but I stood apart and never let myself just hang out and be with my classmates. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I probably thought I was better (more mature?) than them on some level. I wish I had just lightened up and not been so judgy and enjoyed my time more.
posted by amro at 6:35 AM on February 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hey, I'm also older and back in a professional grad school program. In my case, I'm definitely the oldest (30s), the only one with kids, and the only one with a true career. (My workplace is sponsoring my program). I feel like this stuff shouldn't bother me, but it does. This term I started eating lunch in the lounge and chatting, instead of working through lunch. It's nicer, and I do feel like a friendly acquaintance now, not like that old lady.

What helps me is making efforts to see and chat with my actual friends. It's lonely at school, and it helps to remember I have my own life. Good luck!
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:11 AM on February 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't know squat about grad student cohorts, but you can't hit it off with everyone, and there's no way to know that just if you dropped out of your job to spend time making friends, that you would. Just because you are circumstantially close for the next few years doesn't make you guaranteed buddies, family and friends for life. That may not happen, due to your circumstances being different or just personalities being different.

I think you could try to make yourself more available when you can, like someone mentioned about being around during lunch, and group projects. But you can't force things and it only makes people mad if you try to.

I was in a similar situation recently: I was in a show where most of the people in it knew each other already through a school they all attended during the day. I've attended the school but at night since I have a day job (and I don't go there any more) and I just knew I wasn't going to have the same hangout opportunities to get to know people. Everyone was nice but clearly there were cliques when it came to getting into certain pieces, the same clique people were picked to be in all the dance numbers, etc. Annoying, but what can you do? To some degree you gotta accept it. I did, however, hang around and get to know people during rehearsals and at least made circumstantial friends, even if since I mostly won't run into any of them again, it's not likely to last for the rest of my life. It sucks, but that's circumstantial friends for ya.

One other point: there's a difference between not being in the clique because they don't know you well, and them actively hating your ass. Right now they don't hate you, so there's potential for improvement. You just need to lower your expectations and be more available when you can be, at school.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:24 AM on February 14, 2018

Be proactive. Choose a couple of likely candidates and invite them to do something. (I say two because it might be more comfortable for getting-to-know-you than one on one.) If that doesn't turn into reciprocal invitations, or at least inclusion of you in group conversations, repeat with a couple more people. It takes time - I didn't make good friends in grad school the first year, either. Also check out people in programs related to yours. Maybe they aren't in the same major, but they may be in your survey courses or have offices in the same building as you. "Your people" are out there! You're only just a little bit older than the rest of the crowd, and there will definitely be folks like you around who have extended responsibilities. Good luck!
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:40 AM on February 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was friendly acquaintances with people in grad school, and even tried a few slightly awkward outings with people I liked the best, but never became part of the group. It was uncomfortable, (especially because we had a group thesis project, ugh). I made friends with people from my part-time job and had a better time once I started caring less about being friends with people in the program.

I went on to work in the field and don't keep in touch with a single one of them. Grad school would have been less awful, and my work networking easier, if I could have brought myself to make a friend or two. But looking back, I don't know if I'd have done it differently. So maybe try inviting a person or two for coffee? But also know that you can go on to good work without being a grad school social star.
posted by ldthomps at 10:43 AM on February 14, 2018

I went through something similar while getting my MLS: I worked full-time in a library on campus, and took classes part-time. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and my then-boyfriend now-husband and I had moved across the country away from friends and family to go to this school -- so I felt uprooted generally in addition to feeling out of the loop with my cohort. A few things that helped:

1. Nurturing current friendships. I kept in touch with friends via online projects and fandoms, and made new friends there.

2. Work connections and duties. I made as many connections as I could at my job, since it was in the type professional setting where I wanted to end up.

And specifically re the cohort:

3. Time passed and we all grew more familiar with each other. Sorry, I know that's not much for advice. But since I didn't see this group every day it was the only way I was going to get to know them, and while it happened much more slowly than I would've liked, it did eventually happen.

4. Work with your fellow students on group projects, or individually. I got to know members of my cohort best when we had to rely on each other for a project, or when we interned at the same place. I still chat with those people occasionally, and I wouldn't hesitate to refer them for jobs or whatever.

But ultimately I wouldn't say I am actual friend-friends with more than one or two of my former cohort. We have a kind of historical/geographical camaraderie, and that's about it. I'd say if you want friendship, you have to pay attention to what they're doing, help organize outings (or parties or whatever they like to do), and probably spend more time on campus or at their houses then you are now.

But I also agree with the above posters saying it's okay to have your life-life separate from school life! I think you can get the same professional bump from profs that you could from your cohort. You could also try to broaden your horizons to cohorts and classmates in an older or different cohort -- my husband did that and still keeps in touch with those folks, as they had a bit more in common.
posted by pepper bird at 10:46 AM on February 14, 2018

When I was in grad school (at a traditional fresh-out-of-undergrad age), there was a group of us that banded together to do homework. We had all been to small colleges, broad backgrounds rather than super-focused, and felt like we were scrambling to keep up in BigUniversity grad school classes. I felt like we were the remedial grad student work group. It turns out there were people who thought we were the elitist cool kids and didn't want to hang out with them... and those were the guys from technical schools who I thought were cranking out the homework in a spare hour after dinner because they were geniuses, but in fact they were struggling with it just like us. So eventually by year 2 we ironed things out, but we could have been much friendlier much earlier if we'd just talked.

Given that part of it is a schedule conflict, just ask some of your classmates "hey, are you getting together to work on X? Is it ok if I come? Text me when you know where to meet". And maybe you can't go then, but it's better to be on the list and not able to make it, than not getting the texts. Just ask.
posted by aimedwander at 10:59 AM on February 14, 2018

I was one of the "core" group of friends in grad school. Went straight through from college, made fast friends with some of my classmates before school started in the fall, and was generally part of the social scene even if I wasn't close friends with everyone (or even a large chunk of) the program.

Given where you are in the program, though the friend groups may be "solid" now, that doesn't mean they don't have room for one more. My circle of friends changed throughout my three years of grad school, evolving from those I happened to be in the same classes with or lived near to those who were a better fit/friends with me as a whole. So don't let that stop you from reaching out.

And though it shouldn't keep you from living your own life, away from school, your professors are right about a piece of your network coming from who you meet in school. The best networking advice I ever got was that you should make connections with people at "your level" in school/work. Even though they may not be titans of industry or whatever at this point, as everyone works their way up in their careers there is a moment where you turn around and realize that the people you went to happy hour with in school are now partners/CEOs/whatever and may be in a position to help you (or vice-versa).
posted by craven_morhead at 11:06 AM on February 14, 2018

I totally get why you'd like to be friends with people at school. Without having some examples of "what they say/do" and then "what you say/do", it's hard to say how to bond. But I think the same rules apply to this as do any other group. I'd say suggest things to do that you have heard them talk about or know they would be interested in. Host things as well. If they are getting together to work on a project, say hey I'll bring the pizza (everyone loves that guy). Or suggest meeting up at your place for a potluck or another place for a drink before hand. Another suggestion is to be genuinely interested in them or what they're talking about & ask for advice/collaboration.

Also, it might take a project assigned by class to bring you & your peers together & you'll get an opportunity to make a connection then. I was a part-time grad student & it wasn't until a group project that people actually got to know what a great sense of humor I have because I was sort of just in and out of classes then off to work.

Also, just see this time as passively getting to know people and thinking about who you actually like and would like to chat more with when given the opportunity. Best of luck!
posted by PeaPod at 11:11 AM on February 14, 2018

I’m also on the older side in my grad program and I absolutely HATE the middle-school cafeteria feeling of picking partners for projects and who to sit next to.

Sometimes it seems like people are being clique-y but really I think it’s just that people are awkward and not sure how to introduce themselves or get the ball rolling. It’s not so much that people are in cliques as everyone feels new and insecure and just wants to sit next to whoever they think of as “safe.”

I know it’s hard and awkward but just making the effort helped me a lot. If someone says something smart in class I will approach them and say “hi I’m xxxx what’s your name? I thought what you said about y,z,d was so smart! What other classes are you taking/have you heard of xyz thing?”

Not perfect but it helps.
posted by forkisbetter at 1:48 PM on February 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can understand your situation. The only members of my grad school cohort with whom I became at all friendly were two in pretty similar situations.

However, I assume you have an entire university around you. Look outside your apartment and seek out other people who have crossed paths with you in the past. In my case, I had one fraternity brother who was working in the same city, and one who was in some different sort of program. Even someone who who knew only slightly in past, or even just someone from your hometown or undergraduate school may be open to a friendship. After all, they're looking for friends too.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:13 PM on February 14, 2018

Just making acquaintances is totally okay. Don't despair!

My grad school experience sounds like yours--I was working and several years older than most of my classmates. I was somewhat friendly with my fellow students but never made actual friends. Sometimes that made me feel bad but then I'd remind myself that I already had a lot of great friends and years of real world experiences that were more valuable to me than essentially going right back to college again at the age of 22.

Now I work with a lot of great people, some of whom have become friends of mine. I also work with some fellow graduates from my program, but to be honest they're not my favorite people. Just because you don't click with your classmates doesn't mean that you won't befriend and network with tons of other interesting people in your field. I know I have. And I know everyone always stresses the importance of networking and being BFFs with your cohort for life, but I managed to do just fine without that. I am a little jealous of people I know who did have those things, but I like my non-grad school friends and my coworkers and I like my job and I have no regrets (about not investing more time in grad school social life, anyway!). Hope things improve for you!
posted by ferret branca at 7:04 PM on February 14, 2018

Alright, I'll tell you the truth: in my grad school program, there were some "odd people out" who just stayed on the outskirts. But! There were also some who were older and probably not "core" (there were a lot of core cohorts, so it wasn't as obvious as your situation sounds) or super BFFs with anyone, who nevertheless made good connections.

- Don't be "wacky" or a "know it all." The older students who didn't fit in either had developed a specialty that was kind of "their thing" to the exclusion of much of our subject matter, or just felt superior to all the rest of us. It was cool that they knew more! But it was annoying that they had such a jaded, eye rolling attitude toward things.
- Try to build little one on one connections by having short conversations and being interested in people.
- Try to bond with any of the other students who do work, because then you're less solo and more just part of a different group.

Good luck! I'm sure this is not as noticeable to anyone but you!
posted by salvia at 1:45 AM on February 15, 2018

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