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August 21, 2018 6:25 PM   Subscribe

I live in a certain city in the Midwest because my academic collaborators are here. I've been trying to put down roots in this city, but it really seems like all the communities I care about are on either coast, not here. I'm going to be here for at least another three years. How do I keep from going mad in the meantime?

I'm a PhD student entering my third year, and PhDs here usually take six years. I really like my advisors, collaborators, and team, who are based at a particular city in the Midwest. We're working on something great that has momentum, that I want to make happen. It's basically my dream job! So dropping out of my PhD program is (almost certainly) out of the question. I care deeply about doing my brand of research and I'd be unhappy if I gave up that opportunity.

However, the other folks in the grad program here are not really my people. I've been here two years already and put in a good amount of effort in attending department/university social events. I've also organized several of my own, and joined the student government, etc. Despite that, I haven't met people I'd consider close friends. (I live with people who I like well enough, but it's a shadow of the experience I had living with friends elsewhere.) I've also put a decent amount of effort into trying to join various scenes in the city, and have fallen out of them for various reasons (their being overwhelmingly white-male-dominated was a chief reason).

The communities that I really feel part of are based in New York and San Francisco. (I know, I know.) I've lived and worked in both those cities. I have very specific interests in my personal work (I call my work "My Weird Bullshit" but others might call it an "artistic practice") and I know lots of diverse people who share those interests on both coasts. Close friends who would become closer, potential collaborators who might become actual collaborators. I recently visited friends on one coast, and the visit was as wonderful as I feared it would be. They tried to persuade me to stay, too. I could see myself being very happy on either coast. But if I leave, I leave my academic advisors, collaborators, and team.

The city I'm currently in is ostensibly a decent place for My Weird Bullshit, but I keep trying to meet people who care about what I care about, and we just don't stick. I feel like there's no momentum or gravity in my relationships here. Several people here that I like greatly have just decided to move out of this city.

I feel trapped. I'm having problems concentrating on my work because I keep fantasizing about how much happier I would be elsewhere. I write a lot of correspondence, do a lot of Skype calls, and send a lot of Slack messages on the weekends. That helps, but it's not enough. I can't spend all of my time indoors and online. I've recently taken to strolling around without direction on the weekends, ostensibly a weekend jogger, but really just trying to get lost and not come back. That's not a great way to live.

One friend suggested commuting from here to New York. Maybe, but it's a seven-hour drive one-way, and I need to be physically present for another few semesters to take classes and teach classes.

Living here could make me stronger, and I could help make this city a place better for people like me, if I were able to start or join some kind of studio space or community space. I don't have the critical mass or connections that I would elsewhere. But I've started and maintained organizations before, and if I could start something here, I would put in the time and effort to make it great.
posted by icosahedron to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This may vary, depending upon your program's particular structure and the specifics of Your Weird Bullshit and how you're performing your research, but in a lot of PhD programs, many people fall off the face of the earth starting in their third or fourth year and don't resurface in a meaningful social way until they complete their dissertations. The timing can vary, but for my cohort, the third year -- when most people took their comps and started the diss in earnest -- meant a drastic reduction in friends-time, and even basic facetime with other humans. As you get farther into your work, you're not going to have a great deal of time for socializing -- probably less than you had in your first few years. This is particularly likely to be true if those years have mostly been coursework and TAing/teaching. Honestly, "indoors/online" about sums up my most recent chunk of lived experience. It's been the same for most in my cohort. Those who manage to carve out even tiny slivers of time for non-work-related anything are lucky, and most can't do it often.

When you get farther along (and/or when your funding/teaching line runs out, again depending on your program's structure), you can certainly move back to one of your communities! Lots of people move back home, or to a place that suits them better, in the last few years of a PhD, when the early research is done. But if you're otherwise happy in your department, have decent faculty advising, and are well-supported in your research, stay where you are. Departments are always a crapshoot and good academic situations are vanishingly rare. Making "close friends" in grad school isn't really that common, in my experience, so I'd gently suggest you may not want to chase that goal, or be too down that it hasn't happened.

Just remember: this isn't forever. Grad school is pretty all-consuming, and the years can really fly by. And your life will change quite a bit once you finish your PhD -- you'll almost certainly be moving to a different city, then.
posted by halation at 6:42 PM on August 21, 2018 [13 favorites]

There are likely FTW and POC in your city who share your interests but don't have the confidence, connections or experiences to nurture what you know is possible. You're in the position to catalyze something amazing. I think you know it. Even if it fails, it will help pass the time, you'll gain new experiences as a leader, and I suspect you'd find it energizing.
posted by rockyraccoon at 6:44 PM on August 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

strolling around without direction
Exploring is good! This is a sign you are trying to be happy.

I could help make this city a place better for people like me,
Do it! Volunteer to feed people or at an animal shelter or a nursing home, or just do good works. If you can't transfer and finish your PhD elsewhere, you really should try to get it done. Find a way to fight back against the despair you feel. Maybe do some therapy.

If NYC is only seven hours away, you can try to manage your time off to make trips there to see friends and bathe in the vibes. Three years sounds like a long time but if you can fly or take a train to New York every three months, that could be the scooby snack that keeps you nose to the grindstone and gets the degree in your hand. Break the three years down 3 or 4 month chunks and give yourself an awesome reward each time you complete one.

Good luck and good spirits.
posted by vrakatar at 6:45 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some of this trouble with finding people who stick might be not because of the location in the midwest but because of graduate school. It can be a difficult, disorienting, liminal experience for many people, and many of them are probably not from that city anyway. Graduate school can also be a time of deep bonding, but not always.
If the experience of your graduate program is not fostering collaboration and intimacy and that is hard for you consider finishing your course work and doing exams and the rest from another city, if you can afford not to have a teaching fellowship or other local support.
posted by nantucket at 6:58 PM on August 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have wrestled with this issue, as have many of my close friends. So here’s some scattered thoughts:

Maybe think a bit about coastal elitism and
what it means to scholars and academics in ‘uncool’ noncoastal areas.

Maybe ponder what it’s worth to own a nice home on an academic’s salary, etc.

Some of my colleagues would prefer to starve and scrounge in a shared rooftop tent in SF, but I’d rather have nice things in the Midwest, ymmv.

Also consider that you have virtually no experience with the town if you’ve only lived there a few years.

Finally note that if you are going to pursue a traditional academic career, you will most likely have to pick the jobs that match your field, and be willing to move wherever. This may be a bit different if you are a hotshot in a hot field, but you still can’t count on moving to your preferred city to do your preferred work.

You can find anyone of any stripe at a large state university town, and if you can’t its because you haven’t looked properly. Your vagueness also isn’t helping here, I bet if you posted your region and your interests, you could use online fora to help you find your people, be it short term or long.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:38 PM on August 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

Agreeing with others that the social intensity decrease as people finish with coursework.

But this is the academic life. Find your people outside of your department.
posted by k8t at 8:19 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm highly biased from my own experiences with grad school, and from what I know of my friends' experiences. But I'm really hearing like you should put some consideration into the idea that this:
I feel trapped. I'm having problems concentrating on my work because I keep fantasizing about how much happier I would be elsewhere.
Has very little to do with the physical place that you're in right now. I recommend therapy, and I'm not saying that to be glib, it's almost something I think should be a standard part of grad school just as blanket support. But it does sound like you specifically might be in a mental place where it could be helpful to figure things out.
posted by traveler_ at 9:44 PM on August 21, 2018

First, read Halation's post.

Next, conserve your energy, withdraw, and choose your targets carefully. Your social life is that of a sniper. Observe them first, know their habits, and only then expend the effort. You do not, in all likelihood, want to settle down in this city, so do not behave as though that is your goal.

Your degree is your goal.

Speaking personally, I found a line of Dante to be useful in focusing my attention. Your degree may be different, but there is going to be something.
posted by aramaic at 11:02 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

The thing that stands out to me is the things you've pointed to in terms of trying to find your place are all related to the department or university. It's certainly possible that you're in a place where much of the population is affiliated with the university, so truly outside friends are hard to come by, but unless student government is your thing, it's not really the first place I'd look for kindred spirits. Thinking about the people I went to grad school with, people generally had between zero and two close friends in the department and their social lives were mostly Other Stuff with Other People.
posted by hoyland at 2:51 AM on August 22, 2018

You don't say what subject you're in, so this may not be relevant to your experience, but I was in math and the first two years involved spending a lot of time with people doing homework. That creates the illusion of friendship, whether you're thinking about your own relationships or looking at others in the department who seem to get on fabulously with each other. Of course, spending hours with someone is a good way to become friends with them and that's how I think many people's friendships in the department were formed. But as time marches on, these people shake out into close friends, "average" friends, people you'd say you're friends with but aren't really a core part of your social circle and people with whom you've spent a lot of time and shared an experience, but you're not really friends. I ran into someone in the last group at a conference last year and it was great hanging out and catching up, but I doubt either of us would look the other up if find ourselves in the other's city. I also discovered that we had totally different perceptions of who the other was friends with in the department--other people probably have fewer department friends than you think they do.
posted by hoyland at 3:04 AM on August 22, 2018

I spent five years of my life in a city I hated, like loathe to the core. Professionally I'm glad I stuck it out, but personally, I was pretty miserable. The thing that got me through was reminding myself that this was temporary, and that as soon as I was done, I was DONE. (Haven't been back but once since leaving, and that was for a friend's wedding.) You are 1/3 of the way done with your program! Soon it will be halfway! Make a countdown calendar.

I will say, NYC and SF are very very different, in terms of culture, climate, amenities. What is it you like about them? Have you spent time in one vs the other? Identifying specifically what you like about these cities (beyond just "cool people") might help you find something closer to home that scratches that itch.
posted by basalganglia at 3:55 AM on August 22, 2018

This is the academic life. It's smart to try to make friends outside the university if possible. But as a fellow academic myself, I'll say -- being nomadic and finding that I click with very few people, ever, seems to be the rule and not the exception for us.
posted by sockermom at 5:06 AM on August 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

So, I think I can determine what city and school you're in, and it's a city I'm quite familiar with, so my answer will be colored by that.

I can see why you think the city and its scenes don't measure up to SF or NYC. People who haven't spent time in SF or NYC can say that there are midwestern cities that can compare in terms of artsiness or nightlife, but no, it's not the same. It's kind of like Plato's cave. Especially if it's the city I'm thinking of, there are scenes that really try to imitate the coastal scenes, but they're just that, imitations. It's just trend-following rather than actual creativity, for the most part. Whatever people were doing in Brooklyn last year, that's what's cool there now. So I don't blame you for not falling in with those scenes.

My first advice, then, is to stop comparing the city you're in now to SF or NYC, because it won't compare. (This is easier said than done for me, because I literally think every day about how much happier I'd be in my old city than where I am now, but it's still important.) Try to appreciate your city for its own strengths. And of course, that means figuring out what those strengths are in the first place. I had a friend from high school who went to college at Fordham, and when he came home for Christmas break his freshman year, he was all about New York everything. At one point, he complained that he couldn't believe there were no New York-style delis in the little town we grew up in. Another friend, who went to school closer to home, responded "well, do you have any [little town we grew up in]-style delis in New York?" That should be your first goal, finding [your city]-style delis (or whatever), rather than NY/SF-style ones.

My second advice is to bring your friends from NY or SF to your new city and show them what you found in step one. I still don't like the city I live in now, and like I said, I still think about my old city every day, but when I have friends or family visit me, I get oddly proud of my current city. I really enjoy taking them to the local restaurants I've found, or the parks, or whatever. When my mom and sister visited in December, we went to the tree-lighting ceremony downtown, things like that, and that made me really appreciate what my new city had to offer. It will also clarify an important point for you: is the problem the city, or the people? Is it really a crappy city, or do you just not have the social ties like you did elsewhere? If you and your out-of-town friends can have a good time, the problem isn't the city; it's that you haven't met anyone who you like as much as your friends yet.

For young people on the coasts, especially, there's a certain mentality that looks down on the midwest, and so in my experience it's hard for them to take interest in even visiting. My wife (who was in an extremely similar position to you when she and I first started dating) actually arranged a job interview for an unemployed friend then living in New York with a pretty well-known company in their field that would have been based in our midwestern city, and for that reason, the person declined to even interview. My wife's friends and family on the coasts almost never visited, with the exception of one person who was sent there for her job. It's important, first of all, to break yourself of this mentality, and second, to break your friends of it so that they'll come visit you.

Finally, I'd recommend picking up a solitary hobby that doesn't relate to your academic work. (I.e., not reading, or journaling, or whatever "your weird bullshit" is.) Teach yourself guitar, take a pottery class, buy a nice camera, etc. Something productive to occupy your time when you're feeling lonely and wishing you were elsewhere.

If I'm right about the city (see my profile; I haven't updated it), MeMail me and I can provide some recommendations for things to do.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:32 AM on August 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

There is a lot of healthy advice related to finding your way in your city and I 100% support that. Many years ago I had a similar initial experience in Salt Lake City where I was in despair for years over finding friends and then stumbled on an AMAZING and delightful group of diverse people in a coffee shop one day, and screwed up the courage to introduce myself. They're out there. Also, if you haven't already tried, please wade outside your age group. If you are in a university town, I promise you there are lots of older people who have lived amazing lives and have amazing interests who also ended up in the town for their careers.

BUT. If things are at a point where it's dire, here's another option... Commit to your favorite nearby big city of choice as your partner in a long distance relationship. When you're home, go heads down, spartan, work sprint intense. As others have said, that's what a lot of PhD programs demand in their later years anyway. With your "partner city", schedule meaningful and relatively frequent visits, particularly at off-peak times. Learn the travel routes, so you can take advantage of good/last minute deals. Find a place to stay (or a person to stay with) where you can become a regular. Find communities with monthly, or bi-monthly meetings, and schedule your trips to coincide with those meetings. Take the occasional midweek trip. Do ALL THE THINGS when you go, so that you actually need a break from your "partner" when it's time to get back home to work.

I don't know if this is a good suggestion, but it has worked for people I know, and does give them the feeling of belonging. One city is "work" and one city is "play" (or "family", or "home"), and this division helps them feel centered in their lives.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 9:50 AM on August 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

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