A question about social science grad students
February 1, 2019 10:13 AM   Subscribe

My fictional character is a social science grad student. I am not, nor have I ever been. If you know this particular world, do you have any ideas for me?

I’m writing a novel in which my character is a grad student in sociology. Most of the story will take place after she leaves academia, but at the moment she’s still in it, in the early stages of writing her dissertation. She has begun a relationship with a fellow grad student. Here’s my question: What are some possible circumstances that would have thrown them together, over time, so that she and he would develop a bond? I’m seeing this as a slow-building thing, based on, among other things, shared intellectual interests and time spent together, rather than simple, run-of-the-mill lust. I.e., they start as friends, and then take it further even though he's (spoiler alert) married. I’m assuming they’re in the same field, although they don’t have to be.

Since I don’t know the specifics of academia at all, I'm having a hard time imagining anything other than "they met at a party." What are some realistic scenarios that would throw these two together?
posted by swheatie to Education (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
They might have shared an office when they were TAs; my grad school didn't have a lot of space for us.
posted by waffleriot at 10:35 AM on February 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

Mutual bad relationship with/dislike of an advisor. In a class during coursework. Shared desk/office space/thin walls; lots of cramped working areas as a grad student. Neighborhood or outside-grad program stuff; most grad students I know tend to live in small areas filled with lots of grad students. Being the kind of asshole who recalls a library book the other's got checked out. Putting together a small, specific conference.

If it's contemporary (or, uh, the early/mid-'00s), union organizing.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 10:35 AM on February 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Classes - will be smaller, sometimes much smaller in grad school than in undergrad. I was in a developmental psych course with one other student, and "class" was in the professor's office. Easy way to get to know someone.

Offices - my grad school had shared office spaces for the grad students - I shared an office with another student (who kept parking her bike beside my desk!), while other grad students were in a larger room with four desks. Everyone had their own desk, which grew piled high with books and papers. A lot of time is spent there, reading, studying or talking.
posted by Mogur at 10:36 AM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

-Graduate Student Organization (like SGA for grad school, fundraising for collective funds for conferences, social event planning, central place for professors to contact if they need grad students to attend an event, person who attends University Senate is part of it and reports back after Senate votes/assemblies)
-mandatory attendance at job talks/visiting professor lectures and attendant receptions
-midterm grad norming sessions
-teaching demonstrations/roleplay
-pedagogy seminars for Department Subject 101
-"job market" talks, trainings, how to write a CV workshops
-University mandated workshops on student health care, implementation of diversity initiatives, new e-learning modules
-working on the department literary or academic research journal
-multiple grad students working as TAs for the same professor
-Department finance policy trainings (here is how you apply for travel funding)
-grad students nominated for Dept/University awards or fellowships
-"How to publish your research before going on the job market" seminars
-Grading parties (we all hate grading, let's sit in a room and be miserable en masse)
-Dissertation Writing Bootcamp (no one wants to work on their dissertation, let's all sit in a room together and work in an environment where there is accountability to keep you from being on Twitter for three hours, also the university provides snacks)
-being in a class with five other people

Meeting a new grad student at a party is probably the least plausible thing I can think of, if I'm honest-- you spend LIFETIMES together in random admin and mandatory events. By the time I went to an actual party with another grad student, we had probably hung out for multiple hours at a time at least a dozen times! (But if by party you mean "department reception full of warm cheese and sparking water and panic", then sure.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:37 AM on February 1, 2019 [13 favorites]

Group work in class, absolutely. Grad student association in their department. Lounge on the floor where faculty offices are. Coffee stand/Dunkin Donuts on campus/related. Tuition increase protest, picket line, etc.
posted by wellred at 10:39 AM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Perhaps they met at orientation and went out with the whole cohort for drinks after. Later, possibly they found themselves both volunteering for their department's grad student association. Maybe after that they took a challenging statistics course together and buddied up to work through some tough assignments. Or maybe a field research component in a course, where they were assigned as a pair to observe kids in daycares across neighbourhoods with different socio-economic statuses.

On preview: oooh, organizing a conference or a weekly seminar is a good one!
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 10:41 AM on February 1, 2019

One potential wrinkle: dissertation is about when you tend to disappear (at least in my department/field) from campus, since you're usually done with course work . If it's a "we share an office" situation, your protagonist really likes working in her campus office instead of home/coffee shop/library. Or, it's something mandatory (weekly seminar meeting with her advisor, department talks, teaching seminar, etc.)

If she's further along in the program, he's either a new student, or a student further along who was absent from the department due to field work or taking a leave of absence, or in another department, for her to have plausibly not met him before. Or he's in a very different subfield, so they just hadn't interacted much (different offices, different class schedules, etc.)

For a "thrown more closely together", going to a big conference, and sharing a hotel room (Married people/coupled people did this a lot in my program, but usually not one on one, since you wanted to pack as many people in the room as possible) or traveling there together to cut costs.
posted by damayanti at 10:52 AM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

If your setting is a D1 school - tutoring in the student athlete center is a common gig for humanities and social science grad students too junior or unfunded to be RAs or TAs. If you want them to meet under unhappy circumstances, a lot of social science grad students are required to take unpleasnatly rigorous foreign language courses or unpleasantly math-like stats or quantitative research methods courses in their first year.
posted by MattD at 10:53 AM on February 1, 2019

I have never been a grad student, but I did marry one. We were in totally different fields of study and met playing in the university orchestra. Just throwing that out there if you want the love interest to be from a different field or part of the university; they could meet doing something entirely not related to their regular coursework. And my now-wife continued to play in the orchestra part time while writing up her dissertation in neurobiology, so it is doable.
posted by dellsolace at 11:02 AM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

They met at the reptile house at zoo, preparing for their thesis defense.
posted by otherchaz at 11:11 AM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

-they met at a trivia night at the university's grad pub (our university had this and many grad student relationships were launched there).
-they met through a mutual student friend's potluck (pretty much the same as at a party, but very realistic, sorry)
- they were on the same sports team (our program had a lot of people playing soccer or ultimate)
-they met at the cheap beer night in a local pub
-they shared study/writing times at the library and kept eyeing each other (this is how a lot of my crushes in grad school developed, or like passing in the hall and then bumping into them around campus randomly)
posted by lafemma at 11:40 AM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm not in a social-science field, but my spouse is.

Some plausible ideas are: they met every year at a series of big conferences and hit it off at the cocktail hour before conference dinners, or they met while working on the organizing committee of a regional topical workshop, or they met as students at a language summer school (if the social science field is one that has such things), or they both happened to show up as visiting researchers at a foreign library during the same week and decided to share meals since they spoke the same language.

If they're in the same department at one school, then there's no need for an explanation. They'll know each other by the third week, and will be thrown together in post-colloquium wine and cheese events, department parties, and probably several classes and seminars.
posted by eotvos at 11:47 AM on February 1, 2019

Thursday night grad student meetup at the local pub, because even bad beer in a smoky, noisy bar is better than one more lonely hour of reading articles alone at home.

Cross-disciplinary lecture series on campus?
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:06 PM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

If your setting is a D1 school - tutoring in the student athlete center is a common gig for humanities and social science grad students too junior or unfunded to be RAs or TAs

Tuition increase protest,

The character is a social science Ph.D. student--they are going to be funded. If they're not then you need to explain how and why someone go to the dissertation stage paying all those years and saddled with debt and can't take advice etc.etc.etc.

Weekly seminars are a big one. We love free food, so maybe have them grab the same crappy-but-free-and-im-broke-so-ill-eat-it sandwich?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:06 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Plenty of funded PhDs go to those things in solidarity. Also in my program there were part-time PhDs who were not funded. We don't know what school this is, or what country.

It's just one general idea, though.
posted by wellred at 12:28 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I knew a grad-student couple that met at a brown bag lecture. She didn't know you were supposed to bring your lunch, so he offered to share his with her, and that's how they hit it off.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 12:37 PM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Like half of my peers in my grad program got married to each other and each couple met in the department's grad student reading room. It used to be a running joke every year about who would get married to whom.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:39 PM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Does it need to be an academic-specific context? I made fellow grad student friends taking classes in rock climbing and capoeira, going to anime club, living in an awful building with a shared kitchen (shared misery), or going to a mostly-grad-student knitting group. Grad students in the social sciences do a ton of TA'ing so they'd know people through that. I made a very good friend because we had the same unusual academic background that gave us more in common than anyone else, but with complementary skills, so we'd study together a lot in the first few years when we took classes.

I actually know a few people that this sort of thing happened to. The common factor seemed to be "some people in the cohort all started going to a regular non-work activity together and after months of everyone rolling their eyes, they'd break up with their SO's and start dating each other." Thursday beers, camping weekends, departmental baking competitions with constant trash-talking. The married people participated a lot less, unless their partner was a non-local academic (not especially uncommon).
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:41 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

If it helps, the first few years of grad school are like undergrad with the pressure turned way, way, way up. You go to classes together, but they're fucking killer classes with very heavy workload. You have an on-campus job, either working in someone's lab or being a teaching assistant (in the social sciences it could go either way), but it's a super time-consuming job where you can lose your spot in the program if you don't do well.

And you do all this undergrad-but-higher-pressure-ish stuff with a fixed cohort of people, a few dozen or less. These people are in almost all your classes, a subset of them are coworkers as well, a lot of them share apartments, and they all go to the same events (including parties, but the parties tend to be less "wooooooooooooooooooooooo!" and more "[does another shot] and another fucking thing...")

So (a) any meet-cute that works for two very-nerdy very-high-stress undergrads will work for first-year grad students, and (b) any meet-cute that works for two coworkers at an overwhelmingly shitty low-status job will also work for first-year grad students.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:43 PM on February 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Departmental seminar series, journal club, awkward lunch with visiting professor, retirement party, reps on the same committee. Depression and mental health issues are a big problem in PhD programs- they could run into each other at the student health center or pharmacy. But mutual hatred of an advisor/committee member is probably the most realistic one!
posted by emd3737 at 12:45 PM on February 1, 2019

The sociology grad program I worked in when writing my dissertation had a shared computer lab where we all worked on whatever together. Sometimes people were goofing around, sometimes people came in to print, and a lot of times people were helping each other do real work. Many of us were doing quantitative data analysis, and we were learning to write the code/commands for the analysis as well as learning which methods were suited to certain types of research questions/data.

It was awesome because it had an open, friendly, helpful vibe. Like I could just sort of yell out "does anyone know how to make THIS THING work?" and someone would wheel their chair up to help. I know I had my favorite smart classmates I would hope were there because we liked each other and made each other's work better. For people attracted to intelligence and stimulated by learning something new, it can feel exciting, similar to a crush. With your "he's married" spoiler, this would be a perfect way to spend lots of time together "legitimately."
posted by kochenta at 12:49 PM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Social science phd, but not sociology.

The only thing I can think of offhand that hasn't been mention (or that I missed) is writing a conference paper together, either spontaneously or on a prof's suggestion.

Bonding over methodology is always fun. Depending on the year it's set in, it could be hilariously stereotypical for soc grad students to be helping each other deal with lisrel or path analysis.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:42 PM on February 1, 2019

Response by poster: Oh, my! Thanks everyone for such a wonderful variety of excellent ideas. They're all good, and it will come down to which one feels most "right," for whatever mysterious reason. So I'll mull these over. The school is UC Berkeley, for what it's worth, but doesn't seem like it would matter too much. I welcome any more thoughts or comments if others have them. This is so, so helpful. Thank you!
posted by swheatie at 1:47 PM on February 1, 2019

Read Jordan Ellenberg's wonderful piece about the MLA (a huge, representative humanities/arts convention some sociologists/anthropologists might attend, especially if they're finishing grad school, although it might be a stretch for social scientists). It's 20+ years old, and I'm an outsider, but it stands up as an ethnography of a discipline IMO.
posted by caek at 2:27 PM on February 1, 2019

These are all really great suggestions. Another one I haven't seen yet, depending on the kind of sociology she's doing: fieldwork. If you're in the same research site for longish periods of time, often geographically separated from any existing partners, it's really easy to end up bonding not only as colleagues but as a sort of de-facto friendship/support/"work spouse" kind of partners. That could be the case even if they weren't at the same university or in the same department.
posted by karayel at 2:31 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I met one of my partners at a meeting for an academic/social club for a subject we were both studying (a specific social science, at UC Berkeley, in fact!). Several club members were folks who weren't majoring or minoring in the subject, but were studying related fields or even just interested. We met weekly in one of the lower-level rooms in the older part of Dwinelle Hall.

I also developed friendships with other folks on campus via fieldwork, volunteer work, and (of course, because it's Berkeley) political activism groups.
posted by rhiannonstone at 3:12 PM on February 1, 2019

My department called the shared space most of the grad students were crowded into "The Grad Pit."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:26 PM on February 1, 2019

I met my now-spouse while in grad school at a house party thrown by two roommates. One of the roommates was in the sociology department with me, and the other roommate was in the political science department with him. Three couples (each of which is made up of one person from each department) met each other that night for the first time, started dating, got married and are all still married. The two roommates met each other by playing intramural sports (I can't remember for sure, but it was badminton or something like that) and decided sharing a house made sense. They are also still friends.
posted by OrangeDisk at 4:00 PM on February 1, 2019

There is lots of stuff going on at a University that a grad student might go to or participate in, just because it's there. The undergrads are going to provide plays and concerts. Oddball semi-organizations are going to be showing King Kong at midnight (I experienced this), etc. Friends are going to be sharing apartments with students from other departments. Famous people are going to come to campus to give lectures. Political campaigns, local, state, and national, will have a campus presence.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:27 PM on February 1, 2019

The thing about grad school is that you basically end up running into the same people again and again. So it’s usually not just one context that you know a person from - it’s several different contexts. For example, you might share an office/attend happy hour on Fridays at the department/be co-TAs on a class/attend the same Halloween party or even hop from one Halloween party to another/find yourselves in the same graduate class/be part of a dissertation writing group/frequent the same library etc. There were a hundred different ways to run into people and you usually did.
posted by peacheater at 5:05 PM on February 1, 2019

I think everyone else is on top of how they could possibly meet, but I would just add too, that depending on the program and if the spouse of your dude works an 8 to 5 job, it would be laughably easy for the two protagonists to start arranging time together (first platonically then not). Yea, grad school is busy, but you're not locked into an 8 to 5 schedule, so you can study in the library together all afternoon, hang out in each other's offices working, take off for a walk in the middle of the day, etc. There are definitely weeks where I see my friends more than I see my wife, and I'm also a full time lecturer (my grad program is in the same building as I teach in, so I just run up and down the stairs all day). One of my classes got cancelled this week, but my wife goes to her department's happy hour that night (she's staff across campus), so I hung out working for three hours with one of my best friends anyhow. (We're poly and we are maniacally secure in our marriage, but honestly, I'm surprised more academic/non-academic relationships don't bust up).
posted by joycehealy at 5:40 PM on February 1, 2019

In my history grad school cohort, four marriages occurred. Three of them are still together. Two rose out of the parties we regularly had to blow off steam. One started as an affair that grew out of a shared project and in one case, the girl stated to her friends that she would marry the dude shortly after she met him at the welcome to the department mixer at the beginning of the year.

My library school grad cohort had significantly less relationships bloom mainly due to the largely straight female population. But the few relationships that did bloom came out of shares projects.
posted by teleri025 at 7:38 AM on February 3, 2019

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