Girl with suitcase

Why Doing a PhD is Lonely and a Way to Fix It

In this blog post, I’ll address one of the biggest struggles that PhD students face: loneliness.

I see a lot of posts on Postgraduate Forum and Quora about PhD students feeling loneliness in their studies.

I’d like to give my opinion on why this is such an extremely common occurrence and what you can do to fix this.

First of all, let’s make it clear that no matter how much you think you don’t need social interaction, you’re still human.

Humans are fundamentally social creatures.

In fact, this Scientific American article argues that “our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water”.

By going to graduate school, it is almost guaranteed you’ll be lonely.

Realise that you’re training to become an expert in a very small area of research. This will make it hard to relate to people with regular jobs.

Make sure you’re aware that most likely, people around you will have little to no interest in your research.

Sure, I would sometimes get an ego boost knowing that only a handful of people in the world read the paper I’m holding in my hand.

But, is this worth the price of not being able to relate with other people and their experiences?

Of course, you’ll say “That’s fine, I can connect with other PhD students. They’ll care about my research.”

Sorry to break it to you, but your colleagues have their own research taking 10+ hours per day to attend to.

They will find little, if any, time to help you with your own obstacles.

Spending most of your time alone in a lab will start to take its toll in terms of feeling isolated.

The author of a The Guardian article argues that “all PhDs are solitary affairs”.

Compared to a PhD in the sciences, the article claims that a humanities PhD can be even more isolating due to the nature of the work as most of the research is done in solitude, without a lab team to collaborate with.

In one Times Higher Education article, academics and their partners confess how their work influences their personal relationships.

One academic says that the pressure on all academics to “publish or perish” led him to work more than 70 hours a week.

He asked his partner to describe in one word what it was like to live with an academic.

Her reply was the word “lonely”.

Another academic’s husband observes how UK academia’s focus on research excellence scores can “encourage an unhealthy work-life balance”.

Also in the same article, another academic describes how the negative impact of her “almost continuous grant rejections” affects her close ones.

This is the price you have to pay for being involved in academic life.

How to Fix PhD Loneliness

I’ve seen quite a few articles along the lines of Top 5 Ways of Getting Rid of PhD Loneliness with common sense suggestions such as network more, have a social life (at least one of some sort), take a break, etc.

The problem with these suggestions is that they’re quick fixes. It is expected that throughout your PhD you need to work 10 or so hours a days. It is expected of you to work weekends. It is expected to sacrifice social life.

Of course, there are exceptions depending on universities and lab groups, but what I’m referring to is the general covert consensus in academia.

If you ignore the emotion for too long, then loneliness can easily develop into more severe conditions such as depression. You can think of the feeling of loneliness as an alarm that something is not quite right.

Given that a PhD can take three years or more to complete, coping with loneliness for so long can have adverse effects.

My solution to this problem, compounded by the other inherent issues of doing a PhD, is to quit your PhD.

Get the Newsletter

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *