Friends are important. No one is going to argue that.
Friends also come and go. Someone you were friends with in first grade you might not have talked to in ten years. Or they might still be your best friend. And someone you met last year might be your closest confident.
You can’t measure friendship in years. And it’s a bit difficult to measure friendship at all. I have many friends, but they fall into different categories. And it’s hard to say whether a friend from category A is closer to me than a friend from category C. I don’t particularly like trying to measure my friendships against each other. I am just glad to have good friends.
I was especially glad to have good friends during my PhD. I was also surprised how many new friends I made, some of which have become very close friends. I didn’t realize until afterwards how important these people have become to me, because I really wouldn’t be here now if not for them (I mean I wouldn’t have a PhD).
During the whole journey, I found that friends I had been close to before starting the thesis I barely talked to during it. This was in part because their lives were busy, and I was 3000+ miles away in another time zone. But it was also because our life struggles were very different. Where they were dealing with raising children, or getting married, or trying to survive their job, I was dealing with reading vast numbers of academic articles, trying to write papers, going to conferences, and thinking a lot. It meant that we didn’t have a lot in common anymore. But I also think most of my old friends got tired of hearing the ‘this is so hard, I’m so stupid, I don’t deserve to be here’ refrain that you admit to those you love.
I found this was alright, though. I’ve reaffirmed relationships with most of these people since completing. Some of them I haven’t, but as I said, friends come and go out of your life and likely it was time anyways.
But I have found so many new friends it more than makes up for it. I have found a wonderful number of people who understand because they have gone through or are going through the same thing. And that sort of commonality is the basis for great friendships. They were the people I went to when I was thinking about quitting. They were the people who came to me when they were having problems. They were the people I spent most of my downtime with. And they are still the people I hold as friends in these months afterwards, and hopefully in the years to come.
It means a lot to have people around you who are friends and who get it. Don’t underestimate how useful it will be to you mentally to find friends in people who are also PhDs. Your old friends may be the best friends ever, but if they have not been through this they will never quite understand, and trust me that having understanding is a huge boost on your bad days. Some times, the only way to get through is to go talk to someone who is also going through the same thing, and know that you are not alone.
So find fellow PhD students and make friends. You don’t need a whole bunch, but a few really good ones that you have some commonalities with and enjoy talking to are going to be a lifesaver at some point in your PhD journey. They also don’t need to be in your department, although it might be easier to find friends in your own school.
If you are doing your PhD from a distance, there are still ways to meet people, but you need to be willing to go out and find them. Ask your supervisor for the email addresses of their other students. Ask any student you meet if you can be PhD buddies. Find people on twitter who tweet regularly about their PhDs and start a conversation with them. I did this a few times myself, and found a lovely little community of support online. See if your department has a Facebook group who you can go to for help and support.
And don’t be afraid to blog or tweet about your experiences and difficulties, and see who responds. Social media can be a great way to make connections and you don’t have to meet with someone face to face to be friends with them. I have friends I’ve never met in person.
But do find people. Find friends who understand what you are going through and who you can rely on. You will need them at some point.
And don’t forget to be a good friend yourself.