Graduate school is tough–and not only because of all the studying. Grad school can be an isolating and high-stress time in a student’s life, leading to a variety of mental health challenges. In fact, according to a study by Harvard University, graduate students are more than three times as likely as the average American to experience mental health issues, including depression.
While various stressors such as time pressure and finances contribute to mental health issues, one major contributing issue is loneliness. Graduate school can be a lonely place, but there are ways you can combat loneliness and manage your mental health. This guide shares some actions you can take starting now to get out more, meet new people, and make new friends on an off-campus for a more vibrant and exciting social life in graduate school and beyond.
How Does Loneliness Impact Graduate Students?
Loneliness isn’t easy for anyone to deal with, grad student or otherwise. However, a variety of challenges specific to a grad school environment—whether you’re studying in person or online—put grad students at particularly high risk for loneliness. Long-term loneliness, such as over the course of your grad program, can have a wide range of negative impacts–some of them less obvious than others. Here are some of the reasons loneliness can be a challenge in grad school and particular pitfalls to watch out for:
Why do students experience loneliness?
- Online school tends to be more isolating: Online education may offer few (or no) opportunities to socialize in person with your classmates or meet face-to-face with your instructors. Classes themselves may be entirely in front of your laptop, which can lead to feelings of isolation.
- Some students are shy or struggle with making new friends: Even for those who are studying in person, being in a new environment with entirely new people can be hard. For students who are shy, struggle with getting to know new people, or haven’t been in a new environment where they don’t know anyone in a long time, making new friends can be difficult.
- If students are far from home, they may experience homesickness: Adjusting to a new town, city, or state can be challenging for anyone. Moreover, being in a new place can make you homesick and make building a new community even harder.
- They may be struggling with their mental health, making it harder to get out and meet new people: The stress of grad school can lead to mental health struggles totally aside from loneliness—and these make loneliness itself worse. Students struggling with anxiety or depression, for instance, may not be in the right headspace to socialize with their classmates and forge new connections.
- The COVID-19 pandemic decreased the number of social opportunities: Since the pandemic, many previously in-person social opportunities have shifted to virtual or hybrid formats or ceased entirely. Even now, as the pandemic poses far less of a threat than it did in 2020, socialization hasn’t caught up to pre-pandemic levels.
- Social media and the comparison trap: When you go on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, etc., and see what looks like everyone in the world doing fun and glamorous things, you may be tempted to feel envious or depressed—even if you know that social media is heavily curated and doesn’t accurately reflect real life.
How does loneliness impact grad students?
- Higher incidence of depression and mental health issues: As mentioned above, grad students are at a particularly high risk of mental health problems; loneliness amplifies these struggles. Being lonely can lead to clinical depression if left unchecked.
- Poor sleep quality: When you’re going through a difficult time, including if you’re struggling with loneliness in a new environment like grad school, your sleep quality can suffer. Sleep is crucial for both mental and physical health, making this an important issue to watch out for.
- Explosive behavior/overreacting: Without friends or a support network to serve as an outlet for your emotions, your feelings can become bottled up, and the pressure rises. This may lead to outbursts and overreactions to minor issues–which are really reactions to your struggle to connect with people and lack of opportunities for expression.
- Feelings of inability to connect with others: For some people, especially introverts, socializing can be like a muscle—it has to be regularly exercised to get strong. For those who get out of the habit of socializing, when opportunities to meet new people and make more connections come up, they may find it difficult to get back in the game.
- Low self-esteem: Many people experiencing loneliness worry that it’s because of something flawed in themselves and that they don’t deserve friends and connections. Even though this isn’t true, those feelings can lead to low self-esteem, which can have a negative impact on many different aspects of your life.
- Substance abuse: Loneliness can be hard to cope with—and people sometimes turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. One of the most dangerous of these is trying to “treat” loneliness with drugs or alcohol.
- Higher chance of some health issues: Scientific studies indicate that loneliness isn’t only bad for your mental health—it can also be bad for your physical health. The National Institutes of Health has found loneliness can increase risks of heart disease, dementia, neurodegenerative issues, cancer,and other serious health issues.
- Lower school performance: No one performs their best, at work or at school, when they’re lonely. Not only are classmates and friends useful for bouncing ideas around and studying with, but healthy social connections are also an important outlet for stresses and struggles that might otherwise go unchecked and negatively impact your grad school performance.
Ways to Meet New People
If you’re a grad student struggling with loneliness or if you’re planning to start grad school soon and are worried it might be an isolating experience, don’t panic. There are a variety of ways that you can meet new people, both in and out of school. While not everyone you meet will become a friend, meeting more people is the first step toward forming a community and a personal support network to help battle any loneliness you feel.
Get an On-campus Job
If you’re studying in person, an on-campus job can be a great idea. Not only will the extra income be welcome, but these jobs are also made for students so they’re easier to fit into your class schedule. Plus your coworkers will be students as well, so you’ll already have something in common.
Attend School Events
Your school, especially if you’re studying in person, will likely hold a wide variety of events. These can include mixers and other social events, lectures and networking events, and artistic and cultural events like concerts or plays. Going to these can be interesting in their own right, as well as helping you meet new people.
Join a Club and Meet People with Common Interests
Do you have a hobby? Whether it’s board games, tennis, dancing, drawing, or something else altogether, there’s likely a club near you for that. Not only will this be a great way to meet people with common interests, but it’ll also give you a reason to do something relaxing amid the stress of school.
Start a Study Group
A study group can be a great way to meet like-minded people. Even if you find studying alone to be more productive, starting a study group helps you meet your classmates and have a team to ask questions about your schoolwork when you need it.
Join a Fraternity or Sorority
Did you know that fraternities and sororities aren’t just for undergrads? Joining one can be a great way to build a community of fellow students who are also looking to make new friends. Fraternities and sororities can be social or academic; some even have specific focuses, such as for medical students, that can help you make professional connections.
Resources for Meeting People
The suggestions above are a great place to start, but perhaps you need a few more options. Here is a list of some additional outlets to try to meet people:
- Discord: This online messaging resource allows you to create and join groups based on mutual friends, interests, and more. You can even chat with new people in a larger thread.
- MS Teams: For online students, Microsoft Teams is a popular site for academics and schools to exchange information and form chat and study groups–which can help you connect with your classmates from afar.
- r/GradSchool: This social media board, on the popular site reddit, has over 300,000 users who are ready to answer your questions, commiserate, and maybe even become real-life friends.
- Slack: A popular multichannel online messaging app and platform, Slack groups, chats, and private messages help you connect with classmates and people with common interests.
- Student Unions: A student union (like this one at the University of Michigan) can be a great place to attend on-campus events or just hang out, study, and meet your fellow students.
How to Foster Healthy Connections
Like any new environment, at first grad school can be a challenging place to meet new people and grow a social network. However, there are a few tips and tricks for forging and maintaining healthy connections with new people. Consider these steps:
Make an effort
While it’s no secret that friendships take effort, that can be easy to forget in the flow of life. Reaching out to new people and making plans with old friends are critical to prevent friendships from falling by the wayside.
Plan for social time
“Let’s hang out sometime” sounds nice but is a vague enough idea that it can easily get lost in the shuffle of your busy life. “Want to get coffee after class on Thursday and talk about the group project?” is more specific, meaning follow-through requires less effort and is more likely to happen.
Connect in other ways
This tip applies not only to new people you may connect with in grad school but also to old friends you might not see in person anymore. Texts, emails, social posts, DMs, and other online connections keep a friendship alive when physical meetups aren’t possible.
Learn to be flexible and communicate well
Communication is a skill like any other, and it’s an important one to have when growing and maintaining a healthy social circle. Especially during a busy time like grad school, remember to be flexible and accept that plans change and life happens–but there are ways to adapt.
Don’t rely on only one or two friends to fill your social bucket
Smaller friend groups are fine, but that puts a lot of pressure on those friendships. Try to branch out and meet new friends. Not only does this help prevent your small group from becoming codependent or unhealthy, but friendships are also one of those things you can never have too many of!
Don’t be afraid to let go
This is a hard decision to make, but not everyone is a good fit to be a long-term friend. If you find that being around some of your new friends is making you feel sad, stressed, or lonelier than if you’re by yourself, say your goodbyes and work on finding new friends. In the long run it’s the better course for everyone.
Creating Community On or Off-Campus
In addition to personal friendships, creating a broader sense of community can be an important tool for making grad school feel like home. You’ll find community on or off campus–or a combination of both. Here are some tips for creating your grad school community:
Start a club
Joining clubs and groups is great, but how about starting one of your own? Even if the group grows larger than the number of people you can maintain friendships with, this will be a space that’s “yours” in a new or stressful environment.
Host regular gatherings or potlucks
One of the challenges of maintaining a friend group is finding the time to see people in a busy world. A monthly get-together, like a potluck or movie night, gives everyone a good reason to take a break and spend time together in a relaxing setting.
Host a swap or skill building event
Learning new skills AND connecting with new people? What’s not to like?! Hosting a swap or skill building event can be a great way to gain new skills or useful items (clothes, books, etc.) while also meeting new people.
Organize for the greater good
Volunteering feels good and is good for your community, but it can also be a great way to create a sense of place and belonging. Volunteer events have a social side to them; you could meet a new friend while cleaning up a park and build a sense of connection to the place you live.
Do an activity together
Group activities, like doing yoga, taking a hike, or visiting a park, are good ways to meet people, maintain existing ties, stay healthy, relax, and have fun! Check out local groups on facebook, community boards, or non-profit organizations that might host active events in your area.
Join a church, temple, mosque, or house of worship
If you have a spiritual practice, places of worship, whether formal or informal, can be wonderful for meeting likeminded people and feeling that you’re a part of something. Often these places also have additional meet-ups, groups, and gatherings as well as social events that you can attend as a way to meet people.
Join a student organization or committee
Not only are student organizations and committee’s great places to boost your resume and build leadership skills, but they’re also great places to build community. You’ll get involved in your school and meet similarly minded people for friendship, networking, or just learning new faces.
How to Beat Loneliness as an Online Student
If you’re an online student, you may need to make an intentional effort to battle loneliness. Since you won’t be seeing your classmates physically or running into them around campus, you’ll need a plan to make sure you keep healthy social connections. Here are some tips to help:
- Live with roommates or friends: Of course, it’s harder to be lonely when you’re not always alone. Living with friends or roommates, instead of on your own, ensures that you have people that you see every day–and also likely saves you money on rent.
- Find an in-person job that allows you to be around people: Working while you study is good for your resume, for your finances, and for avoiding loneliness. An in-person job while you study provides much-needed social interaction, as well as a source of income and a place to meet people outside of your studies.
- Join a club or group in your community: If you live in a city there are likely plenty of hobby groups around, but even small towns have groups you can meet up with. This not only helps keep you connected to other people, but it also makes sure your hobbies don’t get subsumed by school.
- Volunteer or do some community service: Getting out and volunteering is a great way to stay in touch with your community, whether you’re living at home and studying online or living and studying on campus. Not only will you be helping the wider world, you’ll also meet people in your area and see yourself as a part of something bigger.
- Join a house of worship: As mentioned above, religious and spiritual communities can be a great source of comfort and connection. Feel free to try out different houses of worship and communities until you find the right fit.
- Join a gym: Exercise is not only good for your physical and mental health (endorphins!), but it can also be a great way to build community. Seeing your gym buddies and working toward fitness goals together can be a great way to make new friends and stay on track with your workouts.
Resources for meeting people in your community:
- Bumble BFF: From the makers of the dating app Bumble comes a platform specifically for meeting up with new friends in your area. Searching by location makes it easy and convenient.
- Community Centers: Does your area have a local community center? See what events and classes they’re hosting, and join in!
- Eventbrite: Find free and paid events related to music, performing and visual arts, sports, health, hobbies, business, and more.
- Nextdoor: This neighborhood-based site allows you to learn about hyperlocal issues and meet people just around the corner.
- Meetup.com: Whether you’re studying in person or on campus, Meetup helps you find clubs and groups of people looking to do activities together in your area.
- Facebook.com: Facebook can be a great way to follow local businesses, join local groups, and search for local events of interest in your community.
Intentional Solitude: Your Self-Care Superpower
Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. While being by yourself when you want company can be unsatisfying, intentional solitude is an important way to unwind and provide a crucial self-care ritual—especially to avoid tiring yourself out from overstimulation. Here are some great ways to practice intentional solitude:
You’re a student, so of course you need to study. Solitary study time can be a productive way to clear your mind and focus entirely on the work at hand. Take some time to read, write, and get into the zone.
Everyone’s form of self-care looks different, but essentially self-care involves taking time to tend to your own needs. Whether that’s a long hot bath, cooking tasty foods, or something else altogether, solitary self-care recharges you before or after a rough week.
Meditation can look like the obvious–sitting with crossed legs, listening to your breathing. But it takes many other forms too, as meditation is basically just taking time to focus on your body and its rhythms and get outside of your own head.
Exercise is healthy for your body and your mind. Whether you prefer to go for a walk or a run in nature, hit the gym and lift weights, or do dance exercises like Zumba, taking time to exercise is a great way to pay attention to your body and see that its needs are met.
Do a relaxing activity
What do you do to relax? The answer is different for everyone—rewatching your favorite movie for the 500th time, reading a mystery novel, drawing or writing in a journal, building model trains, or countless other options. The important thing is that the activity is relaxing and fun for you.
Listen to music or podcasts and clean your space
Chores? To relax? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Put on your favorite album or a juicy new episode of that podcast you love and straighten your bedroom or scrub your kitchen. Doing something physical and being rewarded with a nice clean space feels so satisfying!
Make some art
Even if you’re no great artist, humans since the dawn of time have made art for fun or self-expression. Write a poem, draw a picture, make some music—whatever. It doesn’t matter if no one else ever sees it, the important part is creating something just for you.
Interview with a Mental Health Counselor
Zemirah Weber is a licensed professional counselor based in Michigan who works with people from many walks of life. In this interview, Zemirah shares her advice on maintaining mental health as a grad student and beyond.
Q. In your time as a counselor, have you noticed any particular mental health risks for graduate students?
A: I definitely see heavy anxiety, clinical depression, and, unfortunately, undiagnosed ADHD, which in those students causes extreme anxiety and depression. Contributing factors include lack of balance; often when a student is so focused on studying everything else takes a dive. Exercise goes out the window, visits with friends and family go out the window, relationships suffer, etc.
Q. What are some de-stressing techniques you recommend for students?
A: Mindfulness practices are great, including meditation or, for those who cannot meditate, deep breathing while doing an exercise and focusing on sensations and sounds during showers, hand washing, things like that. There are great apps that offer guided meditations as well. While there are many other things, how a person de-stresses depends on the person. For me, how I release stress is by reading at my favorite coffee shops. I also like to play board games with friends. While playing board games doesn’t seem relaxing, it is absolutely how I am built to recover from a stressful week.
Q. What would you say is the most important step a person can take to improve their mental health?
A: This is a difficult one. There are so many possible answers to this because everybody is so different. I think it starts with self-compassion. Through self-compassion, we can work on not comparing ourselves to others, accept that sometimes we might not get five papers written in a day, and through self-compassion we can hopefully pursue help when our brains and our bodies are telling us we need it. It’s so important not to treat the brain as a completely separate entity from the rest of our body. So, if our brains are struggling and we are depressed or anxious, even to the point where medications are necessary and recommended, by exercising self-compassion we can look past the stigma and give ourselves permission to get help.
Q. What are some common warning signs that you might be in a bad place in terms of mental health?
A: Fatigue, chronic sickness, chronic anxiety, sleeping constantly, random outbursts of anger, emotional numbness, weight loss or gain, and appetite loss or gain are all potential warning signs of mental health issues.
Q. Do you recommend any particular resources for grad students struggling with their mental health? If so, what?
A: Since I work so heavily with ADHD, most of my resources are focused on that. Those include the books More Attention, Less Deficit and Thriving with Adult ADHD. I am a big fan of the app Stop Breathe Think. There are tons of other apps that are mindfulness-based. Adult coloring books are fantastic. But I would also encourage every graduate student to check out the counseling programs in their schools. There are often programs where they can be seen by interns for next to nothing and it could be helpful to have somebody to talk to. I also adore an app called Finch. It is really cute, there is a little bird and you can make friends with other people, send nice messages, and earn coins and things. It’s a little bit more for kids, but it’s just so cute; for a lot of my clients who are college students it gives them a little dopamine fix when they can buy adorable clothing items for their little bird.