Graduate school is a time of intense learning — about topics that interest you, a career that calls to you, and even about relationships that both inspire and frustrate you. Accompanying all this learning is an inherent need to adopt basic life skills that will serve you beyond the walls of your chosen college — namely, how to improve your communication and better establish boundaries.
Renowned author/therapist Prentis Hemphill describes boundaries as “…the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” This may be the antithesis of some people’s knee-jerk response to the concept, which is something divisive, territorial, or selfish. But without boundaries, we can end up in situations where we feel excessively drained by putting others’ needs first. Ultimately, one of the most effective, evidence-based ways to maintain healthy relationships is through the creation of boundaries.
If you’re a graduate student (or soon to be one) and ready to learn about the sometimes complicated dynamics of relationships with colleagues, mentors, faculty, family, partners, and friends, keep reading. In this guide, we’ll examine these dynamics and offer helpful tips for healthy boundary-setting and communication. We’ll also present common relationship scenarios and offer practical solutions for navigating complex situations.
Types of Relationships Students Have in Graduate School
Let’s begin by taking a deeper look at some of the relationships students commonly have in graduate school. We’ll also examine the nuances of each type of relationship, pointing out some of the reasons these connections can be helpful to your success in school — or, at times, how they can complicate things.
Depending on your course of study, the role of faculty, advisors, or mentors will vary widely. Some will help you for just one course, while others you’ll interact with regularly — but the bottom line is, you’ll never know if you may connect with them again, so it’s always a chance to put your best foot forward and learn from their expertise. Keep in mind, if you decide to continue your education into doctoral study, for example, a particular faculty member could decide your fate. This means relationships with professors, advisors and mentors are potentially intense, and the dynamics may shift over time.
Relationships with your fellow students often lay the groundwork for future connections in your chosen field. You’ll meet during coursework, come to understand their strengths in a field of shared interest, work together in moments of need during your studies — and even potentially work with them in your future career. You’ll also collaborate with students during group projects, which mimics the way projects are often completed in the workplace. Learning how to form positive, respectful connections with your peers will be beneficial in your career.
Many students maintain outside employment while in graduate school, so the tone of your relationship with your supervisor can affect your feelings about school. If you have a supervisor who is supportive and willing to be flexible — as long as your work is accomplished, that is — it will facilitate your ability to pursue a degree while working. However, this relationship can sour if a supervisor perceives that your job performance has declined and attributes this to your studies.
If you’re working while you pursue your degree, you may find that you rely on coworkers in a different way than you did before you started graduate school. You may have been the coworker who was typically willing to trade shifts or provide urgent coverage, and now you may have to be more judicial with your offers. Take the time to maintain your connections with your coworkers and continue to display generosity with them as much as possible, all while communicating the ways your needs have changed since you returned to school.
In every stage of life, friendship serves an essential function. In contrast to family relationships, these connections are made and maintained purely by choice and desire to foster connection with one another. In an optimal deep friendship, both people should feel like they are supported and thriving in their connection. These friendships should remain a priority — especially with one’s closest friends — so leave energy to cultivate these meaningful relationships.
These relationships are more casual in nature and can both enter and fade from your life during graduate school. On one hand, you’ll be meeting other students at school through classes or other functions, but at the same time, you may have a harder time connecting with the acquaintances from your past experiences. Those who are meaningful from a setting tend to become friends, where we set aside time to seek out mutual shared time. But don’t discount the welcoming presence of a rotating cast of casual connections who happen to frequent the same bar you visit.
While we’d always like to think that our family is our biggest group of cheerleaders, these dynamics can be the most complicated. With any luck, they’ve celebrated every step of your decision to pursue a graduate degree; however, keep in mind that it can be challenging for them to come to terms with your lessening availability for family gatherings. You may need to be clear with your family about how your life is going to be different while you’re in graduate school. A good tip is to try to be specific about how your family members can best support you during this change.
Whether you’re in a partnership when you enter graduate school or you are hoping to meet someone during this chapter, romantic relationships tend to be the most fruitful during a time of productive personal growth. While you’re pursuing your passion in graduate school, it might put you on the path to meeting someone equally engaged in their pursuits. For an existing partnership, you’ll need to remember to set aside time for your partner. Not only does this relationship help you maintain your needs when school stress mounts, but it hopefully provides you with emotional support and grounding.
Healthy Boundaries vs. Unhealthy Patterns
Now that we’ve considered the common relationship types, let’s dive into the specifics of what a “healthy boundary” looks like — and, conversely, what it doesn’t. Take inventory of your relationships, and see if you can see some of the following represented.
Healthy Boundaries Look Like…
- Owning your time: Your time is yours to dedicate in the way that makes the most sense to you. Of course, certain commitments, like classes or internships, must take place at a certain time. But the rest is in your control.
- Be realistic: You likely have a pretty good idea of how much you can take on and complete in a specific time frame. You try not to overextend yourself, because you know that leads to burnout.
- Learn to say no: “No” is a complete sentence. It does not require a “good enough reason” to decline. You may find yourself on the receiving end of another person’s disappointment, but that’s ok, because adults can manage these feelings.
- Don’t try to solve others’ problems: As tempting as it can be to help a friend in need, you know this is not always the best solution. You are there to lend an empathetic ear, but you don’t interject yourself into someone else’s situation.
- You clearly communicate your needs and wants: You’re firm, clear, and direct about your wants and needs in each situation. You communicate proactively, which is the best way to prevent resentment.
- Experience your own emotions, not those of others: You have enough on your plate; you don’t need the guilt or negativity of another on there, too. You focus on acknowledging and managing your feelings while practicing respect and empathy for others.
Unhealthy Patterns Look Like…
- Over-committing: Rather than declining proactively, you take on a project that crashes and burns at the last minute because you are over-committed.
- Frequently feeling resentful: Guilt drives you to offer help, and others take advantage of these offers. You know this is a prescription for resentment, and yet you do it anyway.
- Feeling overwhelmed or exhausted: Your stress level is sky-high, you’re entirely overextended, and you’re consistently ignoring your own needs. Sleep is a luxury you can’t afford.
- Putting others before yourself: You find yourself prioritizing others’ wants over your needs. You feel guilt for taking time for yourself, and you would never consider ignoring a request from a friend.
Mastering Effective Communication
With a clearer picture of healthy boundaries in mind, you may be asking yourself: So what exactly are the best ways to communicate effectively? Below you’ll find concrete strategies for improving communication in your personal, professional, and academic life.
Practice Active Listening
Hearing is the passive process of receiving a piece of auditory information; listening is a proactive process that adds in the element of engagement to better understand the information. Active listening is defined by several key traits, including making eye contact, resisting any impulse to interrupt, repeating a message back to ensure understanding, and responding in a way that shows shared meaning. Try reframing what you’re hearing, beginning with the words, “If I’m understanding you correctly, you felt…” or something similar that solicits feedback. Active listening is an ongoing process that involves both the sender and the receiver of information.
Emotional Intelligence is Key
While graduate school is a time to learn academic content, continuing your emotional education and developing personal emotional intelligence is essential to healthy relationships. “Emotional intelligence” refers to your understanding of your own emotions and those of others, as well as a willingness to take accountability for your actions, empathizing appropriately with others, and prioritizing personal well-being.
Body Language Matters
How you sit, stand, and even position your limbs has the power to send messages. Crossing your arms may feel powerful to you, but it may communicate ambivalence to another person. Speaking while gesturing with your palms upward can communicate openness and positivity, while speaking with your palms face down can communicate control and rigidity. Pay attention to whether you are leaning away from or towards your companion, for example, and consider the added context of your body language to the content of your conversation.
Articulation & Tone
Tone can drastically change the meaning received in a conversation. How you say something is as important — if not more important — than what you say, and we sometimes have a hard time understanding how our own tone can be misconstrued. However, there’s no dictionary for tone, so consider changing it up slightly if you’re encountering communication challenges. And keep in mind that tone comes across in all forms of communication — including in the written medium. If the recipient reads your words in an entirely different tone than you intended, miscommunication can ensue. Try to save weighty communication for an in-person conversation, not a text or email.
Ask Relevant and Thoughtful Questions
Building relationships requires mutual interest and investment in one another, so asking relevant and thoughtful questions of your friend, colleague, advisor, or partner shows that you are curious enough to dive deeper. Use open-ended questions that express your desire to learn more. Some prompts you could use include:
- “Tell me more about that.”
- “What do you think will be the most challenging part of that project?”
- “What are you most looking forward to about that?”
Tailor to Your Audience
You constantly shift between formal and informal tones depending on our audience, often without even consciously doing so. For example, you speak to the dean of your institution during an admission interview far differently than you speak to your sibling. Be thoughtful about the requisite amount of decorum and formality of a setting, and save the more unbridled content, especially profanity or overly personal information, for your close personal relationships — not professional or academic ones.
Be Clear About Your Needs or Concerns
We often couch our needs or concerns in passive language so we’re not perceived as being too aggressive or forceful; however, practicing assertive communication is a clear, respectful, and effective way to express your needs. Implicit to this form of communication is the need to be factual, reference behaviors and not the character of the other person, and state your desired outcome.
Look for Positives
When delivering challenging news, it can be helpful to serve a “positive feedback sandwich.” Identify one positive observation to share first, then express the constructive feedback, and finish with another positive observation. For example: “I’ve noticed that you have been very thorough with your citations. I’d like to see you work on incorporating a wider array of sources of differing viewpoints. I’m looking forward to reading your next assignment, as you always pose interesting and engaging arguments.”
Uncomfortable Situations & How to Handle Them
Learning theoretically about boundaries and relationship dynamics can be helpful, but most people benefit more from tangible examples of how they can effectively handle common interactions with grace and composure. If you agree with this, you’re in luck — because we’re about to pose some challenges and solutions.
Below, you’ll read about some common uncomfortable scenarios you may encounter during grad school. This is followed by a solution that offers the establishment of a healthy boundary using your newly acquired effective communication skills. Ready? Let’s jump in.
Situation #1 – Advisor or professor crosses a line (or vice versa)
Situation #2 – Explaining time restrictions to close friends and family
Situation #3 – Talking to a supervisor about schedule availability
Situation #4 – You are partnered with someone who isn’t pulling their weight.
Situation #5 – You are struggling and need help from a professor or advisor.
Resources for Healthy Communication & Boundaries
Lucky for all of us, we have so much to learn about effective relationships and boundaries available right at our fingertips. We’ve compiled a list of these resources, from blogs to podcasts to books and beyond, each of which has something to offer as you work toward a goal of healthier communication.
- “Attached”: Authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller provide insights into the science of how we form connections with others. You’ll learn about attachment styles and implement practical suggestions to build more fulfilling connections.
- “Boundaries”: Authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote this book, considered one of the best places to start regarding learning about boundaries. You’ll learn about the legitimacy of boundaries, useful scripting, and how to set boundaries and still be loving.
- Brené Brown: A social work researcher and PhD dedicated to “keeping it awkward, brave, and kind,” Brown engages in research about vulnerability and connection and has written a number of engaging books about these topics. She also has a podcast.
- Call Your Girlfriend: Not all our close friends are proximate, as best friends Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman know well based on maintaining their long-distance friendship. Listen to their podcast to hear them navigate the distance in relationships.
- “Codependent No More”: Author Melody Beattie offers this excellent text to begin your education about codependency and how it presents in a variety of relationships.
- Esther Perel: A renowned couples and family therapist, Esther Perel takes a psychodynamic approach to improving couples’ communication. Check out her book “Mating in Captivity” and her podcastsWhere Should We Begin and How’s Work? to learn more.
- “Getting to Yes”: Negotiation is a part of everyday life, and in this book written by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton, you’ll learn about building boundaries while working toward agreement.
- Good Inside: Dr. Becky Kennedy is a child psychologist and parent who is dedicated to breaking the cycle of shame-based parenting. People of all ages will benefit from her knowledge about attachment, mindfulness, and emotion regulation in relationships.
- “I Hear You”: In record time (which translates to 148 pages or a two-hour, 45-minute audiobook), author Michael Sorenson discusses simple, easy-to-implement communication tweaks in your daily conversations that can change your life.
- Lisa Olivera: The author of “Already Enough,” Olivera is a therapist who focuses on emotional well-being and challenging cognitions that are guided by protective emotions.
- Movember: What started as a movement to abstain from shaving in the month of November to raise money for cancer research has become an advocacy organization for men’s mental health. Check out their mental health resources as a place to begin improving your relationships with yourself and others.
- Nedra Glover Tawwab: This expert on relationships and boundaries is the author of two books and shares clear, concise scripts to address challenging moments with others.
- Nicole LePera: Known as The Holistic Psychologist, LePera’s work explores the early underpinnings of challenges in relationships and boundaries and how to evolve these patterns as an adult.
- Savage Lovecast: A staple in the LGBTQIA+ community for advice, Dan Savage answers questions on this podcast about sex and relationships in honest, explicit detail — with some profanity thrown in for fun.
- “The Five Love Languages”: By understanding the words, actions, or behaviors that signify love and investment from your partner, author Gary Chapman believes you can improve the quality of your connection and communication skills.
- “The Four Tendencies”: Author Gretchen Rubin believes our personalities are based on internal and external expectations. By understanding these four tendencies, you can better understand yourself and how to collaborate, cohabitate, and connect.
- Therapy for Black Girls: Mental health topics can carry more stigma in communities of color. Therapy for Black Girls is a resource hub for tips and carries a vetted provider directory.
- VeryWell Mind: This website hosts a curated collection of medically reviewed articles about mental health.
Expert Interview – Counselor/Therapist
Em Gormley, LCSW, is a psychotherapist at Thomas Jefferson University and in private practice in Philadelphia. He received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. His areas of clinical specialty include work with LGBTQIA+ communities, trauma, and harm reduction.
How can students communicate their needs effectively to peers and colleagues in a way that fosters mutual respect and understanding?
Focus on clear, direct communication. Do your best to ask directly for what you need. At the same time, work to make sure that the other party feels understood by you. Use active listening skills to show that you understand their perspective or what they’re asking for, and if you’ve misunderstood, continue trying to clarify until you get it right. If your needs conflict with someone else’s, focus on working toward a solution that meets everyone’s needs, or if this isn’t possible, compromise. Try to focus on moving forward and identifying solutions, versus focusing on being 100% heard and understood. It’s possible to work effectively and arrive at solutions without being fully on the same page.
What are some strategies for dealing with difficult or toxic relationships in graduate school?
Toxic and difficult relationships — particularly with people in positions of authority such as advisors or professors — can be challenging to navigate in grad school. My best advice is to seek support and guidance from someone who you respect and trust. Focus on managing the relationship with the challenging person in a way that protects your interests. If you’re someone who is more passive, you might need to push yourself to be more direct and assertive about your needs and boundaries. Conversely, if you’re someone who’s more reactive, you might need to pause and take some time to consider the best course of action before following up with the person. Regardless, remember that you can’t change or control another person’s behavior, so focus on what you can control — how you choose to respond to the situation.
How can students navigate power dynamics in relationships with professors or advisors and maintain a healthy balance of power?
The power differential between students, professors, and advisors in grad school can seem daunting. It can be helpful to keep in mind the power that you have, including how you choose to act and navigate these relationships. If you don’t understand something or your needs aren’t being met, don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. If you’re struggling in a particular relationship — if you’re able to, try to address it directly with that person, or otherwise, get feedback and support from someone trustworthy and figure out how best to address it.
How can a student manage the stress and pressure of graduate school while also maintaining healthy personal relationships with those around them?
Self-care is essential in managing the stressors of graduate school and maintaining healthy relationships. Self-care isn’t limited to things like creating time to meditate, practice yoga, or take a bath — although it might include those things. It can also look like creating time to prioritize relationships with your friends and family, practicing time management with school responsibilities, and upholding boundaries around work and school so that you have enough space for your other life needs.
What should a student do if they feel their boundaries are being violated?
I think this really depends on the context and the sort of boundary violation. If you feel comfortable and safe doing so, it’s almost always best to start by addressing your concern directly with the person who crossed your boundaries. Try to approach them with curiosity about what happened, while also being clear and assertive about your needs. For example, if a peer is not participating in a group project, you might first try approaching them directly about what’s going on, then try to problem solve with them to make sure they’re doing their fair share of the work. If you don’t feel comfortable directly addressing the person who crossed your boundaries, seek support from someone you feel you can trust. For example, if the issue is with a supervisor in an internship, a professor or field liaison might be able to assist. Depending on your context, there might be a specific procedure you are supposed to follow — e.g. in a workplace context, going first to your immediate supervisor, etc. If this is the case, make sure you follow the recommended order of operations for addressing the issue.
How can students avoid burnout and maintain a healthy work-life balance while also building strong relationships in graduate school?
Practicing self-care and doing your best to maintain a healthy work-life balance is essential while in grad school. Do your best to have clear boundaries around your work life, e.g. avoiding work email and phone calls outside of work hours, etc. You might also create a ritual or routine to ground yourself after work and distinguish between work and home, especially if you’re working or learning remotely. At times, it might not be possible to do this perfectly — grad school can demand a lot of time and energy. Do your best to take care of the essentials: Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, moving your body in ways that feel good, and setting aside some time for friends/family. If you’re really struggling with burnout and motivation, it can sometimes be helpful to try to connect to your values — whatever it is that brought you to grad school in the first place — and use that to motivate yourself. It can also be helpful to remember the power that you have, and the active choice that you’re making every day by showing up, working, and learning.
What are the signs of boundaries working well in various contexts (personal relationships, among academic peers, with supervisors/faculty)?
When boundaries are working well, everyone in a particular context should feel able to freely, safely express themselves and communicate about their needs. They should feel listened to and trust that their thoughts, ideas, and concerns are taken seriously. They should also feel able to safely bring up issues or concerns and know that they will not be punished or retaliated against for doing so.
What role does self-care play in establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries and relationships in graduate school?
Self-care is foundational in terms of maintaining healthy boundaries and relationships. When we’re taking care of ourselves, it’s much easier to show up fully in our lives. This starts with the basics, like getting enough sleep, eating well (or at least reasonably), exercising, etc. When we don’t do these things, everything else becomes infinitely more difficult, including managing our emotions, thinking clearly, and communicating about our needs.