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Creating Community: Building Your Support System in Grad School

Graduate school is tough, but you don’t have to do it alone. Our guide explains why a strong support system is essential for success and provides practical tips for building one that fulfills your academic, social, and emotional needs.

Author: Kaylee Thornhill

Editor: Staff Editor

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Four diverse young adults laughing and engaging in conversation outdoors, each holding books, in a lush green urban setting.

Humans are relational beings by nature. We need to feel seen, heard, understood — and to have people in our corner who can serve as important buffers against stress. While not everyone’s support system looks the same, we all need one. This is especially true when you face challenges, including graduate school.

As reported in The Atlantic, graduate students experience three times higher rates of moderate or severe depression and anxiety. All of this is to say: You need support to help achieve your goals, and we’re here to help. Read on to find out the types of support you need to thrive during graduate school, who can fill those roles, and how to find your people.

The Benefits of a Support System

Sure, graduate school is notoriously tough — from classes to research duties to family life, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But you’re not alone, and surrounding yourself with supportive people and resources will have far-reaching benefits. Here are the areas of support that will help you optimize your grad school success.

Academic Support

Obviously, you’re in school to learn. But learning does not have to be a solitary effort. Build a strong network of peers in your cohort or classes, develop relationships with professors, and familiarize yourself with on-campus resources such as writing centers and research assistance. As you navigate complex concepts and rigorous coursework that require expert guidance and mastery, these kinds of academic support will help you overcome challenges and succeed.

Emotional Support

As mentioned, graduate school can put a strain on your mental health. So don’t shoulder the burden alone. Studies suggest that students with strong emotional support networks show increased resiliency and report more life satisfaction. An emotional support system reduces feelings of isolation and creates a sense of belonging. Feeling known outside the classroom bolsters your ability to persevere. A strong emotional support system helps you cope with your feelings and sustain better mental health.

Motivational Support

Whether you’re a top-notch list maker or a superb procrastinator, everyone struggles with motivation from time to time. Motivational support comes from people who know when to push you to work harder and when to make you take a break from your study marathon. People who motivate you can help you focus on your goals and remember your why. Motivators build your confidence and are also capable of tough love. This type of support will keep you going when you feel discouraged or exhausted.

Social Support

Practical help is the unsung hero of support systems, like someone who will bring you a meal, watch your kid when he’s sick, or loan you the book you’ve somehow misplaced. It’s not always the most glamorous type of support — and it can also be one of the most humbling to receive — but you will be amazed at how small, practical gestures of support can relieve stress. Social support can also look like the networker who helps you meet others or invites you to social events.

Professional Support

Chances are, you’re pursuing a graduate degree to bolster your professional career. Building a professional support system in graduate school is not only beneficial while you are in school, but also afterward. Professional student groups and strong faculty relationships can both allow you to navigate the specifics of your vocation and open up further opportunities for learning and experience. Professional support systems are vital for graduate students because they provide guidance, feedback, and resources that can help you achieve both academic and professional goals.

Financial Support

The increasing cost of higher education is a major concern for many graduate students. Since 2000, students have seen a 59% increase in cost of their degree. While earning that degree increases your salary potential, it is essential to take advantage of financial support to get you through school. Remember to take time to familiarize yourself with scholarships, grants, fellowships, and loans to help pay for graduate school, and look into any tuition assistance your employer may offer. Working during grad school can reduce the number of loans you take out, but it can also add to stress — so make sure you’re striking a balance.

The People in Your Corner

It’s time to really dive into what these different types of support look like. Who are the people that fill support roles in your life? This list will help you identify the types of people you most need to support you across all areas of your life.

The Mentor

A mentor is someone who offers academic or professional direction from a place of expertise and knowledge — often a professor or advisor. However, a mentor is also someone with whom you have a personal relationship. They know you as an individual and understand your strengths and interests. Research suggests that students with strong relationships with faculty experience fewer negative effects of stress during the first year of grad school. Mentors provide guidance on decisions and encouragement through academic challenges and opportunities for growth.

The Challenger

Who is that person in your life who pushes you to excel? The challenger encourages you to go further than you think yourself capable and to level up your performance. Sometimes this person is a professor or advisor, but it can also be a fellow student who inspires you to push harder and achieve more — maybe even someone who don’t necessarily consider a friend. In fact, a colleague in your studies can serve as a source of friendly competition, especially considering you’re in similar places and experiencing the same challenges.

The Bestie

Your bestie is the person you can always rely on to listen when you need to complain and to celebrate when you have a big win. This tried-and-true friend is only a phone call or text message away, and they always know how to make you feel better. This friend knows you deeply, both good and bad, and you can rely on them to show up for whatever challenges or victories you encounter inside or outside of grad school.

The Therapist

The therapist is the person who knows how to listen well — like really, really well. It can be as simple as a trustworthy companion who knows when to stay quiet and when to speak, or it can come in the form of a licensed therapist offering routine check-ins. Shirley Reiser, LCSW, describes this resource as a “breathe” support, because they often notice you’re stressed before you’re even fully aware and can help you remember to simply inhale and exhale.

The Safety Net

Having a safety net means having someone who shows up, no matter what. Maybe it’s a family member or someone else who has seen you through tough spots before. This person will be there for you no questions asked when you can’t keep up with all life’s demands. They’re reliable and loyal and unintimidated by tough situations. Whether you’re rundown and sick, struggling financially, or at your rock bottom of motivation, your safety-net person will be there to pick you up and help you get back to business.

The Ally

An ally is your colleague, likely a partner in the work of graduate school. This might mean they are in your cohort, a fellow graduate student outside your program, or a coworker. Together you are navigating the successes and trials of similar life situations and supporting one another. Your ally can provide you with both academic and social support through shared experiences in those areas. Because your life circumstances are overlapping, they have a unique ability to understand and empathize with you, and you can do the same for them.

The Partner

If you already have a romantic partner, they can and should be an integral part of your graduate school support system. Your partner can help in multiple areas, including emotional and practical support. Partners are also in your corner to provide encouragement and perspective when you are experiencing doubt or feelings of burnout. They may help you care for yourself by helping share household tasks, listening when you need to vent, or getting you to take a break when you need it.

The Cheerleader

Moms are the quintessential cheerleaders, but they aren’t the only ones who fill this role. Your cheerleader believes in you when you’ve lost belief in yourself. He or she knows how to pick you up and point out all of the wonderful things you have accomplished. Cheerleaders are optimistic about you; they know you will achieve great things and never fail to remind you of it. If you find this person, take advantage of their support — they love giving it! (Now go call your mom and tell her you love her if she’s on the sidelines cheering you on.)

Getting Support When You Need It

Building a support system before you’re in desperate need of one is an important form of self-care. It requires effort, but it’s time well spent. But you may find yourself struggling to find support if you feel like you can’t identify your own needs. Read on to better understand when to ask for help and how to get the right kind.

Recognize the Signs

Building a routine of mindful reflection can help you tune in to your unique signs of stress. Many people experience feelings of burnout at some point during their graduate school experience. This can manifest as physical, mental, and/or emotional exhaustion, or as feelings of wanting to quit and give up. Do you find yourself struggling in one particular area or avoiding a problem? All of these can be signs that it’s time to seek support. When life feels out of balance, it can be incredibly hard to persevere alone. That’s the perfect time to seek support.

Don’t be Afraid

In our individualistic culture, it can feel really difficult to need help. But being willing to ask for help when you need it can open up a relationship to deeper connection and strength. Don’t be afraid to be a little vulnerable and give someone the opportunity to care for you. Asking for help does not make you incapable or weak; after all, everyone needs help sometimes.

Ask the Right Person

Hopefully as you read the descriptions of the roles above, specific names and faces popped into your mind. Knowing who is on your team and what their strengths are can help you seek help from the person who is both willing and equipped to provide the support you need. You probably gravitate toward asking the people you are most comfortable with, but sometimes it’s best to step outside your comfort zone to get optimal support.

Be Clear About Your Needs

We’ve all been in a conversation where we feel true compassion for the person sharing their challenges, yet we simultaneously feel completely lost about how to help them. If you know what you need, simply say it. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help with the laundry, for guidance on a difficult decision, or for a listening ear. To help reduce the chances of miscommunication — especially when talking with loved ones — stick to “I” statements and engage in some intentional reflection about your specific needs before the conversation.

Be Solution Oriented

Everyone needs to complain and let off steam at times, but if that’s as far as you ever get, you will find yourself very stuck and probably struggling to find a listening ear. Keep a solution-oriented mindset and really listen to others’ perspectives as they offer solutions or suggestions. Ask questions and be curious about their thought processes. You will get much better help this way and also won’t exhaust the emotional reserves of your confidant.

Know Your Limits

Graduate school can sometimes be a place of intense competition and power struggles. You are only capable of controlling your own decisions, so know when to say “no.” You don’t have to participate in uber-competitive dynamics. If you find yourself feeling out of balance, take concrete steps to set up boundaries and limit your commitments. Remember that graduate school is not forever; you will not always have to manage your time so strictly. Don’t overcommit, and avoid being sucked into environments that drain you.

Recognize the Limits of Others

It’s important to keep in mind that the people in your support system have their own lives and may be facing their own challenges. This means, depending on their circumstances, their availability may be limited or their capacity to help reduced. When you have a comprehensive support system, you can lessen the load on any one individual. It’s also easier to ask for help when you know the other person is in a place where they can provide it. Respecting others’ limitations makes for better relationships and stronger support systems.

Know When You Need More Specialized Support

Similar to asking the right person for the job, this is about recognizing when you may be lacking a specific support resource. This could be because you need a specific type of help, such as counseling, or because you don’t currently have a person in your life who fills that role, such as an ally. Remember that you can access support from professional therapists and mentors, friends, and on-campus resources like a writing center or student group.

How to Support Others

We’ve talked up to this point about what you need; but it’s also important to think about how you can help your people, too. You have valuable support to offer those in your life, and offering it free of expectation can strengthen relationships and reinforce your already-strong network. Read on for ways to be an even more active participant on someone else’s team.

Work on Your Listening Skills

This may sound harsh, but sometimes the best thing you can do is shut up. Work to cultivate curiosity and truly listen to what the other person is saying. Ask questions and stay tuned in to the conversation. Put your phone down, look them in the eyes, and turn your body towards them. It’s often not easy to withhold our commentary, but it is very appreciated by someone who simply wants to be heard.

Offer Perspective If It’s Asked For

If you stick to asking questions and practicing active listening, you’ll often not have to wonder if your companion wants your opinion. When you listen in a nonjudgmental way, they are free to solicit your perspective when they’re ready to hear it. You will maintain trust by respecting their desire (or lack thereof) for solutions or input. And your friend will be more likely to really appreciate your feedback when they’ve asked to hear it.

Make Time for Them

Graduate school students know time is an extremely precious commodity, which is why it can be so meaningful when you explicitly set aside time to spend with a friend. Even short amounts of time can be impactful if you engage in intentional conversation and seek to be present. Following up through other means of communication can also be a way to keep the conversation going if you can’t get together in person. A phone call or text when you have a chance shows you’re thinking about them.

Offer Encouragement

Being encouraging doesn’t mean downplaying someone’s struggles or bringing toxic positivity. It simply means affirming their experiences and offering your perspective on their personal positive traits. Encouragement driven by empathy will go much further than glib silver linings. Be specific about their strengths and what you admire or respect about them. Be sincere, and remember that encouragement is an ongoing process. Check back in and continue to cheer them on in meaningful ways.

Ask Them What They Need

Help others to reflect on their specific needs by asking them. If they say they don’t know, offer a few suggestions of ways you would be willing to help — and remind them that it’s ok to tell you “no.” It’s also helpful to share your own story and experiences of needing support. Let them in on how you recognize when you need help and how you go about getting it. Your friend will benefit from your empathy and vulnerability.

Get Them to Take Breaks

Have you ever known someone who was a marathon-studier? This person will work for hours without stopping to eat, drink, or take a mental break. Advocates of the Pomodoro Technique, a method of time management that breaks up tasks into 25-minute intervals followed by short breaks, believe you’re far more productive when you vary your routine using bursts followed by breaks. So encourage your friend to occasionally take a beat, with or without the assistance of a tomato-shaped timer.

Be Respectful of Their Time

Recognizing that people have different time demands and even capacities for social interaction is an important piece of being a good friend. When making plans to spend time with someone, ask if they’re on a time crunch, and specifically offer that you can hang out another time if it’s more convenient, A crucial part of being on someone’s team is engaging with them in ways and at times that are beneficial rather than burdensome.

Know Your Own Limits

You will not be the best person to offer support if you’re feeling completely spent and burnt out, so try to proactively recognize those symptoms in yourself. You can respectfully and kindly say “no” to requests for your time or support, even from those closest to you. One way to soften the message if you’re trying to protect your personal boundaries is to help direct them to someone who has the right skillset or capacity to support them.

Supportive Resources for Grad Students

Sometimes the biggest barrier to finding help is simply not knowing where to look or whom to ask. We’re here to alleviate that problem through this comprehensive list of resources in the form of blogs, podcasts, books, online forums, and websites that can help you find support in a variety of areas.

  • “The Art of Possibility”: Authors Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander offer a fresh perspective on creativity, leadership, and personal growth in this book, with practical tips on how to achieve your goals and reach your potential.
  • Bold Adulting Podcast: Host Masha Zvereva offers advice and strategies for young adults navigating various aspects of life, including relationships, career, and personal growth. The podcast focuses on developing courage and resilience in the face of self-doubt and uncertainty.
  • Dear Grad Student Podcast: Hosted by Dr. Katie Linder, this podcast provides insights and advice on academic writing, productivity, and career development for graduate students. Expect interviews with experts in academia and discussions on topics such as imposter syndrome, self-care, and academic job market.
  • “Deep Work”: Author Cal Newport offers both criticism of cultural trends and practical advice for those looking to improve their ability to focus in this book. The goal is to develop the ability to engage in deep work — the mastery of complex concepts — in a short amount of time.
  • Get a Life, PhD Blog: You’ll learn sound advice and inspiration for graduate students on topics such as productivity, writing, and work-life balance from this blog, which emphasizes the importance of pursuing meaningful and fulfilling lives alongside academic careers.
  • Gradhacker Blog: Written by a diverse group of graduate students and scholars, the blog provides practical advice and resources for graduate students on topics such as productivity, technology, teaching, and career development.
  • The GradCafe Forum: This is an online community for graduate students and applicants to share advice, experiences, and information about programs, admissions, funding, and careers.
  • Grad Resources Website: Here you’ll find mental health resources and support for graduate students, including self-help tools, counseling services, and wellness resources. The site’s three areas of focus are crisis care, grad school life, and community building.
  • Grad School Confidential Podcast: Listen in on candid conversations with graduate students and professionals in academia about the challenges and rewards of pursuing advanced degrees, as well as tips for success.
  • Grad School for Grown Folks Podcast: Hosted by Dr. Tonya Vetter, this podcast offers resources and support for non-traditional graduate students as they navigate the challenges of balancing work, family, and school.
  • GradSense Website: Visit this site for resources and information for graduate students, with a focus on the costs and benefits of graduate education and financial planning for career success.
  • The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students: Connect through this organization that advocates for the interests and needs of graduate students at the national level and provides resources and support for graduate student organizations.
  • “The Now Habit”: In this book, author Neil Fiore outlines a program to squash procrastination and avoid the anxiety and stress of perfectionism using mindfulness and positive self-talk.
  • PhD Talk Podcast: Hosts Eva and Sarah provide practical tips and advice for graduate students, with a focus on personal and professional development and academic writing.
  • r/AskAcademia Subreddit: This forum is for sharing academic life stories and asking questions to those involved in both the sciences and the humanities.
  • r/GradSchool Subreddit: This online forum offers a wide variety of experiences and perspectives from current and alumni graduate students.
  • “Ultralearning”: In each chapter of his book, author Scott Young breaks learning down into skills that allow anyone to quickly understand and begin working with new information — great for graduate students who need to retain a lot of information quickly.
  • “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women”: Author Valerie Young explores the phenomenon of imposter syndrome, offering insights and advice to help women overcome self-doubt and achieve their full potential.
  • The Thesis Whisperer Blog: This blog, with more than 600,000 words of content, offers advice on writing a thesis or dissertation, as well as tips on time management and mental health.
  • Well-Written — A Podcast for Graduate & Doctoral Students: Follow along as host Dr. Latasha Schraeder provides insight on academic writing, offering advice and strategies for improving writing skills, managing writing projects, and navigating the academic publishing process.

Interview with a Grad School Advisor

Dr.J.GordonArbuckle

Dr. J. Gordon Arbuckle is a professor of rural sociology and faculty advisor in the graduate program in sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University. His research and extension efforts focus on improving the environmental and social performance of agricultural systems. In this interview he pulls from his advising experience to help us answer some questions about supporting graduate students through their master’s program.

How important is it for grad students to have a strong support system during their studies, and what are the benefits?

Graduate school can be a stressful time. Graduate students have a lot of responsibilities, and between their teaching or research assistantships, coursework, and sometimes family life, it can be a lot. It’s important to recognize that since most graduate students attend school far from “home,” they don’t have long-time friends and family and friends to lean on, so they have to build local support systems at the universities where they study. The benefits of developing a good support system are infinite. Everyone needs people they can lean on when times are tough. The reciprocity is also important: People need other people to lean on them when they could use support. Building a strong social network helps with all the things.

What are some effective strategies for building a support system as a grad student, especially for those who are new to the academic community?

I think you can start with the graduate student cohort you enter the program with and then build out, first with other grad students, and then with professors, etc. As a grad student, it’s easiest to connect with other grad students because you’ve got that in common. Getting involved in student organizations is a great way to meet others outside of your department.

Can you share some examples of the different types of support that grad students may need during their studies, and how can they identify their specific needs?

One thing graduate students definitely need is a major professor (or other professional mentor) who is caring, flexible, and willing to spend time helping them learn how to be successful in graduate school. That said, a student’s major professor can’t be expected to provide all the mentoring and support, so it’s important to seek other sources. One way to do this is to just make the effort to meet many of the professors in their department and other departments. Since students have to meet with faculty to select a thesis or dissertation committee, they can view these meetings as opportunities to establish relationships with them. Professors that are supportive in those meetings can then become part of the support network.

How can grad students balance their academic commitments with maintaining relationships with their support system?

One important way to balance academic commitments and support system relationships is to combine those things by forming study and writing groups. This can be around a class or around tasks like writing papers. The camaraderie of being together in the same boat can lift spirits and provide motivation to keep focused. Over time, some of those support group relationships become friendships.

How can grad students cultivate supportive relationships with their academic advisors and mentors?

This is a more difficult question, because faculty are all over the place in terms of their mentorship philosophy. Some are warm and spend a lot of time and effort mentoring students, and others are more hands-off. I recommend that students develop professional relationships with professors that inspire them. Don’t take too much of their time, but don’t be afraid to make appointments during office hours to talk about academic themes, and if it seems appropriate, also ask for advice on how to navigate the grad student path. I think it’s very important to look for faculty mentors who are not their major professors. It’s rare that a major professor can provide all of the support and training that a student needs.