When It’s Hard to Talk
Cultivating meaningful relationships in graduate school despite social anxiety
I walk into a meeting with my advisor. I’ve met him before, but this is our first meeting since I joined his lab. He is a leader in the field, like most professors at MIT. I feel as though I need to make a good impression: come up with a brilliant idea or at least say something reasonably intelligent during this meeting. Most people would naturally be nervous. What wouldn’t be true of most people in this situation, however, is what happened to me.
I have social anxiety, and as a result, almost every conversation is a struggle. That day, I was so anxious that I was uncontrollably fidgeting with my pen. I don’t mean the harmless fidgeting that comes from boredom or an excess of energy. I mean that my hand was forcefully pushing the pen back and forth in any direction it could possibly go while still being in my hand, and I couldn’t stop. Inevitably, the pen fell onto the floor. Embarrassed, I leaned over to pick it up. Turns out, the pen had flown further than it looked, and I proceeded to fall out of my chair, flat on my face, onto the floor, in front of my advisor — who is not only in charge of mentoring me during my PhD, but also directs the research institute I work in.
What social anxiety is — and isn’t
Social anxiety is not being “anti-social” or “shy”. I want to be social. I want friends to talk with, to hang out with, to laugh with. I want to have an impact in science, as well as in my community. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people; it’s that I wish it was easier for me. I wish I could let go of embarrassing experiences I’ve had, but my social anxiety won’t let me forget anything. Sometimes, I suddenly recall random, insignificant memories— such as a time I answered a question incorrectly in an eighth-grade Spanish class— and still feel embarrassed about it. It’s as though my brain is wired to keep reminding me of every single thing I’ve done wrong in my interactions with people, making me less likely to initiate conversations.
How social anxiety impacts my ability to function in my graduate program — and how some labmates helped me without realizing it
My social anxiety made graduate school challenging in ways I hadn’t considered before. In my program (Biology), we are required to rotate through multiple labs during our first year so that we can make an informed decision about which lab we want to join. Several professors and older graduate students frequently reminded us that the lab’s research should not be the only thing that informed our decision; the culture of the lab and fitting in with the lab members also mattered. It was clear that this went both ways: we should consider the “people” aspect in our decision, but professors would also consider “lab fit” when determining which graduate students to hire. I don’t think this is wrong (lab fit is definitely important) but it is stressful for someone with social anxiety to be forced to have meaningful interactions with multiple lab members in only four weeks’ time.
Social anxiety doesn’t make a person less capable of doing research. It doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually fit into a lab or a research group. But in a system where there is not enough time to become comfortable with lab members, this might not be so clear. I rarely spoke to people during my first rotation; I just couldn’t force myself to talk. Obviously, I didn’t make a good impression on anyone. I started worrying that my other rotations would be similar and that I wouldn’t be able to join any lab as a result. What would I even do if no lab wanted me?
I got lucky in my other two rotations. In both cases, someone in the lab set up individual meetings with lab members for me, which alleviated a lot of my stress because I wasn’t expected to approach people on my own. That system is more of an exception than a rule for labs in my department, but I think all labs should do this. It would provide students with social anxiety a more even playing field. Ideally, it would be a departmental rule, but at the very least it should be considered normal for rotation students to ask a lab member to set up meetings with other labmates.
The struggle of having social anxiety but also needing friends
While the department can — and should — implement simple changes to accommodate social anxiety, coping with it will always require a great amount of effort on my part. I am the one who gets hurt if I let my social anxiety win. One of the reasons I chose MIT is because I noticed that the structure of our Biology program was conducive to fostering friendships within each cohort, much more so than equivalent programs at other schools. It didn’t work as well for me as I had hoped. I connected well with a couple people, but most students in my cohort have very outgoing personalities that I didn’t mesh well with, and as time progressed I became isolated. I went through depressive moods because I was unbelievably lonely. Despite loving MIT for its scientific opportunities, I could not convince myself to get up in the morning on most days. I longed for the friends I had made in undergrad, and I almost resigned myself to the idea that I would never be able to make such close friends again.
Getting past feeling alone in a crowded room
It often angers me when people suggest “join a campus group!” as a way to make more friends; for me, it usually doesn’t work. I’ve lost count of how many groups I tried to join but gave up on because all I did was awkwardly sit by myself at events and mull on the fact that nobody actually wanted to talk to me. I needed something that absolutely required me to talk to other people; I became desperate and started trying to overcompensate for my anxiety by taking on leadership roles in organizations I wanted to join.
This worked, in large part because the one thing I hate more than my social anxiety is knowing that I didn’t do my job correctly. However, it was overwhelming to constantly force myself into situations where I’d have to talk to people. I balanced it out by taking long walks alone — almost daily — so I could recover from the exhaustion that came from meeting new people. Establishing this self-care routine made it easier for me to step further and further out of my comfort zone. My personal life improved tremendously. I became a member of my dorm’s executive committee and a publicity officer for a campus organization; in the process, I finally met some amazing people who are now great friends of mine. I love spending time with them, and I know I can talk to them about almost anything.
Connecting with scientists, labmates, and friends is essential for a good graduate student experience. Conceptually, I understand that. In practice, my social anxiety makes it difficult. But it’s not nearly as impossible as I once thought. I’ve learned the hard way that building meaningful relationships can take a lot of time, and it is necessary to be patient and not lose hope. Like most things in graduate school, it takes many failed attempts. But if you get back up — sometimes literally, like in that meeting with my advisor — and keep trying, you will find a home here.
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