Academia and friendships


At one point I thought about writing a post about the difficulties that academia wreaks on friendships. All that moving about means picking up, making new friends and leaving behind the old. It is tough in many respects and it is easy to see the negatives of that part of the career. Check out #academicnomad for the joys and sorrows of traveling/moving so much. Needless to say the post slipped by and I never quite got around to writing it.

This Christmas I was driving with my mother somewhere and the conversation turned to friendships. Sitting there I realised how incredibly fortunate I am. I’ve moved around a lot, even before I started on the academic trail. Here’s my academic path so far: as a bright-eyed teenager I moved from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Vancouver, BC to start my undergrad. After quitting, going back, switching schools and working throughout, I got a degree from Simon Fraser University. After nine years I made the move to leave Vancity with another big leap, this time back east to Guelph, Ontario for my masters. Geographically close but worlds and a country a part, I moved to Ithaca, NY for my PhD. Upon finishing I followed my husband to Karlskrona, Sweden where I hung out for a year taking care of my girl, writing papers, learning Swedish, and applying for jobs. I got one and we moved ~550km north to Uppsala where my husband promptly got a job an hour away. After about a year of him being the commuter, we picked up again and moved to Västerås.

It is easy to see the disadvantages of these moves and how tough it has been to maintain friendships in the face of it. I have friends I haven’t seen in years and the geographic distances mean that I probably won’t any time soon. I’m not great at emailing regularly and although skype is great, I often don’t think to call either. Time differences can make spontaneous calls difficult even if you would like to. For those who stay in academia, it can be easier to connect at conferences but even that is hard because I haven’t been going to the North American ones lately. Sometimes I can feel like I have no friends, because I don’t have so many here and now (especially in the town we live since I don’t work here). But sitting in that car with my mom, I was struck with the realization that my life is rich with friends and that is due in part to my nomadic academic life.

For me, in any group or point in time, I really connect with one or two people, if I’m lucky. Moving around has exposed me to new people at each turn and I’ve often found a friend for life at each of those points.

So if I reflect on my life there’s usually a really special friendship that started connected to a place/time. For all of those that I have the kind of connection that stands the test of time, there are others that I didn’t have the chance to get so close to but who would always be wonderful to see again. And I wouldn’t have met my Swedish husband if he hadn’t traveled to the USA for a postdoc and then our daughter wouldn’t be in my life either.

More than the moving about, lately conferences, twitter and blogging here is expanding the network of people I interact with and enriching my life with encounters and friendships I would have never had.

Sure, sometimes I wish I could just gather up a bunch of my friends and insert them into my neighbourhood so that we could get together causally whenever we felt like it. It would certainly be better than the rare visit but on the other hand I might not have met so many great people if I hadn’t moved around so much in my life. So those times I feel lonely, I’m going to try to do better. I’ll try to remember I do have friends and remember I can reach out, whether that is down the hallway or across the ocean. And I’ll try to think about the benefits I’ve reaped from being an academic nomad instead of focusing on the difficulties.

3 thoughts on “Academia and friendships

  1. Nice post, Amy!

    The amazing thing is that you can reconnect with friends from previous places and your conversations can pick up almost as if nothing has changed, even though much has. Nevertheless, this is no substitute for a friend nearby, who sees you every day or so and knows what difficulties you are surmounting or failing to overcome. The local, everyday friend is crucial to mental health. A life partner can play that role to some extent, but academics is intense and the daily sturm and drang can wear on the relationship. All it takes is one nearby friend, but living without one is challenging.

  2. I think one of the understated challenges of grad school is that every 4-8 months, there’s massive turnover in your colleagues… people finish (or move away), new people arrive; it’s like a conveyer belt, especially as a PhD student with MSc students arriving and finishing while you seem to stay put.

    I did a fair bit of moving around (including internationally), and agree there are many challenges to uprooting and resettling. It’s not for everyone, and sometimes I do wish that I was based in the places I’ve lived for longer periods, but with time comes comfort and stability, usually, and the friends that come with that transition.

  3. Having a local friend is definitely important and I agree that this can be tough when 1. people you meet through work often move away or 2. you’re moving yourself. I can say I’m getting tired of moving despite the some of benefits that can come with it!

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