Building and maintaining friendships as an academic

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I just made a few new friends, perhaps.

After more than two years of pandemic-induced isolation, I had the privilege of a week of quality in-person time with fellow Earth Leadership Fellows last week, and so many were just wonderful human beings. The experience was highly valuable and I learned from everybody. Having gone through this experience, it makes sense to me how so many of the former fellows (not to mention the current ones) are among most impactful and visible scientists working on critical environmental issues. We’re gaining skills and perspectives that will help us do work that will actually change things. You’ll probably hear more from me about that stuff later, but now I want to talk about the friend thing.

I think one of hardest parts of being an academic is the expectation that you move, often huge distances, several times throughout your professional development. You get close to people, and then you move. What do we do with those roots that we grow? Do we box them up with a root ball and hopefully they’ll survive a transplant? How many of us are just potted plants moving around, never putting roots into the ground?

While I enjoy that I’ve been able to live a bunch of places, it’s also been hard. I grew up and went to college in LA before moving to Colorado for five years [grad school], then a year-ish in Houston [post-doc], then a year in the DC area-ish [visiting professor], before moving back to southern California, where I was in San Diego for 7 years before coming back to LA. After graduating college, I’ve had my own bed in nine different residences. That might be high for a lot of folks, but I suspect that number is quite low for academics. Another way to look at my peregrinations is that I have lived whole life in Southern California except for seven years. And when I first moved away, my bestest friend ever (now my spouse) joined me and we’ve managed to make every step together, even if work prevented our moves from being synchronous. That sounds more stable than most academics.

Another hard part, and also a wonderful part, about being an academic is that we are occasionally brought together from distant places to have shared experiences. This was the case with my ELP training last week, but I’m well familiar with this from working for extended periods of time in field stations. My back-of-the envelope math says I’ve collectively spent over three years working in field stations, most of which has been one particular place, and often involved time with friends resulting in familiarity and intimacy that felt special.

As one’s career advances, there are fewer opportunities to build new friendships in academic settings. When there is a power relationship, this isn’t the time to make friends. While I’ve ended up becoming good friends with some former students and former supervisors, it’s not healthy (and it can be dangerous) to treat your research team or your course as “family” or as “friends.” You can be personable and personal to some extent with people under you, but while you’re in charge, you’re in charge. Power relationships often stretch across institutions, too. I think I’m friends with some scientists who are junior to me and senior to me, but this can only really happen when power differentials don’t get in the way. Also, I love collaborating with others but I think having friendships with fellow scientists who we know and like and trust beyond our collaborators is really important.

Especially in the US, we all have well established routines in our work and family and personal lives that make us feel that we’re busier than ever and exhausted at the end of the day. We get so wrapped up in our daily lives that we end up deprioritizing connectedness with friends. (Bowling Alone and all of that, not that I’ve ever bowled alone.) I definitely I have friends in my local community who I really treasure, but we don’t nearly spend as much time time together as we should. A lot of this has had to do with the exhaustingness of being a parent. When we get together, we say we need to do this more often. But do we? Now that I’m approaching empty nest-hood, it is reasonable to imagine that I’ll have more bandwidth to be a better friend to to others?

The bottom line is that I feel like I’ve generated a long trail of neglected friendships stretching across the globe. While our connections are expected to wax and wane, I feel like I’ve not worked on the wax. There are some friends who I downright adore, who I see or talk to when circumstances make our paths overlap, but the lack of intentionality means that we’re just not in solid contact. I have a couple friends who deliberately make a point to just call out of the blue, or text, just to say hi and see how things are going. And I have been horrible about reciprocating even though when I do talk to them, it is ever so nice.

I mean. I’m not a lonely hermit. I do have valued friends, and my life feels full and rich, and for this I am grateful. But I’ve let some actual and more potential friendships more fallow than I should have, because I haven’t put in the emotional labor to sustain them. I don’t think I should have any particular number of friends, but my life can be richer if I am intentional about staying connected to the people who I want to stay connected to. That’s entirely on me.

This isn’t about any person in particular. Though for example, I am thinking about how I was on a recent trip for work and I was just 20 minutes down the road from one of my best friends from grad school. I did have several hours that I could have spared, and I didn’t even bother to let him know I was in town. Last time I saw him, a few years ago (or maybe more?), it was great. But I haven’t emailed or texted or messaged or whatever. And there’s another close friend from college, who now lives in the bay area and on a couple occasions has invited my family up to visit. But have I really stayed in touch? I feel bad for not ever responding, and then just let things slide. I mean, even if we aren’t able to get away to visit her, I can at least send a card or call, right?

Academic life makes it harder to sustain friendships. Because the work itself often feels all-consuming, because we are often moving from one place to another, because trusting people can be hard, because toxic masculinity, because we spend so much energy relating to people at work that friendship takes work, because netflix, because pandemic, because taking kids to school and sports and camp and everything, because aging parents, because there will always be laundry and dishes, because because because. It’s takes effort, but it’s important, and ultimately it’s recharging rather than draining.

So. I’ve just recently had the opportunity to cross paths with a few folks who I’d like to stay friends with over time. At the start of this post I said I made friends “perhaps,” because, well, friendships evolve organically. It’s on me (in part) to better about sustaining contact, reciprocating, listening, and sharing than I have been over the years. Over this pandemic, we’ve seen how maintaining connections over distance and time has been important for us. Now that we’re moving into a New Normal, maybe you can remember with me to stay in touch with people in our lives who we value.

5 thoughts on “Building and maintaining friendships as an academic

  1. Felt this. Just on the nearside to a move to an island in the Atlantic, far from family, spouse, and former colleagues, not sure I even have the energy to do it anymore. But it is so necessary to build oneself a community, without children in the mix, it seems like an impossible mountain to climb.

  2. Thanks for this great post – it’s heartfelt and rings very true. I appreciate your words and the work it takes to share them with the world.

  3. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful message. This means a lot. How ever busy one is keep moving and just say hello to dear and near ones. We have to feel life is barter what you have received to be returned by well. From being a child, receiving knowledge etc. We should learn to be a good human.

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