Written by Alex Macintyre, PhD Student, Division of Psychology and Language Sciences
As a Canadian transplant to London, starting my PhD meant so much more than adjusting to a new school, a new lab, and a new supervisor. Namely, I didn’t know anyone. When I was an undergraduate student, I stayed in my home town for university and as such benefited from small class sizes (sometimes it was literally seven people) and a closely-knit friend group—obviously, things were going to be different at UCL. It hasn’t always been easy, but after a few years and a lot of trial and error, I think I’ve found some strategies that work.
Full disclosure: this list is a little biased towards people like me; people who might not be up for white t-shirt parties or “experimenting” in halls of residence (which might not be a thing anymore...?). We see you, we love you, you do you, but I think we can all recognise that becoming part of a community as a postgraduate can present special challenges for the introverts, non-drinkers, and morning people amongst us. Saying that, I think there’s something here for everyone – email us your suggestions if there’s something we’ve missed!
1. Develop the art of deep listening, and practice it with new acquaintances
Have you ever developed an unlikely friendship, or been surprised to find you have more in common with someone than you would have guessed? We make snap judgments all the time, and sometimes relying on our gut saves valuable time and energy. But this can also mean we mistakenly write opportunities (and people) off before we should have. That person you sat next to in orientation might be your next great dinner guest, Netflix confidante, or travel buddy, but how to find out?
Communication experts and social psychologists have long been interested in deep listening (also known as active listening). In short, it means really following what your conversational partner is saying, showing that you’re paying attention through your body language and affirming words, paraphrasing their views, and responding with non-judgment and without immediately bringing it back to you and your own experiences. Try it out in place of small talk. Being a good listener gives you the space and time to really get a sense of someone, and be open to the possibility that waiting in line for the printer is a completely reasonable place to meet someone memorable.
2. Volunteer, even if you’ve already got a perfectly good CV
Volunteering is often portrayed merely as a way to get into a good university or find a job (even by volunteering organisations themselves). This might be true, but having secured your place on a UCL postgraduate course, you still have so much to gain from volunteering.
Besides enjoying the welcome distraction from the stress of research and deadlines, I’ve found that the people I meet when volunteering tend to be interesting, thoughtful, and motivated—all great qualities in future friends. When I joined the youth mentoring organisation ReachOut! in my 2nd year of my PhD, I met several other UCL postgrads who were also volunteers. Like many charities, ReachOut! takes care of its mentors with social pub evenings and more formal events, so the odds of finding your community footing this way are good, and your Students’ Union has everything you need to get started.
3. Go to conferences
If you have access to funding and/or institutional support to get you there (a lot more are online now), conferences are a great place to do horizontal networking with other postgraduate students from around the world who share your arcane (and nerdy) interests. I’ve made friends based in Japan, Iran, Italy, the States, and Brazil this way. Between navigating the awkward dinner seatings, forming ad hoc WhatsApp groups, and splitting fare between the venue and hostel, it’s shocking how quickly you find your tribe at a conference! You might only see them once in a long while, but nobody will better understand where you’re coming from, and what you’re going through, as a postgrad and researcher.
4. Embrace mentorship
I have spent a lot of time as a postgrad feeling like my project is a hot mess and that I actually have no idea what I am doing. Since opening up to my fellow students (see #1 and #3), I realised this is a common and perfectly natural response to writing a dissertation. Communicating your uncertainty and needs to your supervisor can relieve the burden of imposter syndrome and anxieties about finishing your course, but have you tried reaching out to people who might see you as a role model? Even if you think you have no business setting an example right now, someone else sees you and wants to get to where you are today.
This is a reciprocal thing. Some of the most therapeutic social interactions I’ve had as a postgrad have been sharing my experiences as an emerging researcher, helping others with the application process, and supervising undergraduate projects within my lab. You can also combine this step with volunteering and make a huge difference for someone who, for example, might be the first person in their family to consider grad school.
5. Make the most of London’s vibrant non-academic communities
You could probably find a different student club or society that piques your interest every night of the week, but don’t forget there’s a world outside of school, too. The richness of London’s communities is legendary, so take advantage of the many social organisations, community groups, meet-ups, and more that you’ll find in your borough. For instance, Calthorpe Community Garden is just minutes away from UCL’s main campus and offers green space, classes, and opportunities to grow your own food or flowers right in the middle of Kings Cross.
6. UCL Students’ Union
This article wouldn’t be complete without a shout out to the vast offerings of your UCL Students’ Union and its associated clubs, societies, workshops, one-off events, and more. Try out a Give it a Go session and learn knitting or magic; listen (or sit in!) at the Jazz Society jam; discover Arabic language lessons; ease into some postgraduate-only yoga with Project Active… Feeling overwhelmed yet? Suspect you’ll probably bail? Start with just one thing that happens around the same time and place as something else you’ve already committed to (e.g., a class), and reward yourself for following through. Sometimes all it takes is one friendly person to connect you with your community – it’s out there, and your Students’ Union is ready to help you find it!