The first thing I knew about Baylor’s religion department was that the students were friendly. I was attending a conference in Atlanta and was introduced to PhD students from Baylor, who immediately invited me to join them for meals, encouraged me to be on panels with them, and, eventually, convinced me to apply to Baylor. At every academic conference I’ve attended as a Baylor student, others have noted how remarkable it is that our students genuinely care for and support one another.
This kind of community does not magically happen and sometimes you will not end up with nine new best friends at the end of your program. But, finding your people (within your department or not) and maintaining those friendships creates a community that provides necessary support, joy, comfort, and perspective during the stress of grad school.
First, make time for friendship. Everyone must eat, so eat meals with your cohort buddies, even if it’s twenty minutes of hurried sandwiches in the ABL gardens. Study together. Write together on Zoom. Walk together after class to your car, grade exams at coffee shop, take a walk across campus. Find a new Baylor or Waco event to attend together (farmers market, football game, church, concert). My friend Katherine and I have a more-or-less standing appointment to watch Great British Bake Off and make dinner every Friday, even if that means just eating grilled cheese sandwiches while harshly judging someone’s choux pastry for one hour a week. Build friendship into the rhythms of your busy schedule.
Second, view your colleagues as friends, not competitors. The students in our department genuinely try to be each other’s biggest cheerleaders. We share articles, calls for papers, book chapters, job postings, or lectures that might be helpful to each other’s research. We read over each other’s papers, attend each other’s panels at conferences and help each other network. We lend each other Latin declension charts (can you tell I’m in the humanities?) and track down hard-to-find monographs for each other’s research. We might someday compete for jobs or publications, but I would rather create meaningful and life-giving relationships with my colleagues than waste time hiding books from them or thinking of ways to best them in seminar.
Finally, celebrate all the things. Graduate school can feel like a zero-sum game, where someone’s one win is somehow my loss. Instead, rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. We celebrate the big things, like passed coms and successful prospectus and dissertation defenses, but also small things—completed papers, accepted publications, insightful presentations, or brilliant points made in seminar (or at least laugh about the terrible points). Celebrate non-academic things too—new apartments, marriages, babies, dates, medical news, the really good sale you found on a tweed blazer, or whatever. Celebrating often is not (just) a ploy for me to just eat more celebratory pie nor am I trying to gloss over the genuinely hard and traumatic experiences we might have in grad school. Finding joy amid the stress, sickness, deadlines, and anxiety by celebrating often is a way to maintain your humanity during a time where you might fail often and fail spectacularly. Kate Bowler, bestselling author and historian, reminds us that in the midst of these hard things is precisely the time to celebrate, to interrupt the hard work and the mundane with joy.
Make time for friendships and celebrations (and pie). It’ll be worth it.
Sources: Kate Bowler, “The Best Time to Talk About Joy,” Facebook, July 27, 2020. https://fb.watch/95uPdUiVYZ/.
Allison Brown is a third-year PhD student in the historical studies area in the Department of Religion. She studies early modern political thought, gender, and biblical interpretation. She earned her MA in History of Christianity from Wheaton College and her BA in History from Oklahoma State University and enjoys baking and eating pies.