Last weekend, my spouse and I took a trip back to Grad School Town. Since moving hundreds of miles away from campus a few years ago, we’ve made a few such visits so that I could meet with advisers and see the good friends we made during the two years we lived in town. But those trips have become increasingly less frequent: about six in the first year away and two last year. And this trip was, in all likelihood, our last. It’s getting to that stage in the graduate school journey, and it’s more than a little sad.
Of course, it shouldn’t be unexpected. You go into graduate school knowing that you and the rest of your cohort won’t be there forever — or shouldn’t be. But you make friends, anyway, because you’re human and because these people are weird just like you. You can talk about Marx and your funding anxieties and your love-hate relationship with your adviser and your dreams for yourself and for the profession. And these people get it in a way that your family, your non-academic friends, and sometimes even your significant other, just don’t understand. It’s a precious and, I think, unique relationship. My friendship with my teaching colleagues is similar, I suppose, but there are other dynamics at work — families at home, professional aspirations, the need to put up appearances of expertise and confidence. The great thing about graduate school friendships — when they’re good friendships — is that you can all be vulnerable and naive together.
And it’s sad when the inevitable break-up begins. My cohort is entering year five, and while no one (I think!) is actually going to finish in what is supposed to be our last year, we’re slowly trickling away towards our own destinies. My departure was a bit on the early side, but others have since followed: for extended research stays outside the country, for the opportunity to be close to a far-away spouse, etc.. And the process is now accelerating; a dear friend in the department is leaving for South America for at least two years, while other friends are applying for fellowships and grants that will take them away for a long time, if not for good. Soon, we will have all scattered to the four winds.
It’s not the end of our friendships, of course. I’ll see people at conferences, stay in touch with e-mail and the BookFace, and probably schedule vacations around friends (sunny South America is January sounds pretty good…). My spouse and I have even talked about some day, 8-10 years down the line when I have tenure (!) and a sabbatical, we’ll load the kids in an RV and cruise around the hemisphere, staying with grad school friends at various idyllic college towns. And I, in fact, do think that will happen.
But we probably won’t be all in the same room again. Which is why I’ll always remember last weekend. Everybody came out for one last round of beers together, one last chance to laugh about the ridiculousness of grad school together, one last time to encourage each other to stay after it, no matter how hard. That’s what makes grad school so great, and what makes it so hard to leave.