On friendships, loneliness, and the life of an international PhD student

I wish I knew how lonely life can be as an international PhD student. It is not because I would have wanted to avoid studying overseas; given a chance to do it all over again, I would still do it again. It would have, however, made me prepare better for what is to come.

I have been studying here in New Zealand for more than two years now. Along the way I have met a few good friends, most of them international students as well doing either a master’s or a doctorate. Last weekend, my closest mate for two years went back to Vietnam after (near) completion of his master’s degree. It left me with such profound loneliness.

I knew the PhD journey is a lonely one. I have known the fact, even at the onset, that the PhD usually involves solitary work. I was prepared for this part of the process. I knew that I can work independently. I was not, however, prepared for the other source of loneliness—being left behind when friends finish their degrees and go back to their home countries.

This is even harder because of the fact that I am an international student. As a social support researcher, I have learned that being embedded in a caring social network is a good predictor of positive psychological outcomes. Loss of social integration may have a negative impact on one’s well-being.

As international students, most of us have uprooted ourselves from our social networks back home. We are forced to establish new connections in the host countries, and more often than not, our newly established connections have less densities than those back home. I have to say not all of us are skillful enough to gravitate towards communities, or make people gravitate towards us to create new communities. The pressure of wanting, but not having, these supportive communities also makes matters worse.

Network density is one thing. Network quality is another. I am selective of people I call “friends.” I am glad that during my stay here in New Zealand, I have met and formed really good relationships with some people. Some of these friendships I am so proud of, and I will treasure them for the rest of my life. The downside, however, of having just a few friends is that when one leaves, a significant void is created. My friend left a huge one.

Studying overseas may appear fun (it is fun, really) but it is also filled with so much challenge. I am lucky to have come here under a generous scholarship program—I do not have to worry so much about financial matters (I still do, but not so much). However, a lot of international students worry about that, on top of adjusting to a new culture, new climate, new language, new system of doing things, and new people. Having a strong social support network would buffer the stress brought about by these adjustments. The problem is that more often than not, the support system that is needed is still in the works during those times when you needed them the most.

Again, this is where I am a bit lucky, I must say. I started the PhD journey with friends who are on the same boat—international students under the same scholarship program. During our two-week orientation in Palmerston North, we started a bond that has endured physical distance when postgrad life began (as we transferred to our respective campuses), and even beyond postgrad, as, one by one, they left to go back to their respective countries. Although we lived far apart, it was comforting to know that we were not alone in this journey.

Yet, in spite of this, I still felt the loneliness of living away from friends. I had to travel two hours to Palmerston North to enjoy the weekend with friends, or travel to Auckland via bus on a 12-hour trip to enjoy my time with mates in the north. I could just imagine how much harder it is for others who started their journey with zero social network.

I am still lucky, for I have found a very good friend while doing PhD overseas. In some contexts, PhD—or postgrad, generally—could be too competitive that real friendships are scarce. Thankfully, this is not the case in my uni. Yet for us international students, especially for those like us who are obligated to go back to our home countries, there is always the nagging fact that one day you will have to leave the Country—and leave your friends behind (or them leaving you first, as in my case). It stays in the background. It nags silently, but nags, nevertheless. So while I am glad to have formed good friendships here, I knew at the back of my mind that one day, they will leave, and I will leave as well. We know for a fact that nothing lasts forever, but the transience of things–of time spent together–is highlighted in our experience.

Perhaps it is the temporariness of us being together that has made me treasure more these relationships that we have formed. As my friend would put it, the consciousness of the “finitude” of time makes us [me] value these relationships really well. I know too well that my time here in New Zealand is limited. I could have decided to not form relationships at all, because it is pointless. However, I am glad I did. It made my stay in this country more meaningful. Furthermore, my friends have helped me endure the loneliness of working on my research alone. To be fair, PhD life is not always a lonely life. In fact, my PhD journey has been punctuated by a number of very happy moments, some of which I consider one of the happiest in my life, thus far.

Of course, the inevitable trade off of having these strong attachments is that when the people you are strongly attached to leave, they leave you in distress. I reckon they feel equally distressed to leave you as well. Had I known this to be a part of life as an international PhD student, I would have prepared myself better. But then again, I guess I could never really have prepared for anything like this. Perhaps I could have focused more on friendships even during my first year. But who knew?

It is a little funny though, but I am actually glad that I feel sad about my friend leaving—it confirms how meaningful our friendship is for me. He has a better, more appropriate term for this: companionship. The journey, after all, is only as good as the company.