Solitude in Science

 In Science Communication

We see more and more articles stating that loneliness is more dangerous than smoking. Families are supposedly less strong than they used to be and we see our friends less and less. Some people blame it on social media (Ok Boomer), others on the lack of community structures like church and clubs. 

It’s been exactly a year since I moved abroad for a PostDoc position, and looking back at the last year my biggest struggle was, indeed, loneliness. Ironically: I am not alone in this. A lot of people in science have moved between countries, states or even continents – leaving behind all of the new friends and connections made and being forced to forge new ones wherever they go. It’s highly encouraged and often essential to move abroad for scientific positions, despite the high emotional investment. In fact, most funding resources for young PIs give high preference to scientists who have moved between countries and institutes – which has been detrimental for scientists who never had the opportunity to move because they did not want to inflict this on their family.

Because it is so normal in science to work in a big group of international, uprooted people, it tends to be a very friendly environment. Our biggest social network consists of other scientists – our friends from work. Which contributes to making work our entire life. I think this can partly contribute to habits of always being at the lab, simply because a lot of people feel like there’s nowhere else to go. What else will you do? Go home and wallow in loneliness? There has been a lot of discussion about ‘toxic lab culture’, where people are at the lab every day including weekends. But what if you actually have nowhere else to hang out?

The first month I lived in the United Kingdom I was struck with incredible homesickness. Up to a year, I felt lonely and homesick. This feeling struck me when I saw my friends making plans to hang out together in the shared WhatsApp-group, when I saw a completely empty diary where I used to have many social plans, when I had the sudden realisation that ‘this is my life now’ while sitting alone in my flat. Often, I have wondered if I had not made the biggest mistake of my life. Sure, I came here for an amazing job. But is the job really that amazing if the circumstances make you so sad? The most difficult part of it was that I felt that most people expected me to be happy. I had just moved to a new, cool place for my dream job. SO WHY WAS I NOT HAPPY?

Needless to say, everything turned out alright. I quickly joined a few dance groups to be both social and active, and have made amazing friends in the last year. Contrary to what I was afraid of, I did not lose touch with my friends back home. The relationships have simply changed. We now hang out a lot whenever I am in the country and rely more on WhatsApp and Facetime. Sometimes my mother Facetimes me in the weekend when I am hanging out in the lab, and we chat about things while I am doing minipreps. But don’t worry, I also spend enough time outside of the lab and am now enjoying the Northeast of England.

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Showing 5 comments
  • Monica
    Reply

    Hi Lizah,
    Thank you for writing this, what you say is true all the way. On the bright side, you are in England, at least you can understand what your colleagues speak at lunchtime and you can socialize with them.
    I never felt more alone than in my two years I spent in Leiden, where my colleagues spoke Dutch in their breaks! There was no socializing even at work …
    I wish you all the best in your work, try to travel around, England is a beautiful place.

    Monica

    • Lizah
      Reply

      Aaah, a language barrier makes it even worse indeed. I hope your new position is more friendly!
      Warm wishes,
      Lizah

      • Monica
        Reply

        Yes, no-one speaks over my head at lunchtime in foreign language I cannot understand 🙂
        Wish you all the best, too!

  • Martyna
    Reply

    Hi Lizah, Thanks for the piece. I fully second. Loneliness in science is very common, people often do not speak about it. I often feel lonely too. If you leave in a new place long enough, then you experience loneliness again as your ‘new friends’ are moving out…. if you have a kid you feel lonely as nearly none of your friends have one and you cannot see your friends as often as before/as often as you would like/as often as you need/you cannot do all your hobbies the way you want; ….if you leave long enough outside your home country, you feel lonely as after longer time you feel dis-attached by not following everyday political/cultural/all-the-stuffs – you feel a bit you do not fully belong anywhere neither to your country or to your new country, good friendships staying for long in places you have been, but the friendships are different as you cannot hangout everyday anymore… Not easy…! I guess being active and trying to find any activities outside the lab (not only the pub) is the best thing in a long run as you need a bit of ‘none-science-time’ also and it is nice to see your ‘science friends’ doing something ‘not-sciency’ – or at least it good to see them outside of the lab…. sometimes even space golf can be sciency with scientists….:). So let’s just enjoy what we can and instead of being home and feeling lonely and miserable and miss old friends, we should do some more fun activities with new people around. 🙂

    • Lizah
      Reply

      Hah yeah hanging out with people from science usually makes things about science anyway. Thank you for your incredibly heartfelt response 🙂 Its nice to see how many people have similar feelings – that makes it feel a lot less isolating. See you around! 🙂

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