Solitude in Science

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.