Make your support network

It’s a lonely job being a researcher. Sometimes you can spend days or weeks by yourself, or you might be surrounded by participants and colleagues yet still feel isolated.

While some of us function well without many others in our lives, most of us need company in some form or another, on or offline. That might be for friendship, moral support, advice or solidarity.

Today’s task is to work out who are the lucky individuals that get to be in your squad.

If it’s been a while since you’ve caught up with your mates, or if you’re worried your friendships are suffering because of work or study, set aside time in your diary to meet up in person, catch up on the phone, or send them an email letting them know how you are and wishing them all the best. Repeat this across the year, making sure key catch up dates, birthdays and other significant events are prioritised in your diary. Ping yourself reminders if you’re likely to forget. If you feel bad you’ve not been in touch for a while it’s fine to tell friends you’re starting afresh this year and hope to be a bigger part of their lives.

Sometimes travelling for work, moving for a job or study, or the passing of time makes it difficult to make new friends. Setting aside time to care for yourself via hobbies, social clubs, talks or other events also has the knock on effect of being able to meet new people, which in turn can allow friendships to blossom. And you never know what new connections you’ll be making as your research journey grows.

You may still have close contact with your family, but if you are separated due to your work or theirs, being able to stay in touch via letter, email, or phone if you can help you feel connected. You may want to organise a regular time you call or message as something to look forward during your week, or keep all channels open so you catch up as often as you’re able (this may be useful if you’re living or working in areas where connectivity is a problem).

Some people use study as a means of escape, or become estranged from their family over time. In such cases you may want to spend this year creating what the author Armistead Maupin calls a ‘logical family’ – a friendship group that becomes your chosen kin. Stand Alone can help if you are struggling.

These may already be in your friendship group, or they may just be the folk you work with. Finding allies you can sound off to, have a break with, learn from, or share the workload with can be vital not just for your emotional wellbeing but for your career progression too.

If you are an independent researcher, early career researcher, starting a new job, or returning to work you may want to identify professional networks that can support you. Those might be online special interest groups, subject focused groups, or peer support networks. Or you may find professional bodies or organisations within or outside your workplace provide the opportunity to make connections and find like-minded individuals you could collaborate or commiserate with. Societies and professional organisations or workplace study groups are also an excellent way to connect. If you’re struggling to find these networks, you could try setting up your own group and see who joins in.

If you already have a few friends or colleagues but want more people in your life you could organise a meet up on or offline where everyone you know brings someone they know so you can all find others to connect with. Or you might play matchmaker introducing people you meet to others you already know that have something in common.

Social media
Hashtags are a fantastic way to find folk. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook in particular are used by academics to share ideas, ask for help, get advice, and foster opportunities. You don’t have to join in a chat, you can use hashtags to locate others and read what they’re saying. Or you can use hashtags yourself to be part of bigger conversations or broadcast that you’re in need of a chat or assistance.

If you found this difficult
It may be your social life is sorted, in which case, enjoy! However, if you are struggling to make connections due to ill health or disability it’s worth being critical about the pressure to be endlessly social. Not everyone wants to be, and sometimes you need space to simply focus on your own needs.   We talked earlier in the month about letting go and that may include friendships or professional relationships that are not working out for you.

Alternatively you may crave connection but distance, disability or prejudice may keep you isolated. In this case being able to stay in touch remotely with those you do care about can be a lifeline. And if you have nobody you can use the social media options above to start finding your crew online. The advantage with this is you can time contact to when energy and connectivity allows.

For some of us, no matter how well connected we are, we can still struggle if our mental health is poor. If thinking about friendships or building networks has made you feel inadequate or anxious and/or you’re struggling with mental health issues you might use it as a prompt to see your doctor or speak to a counsellor if one is available to you. Alternatively mental health charities can be used as a source of self care – searching for these online will also bring up free resources you can use to help yourself.

You may also need a support network because you are being bullied, harassed, abused or otherwise discriminated against at work. Aside from using as many of the options listed above, making use of your union, professional organisations, or charities that support those being harmed at work can be both necessary for your mental health, and vital to ensure you are not harmed personally or professionally. There is much more information on how to keep yourself safe in Chapter 6 of The Research Companion.

If you want to have others around you, make this the year you build connections. It may feel hard to make that first move or say that initial hello, but by the end of the year you may be blessed with others whose lives you’ll be enriching and who’ll be cheerleading you in return.

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