I’m not good at meeting people. I might as well be honest with you – it scares the living daylights out of me. It might seem like everything is fine on the outside, but inside I’m terrified that I’ll misunderstand a joke, say something wrong, make some kind of foul up. And when I meet people I feel totally inadequate, like a twelve year old suddenly turning up at a grown up party, where everyone is more experienced, intelligent and fun than I. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
The first day I met my PhD colleagues, all of these things happened to me. The people who’d been studying for some time were, of course, legendary figures to me. I admired them for their tenacity and hoped that I would be able to live up to the example they set. The people who arrived with me were a mixed bunch, some apparently confident and talkative, some quieter and reserved. Despite this, I knew immediately that they were all going to be more successful than me. So two traits of mine that I’m not proud of went into overdrive – self-doubt, and competitiveness. I wanted to be the best, I wanted to stand out, and I knew that in this particular grouping of highly motivated, highly educated and highly intelligent people, this was going to be hard. My situation was complicated too, by the fact that I had done my MA at the same school, and knew most of the staff. This relationship had changed: the people who were once my tutors and lecturers were now my more senior research colleagues, a very subtly different situation. But the fact remained that I felt as though I should know more about the place than I did, and be able to explain it to my new colleagues.
However, as I became more and more used to my situation, my feelings of competition became less and less directed. I still wanted (and still want) to be the best that I can be, but I can now accept more easily when people have skills that I don’t. My friend the Viking, for instance, is amazing at leading a group of people to achieve a goal, something I have nowhere near the strength of personality for. But I had the organizational skills, and together we made a good team.
As I got to know my new colleagues, they began to turn into people, rather than the rather abstract unknown icons that they had been at the start of the course. And whilst my personal self-doubt has never really gone away, I no longer feel threatened by them.
I think I’m really saying that, if you feel nervous on your first day with new people, don’t worry; most of us have been there. If you are lucky, like I was, the people you think of as your PhD colleagues will soon become much more than that. I don’t think it’s always the case that you make your eternal clique at undergrad, far from it.* For me the shared, at times almost claustrophobic, experience of a PhD, with all the highs and lows it has to offer, brought me some of the best companions anyone could ever hope for, and despite the fact that we are now dispersing across the world, and will continue to do so, I am sure that those people who were once colleagues will remain some of the best friends I ever make.
* Disclaimer: I did make some wonderful friends during my undergrad and MA degrees, some of whom I’m still in contact with.