All of my friends and labmates are wonderful, but I’m lucky to have found a great peer support group. It feels weird to call us a peer support group – we’re just a group of ladies (and one guy whom a professor referred to as our “token boy”) that eats lunch together once a week. In researching for this article, however, I found that we definitely are a peer support group. In a review of the role of peer support in the treatment of severe mental illnesses, Davidson et al., defined a mutual support group as “a process by which persons voluntarily come together to help each other address common problems or shared concerns” (Clin Psychol Sci-Pr 6.2: 1999).
We don’t have a leader or a formal structure, but when we meet for lunch each week, we each check in -- what are the highs and lows of the last week? Everything is on the table: lab, classes, quals, money, weekend plans, writing, experiments, family, relationships. Sometimes we troubleshoot each other’s experiments, which is always cool, but the dominant sentiment is usually “Oh thank goodness I’m not the only one who feels that way.” For example, last week I learned that I’m not the only one who felt slightly underwhelmed after the department retreat but wasn’t sure if it was because retreat was actually worse than last year (unlikely) or if I was just less first-year-gung-ho-omg-all-science-is-the-best than I was last year. Also, we all are stressing about who to pick for our quals committee (spoiler: no one has any idea), and we all desperately want a She Shed (spoiler: they’re the new man cave).
How support group-y is our Girls’ Lunch group? In Davidson’s definition, a mutual support group is characterized by the following:
- "First, sharing similar life experiences with others can increase a person's understanding of his or her situation and reduce social isolation." Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes.
- "Second a structured process of social interaction may allow people to adopt socially valued roles, in which they no longer are restricted to a passive role of "patient" relying on expert advice but now also may serve as role models for newer members, provide feedback and assistance to others, and receive feedback for their own efforts to address their problems." We aren't "patients", but I think this definitely applies. Each of us can give advice on things we've experienced before (even if that experience was only a week ago).
- "Third, mutual support can be distinguished from naturally occurring social support in that it is an intentional process which includes standard procedures, routines, and prescriptions for addressing problems and issues of everyday life." This is one area where we could improve; while each person has a chance to talk, it'd be really cool if we had some kind of goal setting or accountability within the group. Hmmmm...
- "Fourth, mutual support may offer worldviews and ideologies to assist persons in making sense of their experiences." Amen to this. Why am I in graduate school? Some days, I have no idea, but the girls at Girls' Lunch are there to remind me - and they do!
While our experiences and hardships in graduate school pale in comparison to those of someone suffering from a debilitating mental illness, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve formed a little peer mutual support group of our own, and I will definitely be thanking these lovelies come thesis defense day. How did I find this wonderful group of peers and this safe space to share my fears about graduate school? Luck, mostly, but also by asking them. We all made a commitment to join for lunch as often as possible, and have kept it up for several months now. Though finding or starting a group of your own can be hard, I can’t recommend it enough. See if your university has something official (many do, like Thriving in Science at UC Berkeley or Student Peer Support Center at UCSF). Even PIs need peer support – the Weizmann Institute has an institute-wide YoungPI forum with a ton of great resources on their website. It doesn’t have to be a weekly thing; even a once a month coffee or Skype chat with a few friends in the same boat as you can work wonders. Peers are awesome, and I look forward to seeing what joys their friendship and support will bring me in the years to come.
PS – We love having guests at Girls’ Lunch! If you’re in Berkeley, reach out!