Friday, June 4, 2010

Friends and Colleagues

Grad school is a weird time to distinguish friends and colleagues. As an undergrad most of the people I worked with were more or less friends, and when I was working my coworkers were colleagues and that’s it. Now that I’m back in school I have a definite mental divide between people who are friends and those that are colleagues. Friends are people who I have seen or hung out with in a social situation, have had a conversation with about something other than work, and would generally do nice things for, like bring them soup when they’re sick, listen to them complain about their exes for hours at a time, give them a ride somewhere on short notice, or help them move. Coworkers are labmates or others that I work with and may or may not like, but it’s not really too important if I like them or not as long as we can get work done together if we need to. I tend not to do nice things for these people but I also don’t expect that they do nice things for me.

I recently ran into an awkward social situation where a labmate that I consider a colleague and not a friend had something bad happen, and my advisor obliquely suggested I do Something Nice for this person. I thought it was odd, as this particular nice thing is something I would do for a friend but not a colleague, but I just attributed it to the fact that my advisor is a nice person and therefore may assume that everyone does nice things for everyone all the time. I even considered doing this Nice Thing, but thought since the colleague and I don’t get along particularly well, they may not even appreciate or like it if I did this Nice Thing for them. Add to the fact that I live in a different city from my grad school which makes doing this particular Nice Thing complicated, I decided not to do it. And I thought that was that.

Fast forward a few weeks and a friend informs me that apparently some people are annoyed that I didn’t do Nice Thing for the colleague in question. I am amazed, both because apparently the colleague in question would actually appreciate it if I did this Nice Thing, and that other random people are sort of policing and causing drama about whether or not I do a friend-type favor for a colleague. I ended up doing the Nice Thing for the person in question but now I feel a bit unsettled. I don’t know if it’s the tacit implication that I be friends with everyone in my lab, the vague feeling that I’m expected to do Nice Things and take care of people even if I don’t like them because I’m female, or the fact that this points out just how hard it is to keep track of the social climate in my grad school when I live in a different city. It may simply be a difference in expectations between people that have been in school their whole lives and people who have worked for a bit and have developed a friend/colleague divide, or between people who live in the small town my grad school is in and people who live in a big city (i.e. me). I don’t have a good conclusion to this, just the lingering question if I did the right thing at any point in the whole awkward situation.


  1. That's a hard one, but I would not expect your advisor request you do something of a friend-like nature for another student. (Of course, some of that varies for people, so maybe this is something one thinks is more of a professional favor...?)

    Grad school is just weird in general. I have made one really good friend in grad school, and several acquaintances. I feel okay talking about a certain level of personal issues with some of these people, but it is definitely on a more superficial level. And yes, there are some people you just don't get along with...fortunately I am not usually forced to deal with them.

  2. I am lucky that I get to sit in a grad student cubicle farm with 20 other grad students from other labs, and I've become actual friends with a handful of them. It's nice that they are under other advisors, so the colleague/friend issue doesn't come up as much. Sounds like a tricky situation, I'm not sure I have any advice - but I hope you learn whatever you can from it and feel better moving on.