The buddy system: The best thing I learned in preschool

Another old post rescued from my “drafts” folder that stands the test of time.

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My sister and her family used to live in Amish country in Western Pennsylvania.  When I visited I was impressed by the prosperous looking farms and the teams of horses out plowing the fields.  On one visit, my brother-in-law pointed out a nice home as we drove by it.  He told me the original house had recently burned down, tragically killing several of the family’s children in the fire.  My brother-in-law drove that road regularly and watched as the Amish community came together to rebuild the house – finishing it within a matter of weeks.

I’ve often thought it would be nice to feel the strong sense of community support that seems to be a part of some religions. But I turned down my own opportunity to join a church when I was a teenager, and am not likely to change my mind now. In my own small, secular ways I try to create other kinds of support systems.  They’re not romantic, and often involve making dates to do things with others that I might not do alone.  I definitely wouldn’t have spent last Friday afternoon working on the paper for my upcoming qualifying exam, or going to the gym after that, without having a standing date with my writing buddy and another with my gym buddy!

Every now and then I also miss the sense of shared purpose that can come from having a job that actually involves people all working on the same project.  Academics are mostly doing their own thing, and PhD students are certainly not allowed to co-author their dissertations.

Here’s some of what I’ve already tried and found helpful:

  • Weekly writing dates – in groups or pairs (just to write, not to workshop our writing)
  • Grading get-togethers – for moral support!
  • Exercise buddies – mostly gym time and walks
  • Soup exchanges – everyone makes a soup at home, divvies it up into containers, and gets together to trade soups so we can stock our freezers with a variety of yummy homemade soups! I try to do this each winter.
  • Friday lunch dates at the college cafeteria – thanks Bernie!
  • Project buddies – I finished my master’s thesis with the help of weekly phone meetings with two other friends working on their own theses, and did the early stages of work for my qualifying exam supported by regular coffee meetings with another fellow student (thanks Brandi!). I both cases we didn’t read each other’s work or talk about the content of our projects, but used the time to set goals, troubleshoot, and get moral support.
  • Brainstorming buddies – I have found that most of my academic advisors tend not to be productive people to brainstorm with. They’re much more useful at providing constructive criticism on ideas that are already fairly concrete. But concrete ideas are necessarily preceded by the messier work of making sense of fuzzy thoughts, general interests, and gut feelings, which for me needs to be done in a criticism-free environment, constructive or otherwise. Hence, one fellow student and I have periodically gotten together for brainstorming sessions related to our work. This usually involves big sheets of butcher paper, markers,  lots of post-its, and lots of encouragement. : )
  • Future projects partner – all of the ideas above can be done with people who have a wide variety of research interests. In addition, I have one friend whose research interests are very closely aligned with my own, and we have a shared google doc with a ever-expanding wish-list of future research and writing projects to do together. Now, it may be a long time before we get to any of them. I’m diving into my own intensive dissertation research, and my friend is wrapping up research for a post-doc at the same time that she begins a new teaching job. Still, having this running list gives me a place to cultivate the pleasure of dreaming up new projects; provides a sense of myself as a career academic who will get to work on a wide variety of projects over time, even though my dissertation currently seems interminable; and helps me trust that the future that will allow more collaborative work than my current status as a Ph.D. candidate.
I’ve heard of others who get together to do their house-cleaning in groups, taking turns with whose house they focus on, but I’ve never tried it. I also keep thinking it would be fun to do a monthly “cook for the freezer” day with a friend. You know what they say, many hands make light work! Or, at least, work that is more fun.

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