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Do you feel like a satellite adrift in space? Has your closest companion become a pipette or do you barely remember your school logo until you log into an online class? Lots of students who study online or are pursuing field or graduate work find themselves a bit isolated.

If you’re feeling far from the seat of a lecture hall and the people beyond your lab or laptop, it’s time to reconnect.

Pluses and Minuses

When you study on your own, no one else can claim credit for your hard work. Tecia P., a first-year graduate student at Life University in Marietta, Georgia, enjoys doing things her way without having to defend it to other people. Independent study affords you the opportunity to explore ideas in the way that makes the most sense to you. Second-year graduate student Geron S., who studies at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, explains, “You can spread out your research if it takes you [in] a different direction.”

But you also might miss out on the feedback, motivation, and new ideas that can come from collaboration and a community of other students. There’s a proverb that says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Sara H., a senior at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says, “There seems to be a lot more work when only one person is doing it. It’s nice to have some relief when working with a team.” Karen M., a junior at Humber College in Toronto, agrees. “Not having the input of many other minds, work can be skewed in a certain direction and result in a bias or slant,” she says.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey of students across the U.S. and Canada, another challenge came up often: loneliness. And unfortunately, feelings of isolation and alienation can influence students’ decisions about staying in school, especially graduate and online programs. So what can you do to avoid feeling alone?

Staying in Touch: Be the Catalyst

Even students who work well as lone wolves can benefit from a visit with the pack every now and again. Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, a psychologist and online instructor, notes, “Success [in school] comes from encouraging others, asking good questions, and being challenged.”

Engaging with your classmates, instructors, and advisors can give a boost to your work. “Sometimes it is hard to remember what you’re doing all of the work for,” says Dana G., a senior at Winona State University in Minnesota.

Everybody’s got an email address, so maintain contact, even if you don’t see one another in person. You can send encouragement one-on-one, or if your program has a listserv, employ it to ask questions and offer support. If you can meet, chatting over a cup of coffee can remind you of what you need to do and why. Many students say that things like this inspire and motivate them when “the going gets tough.”

Ideas about how to connect with your fellow students off-campus

Connecting with Other Students

You don’t have to be on a campus to engage with other students. Here are some ideas:

  • Form a study group to prepare for exams. Members don’t necessarily need to be in the same classes or even programs.
  • Take breaks by getting involved in student organizations. Your books will be there when you get back, and you can’t babysit the beakers every night—it’ll drive you crazy!
  • Have fun doing an activity you enjoy. Invite other students to join you.
  • Take advantage of social activities your program hosts. Unlike retreats, which are typically annual events, these may be offered more frequently.
  • Identify “study buddies,” especially if you’re studying online. At the beginning of each course, find someone whose comments strike a chord and start up an email conversation.
  • Keep the initial email short, and if the person doesn’t respond, email someone else.
  • Talk to people about your courses, including your friends and family. This may help you feel less isolated, reinforce the material you’re learning, and make your work more exciting.

Faculty & Advisors

Many professors like sharing their expertise, so email them some well thought out questions. Online professors, just like classroom instructors, can become mentors, reviewers, and future references.

If you have an advisor, meet with him or her (in any format) once every one or two weeks. Set an agenda or checklist of things you want to review and discuss. The conversation doesn’t have to be long for it to help you stay on track.

There are few things more frustrating than trying to find an advisor or professor when you need his or her signature or you’ve come to an impasse and are ready to move on, but can’t without guidance. “I’ve had to wait a week before I knew what to do next in my project,” says Samantha V., a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Samantha’s sentiment isn’t unique. A study by Dr. Berta Laden at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto, found that lack of faculty support is a major factor in graduate student dropout. “Students who feel alienated, alone, marginalized, and basically invisible are likely candidates for departure,” she said. Not surprisingly, students deem receiving prompt feedback from their mentors and supervisors as extremely important.

To keep the lines of communication open, set milestone meetings with your advisor or professors. If you’re a graduate student, prepare an update for your committee every six months. This will make you accountable for interim steps in a long project. If you study online, show your interest and engage with instructors and classmates through interactive forums. You can even set up discussion groups to “meet” via video chat or phone. This type of collaboration improves the class dynamic and often leads to better mastery of the material.

All students can benefit from checking in with a department administrator at least twice a semester. It can be easy to get lost in the shuffle, and chances are that professors and others won’t come and find you. It’s up to you to be proactive, so that you don’t get to the end of your studies or research and find there are things you didn’t realize needed attention.

After Graduation

If you’re in the home stretch of your program, congratulations! Before you’re handed that diploma, make a plan to stay in contact. Your peers and mentors not only want to know how you fare, but can also be invaluable resources when job-hunting.

More about staying in touch after graduation

Stay in touch with classmates, instructors, and advisors even after you’ve finished your program. Here’s how:

  • Swap contact information, especially email addresses, before graduation.
  • Sign up for Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Twitter, and do a search to see if your contacts have accounts. Thanks to the ease and ubiquity of social media, it’s easier than ever to remain in touch.
  • Affiliate yourself with your institution by joining the alumni network, “liking” your school’s Facebook page, and subscribing to the school magazine.
  • Attend conferences and professional meetings; these are good opportunities to reconnect and build your network. When you plan to attend a meeting or conference, announce it on your Facebook/LinkedIn page and send emails to those you feel are most likely to attend.
  • Use that old appliance known as the… phone. Professors and school administrators may be easier to reach this way.

Studying independently can be a double-edged sword; you have many freedoms, but might find yourself asking, “Is anyone out there?” So even if you’re sometimes a satellite orbiting solo in outer space, be sure to phone home every now and then.

Take Action!

  • Set up regular check-ins with your advisor or research committee.
  • Join a student organization or online student club. Attend social activities held by your school and/or department.
  • Participate in online discussions, video chats, and phone calls with other students.
  • Utilize your institution’s Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts.
  • Meet up with students who live near you, even if they attend a different school.

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Get help or find out more
The following resources offer ideas and recommendations about connecting while studying independently:

Rasmussen College, Great Ways To Make Friends At College

Cornell University Graduate School, Staying Connected

PhDs.org, Grad School Survival Guides

National Graduate Student Crisis Line (Run by Boys Town National Hotline)
1-800-GRAD-HLP (472-3457)