We met in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1995 and soon formed the unexplainable but undeniable bond of best friendship. Melissa left for Columbia, Missouri in 2002 and Nina left a year later for Boston. Both of us were ABD and under self- and job-imposed pressure to finish. We both knew exactly one person in our new towns, and we were both facing completely unfamiliar personal circumstances: new colleagues, institutions, career phases, relationships, and homes.
When we left graduate school we lost the community and camaraderie of our peers. As many contributors to the work/life series have pointed out, academic life after graduate school is fraught with stress, anxiety, and loneliness. The structures of the academy are isolating, rewarding independent work over collaboration, single instruction over team-teaching, and competition for resources over collective models of support.
To minimize the impact of the distance, we committed to a weekly one-hour “appointment”: first on the phone, and then on video chat. Truthfully, the chat began as a way to maintain our friendship, but quickly became a way for us to continue to reap the benefits of our mutually supportive work relationship. At the beginning of each semester we find one hour in our weekly schedules to chat. The semester usually starts with a discussion of goals for the term, which we then break into week-by-week tasks. Each chat hour begins with a conversation about the goals we completed the previous week and ends with The List of priority tasks for the upcoming week. Any time remaining we use to discuss work and personal happenings (the fun part!).
The benefits of our weekly chats are many. First and foremost, we keep in frequent contact, which has sustained our long distance friendship for nearly 10 years. We also reap many professional rewards: most important, we have in each other a safe colleague, outside of our departments, with whom to discuss workplace tensions and career moves. Discussion of the conflicts and politics that come with academic life allows us to put things in context, blow off a little steam, and strategize, before (or instead of) taking action. Because many academic environments lack support and encouragement, we celebrate even the most minor of accomplishments and cheerlead each other through difficult tasks. Accountability is another major advantage of our weekly chats. Because we “report” weekly to someone who knows our short- and long-term goals, we are better able to stay on task. If we don’t, we’ll have to explain why! One of the most important functions of our weekly chats is to use each other as a sounding board. In the past, we have both failed to say no to colleagues’ requests that took time and attention away from our professional goals. Through our chats, we have learned (for the most part) to postpone saying yes to requests without talking to each other first. We sometimes take on tasks we shouldn’t, but The List has helped us become more skilled at saying no.
Our weekly chat ritual is not a panacea for all the difficulties we face in our academic lives. In fact, the chats themselves present challenges worth noting for readers considering a similar support ritual. For the chats to work we have to hold each other accountable, which can be very hard to do. This isn’t a punitive system, and we care so much for each other and deeply empathize with all that gets in the way of our goals. It is important to find gentle but firm ways to remind each other of our goals and the consequences of not moving forward.
It is also hard if one of us is feeling off track and the other is soaring through The List. We try to recognize that any set back is temporary and recall times when the situation was reversed. Perhaps most difficult, however, is when our weekly chats suffer gaps and misconnects. Though we are committed to protecting our time, unavoidable conflicts occur. Rescheduling is a nightmare; failure to find a common hour in our overloaded schedules often means we miss a week. We have also dealt with long hiatuses between chats for several months and the impact to our motivation and confidence is acutely felt during these absences. We haven’t mastered how to deal with these gaps, but have found it useful to make a mega-list with a week-by-week breakdown and send an email update, even if our chat partner is unable to respond.
Our weekly chat ritual may not work for everyone, but if you’re looking for companionship to help you stay on task, we definitely recommend you give it a try!