It won’t be news to anyone reading this blog that life as a researcher – perhaps particularly life as a doctoral student – can be, and often is, very isolating. You’re working on a niche topic, which few other people may understand or seriously care about; your day-to-day research is self-driven and self-directed. Particularly in the humanities, there is often little to no organised time with peers. I felt the latter fairly acutely when I moved universities to start my DPhil: in my Master’s programme I had had multiple weekly classes and the chance to get to know my coursemates well, but in doctoral study it was much harder to build those connections – there just wasn’t the regular time. 

Another challenge in this area for researchers is finding a healthy balance between work and the rest of life. Especially for those of us without a defined lab or office environment where we do our work! It’s very easy to let academic work creep further and further into our evenings and weekends, whether because we believe the lie that everyone does this and it’s necessary to get ahead, or out of a lack of self-discipline to do what we need to within reasonable hours. (I should acknowledge that a 9-5 schedule isn’t possible for many people because of family responsibilities, health, and many other reasons – but hopefully there is still scope to think about balancing work and rest!) A culture of overwork can prevent us from spending time building our relationships, both with others in the field and in the rest of our lives.  

I could come up with more reasons researchers can get isolated: the pressure or necessity, especially in your early career, to be able to move around in search of work; for Christians, perhaps difficulty connecting to others in church when your vocation isn’t readily understood or valued. Whatever the contributing factors, this is an issue of mental and emotional health for many of us. Whether we see ourselves as introverted or extroverted in temperament, all of us need people in our lives to trust, to talk things over with, to relax with. We need the physical presence of others, and reliable, regular time together, to be able to flourish.  

This is common sense, and also makes good spiritual sense: the Bible is full of affirmations that we’re made to live in a network of stable relationships and communities.  

There are statements of God’s creative intent, like Genesis 2:18: ‘The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone”‘; and acknowledgments of the value of being rooted in your local community, like Proverbs 27:10: ‘Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family, and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you—better a neighbour nearby than a relative far away.’ In his life on earth, Jesus cultivated close relationships: with his family, with the disciples, and even particular friendships within that group.  

Most radically for the Christian, we’re part of the church: a set of relationships that go deeper, theologically speaking at least, than family. This doesn’t mean that only Christian friendships matter. But while all kinds of relationships can help us in many ways – shaking us out of self-absorption; disrupting harmful self-talk; helping us put work in its proper place – only relationships with other Christians will consciously point us to Christ, and his central role in a healthy, rooted life.  

I don’t imagine anyone will disagree that we need to maintain community in order to flourish as people, and as Christian disciples. But this doesn’t happen automatically, and takes effort and intentionality, especially when your working life isn’t very conducive to it. Here are a few principles and suggestions, though I’d love to hear more, as I’m still working this out in my own life. 

  • Commit to being part of a church community, however is possible for you – this doesn’t have to look like everyone else, or how your life looked in other seasons, but some level of participation in Christ’s body is crucial for the Christian researcher. 
  • Get involved and develop the spaces in your academic context where community grows. Show up to seminars and stay behind to talk; make the effort to go to social events, and reach out intentionally to others in your various communities, thinking about what you have in common with others and how to bless them. 
  • Build co-working patterns and spaces, if that makes sense in your context. This can be particularly fruitful with other Christians in your discipline. I’ve been encouraged and helped this year in Oxford by the Scriptorium initiative, which combines a regular working pattern with time to meet others, talk, and be held accountable. But it can be as simple as meeting a friend once a week to work together, or being a sounding-board for your housemates’ research.  
  • The two previous points notwithstanding – maintain your friendships outside academia! The pressures toward isolation can be lessened when we remember that this isn’t the only way to live, and really listen to people whose day-to-day lives have other challenges and priorities.  

What has particularly helped you in the challenge of maintaining a community as a researcher? Do comment below and share what has been useful, or difficult, in this area.  

Alicia Smith

Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.