Things that no one tells you: Working in isolation

Offlate, I’ve been on a path of self-discovery, or so it feels like. Growing up, far away in what feels like a different planet, my visions of adulthood were vastly different than the reality today. Many of the nuances and small battles in life were never brought to my attention before and not all of them are bad, but I really wish someone had read out the fine print in life’s manual earlier…say sometime in college. But nevertheless, I want to write down somethings that no one really talks about anymore (due to millennial angst, competitiveness, lack of deep-meaningful conversations yada yada) because they are uncomfortable. Let me start with the first, working in isolation.

In my hot pursuit of scientific knowledge and aspiring to work in the creative/innovative engines of a technical company , I never bothered to inquire about the actual work environment. I was in blinders, where I imagined I’d be solving these big issues, and working with a group of really smart people who I’d share great camaraderie with. The first bit I have realized, thankfully. I do work in an extremely research oriented group where I’m paid to brainstorm and innovate  BUT the second part of that dream has fallen off a cliff. “You are luckier than you think”, “Look! How cool is your job!”, is all I hear when I try to tell them that though the big picture is rosy, the actual life of a person working in research is very solitary. It is lonely and frustrating, where you sit at your desk and try to squeeze your brain-juices to solve an issue or develop a theory alone all the time and there is no concept of a downtime.
I am surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. They are endowed with a great academic track record, understand complex phenomena as easily as the machinations of a coffee maker and do some seriously mind boggling work. But so many are crippled by social anxiety, making them the perfect definition of a modern-day “nerd”. They can rattle off names of countries which produce the maximum amount of silver and can list out the family of Romanovs like reading off a Waffle-house menu but clam up when asked to hang out over a cup of coffee. They are uncomfortable in social settings – happy hours are probably scarier than a hackathon for these folks and they positively look mortified making small talk. While I’m no social butterfly either, the absolute lack of any interaction beyond work in a research environment gets tiring beyond a point. And while these behaviors might be limited to what I experience, they are way more common that you’d think. Whether it is because I’m female and men are uncomfortable talking to a woman (see the nerd picture above), or the geniuses are usually introverts – I honestly don’t know. But here is my advice to any girl aspiring to work in research/science – learn to love isolation. It outlasts graduate school and probably will surround you for your whole career.
While learning quantum physics has been hard and is still in progress, the harder pill for me to swallow has been the loneliness. No matter the setting – academic, industry or a combination of the two, life in research is solitary. Duh, you’d say. But I’m not talking about just the work. Isolation is perhaps mandatory for excellent output, but the part no one told me about was  that there is little else. The work parties are awkward, pleasantries or smiles are hardly exchanged in the hallways and no one wishes you for festivals/occasions. 3pm parties are often a perfect excuse to leave early and light topics are hardly ever spoken. I’d hear about colleagues meeting up for coffee or meeting up outside work occasionally but I never imagined that I’d spend weeks where I don’t speak to a soul at work. I’m surrounded by thousands of people, tapping away at their keyboards but not a soul to talk to. Everyone is somewhere else, engrossed in their work (or reading blogs), walking around looking into their phones with headphones blaring their latest spotify playlist. 
Yes, there are a lot of ways I can become social but it is an effort to connect to people outside your department or go to official ‘meet-ups’ (I actually find them so uncomfortable). Following popular advice of actually going physically to a colleague’s cubicle actually renders the whole situation more uncomfortable with lack of eye contact and curt, abrupt answers. Yes, the group I work with is totally at home over instant messaging over face to face meetings. People don’t show up a minute before it is needed or stay back a minute beyond. These folks are not rude or un-friendly, they are just not social. They answer what you ask them politely and help with what you need. But turn to small-talk or non-work related conversation, it gets awkward so fast!

It is easy to call me out on possible biases – they are introverts, they are being professional, work isn’t for making friends etc. I am aware that my personality and needs might be different, but I often wonder if it is my expectation that is letting me down. Maybe today’s work environment is so competitive that it is easier to just work at work and unwind in a completely different setting with a different personal group. While keeping work and personal life often is the best way to go, it doesn’t hurt to bond a bit more with folks you spend 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week. Maybe, it is how the professional world is (and was for a while), it just caught me by total surprise.
It has taken me a good four years to get acclimatized to this work ethic. While my productivity and reading has shot up, I wonder if some of these anti-social traits are rubbing off on me as well. And before you call me lucky to get to work in isolation, it always seems grass is greener on the other side. While working alone has its upsides, it can get very solitary very quickly.
Workplace isolation and loneliness is a real thing. Just remember, someone warned you about this before you take on that next role and it is a possibility, it can happen to you.