Dear Kate – May 2016

Dear Kate,

 “Is it possible to have hobbies as a graduate student or academic?”

– Steph the jock

Dear Steph, 

This question can go in so many directions! By hobby, let’s say a leisure activity (outside work). I think, yes, but it’s very personal, and depends on the type of hobby and the time commitment needed. For me, I found it is possible to have hobbies and be a grad student and an academic.

I have always enjoyed reading outside my field, whether the topic is fiction or nonfiction. Sometimes I felt bad that I hadn’t “read enough”, and definitely in grad school I found that finding time to read for enjoyment was hard to find. Now as a faculty member, I’m fortunate to do a lot of travel, and I have found time to catch up on reading while traveling! In addition to reading, I’ve always loved sports and outdoor activities, and up until I was in college I did a lot of hiking and backpacking. In grad school, I found that these activities tapered off, but that was less due to time than to a change in locale: I moved from a small town near rivers, trails and mountains to one of the world’s largest cities, so getting “away from it all” simply became a lot more difficult! As a faculty member, I’ve found time (and great places nearby Boston) to go out walking and hiking, so when the weather is nice, I head to the hills. I also took advantage of the move to Boston to take up new winter hobbies – like ice-skating and hockey – things I never would have done before coming from a warm climate. They were ways to meet new people, and get outside my lab, and stay physically fit.

As part of a broader question of work-life balance, I have found that hobbies are important ways for me to clear my head and boost my scientific thinking. When I first started as an assistant professor, I used to think I needed to work nonstop, all day, every day. But I found that my productivity and the quality of my work suffered. After about two years of pushing too much on work, I just started forcing myself to make time for hobbies again – in some cases, actually scheduling them like you would a meeting! Surprisingly to me, my work actually improved. I found that with more time spent on hobbies, I actually got more done when I was at work, and when I was in the lab, because I had more energy and found I could just think more clearly and focus on the tasks at hand. That being said, I have also learned that sometimes while I am “relaxing” I actually need to stay connected to work. So I do keep up with emails on the weekends and when I am on vacation, and might even go into the lab or work on data analysis or write paper – but I do this as a choice, for myself, not because I feel I have to work. I choose this balance because it stresses me out too much to be out of touch, spending my vacation worrying about the pile of work waiting for me when I get back.

With academic work, and hobbies and time spent relaxing – I have found my balance for now, but we will see how things evolve.

Kate A. (tenured engineering professor)

Dear Steph,

Yes, of course it is possible to have hobbies as a graduate student or academic. A key is to understand and convince yourself that you are not ‘racing’ against someone else in life. There are multiple opportunities all the time, some explicitly known and some not yet readily apparent. Does one need to finish graduate school in 3 or 4 or 5 years’ time just to be able to work an extra 1 or 2 or 3 years out of 30-40+ years in a career? Of course not. Whether we make the time for developing ourselves, by spending time on sports, family, friends, the arts, cooking, cleaning, exercising, etc., is up to us and depends on what adds to our contentment and thus a healthier overall self.

Here are a few more thoughts on the subject:

Graduate school can be a unique time in life to work on learning how to balance professional and personal life. Working effectively for, say, 40-60 hours a week can be extremely productive. Spending 80-100+ hours a week at the lab working ineffectively – perhaps if one is exhausted, distracted, unhappy from giving everything else up, and so on – is not clearly better. When potential employers look at your CV, they are not likely to care whether you were in graduate school for 6 or 7 versus 4 or 5 years.

That said, we can also have a balance overall that requires occasional weeks or months of greater devotion to certain aspects of our life – e.g., completing the thesis proposal, or thesis work itself. We don’t need to be able to do everything we want to do every week or every month during all phases of our lives. If you’re not certain what you’d rather do overall, think about being old and gray at the end of life: are you more likely to think “I wish I had worked more” or “I wish I had spent more time doing _____”?

Finally, it’s important to try to choose work that you love, which makes the ‘work’ not seem like work at all. Be honest with yourself about what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy. Choose your path for yourself rather than just to try to please others or do what you think is expected of you.

Kate T 
(an MD/PhD)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate A. and Kate T.

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