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Five Ways to Help You Achieve Happiness in Graduate School

The pursuit of a PhD, more often than not, interferes with the pursuit of happiness. Some, including PhD advisors, will tell you that this is the way to do it. Happiness in graduate school is not a prerequisite for success and it is success that you are after. But is this accurate? A number of studies have shown that work–life balance, as well as personal happiness, positively correlates with productivity, professional achievement and success. Looks like that happiness is not only a luxury but it might be a key ingredient for success.

Read below for some practical advice on how to increase your happiness levels and, as the relevant research suggests, your chances of success.

1. Manage your time wisely.

We are taught that success invariably requires 12–14-hour workdays, especially in academia. So if you want to succeed you should work 14 hours per day, every day, right? Wrong! This type of schedule says more about your time management skills (or lack thereof) rather than your commitment to your chosen discipline. Unreasonably long hours will not increase your chances of success. They will, however, increase your stress levels and make your happiness levels plummet. If you keep a lab journal you will realize that even if you are physically in the lab for 12 or 14 hours your productive still averages 7–8 hours. So what you need to do is to eliminate dead time and organize your experiments to fit in an 8-hour workday. After the 8 hours are up, put your samples in the freezer and go home to your hobby, friends or family. You will soon realize that you do not work less, nor do you compromise the quality of your work. If anything, you will be more productive when you’re rested and happy.

2. Eat healthy, sleep enough and exercise.

Most people need, on average, 7–8 hours of sleep daily and a balanced diet to be in good shape – physically and psychologically. Graduate students are no exception. Figure out how many hours of sleep you need (not how many hours you can get by on), create a sleep schedule and stick to it. In addition, make a healthy diet and exercise a priority. Most graduate students use their tight budget and lack of time as an excuse for their bad eating habits and sedentary lifestyle. The truth, however, is that if you manage your time correctly (see above) you will have the time you need to take care of your body. As for the tight budget: with a little research you can find simple and healthy recipes that won’t break the bank, and a run in the park is free. “A healthy mind resides in a healthy body”, claimed the ancient Greeks and a healthy mind has a better chance at both happiness and success.

3. Don’t abandon your hobbies.

Remember the days when as a kid or teenager you had interests outside school and how happy those interests made you? Well, it’s time to revisit this side of you that is hiding under your chemical-stained lab coat. Be it painting, writing, a sport or furniture building, any hobby is a good choice, as long as it fills you with joy and takes your mind off the lab worries. If you want to rid yourself of any kind of guilt that you are “wasting time that you could be spending in the lab”, remember that Einstein used the violin to relax when he became stuck in his thinking process, and Winston Churchill use painting as his outlet. When you are taking small creative breaks to practice something that you love you boost your happiness levels and your productivity

4. Don’t neglect your personal and social life.

Studies show that everyone feels happier when they socialize, including introverts. You should, therefore, make time for social interactions. Make sure, however, to expand those interactions outside of the lab. Even though there is nothing wrong with maintaining friendships at work, those should not be your only social interactions. If you hang out only with your lab mates, you will inevitably discuss lab matters even if you are not in the lab, and that limits your mental breaks. In addition, hanging out with the same group of people all the time limits your networking capacity and can hurt you personally and professionally. You can expand your social circle by participating in interdisciplinary clubs and events on your campus, and by seeking people with common interests at hobby clubs, the gym – you get the idea! Not only will it be a nice change to discuss something other than your experiments, but your lawyer friends might also come handy when your try to patent your world-altering discoveries.

5. Take time off.

Workers in the US are notorious for not taking vacation (on average they use only 77% of their paid time off) and unfortunately graduate students are no different. In academia we tend to idolize researchers who never take vacations, even though it has been shown that this is the fastest path to “burning out” and irreparably hurting our mental health and ultimately our research. Taking time away from the lab and the stressors associated with it will allow your most brilliant, out of the box, ideas to emerge. So when your research seems to be going nowhere and you feel you are spinning your wheels, put everything in the freezer, pack your bags (but not your laptop), and leave. Even a quiet weekend hiking might work miracles for your tired brain and allow you to return more energized and ready to take on the challenges that you left behind.

We are taught that research is a selfless endeavor, and although this is true to a certain extent, it does not mean that you need to lose yourself trying to achieve your scientific goals. As, very astutely, is pointed out in this BiteSizeBio article, graduate school is a big chunk of your life and you owe it to yourself to treat it like the precious commodity that it is. “Learn to value yourself, which means: fight for your happiness” said the author Ayn Rand. That applies to graduate school and beyond.

Do you have tips and tricks that help you stay happy and productive in graduate school? If yes, please comment below. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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