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Grad School is for Life, Not Just for Science

You are going to spend at least 4 years or more in graduate school, and around 3-5 years in a postdoc position. That’s a big chunk of your life, so apart from doing experiments, writing papers or your thesis and maybe doing some teaching, what else are you doing?

To paraphrase one of my favorite books (So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide for M.A.’s and Ph.D’s Seeking Careers Outside the Academy by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius), what will you have to show for yourself besides teaching and research at the end of it all? For most people, the answer is “probably not much”. But what Basalla, Debelius and I suggest is that it would be very beneficial for you to actively pursue other interests or hobbies while in grad school or doing a post doc.

Why you should make time for your interests and hobbies

Teaching and research involve a variety skills, including project management, organization, complex problem-solving, and analytical skills, to name just a few. But expanding your skillset by pursuing other interests or hobbies is well worth your time. Not only will it make you a more interesting person, it will also make you more marketable to both academic and non-academic employers. But the most important reason of all is that it will make you feel alive, and maintain your sanity. Science is exciting  and it’s your passion (or is it?), but it’s also demanding so having other passions can help you keep your life balanced.

Consider new options

It’s always a good thing to be open to new possibilities and options that you might never have considered before. My hobby is learning, and consequently, I am a raving fan of courses. In doing one of these courses I discovered that I love translating, and that I’m good at it (so my alternative career could be in translating scientific texts, I’d love that), and it was also through a course that I discovered my affinity for life coaching. Both of these courses began as hobbies, just for fun, and developed into something more.  Just pick something that interests you and go for it — you’ll have lots of fun and recharge your batteries at the same time.

The career benefits

Apart from personal satisfaction, having a hobby has added benefits to your career. New activities will broad your experience, add important skills (for example group activities will show your ability to work as a part of a team), strengthen your network and expand you options. You can also get recommendations, and it’s an ideal way to learn about a new field and experience first hand if you’d enjoy or not doing something similar professionally.

This is especially important if you are considering a career outside academia as you can show potential employers that you have other interests and abilities beyond the lab. But even if you’re happy inside academia, it will serve you well too.

Fitting it all in

I know you’re busy and don’t have much time. Or that’s what you tell yourself. But how much time do you spend actually working? And how much time do you spend pretending to be working, feeling guilty because you should be working or avoiding getting to work? If you track down how you use your time (and how you waste your time) you can be more efficient and find time for other things. Check out this article on measuring your fudge factor to get some ideas on how to do this.

So what are you waiting for? Make the most out of you grad school and postdoc years. There are lots of different things you can do, from learning a new language, to developing skills like leadership or communication, or volunteering your time, taking a part time job, writing for a university publication or writing a blog…. Take advantage of your University or department programs.

And if you don’t know what to do, drop me a comment, I’d love to help you find out.


  1. Aida on March 10, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Hi Devin,

    I’m glad you found the article helpful. I’m sure that having a hobby and/or volunteering is going to help you feel more motivated, and it will definitely help you pull your mind away from your problems.

  2. Devin on March 10, 2010 at 3:06 am

    Thank you for the words of wisdom Aida. I think a hobby is just what I need. I’m a third year graduate student, and the past few months have been rough for me. Most importantly, I have lost a sense of optimism, which is crucially important to have as a scientist.

    I think that I am going to explore volunteering my time. Although I’ve always found it difficult to pull my mind away from the problems I am facing in the lab, hopefully volunteering or some other hobby will help distract me in a constructive way.

  3. Aida on March 9, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Débora, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. You probably need to reassess your priorities, and clarify what you would like to do so that you can manage your time in a better way.

  4. Aida on March 9, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Hi G,

    you can find the electronic version for the Kindle here http://bit.ly/cMjm0P

  5. Débora Parrine on March 5, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Hello Aida!

    Your article gave a big smile to my face. I’m brazillian, and I’m on the last semester of grad school (Microbiology).

    I’m in a long crisis about what to do after this semester, because of lack of oportunities, I’m thinking about entering a Master of Microbiology or Genetics (they are my passions). I’ve been doing an internship for 1 year and half on Biofuels at my University. Anyway, it has been hard for me to keep a hobby. During the begining of my grad school I was a singer, I was working slowly in a career (jazz, blues, bossa nova and popular music of Brazil), I also studied lots of languages (English, Spanish, French and Japanese) and now I don’t have time to do anything else. I follow classes during the whole day, everyday of the week, I study for the exam to enter the Master and I have 2 internships! It’s too crazy.

    I feel lost in my objectives since I don’t want to have an academic career but it looks like there is no option for a biologist without a master or a PhD, well, I’m not even sure if I DON’T want to do it.. Do you think there is a light in the end of the tunnel?

    I’ll keep on reading your articles!

  6. G on March 5, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Is there an e-copy of the book mentioned in the article ?

  7. stemcellbiologist on March 3, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Excellent and motivating article. I have secured Marie Curie fellowship and would be starting my Ph.D in Bioengineering/ Mechanobiology field. I have always believed that translating ideas of innovative science to commercial field have always lacked management skills by the scientists (Going by the statistics of increasing difficulties faced by University start-up companies vs. old market players). So going by one of your suggestions of utilizing free time at our respective university, would doing a two days/week evening classes for three years of MBA in ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship management’ satisfy my quest for knowledge in that field, and likewise be practical as well? Though we are in a very dynamic field of science with plethora of options after doctorate, I believe this move in my career would be apt, considering my long time goals of pursuing/ practicing innovative research. With regards to time frame, I think that pursuing the above mentioned course would be ideal during my Ph.D since after that I many fail to divert my time towards this issue.

    • Aida on March 3, 2010 at 3:45 pm

      Thanks epibio, you are right on that, it can make a difference on your performance and satisfaction at work. Actually some people can bear to have a less than exciting job if they are passionate about a hobby.

      Congratulations on your fellowship, stemcellbiologist, great news!! I think you have the answer to your question. Do you want to do it? It seems you do, so go for it, I’m sure you’re going to love it. And I do agree that now is a good time for it. But most important, YOU think it’s the best time. Good luck!

  8. epibio on March 2, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Good advice for people at any stage of their career! Having interests outside of a job can even make a significant difference to performance and satisfaction on the job.

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