Being Happy in Grad School

A demonstration of being happy in grad school. Running through the sprinklers is also advised.

This blog entry is more personal than research. I just moved from Atlanta and I’ll be starting my new job at AT&T Research Labs on August 1st. So, I’m feeling wistful and I wanted to reflect and share just a few pieces of advice to the next generation of Ph.D. students.

I feel that there is a lot of negativity out there about grad school (the 100 reasons not to go to grad school blog, for example) and I certainly agree that it’s not for everyone. I recently had a friend tell me that I’m the only “actually happy person” he knows in a Ph.D. program. I’m sure there are plenty of other happy people, but it’s true that there is a lot of potential for misery in grad school. So, while other guides focus on “getting what you came for” or whatever, I want to share with you 5 practices (developed through much trial and error) that helped me stay happy in grad school:

  • Pick a good conference in your field and go to it every year (including your first year, even if you have to pay for it out of pocket) — when there were times that I thought about quitting (and there were those times), a conference has always brought me the energy, the influx of new ideas, and the wonderful people that I needed to get back in gear. My two chosen conferences are CHI (Human Factors in Computing) and IDC (Interaction Design and Children).
  • Avoid “time shifting” whenever possible — time shifting is when you end up shifting something you need to do today to another day in order to do some piece of work (e.g., “I’ll sleep tomorrow,” “I’ll get in touch with my advisor some other day, today I need to focus on this paper,” etc.). In my experience, time shifting only makes me more stressed out and less productive in the long run. If you need to skip this conference deadline and try for another, then maybe that’s the thing to do.
  • Get to know the people in your program — these folks are not only great to get to know as friends, but also will likely be your colleagues in the years to come. Also, they can commiserate with anything that you’re currently facing so they’re a great source of social support.
  • Have a routine that includes all of the things that are important to you — make a list of what is important to your happiness and make sure that you get a chance to do these things. My list includes things like swimming, hanging out with friends, exploring new places, reading for fun, and yes, research. You may have to set boundaries to make sure that the important things actually make it on your schedule, but it’s totally worth it to your overall level of happiness. I once told my advisor that I would not do certain types of academic activities because it would interfere with my work/life balance. He wasn’t happy at first, but later on accepted it and even said he admired me sticking to my guns on this (but, do pick your battles).
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help — when you’re struggling or need something, ask for it. I hate asking for help, but I basically went crazy when I tried to handle everything myself. I’ve gotten help from my advisor, my committee members, my lab mates, my roommates, my extended academic family, my biological family, people I’ve met at CoC Happy Hour, and professionals (the Counseling Center at Georgia Tech is free for students, may be the same at your school). Don’t be afraid of looking lame. Sometimes you have to decide whether you want to save your face or your ass and the choice should be clear.

For me, I’m more productive when I’m happy. So, when I plan to “swim, do 8 hours of work, and have dinner with friends,” I actually get a lot more done than when I plan to “work for the next 16 hours.” And, I’m immeasurably happier. Try it and maybe it will work for you.

As a bonus for those readers who are currently going or planning to go to Georgia Tech, here is Lana’s List of 100 Things To Do While You’re in Grad School at Georgia Tech. Enjoy and share your list with me when you make it!