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Find a good hobby

You are going to be in grad school for about five years. That’s a lot of time. That’s 5 superbowls, 5 summers, and about 37 Marvel movies. You have the power to make it a miserable existence, or to make it the best time of your life. Do not have a mindset of “now is the time to struggle, but later in life, things will be better.” Well, now is kind of the time to struggle; you work hard in grad school. But that does not mean you should lead a miserable life. Do not promise yourself a better life in the future. Make your life fun now. An engaging hobby or activity can go a long way to help:

  • Hobbies make you more productive at work: As a grad student, you are always in danger of slipping into an energy-draining routine. Routine can be useful, but it has to be positive, productive, and time-efficient. Having a hobby helps. Productivity (in your hobby) begets productivity (at work). If there is an event you care about at 6:00 pm, you will work harder during the day to be done by then. Here’s a good one: “If you want something done, ask a busy person, because the other kind has no time” (quote maybe by Elbert Hubbard).
  • Hobbies make you a more interesting person: So what do you do for fun? That question needs to have a good answer. You should have your thing. Sure, you go out for drinks, go to the movies, Netflix, work on some weekends, go to a game or two, and travel every while. Everyone does these things. That’s a nice solid base of stuff to do. But what’s your thing? Something you’re passionate about. Something that reminds everyone of you. Something that makes you smile when you answer that question. Find that thing. Wildlife photography in state parks and reserves? Planting herbs and peppers in your small garden? Collecting coffee samples from around the world? Hiking/cycling the trails in your area? Learning about the history of airplanes and human flight? Researching random obscure things and writing Wikipedia pages about them? 
  • Make new hobbies, keep old hobbies: This is a lesson I learned from my PhD advisor. He has built a collection of model trains, learned how to play the piano, designed a website called “scilando” for teaching chemistry in a fun way, and even learned some Japanese (at least he told me that was Japanese). He even created a website where he collects photos of “bugs and critters in my Florida backyard”. Here’s the deal. Start with one hobby that you are passionate about. Commit to it in the long term. Once you have mastered it to some degree, add another hobby to your repertoire. Or take first hobby do the next level. Whatever. Just do stuff.
  • Use your resources: You are on a college campus. You are already surrounded by fresh ideas and tons of activities. Check out the student organizations list and see what’s on the menu. Your campus has enormous facilities to tap into. The gym, the outdoors locations, the intramural sports activities, the classes you can audit, the music school…

Here’s the PhDeal. You want your hobby to be something you are passionate about, without overwhelming your responsibilities. Something you look forward to, without burdening you. Something that builds your character, without draining your time. This might be a horrific thing to say, but not everything is about adding an extra line in your CV. There is more to life…

Start by picking from this generic list of awesomeness: Volunteering, gardening, painting, hiking, martial arts, carpenting, dancing, reading, cooking, gym and fitness, photography, or becoming the world expert on something incredibly specialized and whose intrinsic value is difficult to communicate to the rest of society (Oh, wait that’s what your PhD is for).

Let’s talk about money

During your graduate studies, you will not be making a lot of money. That’s pretty much the main story here. 


  • You will be making some money. And it is generally enough for a decent living if you manage yourself well. Most graduate stipends in science programs are enough to get the basics: food, housing, bills, and insurance. You will not be saving money. But with careful planning, you can spend some of your stipend for personal leisure and travel.
  • You will not have a super-fancy standard of living. And it’s not just because of the money. Graduate school is not a 9 to 5 job with a comfortable salary. You will often feel that the work load is too heavy and the pay is too low. 
  • Watch out for unexpected costs. Try to understand more the tuition and insurance payments when you sign the offer letter. Ask about them. It makes a big difference if your monthly stipend is $1600 with no additional surprising expenses, versus the same stipend when you have to pay $750/year for insurance and $1000/semester for tuition.
  • When deciding on which program to join, consider the cost of living. Some cities are more expensive than others. So do not be tricked by a low or surprisingly large stipend. There are several websites that compare living expenses between cities. A quick google search will help you determine the effective value of your stipend. Generally, most graduate school stipends in science programs correspond to a similar standard of living.
  • Getting a credit card might help. But be careful! Especially if you are in a new country, read more about this topic before applying for your own personal credit card. It might really help when you are financially squeezed, but watch out for the hidden fees that come with credit cards. You can easily overspend…  
  • University facilities are great. There is a lot of awesomeness available for students: gym facilities, sports fields, movies, theaters, circuses, seminars, music concerts, athletics events, outdoors facilities, and cultural events. Make the most of them. Also, college towns usually have a lot of bars and coffee shops with affordable prices. Search for hidden gems such as free concerts at the music department.
  • Self-improvement activities can be free. Grad school is an ideal opportunity for building your character beyond academia. It is a strange situation in many ways: You are under a lot of stress to produce results and meet deadlines. But at the same time, you are kind of buffered from the realities of the outside world. It’s not as though the university will go bankrupt next week and you will be suddenly become unemployed. This is a five year stage of your life unlike any other. You have no time, but you have lots of time. You have many responsibilities, but not truly professional responsibilities. Ah the contradictions! Make the most of these five years for self-improvement. Identify personal goals and accomplish them. Building character does not cost money.
  • Of course, it helps to have good friends. Chances are that your fellow grad students are like-minded people, and on a similar budget. And it’s a pretty diverse and interesting group of people, from all over the nation, and all over the world. Learn about their culture and food and interests and research. Or simply vent your PhD frustrations together. 

Here’s the PhDeal. As a student, you will not be rich, but you have a lot of access. Join an organization and be involved in something you are passionate about. Learn how to dance. Volunteer for building a house. Read a book or two. Get in shape. Go hiking. Watch a documentary series or even a fun series if you’re feeling dangerous. Write a blog. Work harder. Discover your new hobby. Make new friends. Become the world-leading expert on something silly. Oh wait, that’s actually what your PhD is about! See, a little humor goes a long way. 

Look, this is the 21st century. There is a lot you can do for free (especially that next experiment for your project!)