Guilt in Grad School.

Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 9:08 PM
So today I do have something serious to talk about. It's been awhile since I've written anything meaningful for future grad students, probably because I'm more experienced now, and I'm not discovering as many new things. Today's topic, however, applies to both seasoned and novice students.

Something I've noticed from many grad students, and even myself last year, is the constant guilt of needing to work more. If you're not working, you're being lazy and unproductive. Guilt stresses you out, and only makes you more unproductive as you try to get things done without dealing with the work you're "supposed" to be doing.

The more work you do, the "better" a person you are; this is an unspoken culture at MIT. It's such a competitive environment that it's easy to think (work = good). The more you work, the more you get ahead. If you do good research, you're a promising young scientist. You will have a bright future, and everyone will admire you. In addition, if you don't work as much, you start to fall behind your peers, and you're not as highly thought of. It's easy to see how if you associate work with good, then lazy must = bad.

Talking to a group of students recently, I found out how much this feeling pervades some of them. They were discussing doubts about whether to stay for a PhD. A common story was, "I'll blow off tonight, and then make up for it tomorrow." This would inevitably lead to "Well I got to school at 8am, but watched Netflix until noon. Why did I even get to school so early?" And of course, other people claimed "At least I stayed until 10pm that day." It seemed like they were having trouble reconciling the fact that sometimes, the work wasn't that interesting, and they weren't as motivated to work as hard. And that this was somehow wrong.

I guess my perspective of things changed a lot after being forced to leave school. To me it seems obvious that if you're not motivated to do your work, frankly, you're just not that interested in it. Or at least some aspect of it. Plenty of people at MIT love science, but they're just not interested in doing science ALL the time. Which is fine, to me. That just means that you're not going to do academic research after you graduate. You'll go on to do industry work, or find some other job.

It's really ok to not feeling like being the extremely productive good graduate student who works all the time. Clearly, you should do enough to graduate. And obviously, you should consider the future consequences of your career choices. But if you're not interested in working all the time, it means you have other more meaningful things to do in your life. And you should do them. Why waste your life away in the lab if you'd rather be doing other stuff?


Comment: I originally wrote this late last week, but the entry was so jumbled, I drafted the thing, and rewrote most of it today. Good choice. This version is much better than what crap I had before.


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