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058: How to Be Truly Unhappy in Grad School

On those days when you manage to take a break from bench-work and call home, you will almost certainly get ‘The Question:’

“So, how is your research going?”

If you’re new to grad school, you might make the mistake of telling your parent or loved one exactly how your research is going.

“Well, I was up until 3 AM doing time points but then one of the buffers was contaminated so I had to throw out my last two weeks of work and start over.”

To which your parent will reply, “That sounds awful!  You must be so upset.  Are you sure a career in science will make you happy?”

And you’ll stop and ponder that last question.  Will a career in science make you happy?

Will you prance from bench to bench giggling to yourself, high on the sheer exhilaration of learning?

Or is it much more likely that you’ll face roadblocks, confounding data, experiments that only sometimes work, and that every once in awhile, you’ll push the boundary of your knowledge into new territory.  In those moments, you might feel proud or relieved or curious, but not exactly ‘happy.’

Does that mean you should leave science to find a career that can make you happier?

Or is Mom asking you the wrong question entirely?

And the Pursuit of Unhappiness

When a friend or loved one reflects on your life in the lab, it can highlight some of the challenges you face every day. Asking whether science makes you happy requires that you answer with a yes or no, but in fact, you may not be pursuing a research career because it makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

You may have chosen science because you have a burning curiosity that won’t let you sleep when there’s a puzzle to solve.  You may have seen the effects of a disease that you feel compelled to cure.  Or perhaps you’re the type of person who believes in the purity of the scientific method, and you want to apply that enlightened thinking to more of the world.

Whatever the case, you probably didn’t sign up for graduate school because you believed it would give you a permanent feeling of bliss.  So how do you explain your motivation and drive to friends and family?

This week on the show, we talk with Deirdre Sackett, a fourth-year student who recently reflected on her meaningful unhappiness in grad school.  She drew inspiration from The Oatmeal’s recent comic outlining his own lifestyle of busy, fascinated unhappiness.

Science isn’t about being happy or unhappy, she says.  “You will face failure in your studies, no matter what you’re doing.  Don’t let anyone define what your worldview of happiness is.  That’s for you to find and it’s not happiness, it’s meaning. That’s deeply personal to you and it’s not something that anyone can tell you to feel.”

The Science of Fitbit

This week, we also learn about the effects of activity trackers on weight loss.  These days, everyone wears a Fitbit, Jawbone, or Apple device to count their steps.  Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the actual outcomes of fitness tracking are complicated.

And to tip the scales in the other direction, we enjoy a bottle of the Smuttynose Peach Short Weisse.  They use a two-step fermentation process with Lactobacillus, so the beer is tart and crisp with just a hint of peach.  It’s not sour enough to cause your lips to pucker, but it is an acerbic surprise on your first sip.

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