How to Be Unhappy in Grad School

By Deirdre Sackett

 

If you follow The Oatmeal, you may have seen his newest comic, “How to be perfectly unhappy.” (If you don’t know The Oatmeal, I suggest you check him out! Looking past the crude humor and poop jokes, cartoonist Matthew Inman produces some pretty inspiring, touching, and hilarious comics.) The comic is based off of an essay by Augusten Burroughs, titled “How to Live Unhappily Ever After.”

 

When I saw that title, and even before I read the comic, I immediately thought of the graduate school experience. Not just my own, per se, but the general concept of graduate school — the image of the over-worked, over-caffeinated student plugging away at their fifth 14-hour day that week, with an equally exhausting work-filled weekend to look forward to. Are we, as graduate students, happy with this life? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

 

From a young age, we are programmed to believe that happiness is the ultimate goal in life. Once you obtain it, then you’re golden, and you’ll never have to suffer ever again. You’ve reached Happiness™. But if you’re not happy, then you must be unhappy. And if you’re unhappy, well, then you’re doing something horribly wrong, and you must hate your life. Right? Here’s my bold claim. Despite their busy lives, regardless of the sardonic jokes and grumblings, most graduate students are not Unhappy™. They are not doing anything objectively wrong, nor do they utterly hate their lives. As a grad student, when someone asks, “Are you happy in your grad program?”, it limits an entire 5 to 6 year experience to one word. This innocent question creates a binary in what should be a spectrum of human emotion. It binds the grad student to one of two answers: yes and no.

 

Yes, my experiments all were successful. I have 5 first-author publications, all accepted on the first round with perfect reviews. I’m graduating in 4 years rather than 5 or 6, and I’m guaranteed a starting salary of $100K in my new job. I don’t even have to take a post doc!

 

No, everything is failing. I can’t get statistical significance on anything. My one measly paper got desk rejected by 3 journals. My experiments all yield null results. I can’t network to save my life, and I have no friends. Even my cat hates me.

 

Of course, those are both ridiculous examples. Graduate school is a mixture of good and bad experiences. In the 5 or 6 years it takes to get a Ph.D., you might get one first author publication, a couple of desk rejections, one experiment that works sort-of perfectly and another two that completely fail. You might have two really close friends and a smattering of acquaintances you interact with only at the department holiday party each winter. It’s a blend of good and bad, which makes sense. You don’t waltz into graduate school expecting everything to go perfectly.

 

Like the grad school experience, human emotion doesn’t work in terms of purely Happy or purely Unhappy. Nor should we expect to waltz into our experience and come out happy. The spectrum of emotion ebbs and flows like waves in the ocean, much like progress in graduate school.

 

I’m a graduate student in the sciences, and science is hard work. Experiments don’t go the way I plan, things take longer than I think, and my inexperience slows me down as I learn new techniques. My eyes sting as I stare at a computer screen for 8+ hours a day, analyzing data or writing a paper. I feel guilt and soul-crushing defeat when I can’t write as well or as fast as I expect myself to. Imposter syndrome rumbles in the depths of my brain like a voracious beast, ready to snap up any imperfections I throw its way.

 

And yet, to shamelessly quote The Oatmeal’s comic, what I do is meaningful to me. Everything I do in grad school pushes me to become a better scientist, communicator, and writer. I recognize my frustration at how slowly I analyze data or figure out a technique, and realize that it’s better to slowly do things correctly rather than rush and do it wrong. Each experimental failure encourages me to think creatively and problem-solve, to figure out what went wrong and how I can fix it in the future. Plus, when experiments do succeed, the past failures makes the victory way more significant. Getting negative reviews on a paper help make my science writing better —  they do not reflect on my imperfections as a scientist. Most importantly to me, I know fighting the imposter syndrome beast helps me find self-worth and value in my being, though it’s the hardest thing to do.

 

So it’s not a matter of finding “happiness” in a slew of “unhappy” experiences. It’s a matter of finding value in frustrating or sad experiences and emerging as a different person. Not a happier person, but a stronger person.  Other grad students might feel this exact same way, or at least some version of it. Grad students are in their programs because they find their work meaningful, not because every day is a walk in the park. Other people will question this version of “happy,” and even try to dissuade grad students from doing what they are passionate about because they perceive this existence as blatantly “unhappy.” How to be unhappy is not for others to decide, but for you, dear grad student. So go forth, find meaning in your failures, rejoice in your successes, and thrive in unhappiness.