‘Hey, what book are you reading?’ – sort-of-friend/acquaintance
‘Oh it’s David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Pretty good so far.’ – Myself
‘Oh cool, wish I had time to read fiction.’ – Pretentious anti-friend
If you have ever uttered this phrase, I don’t like you.
There is this invasive belief in academia that as a graduate student, or even just a researcher in general, that your life is dedicated to nothing but tireless work sifting through peer reviewed journals, highlighting, creating presentations or rocking back and forth sobbing. In fact, it’s not a belief; it is a pressured phenomenon, perpetuated by our bosses and colleagues. However, let me dispel it at once and say, anyone who sincerely believes they are like this is delusional.
Being productive, working hard and staying focused is a positive thing and if you are in graduate school or working towards it, chances are good that you are one of these individuals. You feel a tug of guilt when pursuing non-academic activities and you have vaguely prepared your Nobel Prize speech at one point. This makes you a solid, diligent researcher and you should feel good that you are choosing to direct your life in a healthy and successful manner as opposed to drinking too much, calling in sick, blowing off responsibilities and maintaining a mediocre living. That being said, you should still have some free time. Time to catch ‘So you think you can dance’ or to recklessly ride saucers down a snowy hill or other semi-important stuff like, you know… finding a companion, starting a family or visiting your parents.
Admittedly, sometimes these things must wait for more appropriate times and finances, but you shouldn’t feel like your colleagues will mock your efforts to actually participate in this life in addition to the endless cycle of failed experiments. No one is honestly so busy that they can’t read fiction occasionally, play words with friends, teach your dog to skateboard or hit the slopes every so often. Yet no matter where I go, university or hospital, lab or classroom, I have students and colleagues describing a life of pure mental torture consisting of complete dedication to reading articles, freaking out and consuming massive amounts of caffeine. This description of life conjures up images of someone who is either a very slow ineffective learner, or someone who, by all rights, should have taken over the world by now. If nearly every waking minute of your day is dedicated to thinking, reading and scrutinizing your academic pursuits, you should be living in some eccentric castle of doom in the woods, plotting the downfall of mankind. For the rest of us intelligent but seemingly normal individuals, let’s tone down the pretentiousness a bit and accept that the occasional leisurely activity is actually a good thing, helping us maintain sanity and clear thinking so that we may live to analyze our data soon enough.