graphic of smiley face on textured wallKatie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at and on Twitter @KDShives.

So many people equate graduate school with the pursuit of an intellectual passion. Right alongside this line of thinking is the assumption that doing what you are passionate about should make you happy without qualifications. However, anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in graduate education knows that it can be anything but the blissful pursuit of intellectual curiosity once you add in classes, teaching, independent research, service activities, grant proposals, and somehow fitting a life in around all these priorities. We all know how difficult the graduate process can become and the toll that this takes on some individuals.

So how are we supposed to be happy when our work doesn’t make us happy?

The trick is knowing that our external world (like graduate studies) doesn’t really make us happy by itself, but that happiness comes primarily from inside ourselves and how we choose to relate to our environments.

Stop deferring happiness for success: For many it seems that it is assumed that happiness occurs after success, like after getting a paper accepted or submitting a grant proposal. However, if you are happy your are more likely to perform well and then go on to be successful. If you operate too long under the assumption that you have to accomplish items on your to-do list to be happy, you might find your self so out of practice in enjoying yourself that major accomplishments such as passing qualifying exams or submitting journal articles leave you feeling empty, not happier. Sometimes you have to remember to properly treat yo self.

Don’t just look at the negative data: It can be easy to fixate on what is not working and start banging your head against the wall. If you find yourself in this position, remember all of the work that you have successfully accomplished to get to this point. A few days, weeks, or even months of being stuck is difficult, but you have to keep perspective and remember that current problems in research or school will not always be there and that you can move past them.

Try mindfulness: It can be difficult to know how you really feel when your inner world is a tempest of thoughts, anxieties, and a giant to-do list. This isn’t just more pop positive psychology, as that viewpoint can be just as limiting as a negative outlook. Instead, turn to mindfulness. What about your graduate school experience do you really enjoy? Has your relationship to your graduate project and potential career choice changed in the intervening years from your initial application to today? Really think about what it is you are doing and you may find a happy space from which to work inside yourself that is free from external difficulties.

Reach out: Create ripples of positive feelings and you can enjoy bringing happiness to others around you. Congratulate that co-worker on a recent publication or grant award. By acting the way you want to be you can help foster a happier culture around you as well.

If you feel that you are experiencing more than just temporary unhappiness and that you feelings are negatively impacting your ability to function normally, remember that you are not alone! Maintaining your mental health in graduate school can be difficult so do not be afraid to reach out for assistance. Even something as simple as speaking honestly with other members of your cohort about difficulties you are having may leave you feeling happier knowing that you are not alone in this crazy academic pursuit.

We all have the potential to be happy in graduate school. Many of us came out of the hopes to pursue a subject that we love that makes us happy. But too often we lose sight of that in the face of new challenges. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the questions

  • What about graduate school makes me happy?
  • Can I do what makes me happy more often or minimize what is unpleasant?
  • What should I be changing in my environment to be a happier person?
  • What should I be changing in myself in order to be a happier person?

If you’re feeling down try to think of these questions to refocus yourself. Don’t be afraid to reclaim that happiness that initially motivated you to pursue an advanced degree, even if it means changing how you think about or do things in your life right now.

Despite it’s reputation, graduate school does not have to make you unhappy. In fact, I believe that the very opposite should be true; that we should be able to find a degree of happiness, even joy, in the daily work that we do as students and young professionals.

Don’t hesitate in cultivating your own happiness!

Do you have any tips or tricks to staying happy in graduate school? Please share them in the comments below!

[Image by Flickr user marc falardeau used under creative commons licensing.]


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