Thursday, November 5, 2009

Life choices, happiness, and hormones

The blogs I read fall into three general categories, 1)Academic/life balance, 2) happiness and 3) behavior/endocrinology. My posts are focused on #3, and I never thought I'd write a post that incorporates all three... but I think today I will.

This post is inspired by a post by Balancing Act on Being a Real Person and a Graduate Student and Isis on the compatibility of motherhood and science. Balancing Act writes about how her life of being a real person, with a family, hobbies, and a life outside of grad school is often considered inconsistent with being a graduate student, and both Isis and her readers comment about whether having kids detracts from having a scientific career.

Academia requires a huge commitment. I remember being told by friends (that were conducting their dissertation research) the year before grad school that in this field (specifically, primatology, though this probably applies to other academic fields as well) that it is IMPOSSIBLE to have a successful personal life and a successful professional life--because there are enough people willing to sacrifice everything for their professional life, and those are the people that get ahead. And back then, I hoped it wasn't true. But I do feel that for the two years before grad school (in which I did various internships and field positions), and most of grad school, I have, whether intentionally or not, had very little in the way of a life outside of grad school/primatology.

In the words of Balancing Act, I would be the traditional graduate student. During my masters, I lived alone, without pets, without a tv, and my only friends in town were fellow grad students. And I was INCREDIBLY productive. My social life consisted of going to coffee shops to study with friends, and then occasionally doing dinner or a movie after. I spent the majority of my time holed up in my apartment, sitting at my computer doing work, and in those two years, I got a hell of a lot done. And that level of productivity and constant working is probably what is expected of a typical graduate student.

Since moving to my PhD program, my level of productivity has slowly fallen. I still technically live alone, and lack a tv, but I got a cat. I started to socialize more, watch dvds more frequently, watch tv shows on hulu, and have increasingly become addicted to facebook, checking news sites, blogs, etc. In short, I've lost some of my productivity, and have become much more easily distracted. Nonetheless, I have still managed to get a lot done (though it never seems to be enough). And most importantly, I had a realization that keeping up the breakneck pace of productivity, and having absolutely no life, was making me incredibly unhappy. I want to have a successful professional life, but I've already sacrificed all of my post-undergrad life to doing work. I realized that if I kept this up my entire life, yes, I could be productive, I could probably be successful, but I'd be miserably unhappy and watch life just pass me by.

Since then, my life has changed a bit. A month before my candidacy exams (last April), I took in a foster dog, who I still have. A couple of people have voiced their opinion that I shouldn't have taken in a dog when I was studying for candidacies, because it would be a distraction--but having a dog around made me so much happier. And I started dating someone right before I took my exams (which also makes me happy). And in my post-candidacy slump, I haven't been very productive, but have been enjoying having a life for a change. I've gotten to spend more time outdoors, gone hiking and camping, and rediscovered my love of reading (for fun!) and recently, painting.

Now, in addition to my one original cat, and my foster dog, I have a second cat (a 14-year-old I took in because she desperately needed a peaceful home where she wouldn't get picked on by other cats), and my boyfriend's cat has joined my household (his other cat died, and this cat is too sociable to be alone). In addition, my boyfriend spends most of his time here when he's not at work. Not to mention I have a snake, and will probably be adding another...

So I can't comment specifically on motherhood, because I don't have children. But, it struck me that some of the comments about it was that it took time away from productivity, was exhausting, involved cleaning up bodily fluids, and sadly, at least one commenter said that it made her less of a scientist. And granted, I'm sure it does take away from productivity, must be exhausting, and requires cleaning up a lot of messes. But while pets aren't quite the same, having four of them around can be a lot of work, and I seem to be cleaning up some form of accident quite a lot, and it gets frustrating. I do seem to ask myself why I've acquired this many pets, and I know some of my fellow grad students have commented that they think I'm crazy. But the thing is, they are also incredibly rewarding. They make me happy. I have a wagging tail greeting me at the door, I go on long walks outside with a incredibly cheerful and happy dog, and I spend time cuddling with sweet, purring kitties who are incredibly affectionate. I'm much happier than I used to be, and I think a lot of that comes from the oyxtocin rush I get from having a relationship with these wonderful (though at times, challenging) animals, and all the daily contact and cuddles i get (granted, having a boyfriend now also probably contributes to that).

And so I assume that children have some of those same benefits. Yes, I have no doubt that they are an incredibly amount of work, and probably drive you crazy, and I'm not sure how parents handle the sleep deprivation. But still, just like my cute doggy and kitties, babies have evolved these incredibly appealing characteristics that tap into our hormonal caregiving systems and elicit not only caregiving behaviors, but also a hormonal rush of contentment and connectedness. And I'm sure as they get older, they continue to demonstrate some of the amazing features of being unique human beings, while providing their parents with love and affection.

As an anthropologist, I feel it's easy to see how having kids would in some ways contribute to your scientific ideas. Just thinking about the balance women face between juggling children and work has fueled a lot of interesting questions in my mind, and I think in the future I'd really like to study maternal investment/trade-offs and the underlying endocrinology. And even though I don't study canids or felids, I still think having my pets contributes to my thinking about the questions I study, particularly as I watch their interactions, and their clamoring for affection and attention. My research is on social relationships and stress, and so more than anything, that extensive studying I did for my candidacy exams drummed into my head the importance for humans, and other social animals, of having strong social connections, and the health benefits it provides, both mentally and physically.

While I think one path to being a good scientist might be locking yourself away in the lab, the office, or a remote field location and devoting your life wholesale to your research, I also think having a life of your own can contribute to being a good scientist. By living a full life, complete with social relationships, pets, kids, and hobbies, I think you engage with many of the same aspects of the world that inspired us to become scientists. Most of us didn't fall in love with learning or science because it meant shutting us from the rest of the world--we fell in love with it because we watched the world around us, and were fascinating with how things work, and why wanted to know how and why. And by continuing to engage with the world, and our lives, we maintain that sense of curiosity and wonder we used to have. I believe that engagement can fuel our scientific imaginations and lead us to knew insights and directions to explore in our research. And in doing so, we'll also get those dopamine rushes from learning and action, and those oxytocin rushes from connection with others, and be able to feel happy and fulfilled as we go about doing great science.


  1. Thanks for the comment and referencing my post! I am spending every moment working towards that beautiful goalpost, so have left my blogging and blog-reading to wait until I have made sufficient progress (meaning all chapters written).

    I agree that those grad students who allow for some outside life: pets, hobbies, regular activities like dancing or sand volleyball are all happier and more productive in the long run.

    I heartily promote having a life outside of grad school. As it becomes the norm, I think all involved will have a more balanced perspective on life and grad school and less jaded "I didn't have a life, so current grad students don't need one either."

    Have lots of fun with your cat!

  2. Nice post. I had not know of your blog until you made a comment on mine the other day. I agree wholeheartedly with this post. As someone quickly approaching candidacy and transitioning from pseudo-exaggerated (under)graduate to semi-professional researcher, I find that simple things in life unrelated to school keep me sane. That is probably one of the reasons I rarely write blog posts, since I like my free time to be non-primate behavioral ecology/endocrinology related thinking.