That Ever-Present Grad School Guilt

I saw this tweet on Sunday and thought ‘good for you Josh!’.. followed by.. ‘yea, enjoy that rare moment of grad school work/life balance’.. then.. ‘hmm wait but you are still working on a Sunday…’ And for some context, I was thinking all of this while running columns in lab where I spent most of my day. (Note – but of course I had to be there because I didn’t come in Saturday)

While collecting fractions I began to wonder.. why is it that any absence from lab is accompanied by such acute feelings of guilt? Why do we wait at our desks til 6 or 7pm even though we’ve already run the days columns, set up X amount of reactions that have to go overnight, are waiting on compounds to arrive and are too tired to actually absorb another paper? And why was I compelled to add that sidenote about making up for labtime missed on Saturday? (Which I literally cannot bring myself to delete – probably for fear of being called out by a mysterious synthetic watchgroup for misrepresenting my work schedule)

Yes, this guilty behaviour is self-inflicted and in theory we should be able to regulate when and to what extent we experience this annoying emotion. However, I think this reaction is pretty prevalent across graduate students. So what are the underlying factors, real or perceived, that contribute to this pressure that we should be spending an alarming portion of our time in lab.

The lion’s share of expectations probably come from your advisor, who has a vested interest in students working long hours because it should result in papers, grants, tenure and overall strengthen their chemical legacy. PIs are pretty explicit about the amount of hours (reasonable or not) they want you to be in lab, and can tie this to your graduation date, over which they have complete control.  (That sentence screams for grad program reforms, which I look forward to discussing in a separate and future post) So yes, this pressure is real, and it’s pretty much out of your hands so just figure out how to operate at really high stress levels.

That leaves us to consider influences that can actually be dealt with, namely expectations that we perceive from our peers and impose on ourselves.  A certain department’s reputation for back-breaking hours may be perpetuated by students who either have been indoctrinated to this policy or simply do not want to call attention to themselves by bucking the norm.  Perpetuation may take the form of simply adhering to the policies, or going one step further and judging the reputation of others who do not put in the requisite hours. This could effectively make you feel bad, but (and I’ve alluded to this), it can do little else.

As for self-induced standards, that is to be expected among a group of highly ambitious people in graduate programs.  However, the key to avoiding guilt lies in setting respectable yet attainable goals for yourself. We have to recognize that energy spent worrying is energy wasted, and instead find a way to channel this remorse into future productive accomplishments. Lastly, try to take as many Sunday’s off as possible. It is after all the only day you can stay away from lab guilt-free.