While sitting on the couch watching TV last night, I got to thinking about what I consider one of the most important parts of grad school: what you do when you are not in lab. The rest of the working world takes this time for granted. No matter how many times I tell my parents the hours I work, everytime I call them at 7 pm, they are shocked when I say that I still have to go back to lab to do some more work. Would anyone be shocked by the hours I work if I were an I-banker? Probably not. So why is this so confounding to people?

Both of my parents went to grad school in humanities fields, and they admit that they worked really hard, and harder than they work in the jobs that they went to grad school to obtain. This seems to be a common occurrence: you have to work your ass off to get a job where you don’t have to work your ass off. The exception, of course, is if you go into the academics side of things and have to get tenure before you start sitting on your thumbs all day. As one of my former colleagues said, “once you get tenure, you can stop wearing pants.” Beautiful.

To the point, chemistry differs from humanities because you have to actually be in lab doing something for anything to get done. If you were, say, a historian, then everything has already been done, you just need to compile and make sense of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that is an easy task, but at least you can work on that at home in sweat pants. A task like chemistry really invades your life. You have to be present for every part of the process, from set-up to work-up to data collection. Automated instruments help some, but they really just make the process of collecting the data more efficient.

So what is the difference here? Does this mean that a chemist does comparatively more work than a historian to get a PhD? Maybe, but then again a chemistry student probably gets paid more and will finish in 5-6 years instead of 7-10. Sounds like a wash to me.

The big question is how does the quality of life in those years compare? Please add some comments about how you spend your “free time” and how this helps you cope with all the time you commit to the lab. Some bloggers have made mention of their distractions on their blogs already including fish and beer.

And no, reading blogs about chemistry doesn’t count!


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