Hobbies can teach you how to have a life and can yield unexpected professional benefits

The summer is quickly winding to a close, and a shiny new fall term is just around the corner. This year promises to be extremely busy – I’m attending three conferences, have plans for two (or three!) more manuscripts, will be TAing two courses, and there’s an absolute pile of beetles still screaming for my attention. Add to that my online activities and the other time-consuming miscellany of academia, and this geek’s schedule is looking pretty darned full! (Note to advisor: yes, I will get some research done too, promise!)

I’m sure you all often find yourselves in similar situations. I’m also willing to bet that many of you have hobbies and personal interests that you wish you could spend more time pursuing, but often feel obligated to leave to the end of the “to do” list since it’s not “real work”.

I would argue that it’s not only important, but also necessary, to carve out a bit of time to do these things that make you happy. Academics (and students) have a terrible tendency to have one-track (tenure-track?) minds: it’s all research, all the time. It can turn into a viscous and chronic bout of workaholism, leading to dissatisfaction, stress, depression and ultimately burnout.

I think that the grad student years are a great time to practice the arts of time management, priority-setting, and even the very difficult skill of saying “no” to things that maybe aren’t all that interesting or important to you,  so that you can learn how to have a life in spite of your academic obligations.

In addition to carving out some “me” (and dog) time for running, I also indulge in my favorite hobby: photography. A few years ago I received a very nice point-and-shoot camera (a Canon SX10), and then a year later was gifted a small macro clip-on lens. Since then, I’ve attended some workshops and spent quite a bit of time either poking around looking for subjects in my yard or  in the woods near my house, or bringing my subjects indoors for a little studio work. In some ways, my hobby is actually a really excellent fit with my academic interests: my absolute favorite thing to photograph is insects and spiders!

Is that not the greatest bunch of bug/camera-nerds you've ever seen? Taken at the Archbold Research Station in Venus, Florida, at BugShot 2012 (Photo by Josh Mayes)

I have discovered that this little pass-time of mine has yielded another, sort of unexpected benefit: networking! I don’t know why I was so surprised at this, but I have found that there are many other people in my field that enjoy macrophotography. The last two workshops I attended (I just returned from a fantastic four-day workshop in Florida) were positively crawling with entomologists and biologists, both from the private sector and academia. I’ve met some really wonderful people from many places in Canada, the US and abroad – all because of our shared love of playing with bugs and cameras.

I like taking pictures of things like this adorable jumping spider! (Photo: C. Ernst)

Interestingly, I’ve found that it’s been easier to stay in touch with these folks than with people I’ve met at more traditional networking venues, like conferences. It’s as though having something other than research interests in common has allowed us to maintain a more friendly and collegial relationship. I thoroughly enjoy these people for their friendships alone, but I also know that I’ll be looking for a post-doctoral position in the next couple of years, and the reality is that it can really help to have friends already in the system: they may know of (or have!) job openings, they might have caught wind of opportunities that aren’t advertised, and they might even be willing to put a good word in on your behalf.

Connecting with others in this way also gives us the opportunity to give back to others in our field; even if we’re “just” grad students, we can pass on interesting research results, field observations, or offer to collaborate on/help with a project, etc.. Networking is, after all, a two-way street, and the relationships you cultivate can have significant implications for your career many years down the road.

I suspect that there are lots of opportunities for grad students to network in non-traditional ways, and I’m willing to bet that many of us could easily link something “fun” (i.e., a hobby) with something “work-related” (i.e., meeting people in our fields). I’d be really interested to hear if anyone else has had any luck meeting other people in their field in venues outside of a typical conference or classroom setting – please share your experiences in the comments!


One response to “Hobbies can teach you how to have a life and can yield unexpected professional benefits”

  1. erik says:

    I used to see my organic chemistry prof at the climbing gym all the time. It was good to see that he was human after all.

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