A Friend in Fear

It’s that time of year again, when the streets are lined with ghouls and monsters, department stores are filled with plastic skeletons and more candy than they have room for, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s finally Halloween! Even though I’m a sucker for all things pumpkin, I’m most excited about all the new horror that comes with each Halloween season.

pumpkin patch

I’ve always loved anything that’s designed to scare. Ghost stories, zombie hoards, slasher flicks, you name it; I was that kid in junior high that made my friends watch the Blair Witch Project for my birthday party! There’s just something so exciting about the sense of unease that comes with being scared and so, it seemed fitting that my first post with GradLife McGill should be about fear.

Of course I’m not alone in my love of horror, and perhaps it’s not surprising that my grad student tendencies lead to me wondering why so many of us are drawn to fear. A couple PubMed searches later and it turns out that I’m not alone in my curiosity either.

Researchers have looked at the allure of being scared from many angles and in many disciplines. Some psychologists have theorized that people are drawn to horror as a way to “practice” reacting to real-life situations (1). There’s even research on how horror movies help bond couples on dates (2)! After all, according to data scientists at OkCupid, liking horror movies is the number one predictor of long term relationship success (3). But as a meta-analysis in Media Psychology points out, the love of being scared might all come down to the way we interpret our reactions (4). In other words, some of us are drawn towards fright because we also experience excitement that we interpret as pleasurable; this also helps to explain why, although we all get scared, only some of us enjoy it.

I personally identify with the pairing of fear and excitement. I’d even add that fear can also be a powerful source of motivation; it’s just a matter of pointing that motivation in the right direction. Four years ago, the idea of moving across the country and starting a graduate degree and a new life away from everything I knew was absolutely petrifying, but it was also exciting. I used that feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach to push me towards my goals and, although it’s definitely not been easy, it was the right choice.

My grad school life, like many others, is full of situations that scare me. Whether it’s starting a new experiment with my hypothesis on the line, or taking on the mentorship of an eager, impressionable undergraduate, the excitement of what could happen is always accompanied by a vein of fear. So while I sit here surrounded by glowing jack-o-lanterns and with a classic horror movie playing in the background, I’m reminding myself to embrace my fears, and to use them to make the most of opportunities as they come along.

After all, grad school is terrifying. But maybe that’s why I’m here.

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Works cited:

1Christian Jarrett (2011). The lure of horror. The Psychologist. 24:812-815

2Zillmann et al. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companion’s affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3): 586-594.

3 Rudder, Christian (2014). Dataclysm: who we are when we think no one’s looking. New York, New York: Crown Publishers.

4Hoffner and Levine (2005). Enjoyment of Mediated Fright and Violence: A Meta-Analysis. Media Psychology, 7: 207-237

Graduate studies: A decision between adventure and chaos – Part 1

Did you ever want a donut at 3 am? Or maybe some all dressed pizza? Why not a double bacon hamburger? In this case, the answer is easy, you just wait for the next day to grant yourself that wish. In the worst case scenario, you get out of bed and walk/drive to the closest 24 hours fast food restaurant to fulfill your desire. However, what if your desire involves something a lot more complex that you cannot even define? Maybe you will spend the rest of the night trying to understand it without success, but you can surely perceive it. You want to change something, go somewhere or meet someone. How, when and why are questions just out of reach. That was my story. I had these three questions in my mind often during the night. The phone from the company I used to work for would ring exactly at 3:01. I had to wake up quickly, answer, understand the situation in the factory and try to give some indications before falling asleep again.

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Sometimes I had to get out of bed and drive in the middle of the night in order to fix the situation onsite. But do not misunderstand me, I loved my job. It was the realization of many of my big dreams when I was an undergrad student: a well-paid job in an international company where the everyday challenges teach interesting things. But for some reason, these feelings about doing “something else” assaulted me in the middle of the night, and I could not understand them at all. I started to feel empty, without direction and very discouraged. I really needed to change my life. But why? There was no logical reason behind these thoughts. At the beginning, I believed that maybe the lack of physical activity, the stress at work or even the food at the factory kitchen were making me feel that way. I decided to exercise again, prepare my own food before going to work and other rituals that could improve my situation. These things improved significantly my mood, but I was still thinking that something was not right. Then the first clue came to me. I heard that a local private university was offering Master degrees for engineers from our factory and I was very excited about it. I wanted to learn more, to know something new and some of that could be right there. Unfortunately, the subjects (mainly focused in administration) were totally different from what I expected and I decided to leave that idea alone. But the idea refused to leave and later I found myself talking with the coordinator of the Metallurgy and Materials master program of my previous University. The investigation branches were exciting, as I could see some of my work problems explained from a very different perspective, making it an excellent opportunity to improve my skills and fulfill that hungry for something new.

Unfortunately, when I was about to say yes to begin the applying process, they gave me a single condition: even when I was not receiving scholarship from the Institute, I had to quit my job to be accepted, as they considered that I would not be able to have a good performance if I was fighting on two fronts. I had a lot to process then. On one side there was an excellent and secure job; in the other the opportunity of change completely not only my professional development but my whole life. The master degree did not have to stop there, I could continue with further adventures in science with a Ph.D. and who knows what after that. Even there was the Canadian dream and beyond… but that
belongs to another story. I was between my own past dreams and the present ones. Years before that job represented everything I was fighting for: stability, certainty and material wealth for me and my loved ones. But at some point, I changed without noticing and that dream alone was not
fulfilling anymore. This new horizon seemed so exciting, full of new possibilities and experiences. There was a single problem. Fear. Not only to fail but to fail after having a good work, which I left following something that seemed to be a whim. Fortunately one day I realized something thanks to a good friend. You have the right to decide anything in your life, but make sure that the reasons behind those decisions are good enough. The fear is the worse reason to do or not something. Is good to be afraid sometimes, as the fear keeps us safe from falling from the last floor of a building or enter to a nightclub of doubtful reputation. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to do whatever makes you happy, as long as you accept the problem that comes with that decision, which will be easier to overcome if your drive is strong enough.

I guess you can imagine what I decided considering that I am writing this during my free time from my PhD. But that is only the beginning of an adventure that would take me to more places, situations and problems than I could ever imagine. And in the end, the life is that, an adventure where you should go to sleep only with the desire of having a donut at 3:00 am, but knowing you are doing the best for yourself.


‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.’  -Thomas Edison

I think most of us have a small, seemingly impossible dream or desire that could turn into an amazing opportunity.  It could be an opportunity to make money, but more likely, it is an opportunity for happiness and fulfillment.  Thomas Edison recognized that no amazing thing happens without a large amount of hard work and dedication.  Human beings are lazy, and we like to complain.  Perhaps it would be a valuable lesson if we could get over our fear of having less and working more – it may even lead to a more fulfilling life.

I have been experiencing this personally this summer.  Right after graduation, I found myself enjoying the life of no work, all play.  Part of this had to do with a sudden feeling that if I had a Master’s degree, I should not have to stoop to get a lowly summer job, especially not in a restaurant or café – ewww.  As you know from my previous post, I decided to busk instead of get a job.  Initially, I was terrified of the act of busking – it was something new that I had never done before.  How would I know my efforts would be appreciated?


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