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  • Madeline Topf

On stamp collecting

Good grad programs advise their students to “get a hobby.” Well, actually, I don’t think I’ve heard a program ever say that. Good grad students give that advice. I’m not sure if they’re good, I mean really how would I know. Success is ill defined; it takes many years to be a failure, many more than it takes to be a success, but you could work 8 years as nothing and then get first-author published in Science.


Grad programs rarely advocate you do anything, actually, besides finishing the course requirements and finding your advisor. I guess we’re adults and are supposed to have it all figured out by now. We’re done with being told what to do, most of us hate it and that’s why we started grad school anyway. I kind of miss being told what to do. I miss the structure of it, I miss rebelling against it. I miss adding two spaces after the period to fulfill the high school English page requirement for an essay. Doing the bare minimum for an A. Now I’m supposed to do my best all the time. I’m supposed to be producing something thats reflective of me and worse, my intelligence. Which is why grad students tell you to get a hobby. Your selfhood can’t take that much pressure.


You need something else to try and succeed at, otherwise you will feel worthless. When grad students (including myself) suggest to get a hobby, it’s usually phrased in a way like: “When my experiments aren’t working, and nothing is going my way, it’s good to have something else I can make succeed at/make progress on: Ceramics/biking/rock climbing/cooking.” Do we all have some sort of ego illness where we need to be good at something at all times? I’ve internalized my interpretation of this advice. If I’m not making progress in life or work, I’m stupid and incapable. “Work life balance” means getting things done, having something to show for yourself. It means being good at both work AND life.


Running is my hobby. It’s embarrassing though, because no matter how hard I train or how much I run, I never really have gotten faster. It bugs me. I keep adding time goals, distance goals, interval workouts, “train slow to go fast,” training fast to go fast, everything. I get a bit better, then something happens where I can’t train anymore ( I get a puppy) and I am back to where I started. When I think about this I get very frustrated. I get frustrated because I think I should be better than I am.


There is peace in accepting that I’m just an okay runner. I’ve realized I’m not running to succeed, or make progress, like I thought. If that were the case, I would have given up by now. I just really love to run. What makes it frustrating is the judgement of myself.


I wonder if there is something to take to my science as well, if maybe being a good grad student means just keeping that part alive that loves thinking and learning and creating. But who knows, I’m not a very good runner, and you certainly can’t say yet if I’m a good grad student.

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