The Thesis Isn’t Everything: In Defense of Hobbies during Graduate School

March 8, 2019

Upon entering graduate school, it’s tempting to put life on hold, dropping all extracurricular activities and instead focusing exclusively on coursework. Then, once coursework concludes, it’s even more tempting to allow dissertation work to become all-enveloping. The mental strain of always working—or rather, of always thinking about work—is massive. When asking graduate students to participate in activities, I frequently hear a dejected refrain of “I can’t, because I have to study.” However, resisting the temptation of putting life on hold and instead maintaining a healthy work-life balance can prove not only essential to your mental health, but also essential to securing a job after you graduate, whether inside or outside the academy.

Preserving your existing hobbies, while seeking out new ones, will make you a better-rounded professional, turning you from a student into a teacher-scholar who displays a growth mindset. Paradoxically, participating in the world outside the academy will also make you more attractive on the job market. Having served on several searches, while being a candidate for many more, I have observed that academic search committees routinely seek researchers who have a clear understanding of their work’s significance beyond the nitty-gritty nuance of detailed archival research. Searches sift between applicants who all have outstanding academic pedigrees and solid research agendas, so that the delimiting factor often becomes whether someone demonstrates a groundedness that helps them relate to undergraduates or a broad enough perspective that makes their monograph book project appeal to publishers. Meanwhile, non-academic employers look for smart, self-motivated individuals who demonstrate that they can communicate to those beyond the walls of the ivory tower.

The key then is synergy, a term that has been sapped of all its meaning by corporate managers but is nonetheless applicable. With respect to hobbies and extracurricular activities, think about how you might translate non-academic experiences into professional skills. In other words, seek out opportunities that demonstrate leadership, such as serving as the captain of a sports team or the frontperson for a band, or those that hone public speaking skills, such as stand-up comedy or public performance. And so on and so forth.

While I would contend that virtually all hobbies can somehow be translated into professional skills, I also recommend exploring activities tangential to your research—in the truest sense of the word “tangential.” If you study French history and enjoy wine, study viniculture and start a wine club. If you are interested in the digital humanities, cultivate your interests in video games and comic books. If you enjoy theater and performance, then take an improv class, join a tabletop gaming group, or nab a role in a local play or recital. Then infuse those side interests into your teaching and research: your wine club might blossom into a study abroad program in the Italian countryside, your interest in video games might turn into a popular undergraduate course—crucial at a time when history departments face declining enrolments—and your penchant for performance might translate into novel teaching methods, like the experiential learning activities pioneered by the Reacting to the Past series from Barnard College.

Hobbies are also key to getting away from work. Though it may seem like the best approach is to power through graduate school by focusing exclusively on your studies and dissertation, doing so will likely do yourself a disservice: not only will your stress levels be higher on average, but you may actually find it more difficult to find employment once you graduate. This is not to say that you should not devote hours upon hours to your research (you should, of course), but it is to say that you should understand that your dissertation will not be your magnum opus. As Carla Hesse once told me, “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” In the years after graduation, your manuscript will continue to improve from editorial advice, peer review, and revisions made with the benefit of hindsight and scholarly distance.

Graduate school is not the time to demonstrate perfection, but the time to expand potential. Therefore, while you should definitely work hard (I recommend scheduling 40 hours per week during traditional business hours, based on research about productivity), you should also play hard. When not engaged in your graduate education, cultivate your imagination, seek out opportunities for growth, and build community connections, because studying need not—and indeed should not—be the totality of the graduate school experience.

Christopher M. Church (MA '09, PhD '14)  is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is affiliated faculty at UNR’s Cybersecurity Center and the Ozmen Institute for Global Studies. He is the author of Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean, which won the Alf Andrew Heggoy Book Prize in 2018. His current research project focuses on the historical development of and resistance to our increasingly globalized world, which includes, among other things, the cultural, social, and economic ties between historical piracy and present-day hacking.