It’s no secret that graduate school can be incredibly challenging and isolating. While it’s true that you’ll most likely make many great friends in your program, the fact remains that many aspects of graduate study are, at least partially, solo endeavors. Reading literature, writing grants and manuscripts, doing research, teaching, grading papers, and countless other things can put a strain on your brain that even the best of friends can’t drain. So, what is a grad student to do when those feelings of isolation and stress coalesce into a massive mental storm of confused emotions? One thing that I recommend: get a pet!
Talking out your problems with other humans isn’t always possible, but having an animal at home is like having a personal therapist available at all times. They have no choice but to listen to you rant and rave about how graduate school makes you feel inadequate in ways you didn’t even know were possible! And when positive things happen in your burgeoning career, you can bet your buttons that your animal friend will be there to listen and congratulate you. Your pet is always on your side, which is rare to find anywhere in life, let alone grad school.
Plenty of studies have found evidence that cuddling furry animals helps reduce stress, but I am here today to tell you that the benefits of pet ownership extend beyond the cuddly and affectionate. I owned a hamster when I started grad school, and while he obviously couldn’t attain the affection levels of a dog, he was fuzzy and occasionally cuddly and a dear companion during my darkest first-year days. Even more recently than my hamster ownership (his name was Konrad, may he rest in the sweetest peace), I am now the proud owner of a scorpion. He is a giant desert hairy scorpion, and I adopted him from a friend whose lab needed to get rid of them. He isn’t cuddly in the slightest, but I’ve found it is still easy to ascribe anthropomorphic characteristics to him and treat him just like any other pet. His name is Sugarboy and I love him.
My personal theory for why having a pet is beneficial, even if it can’t be cuddled with, was inspired by E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis. The psychologist Erich Fromm first coined the term biophilia as a psychological orientation towards living things. Wilson developed and popularized it in his theory that humans have evolved to be naturally drawn to connect with other living things, be they animals, plants, fungi, or whatever. Simply put, just having another living thing in your house (especially an animal, because I love animals) can help you feel safe, calm, and relaxed. Unfortunately, this only works if the animal is there on purpose – so, hordes of insects living in your walls isn’t likely to help you de-stress. It doesn’t hurt that your pet must also be cared for, which is good empathy practice for graduate students who can get jaded and emotionless relatively quickly. My scorpion Sugarboy, for example, while being a pretty independent and inquisitive little guy, still couldn’t eat unless I supplied him with food; there is a sense of awe, a sense of fulfilling some sacred natural duty, that comes with nurturing and providing for a living being. Also, it’s cool to watch him eat crickets.
Graduate school can be rough, and at times may even make you feel less than human. The presence of something that is unquestionably and unabashedly alive can make all the difference when you feel your own existence slipping through your fingers into the ether. Be it dog, cat, hamster, frog, or scorpion, get that pet and flourish!
Darren is a PhD student at Michigan State University studying the modulation of foraging behavior in bumblebees. Since 2015 he has written a blog, The Kingdom Has Come, focusing on many aspects of science (with an emphasis on animals) in a humorous light. In his spare time, Darren enjoys hiking, running, reading, and googling pictures of animals.