The Happiness Survey

In advance of the SCP Doctoral Consortium, the co-chairs Cait Lamberton and Mike Norton conducted a “Happiness Survey” among SCP members on both their PhD experience and life afterwards. Powered by the collective knowledge of about 200 members, Cait and Mike revealed a stream of insights into what makes for a happy PhD experience.happiness survey sample breakdown

The inspiration for the survey came from recurring conversations at doctoral consortiums and conferences and doubts that many PhD students have: whether everyone else is having fun, why they’re exhausted all the time and whether all the hard work will ever get them a job.

The PhD experience

So, how does it feel for everyone else? When Cait and Mike asked people to describe their PhD experience, the most common words were challenging and fun, followed by… exhausting.

the phd experience - words used to describe chart

So it’s not just you, but will the exhaustion pay off in the long run?

will exhaustion pay off 1

Yes – exhausting and challenging PhD programs are linked to more campus visits, A publications and satisfaction with your tenure case but if you frustration with program is negatively correlated with number of campus visits so be challenged and work hard but control frustration as it may hurt you. However, who you work and play with also matters: collaborations with other doctoral students are better left for later on in your career (after you turn thirty), as collaborations with your supervisor will push you to aim high and result e.g. in more AMA short interviews through better networks. Additionally, working with faculty in general will get you more publications through good collaborations.  Working with a lot of faculty collaborators will make you feel more time starved which might impact how satisfied you are so it’s worth thinking about how you manage this!

who you work with matters

Doing research that matters

Some of the other burning questions for doctoral students revolve around research: how much of it should they be doing, what kind and with whom? The good news is that you’re doing more research now than you ever will in your careers. However, the bad news is you’re doing more research now than you ever will in your career: the further you get into your career, the scales tip more towards service and away from research with teaching staying at the same level. On the bright side, everyone is in the same boat with the same patterns arising whether you’re in a state or private, urban or suburban school. Lesson? Enjoy right now and make the most of it!

time split

What you spend your time on

Risky research – happy or meaningful?

Another question on many doctoral students’ minds is whether riskier research is a good idea so Cait and Mike looked into the relationship between proportion of projects deemed “risky” and personal enjoyment of research to see if they predicted work satisfaction or a sense that life has meaning. Unfortunately, unless you really love research, the more risky your projects are the less satisfied you are with your work. On the other hand, if you love research, the riskier your projects the more meaningful you find your life. Put simply: having more risky projects is correlated with having a more meaningful life (p = .06). With that mind, the results suggest that people who use Mturk tend to do less risky projects so it’s perhaps better to see it as a good starting place but not let it define your research. Liking your colleagues will help, but as Mike put it, “if you don’t like research, and aren’t willing to make it happen, this job will not make your life meaningful – if you don’t like it, reassess now!”

Words from the wise 

advice pie chart

Full breakdown of advice from faculty to PhD students

Cait and Mike also asked what one piece of advice the faculty would give to PhD students to survive academia which they provided in abundance.  “Pursue your passion” emerged as the biggest theme with 29% of advice, followed by “find a balance”,  “hard work and persistence” as well as a focusing on publications. Here are some of the comments (age of respondent in brackets):

Pursue your passion

  • “Engage in research that appeals to you – sometimes it’s about conducting research that is relevant to your personal life, hobbies, passions.” (33)
  • “Do what you love, not what your advisor loves.” (47)
  • “Pursue your passion, not what is currently ‘hot’.” (54)

Find a balance

  •  “When lying on your deathbed – would you think a) sorry I won’t have more time at the office, or b) sorry I won’t have more time with my family.” (42) (x2)
  • “Figure out the balance you want… Sacrifice as long as you can for work, but don’t sacrifice for work forever.” (43)
  • “Work hard but find time for the things you most enjoy. Because otherwise you will resent work. Work can fill all the time if you let it.” (52)

Work hard now, balance later

  • “Save ‘work/life balance’ for when you actually have a job” (29)
  • “Figure out how to work faster than everyone else.” (30)
  • “Grind it out and work hard. You don’t have time to waste in the doctoral program” (32)


  •  “Research is your #1 currency.” (39)
  • “Publish sooner as opposed to later.” (39)
  • “Work with a faculty member who has recently published in A-level journals.  Avoid faculty who have not.  If you want to publish in A-level journals, you need to ‘apprentice’ with someone who is doing just that.” (50)


  • “So many PhD programs are miserable experiences, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to one. You don’t get pregnant so you can go through labor; you get pregnant so you can have a baby.”
  • “Power through. It gets better. “
  • “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” -Winston Churchill

Quality and integrity

  • “Think about the kind of research you’ll be proud of when you look back on your life.” (38)
  • “Try to avoid overweighing short-term outcomes when making long-term decisions.” (52)
  • “Maintain your integrity – this is a marathon, not a sprint.” (53)

Some also suggested PhD students should take an honest look at how much they’re enjoying the grad school experience to decide whether it was really for them:

  • “Enjoy research or leave!” (38)
  • “If you don’t love it now, or experience curiosity every day, stop now.” (40)
  • “You have to consider if you want to adapt to the things you cannot change, change location, or even your career. “ (42)
  • “If it is not fun then find something else to do.” (45)
  • “(a) Be sure you honestly love DOING/PUBLISHING research; (b) pursue what you love; and (c) ruthlessly discard everything else that you can.  If you find it difficult to do this, you are probably going to have a hard time in academia.” (54)

So, how do you succeed?

As one respondent put it:

You’re entering an industry where the competition is unimaginably tough. 

They will be smarter than you.

They will work harder than you, and you will watch them sacrifice more than you had ever planned to sacrifice.

At some point mid-grad school you will realize that if you do not wake up every morning and consciously make the decision to kick your own ass, the best you can hope to achieve is mediocrity.  And more realistically you may end up with nothing.  No recognition from your adviser. No publications. No flashy coverage in the New York Times.  Nothing but a lie you will tell yourself about how you always wanted to go into industry anyway.

This raises the question of, “is this worth it?”

And the answer is, as always, “it depends.”  If there is literally nothing else in the world that you love more than doing behavioral research (and you’re pretty good at it), then it is worth it.  Whether or not you land an academic job or get your dissertation published won’t matter, because you will have loved the process, and you will have learned something.

However, if you are entering a doctoral program because you think it will be easy or fun, or make your parents proud, or just give you something do with your life for a few years while you “figure things out,”  I would pack your bags now.

No matter what school you are at, the faculty who are there are there because they worked their asses off.

And they will reward their own kind. 

The kind of students who literally can’t sleep if they know they have data that’s waiting to be analyzed.

The kind of students who run between sessions to see the best talks.

The kind of students who turn up the volume on their ringers at night, so they won’t miss an email from their adviser while they’re sleeping.

 Those are the types of winners who win at this game. 

And if that’s for you – welcome home.

Sensing the mood of the audience, Mike noted that being inspired and depressed at the same time is what being an academic is, and that 40 years working on something you don’t love is sad. “Working on data you don’t care about on a Friday night… it’s better if you love the data, even though it’s still a bit sad.” Darren Dahl also suggested that perhaps the causality could be the reverse: if you work on mediocre projects, you don’t really love research.

Mike also talked about the importance of stupidity for a researcher and confessed that he feels stupid every day: “As researchers, we have no idea what we’re doing. There are so many things we don’t know about.” But he continued to draw a line between relative and productive stupidity: there’s a difference between a problem that other people understand but you don’t, and not knowing what motivates us to get out of bed every morning because beds are so incredibly comfy. He encouraged the participants to think about the world like an alien would look at people (“what are these people doing and why?”), to notice things that are commonplace and every day and tell other social scientists because they will be interested.

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