Tips For Surviving Grad School From “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”

Image by David Dewitt

As a graduate student in chemistry, I have limited free time—I like to spend it not working. Sometimes I watch TV, and my favorite show to binge is Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Jerry Seinfeld’s bite-sized Netflix episodes consists of hilarious people talking about funny things over a good cup of joe. At least, that’s what I thought at first. The more I listened to career comedians talk about how they came to be masters of their craft, the more I found myself wondering what I could learn from them about surviving graduate school and becoming a better scientist. What I discovered has changed the way I approach my research.

  1. Following your passion is not always fun. Every comedian on the show has a story about being miserable at some point in their career. They talk about hitting roadblocks and wanting to give up, but sticking with it. After a disappointing day of inconclusive results from failed experiments, I find comfort looking at other people who have found their way past my same feelings of desperation about graduate school.
  2. Becoming an expert means spending a lot of time alone. The time a comedian spends on stage is the pinnacle of isolation. They spend a surprising amount of time sitting by themselves until they produce material worth sharing with an audience. I often get frustrated in lab when I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall alone, but I also know that that is just part of the process of becoming an expert in my field.
  3. No one gets there alone. For all the time comedians work by themselves, they learn a lot from peers and mentors. Going to a comedy club to see what others are doing is a great way to network and get new ideas. It makes me realize the importance of going to conferences and meeting other scientists both in and out of my field. Further, it encourages me to learn from the expertise of my fellow lab mates and academic advisor.
  4. Some of the greatest inspirations are serendipitous. Comedians get inspiration from all kinds of seemingly mundane activities. Someone making a funny face in the grocery aisle can lead to a whole sketch that leaves an audience bent over laughing. I now look for those kinds of interesting observations throughout my lab activities. It’s a practice in active curiosity that has led me to change my angle or methodology when I notice something small that actually results in big time savers.
  5. Not everything you try is going to work. Try it anyways. Comedians go through tremendous trial and error before figuring out what jokes will land with each given audience. While it’s surprisingly empirical, the comedian still has to be willing to take the chance and risk failure. I have often found myself paralyzed in my experiments out of an uncertainty in my experimental design. Did I choose the right controls? Is this the best assay? Sometimes I have to get out of my own way and just go for it.
  6. Your worst days can lead to the best material. Many guests on the show have seen truly hard times. They have had to work through grief and trauma in order to be fully functional people. But the excellent comedians harness those negative emotions and turn them into comedy gold. I have found that my worst days in lab, when I’m surrounded by broken glassware and months of lost work, give me a greater sense of purpose in my experimental work. Those days lead me to ask more meaningful research questions.
  7. In the end, it’s absolutely worth it. Everyone on the show is wildly successful and a testament to hard work and dedication. None of them are perfect, but they are proud of what they’ve achieved and where they are going next. As a graduate student, it is nice to know that all of my hard work is moving toward my career goals, even if it is one slow experiment at a time. But if it was worth it for these comedians, maybe it will be worth it for this young scientist.

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