Want to make your PhD better? Hang out with an animal

Anna Savoie is a final year PhD student at the Children’s Literature Centre in Cambridge. She originally shared this post on November 28, 2017

If you go around asking people in academia for things that would make students write higher quality PhDs, I doubt many people’s first answer would be a furry friend.  I doubt it would even be present on most people’s list.  I may be a bit biased (ok, I’m totally biased), but I’m here to say that it should be! Here are five reasons why pets are an excellent way to give your PhD a boost. Disclaimer – this post might just be an excuse to look at cute pictures of furry PhD assistants (but it’s still all true).

  • They make you healthier.

PhD students, especially those of us doing theoretical/desk-based projects, have very little structure.  If I wanted to, I could wake up at noon and then eat cookies and gummy candy for breakfast while watching television. Yes, I have done that before. Any PhD student who says they haven’t done some version of this at least once is probably lying (or maybe you’re all much better people than I am).

But I can’t do that now I have my dog Ellie.  She gives my day structure.  I have to get up to give her breakfast.  Then she needs a walk, preferably a good long one.  I could still do my cookies-and-candy breakfast combo, but it turns out my mother was right all along: a diet based entirely of high-fructose corn syrup does NOT support your bodily needs, and walking for a couple of hours with nothing but processed sugar in my stomach feels terrible. So I have a real, nutritious breakfast, followed by a good dose of exercise and fresh air.

EllieEveryone is happier when they get outdoors for a bit!

Somehow, magically, that lands me in a position where I am ready to work for the day at a reasonable hour, my brain is properly nourished and refreshed from exercise, and I am ready to produce some quality writing.  There you have it: a healthy, functioning schedule.

  • Researching and writing is much better with an animal around

No matter how much you love your work, it’s always a drag at least sometimes.  Some days you just REALLY don’t feel like writing.  But it’s easier to get started when you have a furry pal cuddled up at your feet! There is no better way to write than by typing with your fingers while simultaneously stroking an animal with your feet. Digging your toes into a good bit of fluff makes the writing process so much better!

Ellie 2
The best position in which to write your PhD

And our furry pals help us with writing quality, too.  We’re never at our best when we’re tired, and taking breaks is essential to good writing.  That can be hard to remember on your own, though.  That’s why you need a dog to bring you their ball for a quick play break, or a cat to come sit on your keyboard and physically enforce break time.  They are doing their solemn duty as PhD assistants.

Mogget says time for a break. Cuddles are required.
  • Animals decrease stress and anxiety

None of us do good work when we’re stressed and anxious.  Unfortunately, PhDs are well-known to cause a good deal of stress and anxiety.  What’s the solution? Spend a little time with an animal!

Even just stroking an animal (furry, feathery, or scaly) causes stress relief in adults, even regardless of whether or not they say they like animals![i] And cuddling a pet can cause a release of oxytocin and serotonin, feel-good hormones that decrease stress and fight depression.[ii]

Don’t you already feel more like smiling?
  • They provide a non-judgmental audience

Trying to practice that conference presentation, but too nervous to do it in front of an audience yet? Animals are excellent non-judgmental audiences (plus we’ve already talked about how they decrease stress, making it easier for you to take the stage!).  They provide an actual audience, but one that we’re sure will still love us and think the world of us, even if we mess up completely.  It’s such a good technique to improve your writing and presentation skills, they’ve even started a “dog audience” program for business students at American University.[iii]

Ok, so maybe cats can be a little judgmental.  But that’s their default setting, so you know it’s not about your paper.
Dogs 2
Hard to be too nervous when your audience is this riveted!
Conference cat
They might be sad when you leave for the conference though.
  • They make sure you’re never alone

PhDs can be lonely.  Even those who do empirical work still end up spending long hours working alone.  Contact with others can be scarce, and that leads to feelings of loneliness and even depression.  But it’s important for our well-being to connect with others, and no one can write a good PhD if they’re feeling lonely all the time.  Pets make sure that we always have company, even when we’re by ourselves.  Plus, they connect us to other humans, too! You get to know your neighbours a lot better once they start recognizing your cat.  Other dog walkers in your local park become your friend.  Friends like to come over and visit with your furry pal.  And when you’re out and about with a pet, lots of people like to stop and chat!

Cat 2Always by your side

What about those PhD students who can’t have a pet for various reasons? There are lots of ways to get your fur fix! Join something like Borrow My Doggy or Trusted Housesitters, where you can hang out with other people’s pets for an afternoon or even several weeks while they’re on vacation. Ask around your neighbours too – I’m sure many of them would jump at the chance of free pet care.  Go to your local green space and get to know the dogs and dog walkers. I can recommend specific Cambridge spaces that are excellent for running into loads of pups with friendly owners who are happy to let you throw the ball for a bit. And the most obvious one of all – come hang out with my dog Ellie! She loves visitors. But be warned that you’ll probably be required to give at least ten minutes of belly rubs.

Ellie 3
Come take a break and hang out with this goof!

[i] Shiloh, S., Sorek†, G., & Terkel, J. (2003). Reduction of State-Anxiety by Petting Animals in a Controlled Laboratory Experiment. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 16(4), 387–395. https://doi.org/10.1080/1061580031000091582

[ii] Interacting and petting animals creates a hormonal response in humans that can help fight depression. (2004, May 14). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from https://www.news-medical.net/news/2004/05/14/1552.aspx

[iii] Fandos, N. (2016, August 5). How to Give a Better Speech: Talk to a Dog. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/education/edlife/how-to-give-a-better-speech-talk-to-a-dog.html

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