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Carolyn Trietsch recently defended her Ph.D. in entomology at Penn State. You can check out her research at the Frost Museum at Penn State, view her website, or follow her on Twitter, @carolyntrietsch.

As a recent Ph.D. graduate, I’ve entered that crazed part of my career where I’m sending out tons of job applications and preparing for interviews.

Looking for advice, I asked one friend how he got his job, and was caught off guard by his answer. He said that one of the interview questions that helped him land his job was “What would you cook for the department potluck?”

If you’ve scoured the internet for sample interview questions (like I have), you’ll know that this is not a typical question that interviewees are encouraged to prepare for. I highly doubt that you’ll find this question listed on any website or in any job preparation book, yet this question still stands out in my friend’s mind. His answer—Asian breaded chicken bites—showed the interviewer that he was a well-rounded person and a good fit with the culture of the workplace. This seems to be the case: he’s been working at his company for almost a year now, and he loves his job.

Looking back at my own experiences, I’ve realized that some of the things that have helped me stand out in interviews were not just what I did as part of my research, but what I did outside of the lab.

While interviewing at a museum, one interviewer asked me about the giant insects I crochet in my spare time. It started as a fun hobby that grew into something else, and I told my interviewers about how I helped start a craft-based social club to help graduate students cope with the mental strain of graduate school,  and how we have even been able to use our crafts for outreach and to raise money for our department’s graduate student organization. I’m sure that these experiences helped me stand out to my interviewers (as well as the thought of a three-foot long crocheted monarch butterfly caterpillar).

Even more importantly, my out-of-lab experiences have helped me develop the skills asked for in job applications. When asked to provide examples of how I’ve acted as a leader, I can write about how I assembled and led a committee to improve our department’s graduate student handbook. When asked for examples of how to communicate science effectively, I can draw upon the magazine articles or blog posts I’ve written in my spare time or my experiences giving tours to school groups at a local museum.

Now that I’ve come to the end of my Ph.D., I’ve reflected on my time in graduate school, and I’ve realized that some of the most useful things I’ve done to prepare myself in the job market are the things I’ve done away from the bench, whether it was giving talks at outreach events, writing blog posts, or crocheting giant insects. Rather than taking away from my research, these things have helped to enhance my work and make me more prepared on the job market. Even just going home at the end of a long day and cooking can benefit you when you get that dreaded interview question: what will you bring to the company potluck?

It’s easy to get caught up in work and forget that you are, in fact, a human being with a life outside of your lab. It’s fine to take time away from your research and do non-thesis related things, not only for the sake of your mental health, but because the things that you do in your spare time can make your work better.

This post is for anyone who works too hard and needs an excuse to relax a little. It’s almost summer — as the weather starts to warm up, take some time to go and enjoy that world outside your office. Sometimes taking a break is the best way to get ahead, even if you only use that time to catch up on extra sleep. So don’t spend every waking moment at your desk — get up, go outside and rediscover yourself. It might benefit you in more ways than you think!

Tell us about your out-of-lab adventures and summer plans in the comments below.

[Photo by Carolyn Trietsch.]

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