A Furry Solution to the Grad School Blues

Adopting a dog during grad school
MAR 2020
Kathleen
L.
Computational Science and Engineering

The summer after finishing undergrad, I thought nervously about spending most of my 20’s as a student. I was starting grad school in a few weeks and wasn’t sure when ‘real adult life’ would start for me. I knew going to grad school would be productive for my career, but what about my personal goals? Would I have to wait another six years before I had time to adopt a dog? Train for a marathon? Finally learn how to grocery shop and cook? (I’m still waiting for that one.)

The first couple years were hectic and as expected, I didn’t have much free time for my personal goals. After my second year, when I received my Master’s degree, I seriously considered dropping out. I had tried to survive graduate school using my undergraduate tactics of sleeping little and isolating myself from anything and anyone that wasn’t involved in whatever current deadline I was trying to meet. One deadline led to another deadline, so friends, sleep, and personal hobbies were taking a bow to enable me to meet my work demands. I was burnt out.

After reflecting on this last summer, I realized I needed to view graduate school in terms of long-term sustainability (there are still 3-4 years remaining!). I began carving out more time for myself and reviewing goals that I had mentally put off until the end of graduate school.

One of these goals was to adopt a dog. I didn’t think this would be possible in graduate school with the demanding schedule and less-than-desired salary. Nevertheless, I began to plan out finances and talk to my labmates, family, and friends about it. I figured out who would be willing to watch the dog when I went to conferences and whether my labmates would be ok with a dog in the office some of the time. I was still nervous about how it would affect my professional appearance, but sorting out the other logistics made having a dog in graduate school seem feasible.

The summer before my third year, I went through the adoption application process with Last Hope K9 Rescue. I started looking at adoptable dogs out of curiosity, but I wasn’t convinced I would actually adopt one. However, after seeing a photo of a Catahoula/Hound mix with two different colored eyes and reading her sweet description, I immediately became attached. I thought it was unlikely she was still available for adoption, but I emailed to inquire about her just in case. She was available!


My dog, Kaya, enjoying a lunchbreak outside at MIT. 

The adoption agency set up an appointment for her to visit my apartment. During the visit, she came over to the couch where my boyfriend was sitting and “anchored”, as her foster family calls it, by putting her paw on his lap. Again and again, she kept offering us her paw to hold; there was no way I could say no to adopting her. I named her Kaya, named after Kaya toast from Singapore (where I grew up).

At 62 pounds, Kaya is not a small dog. She needs lots of exercise and attention, but she is a great companion. My weekday schedule has become more hectic with trying to fit in enough walks and dog park visits while working. I bring her into lab a few days a week, and she sleeps either under my desk or on our lab couch. We play fetch in one of the MIT green spaces during lunch. Other days, I hire a dog walker to come to my apartment during lunch. In the mornings and evenings, we go to our local dog park or the Paul Revere Landing Park.

On weekends, I have started taking more time off (which I rarely used to do) to spend with Kaya. I take her to the Middlesex Fells Reservation for hiking, to our local dog park for events, and even to parties. I have also started taking more weekend trips. For instance, my boyfriend and I brought Kaya to a farm in the Berkshires for a long weekend to hike and see the autumn foliage. We also took her to one of the Getaway cabins near Boston. She’s even been apple picking with me.


During the week, I sometimes bring Kaya into the office with me at MIT (top center). On weekends, I have started taking off more time for weekend excursions with Kaya. The pictures show our some of our trips: hiking in the Berkshires (top left), apple picking (top right), and relaxing in the Boston Getaway cabins (bottom photos).  

Having a dog has helped me take the time I need for myself. Walking her and getting fresh air gives me mental breaks from my work and opportunities to think through ideas away from my desk. We have also met other dogs and dog owners at MIT whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise. She has helped me connect with people outside of my immediate research lab and build a social network away from work. She has also improved my mental health during graduate school. Graduate school can be isolating and demanding. However, knowing that Kaya will be at my desk when I get back from a tough meeting or at home for me when I finish work makes even my worst days brighter.

If you are a current or prospective graduate student thinking about getting a pet during graduate school, I would encourage you to think through the finances, travel, time, and social expectations before getting a dog. These are some of the decisions I would recommend thinking through:

  1. Finances: If this is your first dog, there are many upfront costs in addition to weekly and monthly costs. Some of the upfront costs include: treats, leash, harness, brush, food, bowls, toys, dog bed, kennel, winter gear (wax or boots for the paws due to the salt, winter jacket). Weekly and monthly costs include: dog walker (~$15 for a 30 min walk), vet visits, grooming, vaccinations, medication, food. While these expenses are possible on a graduate student budget, it can be tight and takes away large funds from other things, such as vacations.

  2. Travel: Make sure you have a few people that would be willing to watch your dog if you have to travel for conferences or vacations. Think through holidays - will you transport your dog with you or will it have a place to stay when you’re gone? Additionally, keep in mind that having a dog could limit where you apply for internships.

  3. Time: Would you be able to bring your dog to the office? If not, do you live close to MIT and have a work schedule that would allow you to be home in the evenings to spend time with your dog? In terms of time, I am happy I took the first two years of graduate school to adjust before having other commitments. I was able to work longer hours, get settled into a lab and try new experiences (e.g. the grad student ski trip) over breaks which would have been more difficult to coordinate with a dog. 

  4. Social events: Having a dog can limit how much you go out on the weekends or the amount of vacation or conference trips you are able to join. Are you okay with building some of your social needs around your dog (e.g. taking vacations locally that are dog friendly, going to the dog park in the evenings, etc.)? 

While these considerations may seem overwhelming, I have found that the benefits of having a dog far outweigh the demands.

Even if adopting a dog is not one of your goals, I hope this post encourages you to take more time for yourself and pursue a goal that you never thought you had the time to do. It is possible to set boundaries with work and still be productive!