Odyssey of a Grad Student and the Playlist that Paved the Way

Grad school is no walk in the park. Whether the topic is English or Astrophysics, most grad students would agree that the journey to the coveted PhD can simply be described as “hard”- academically, financially, mentally. It is very important to have an outlet for the associated stress such as a hobby or exercise. My outlet was music. Music is very important in my life. It is so important that most people close to me have their own soundtrack that plays in my head when I think of them. Needless to say, music played a big part in saving my sanity during my 7.5 years in grad school. As time went on, there were several songs that marked important milestones and emotions I experienced along the way. When I defended my thesis, I decided to leave the department with a musical story of how I made it through. I created a compilation CD of all these songs to share with the department and any other struggling grad students I encountered. The CD has a custom label featuring the structure of the protein I studied, cardiac troponin C.

In this blog, I will share with you that playlist, entitled “Odyssey of a Grad Student,” and a description of the significance of each track. You can listen to all but one* of the songs on YouTube (http://youtu.be/8qrriKcwvlY). Click the link and listen as you read along. I hope it is as therapeutic to you as it was to me!

In the beginning, the average grad student is feeling pretty good about themselves. Oh, the possibilities a graduate degree can bring! Money, fame, prestige! The Future is So Bright (Timbuk 3)! The research focus is exciting and new. What will be uncovered by this Weird Science (Oingo Boingo)? And since not just anyone can get into a graduate program, the egos run high. Throttle Bottom (Gaza Strippers) was my secret “boost-of-confidence” track, so turn those speakers up when this one plays! Of course there is nothing like bonding with your lab mates over a drink or five, so I had to include the Tom T. Hall and his classic, “I Like Beer.”

It was not long before things began to shift. After the honeymoon period, I settled into the lab and realized that this stuff was not going to be easy! There were few concrete answers and fewer textbooks available to attempt find those answers. Reality sets in: I’m in Over My Head (Lit)! And then suddenly the thing I used to feel so passionate about became the thing I dreaded every morning when I woke up. I wondered, Who Sucked Out (Superdrag) the feeling? (It was this song that inspired the project.)

Luckily, Dave Brubeck helped me Take 5 to think, “Is this really for me? Can I do this? Maybe I should just get a job…”. Well, I thought, The Choice is Yours (Black Sheep). You can get with this or you can get with that. (When my experiments were consistently failing, I used to dream of finally getting that clean data, and declaring the lyrics, “Back on the scene, crispy and clean!/You could try but then why cuz you can’t intervene!”) I asked myself, “How You Wanna Handle It?” (Rob Dz*) And I realized, I just Can’t Give Up Now (Mary Mary)! “I’ve come too far from where I started from/Nobody told me that the road would be easy.” So I hunkered down, pulled myself up by my bootstraps and started Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Dusty Springfield) that I would make it through.

I had to come to terms with the fact that this would be a long haul and no matter how hard I worked, I would get No Satisfaction (cover by PJ Harvey and Bjork). Sometimes I’d feel, oh, sometimes I’d feel like I’d been tied to the Whipping Post (Allman Brothers), and believe me there were days when I felt like I was dying. In the midst of all of that, however, I realized how much I was learning, not only about science, but about how to navigate through tough times to achieve my goals. I learned how to pick my battles, and I bet that I would at least break even when all was said and done. (What song could describe that better than The Gambler by Kenny Rodgers?) One of the most important lessons I learned was that there are many ways to solve the same problem and “the less [I sought my] source for some definitive,” I’d be a little bit Closer to Fine (Indigo Girls). I learned that I was working towards something and no matter how hard it was or how tired and desperate it made me feel, I had to truly believe that The Best is Yet to Come (Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers). So that’s my story.

There is, however, a hidden bonus track you will have to check the playlist for. That track is there because when you finally do get that piece of paper, the ego begins to creep back around… at least until you begin job hunting.

*Rob Dz is a Hip-Hop artist in Madison (via Beloit), WI. Unfortunately, I was unable to find this track on YouTube.

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Karen Reece

Karen served as a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega before switching careers. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI.


  1. “The Best is Yet to Come”: perfect finale to a fun playlist!

    And it’s true: I finished grad school in 1998. I have a great life, a few great jobs and haven’t written a term paper or taken an exam in over a decade!

    Congratulations to you — and I wish you endless success. :)

  2. This is a fun way to turn grad school into something remotely survivable :-) I’m still writing my PhD besides starting a master’s programme this fall , I think the soundtrack to describe my situation right now would be I’m gonna be/The Proclaimers because it’s just like marching on and on and on and on and on…Thanks for the inspiration, will spend the day downloading music instead of reasearch :-)

  3. Love it! I navigated my way through grad school much the same way.

    These days I’m teaching and before the 8:00 class begins I play a song from the “motivational” sound track, which includes: Beautiful Day (U2), Unwritten (Natasha Bedingfield), Make Me Happy (Jive Aces), Hakuna Matata, Don’t Worry Be Happy (Bobby Mcferrin), and students’ choices. Now that I think about it, I’m adding The Future is so Bright. :D

  4. It’s pretty cool that I see an article like this on Freshly Pressed as I come in from my first week in the world of Grad School. A playlist is a cool way to put your life in perspective. I know I’ve got a few songs of my own that I relate to… I wonder what my soundtrack would be like.
    **looks through music library**

  5. First of all, congratulations! I know a lot of people in grad school/with grad degrees and here it’s not easy by any means. All the same, I plan to go myself in a year or two. I’m not familiar with many of the songs you list here, but I got through my senior thesis (30 pages in Spanish) listening to the Original Casino Royale soundtrack on Grooveshark. The movie isn’t for everyone, but the music makes a great easy listening/studying playlist.

  6. Thanks – I am reading your blog whilst procrastinating over studying for my MBA, so the topic seems really relevant right now! TG for deadlines or nothing would ever get done!

  7. While it was twice-weekly yoga classes that got me through the 2 years of my MA, I completely empathize with your journey — and Closer To Fine is a great song for helping you find your way!

    Oh — and congrats on FP!

  8. I think this applies to every difficulties we are facing now. ie. ridiculously-difficult-exams, busy-working-weeks..
    will try some of your recommendations to see i could survive this month! :-P

  9. Great post! It has made me think of the songs that would be on my grad school playlist.
    Congratulations on being freshly pressed!

  10. Music truly is food for the soul, its amazing how a good song can tottaly help uplift the mood and sort of melt all tension away. I’m an Under-grad, but music has helped me study from my high school days, and there was a point when i couldn’t study or concentrate unless i was listening to music. :)

    Awesome Playlist by the way!

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  12. I often find myself being prompted by lyrics when I hear phrases just through everyday conversation. I should definitely apply this method as I currently go through my arduous grad school process. Take Five is a great song, btw, I know of a 4-part vocal arrangement if you’re interested!

  13. I’m only a high school student, but I kind of know what you’re talking about. I have a playlist I keep for a certain group of girls(angry songs mostly), a playlist of happy songs to pick me up when I’m feeling down, and a playlist for the few occasions I’m in a romantic mood. I like music, though I can’t play an instrument or sing, but I do write creatively (if you have time and want, you can check out my blog- katyj94.wordpress.com – to see some of my writing)

  14. I thought I was the only one who used music for inspiration and encouragement during my postgraduate study! I listened to classical music from a radio station that played only classical music and it helped me to get through the difficult times and was a source of inspiration. I intend to continue doing so for my PhD studies which starts in September. I think it is a wonderful idea to have a playlist of the music one uses during this time to chronicle the stages of the work. Thank you for the tip!!!

  15. I think this is a great idea! Time for me to compile that playlist as I get ready to work on my thesis. Let’s see if it’ll work out for me as it worked out for you. I think it will though since, like you, I’m always inspired by the music that I listen to. Music has just really been an integral part of my life that it is always the one that sets my mood for the day. It’s been really helpful, and I guess as I start on my thesis, it’d help me get through the challenges. I barely keep playlists though. Most of the time, I just let whatever music I have play in my ears. Maybe, it’s about time that I make one. Lol.

    Thanks for sharing this idea! And congratulations for making it through grad school! :)

  16. Love the idea! :) We can have so many playlists for life’s milestones……Going to try out my own. Congrats on graduating and on freshly pressed!

  17. What an inspiring post. I’m headed towards the same situation, so thank you very much! I also just noticed some of the titles of your other posts, and it looks like I’m going to become a devoted follower of your blog, lol. :)

  18. congrats for making it through grad school and also being listed on FP!! :D

    Your post is awesomely creative and I think I can relate myself to your story even mine is not as hard as yours :lol:. i just finished my second year of degree last july but until now i haven’t decide when to start my third and final year. Final year project just seems so scary to me :S

  19. I have to say that everyone has their own personal playlist for life. It helps them obtain a sense of perseverance knowing that life isn’t just going through without is background music to accompany each step you take.

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