Playing catch-up

Hi there, and welcome back to the Mindful Path to PhD! November and early December were a bit of a blur for me. I allowed myself to overload my thresholds for stress and work and consequently some things fell through the cracks (including my blog writing). I found myself socially, physically, and mentally withdrawing from anything that wasn’t getting my work done. Ultimately, this left me feeling exhausted, cranky, and generally unwell. I kept saying to myself, “Just get through this last deadline, and then everything will be back to normal.” However, I neglected to think about the ripple effect of procrastination that was occurring as I tried to focus on completing one large task. Now that those big deadlines have passed, I stare at the pile of things that is life + grad school items waiting ever so patiently for my attention, but I’m tired. I only manage to look at them thinking, “Can’t I just take a break?” Furthermore, my flow feels off. I feel like there is a disconnect between my brain, my mind, my spirit, and my body. Does this sound like something you’ve ever related to? 

Now that my deadlines have passed, I feel like I’m left playing catch-up on all of the things I should have been maintaining over the last 4 weeks. I feel large waves of relief and accomplishment for having passed my annual dissertation advisory committee meetings with positive feedback & discussion for my future career prospects, and for having submitted my independent research fellowship application despite all of the administrative challenges we had to overcome. Perhaps it is somewhat related to the time of year with the holiday season just around the corner, but my personal battery is drained. I need to rest and recharge, without the feeling of PhD guilt lingering on my mind. I think I’m feeling extra negative energy these days because I’m feeling the pressure to power through some critical experiments during the holidays to ensure the project can wrap up before one of my lovely colleagues finishes early next year. When I found out this news, it was a little bit soul-crushing as I had mentally planned to begin these experiments upon the New Year. You could say that I shouldn’t be complaining, because it is good to wrap up projects and this may be the driving force we needed to finish it for good. However, I am a grad student who is feeling stretched too thin, so please allow my complaining as a form of self comfort. 

Despite letting so many of my normal routine daily or weekly tasks slack during the hectic time of reaching my deadlines, I did not neglect my practice of mindfulness meditation. For me, mindfulness was and is critical to my perspective on pretty much everything in life. Mindfulness reminded me to be accepting of those things that I could not control, like uploaded PDFs being “corrupted” or bureaucratic drama playing out. Mindfulness continues to remind myself to be present and not let myself and my mind get swept away as if I’m white water rafting my to-do list! I could go on and on about the ways mindfulness helps me, but I want to end with the most meaningful way to me that mindfulness impacts my daily life and that is kindness. Having kindness towards myself is so important for not only getting through difficult times, but for making it out to the other side without feeling beaten and bruised. We all deserve happiness, even in times of great stress. Learning how to be kind to myself has shifted my perspective to a more positive one, collectively helping me accept and be present in life. May you all enjoy the holiday season and bring a little mindfulness to make it even more special. Thanks for stopping by! 

Giving thanks

Welcome back to this week’s Mindful Path to PhD! Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, coming very early this year (or perhaps I just feel that time is flying by much too quickly now) and I wanted to take pause and reflect on a few things I’m thankful for. Here are my top three things I’m thankful for this year:

  • Those I cherish most, my family and friends
  • The opportunity to pursue higher education
  • Giving mindfulness a chance & prioritizing self-care

I never wish to take my loved ones for granted, so I must say my family and friends are something I’m always grateful for all year long. While this might come as a surprise and despite how challenging graduate school is, I’m grateful for having the opportunity to pursue higher education. Finally, this year I’m thankful for having tried mindfulness meditation and for having incorporated self-care practices as one of my top priorities. My highest, and arguably only, priority used to be work. However, the demands of graduate school really began taking a toll on my overall well-being, particularly my mental health. So this year, I’m going to take some time to acknowledge how far I’ve come and be thankful for all of the support and opportunities that have come my way. 

I still have one giant deadline looming over me and that is my first independent fellowship application to the NIH. I will likely be needing to really focus on work during the Thanksgiving holiday, but I’m going to do so mindfully. I’m going to do the best I can do, and not dwell on ensuring each and every word is correct. I’m going to keep working hard and complete the task. I plan to mindfully be present in my work when I’m working and then to be mindfully present with my loved ones when I’m celebrating the holiday with them. My family’s tradition is to put up our Christmas tree on Thanksgiving evening and I am choosing not to let my deadline ruin that tradition this year. I hope you all take some time to reflect on those things that matter most to you. Happy (almost) Thanksgiving!

Surviving + thriving the daily grind

Welcome back to this week’s Mindful Path to PhD! This week I want to talk about how to survive and even thrive during our daily grind, no matter how difficult things get. This past week I had terrible commutes nearly everyday both times of the day, I had the first of my three big deadlines come and go, and I had to jump from one task to another without a moment’s hesitation. Have you ever experienced days or weeks like this? How do you usually end up feeling? I noticed by Wednesday I was experiencing a serious mid-week slump with my body feeling sore and lack of energy and motivation to do anything that required my attention. More so, I felt cranky, frustrated, and generally down; very unlike my usual smiling self.

Frustrating days like what I had last week, they come and go in our life. I try to view them as nature’s balance. What I especially noticed last week was how upset I was over my commute each day, in particular my morning commutes- something about getting to work later than I planned for and after having been packed on a bus like sardines in a can, really made a terrible way to start my work day. Waking up and realizing how I reacted to my daily struggles brought a smile to my face. I congratulated myself for having recognized my reactions and used this self-awareness to breathe through my burdens. I wondered how many other people muddle their way through their own daily struggles, carrying their burdens without ever realizing how much baggage they lug around each day.

Mindfulness meditation teaches us ways to thrive during our daily struggles. So how does it help, you ask? One of the core tenants of mindfulness is learning how to be present. When we are present, we can become aware of how we are feeling and reacting in those moments. This provides us with the option to simply notice and let ourselves be experiencing those moments fully or to guide our minds to another perspective to shift how we are experiencing those moments. Being present helped me notice how frustrated I was becoming over my challenging commutes last week. To some extent, my miserable commutes are outside of my control- they are just something I have to handle living in the city. Mindfulness also teaches us acceptance. My practice in mindfulness meditation over the last 6 months has enabled me to go beyond handling these difficult daily struggles, but to build peace and happiness as beacons of light, illuminating life when it becomes dark. I hope you all may begin, or continue, your own practice of mindfulness meditation. May you all find light amidst the dark, and may you all begin to thrive in your daily grind. Thanks for stopping by!

Be a tree: Resilience in grad school

Fall tree harvard IG
Fall foliage @ Harvard University. Follow me on Instagram @MindfulPhDstudent

Earlier this week, I was awe struck at the beautiful, fiery fall foliage all around campus and the city. I was beyond impressed by how lush the trees still are for this time of year, particularly so because we already had our first Nor’easter of the season. The strong wind gusts and heavy rains were no match for this tree, just yet, anyway. It made me begin to think about how we should be more like trees. Sounds silly, right? Let me explain!

Trees are one of nature’s finest examples of resilience: grounded, stable entities; can weather nearly any storm; they bode change beautifully; when the time comes, they let go; when the time is right, they flourish again, year after year. I feel like we could all benefit by being a little more like a tree. As graduate students, we are required to weather numerous “storms”. There is the qualifying exam, challenging experiments, annual progress reports, and, finally, the defense itself. In my experience, each new year of the PhD is not like previous years. Each year has its new opportunities and challenges, so we need to be amenable to change. While it seems contradictory, every academic year has its usual flow and this can help us find the time of year that we flourish the most. When we begin to understand how we respond to the different academic “seasons”, so to speak (and to some extent, maybe it just is related to the seasons themselves), and accept that some parts of the year can be a little more dormant than others, we will be more at ease knowing our time to thrive will come again.

Perhaps most importantly, there is learning to let go. We should all learn from our mistakes, but many grad students (myself included) don’t let go things that are unnecessarily draining to our soul. Failed experiments, a snappy response to a colleague under a moment of stress, poorly communicated criticism from others, our own negative feelings of inferiority, the list can go on and on. Spending time and energy dwelling on worries from the past and for the future can impede our scholastic endeavors, not to mention ruin our overall quality of life. If we can learn to let even just some of these things go, we’d be making space for other opportunities and able to better perform those other tasks by being more at peace with ourselves.

My practice in mindful meditation not only let me recognize and appreciate the resilience of trees, but to realize how important it is for graduate students to be resilient, too. I like to think I’ve always been a resilient person, but after 100+ days of mindfulness, my resilience has transformed like a caterpillar into a butterfly. I used to manage difficult things in life by putting my head down and distracting myself with either work or something else, living life in blissful ignorance. It wasn’t until work (i.e. grad school) became one of my toughest experiences that I realized how unhealthy my coping mechanism was. It was then that I began practicing mindful meditation. Mindfulness has given me the courage to keep my chin up and face difficult things head-on, and has taught me kindness and acceptance as means to handle those difficult things. My resilience has now become more grounded, deeper and stronger. I hope you can all develop your own reliable resilience to help you thrive in graduate school. Thanks for stopping by this week’s Mindful Path to PhD!

Dealing with deadlines

Happy (almost) Halloween, everyone! This week I want to chat about a truly chilling and spooky topic, deadlines. When it comes to deadlines, are you like the stressed out, frightening pumpkin on the left (pictured above) or the happy, light hearted pumpkin to the right? For me, I have always been the stressed out, scary person when facing deadlines. However, mindfulness has been helping me stay like the happy pumpkin even in the face of deadlines.

Graduate school is full of deadlines. Proposal submissions, progress reports, manuscript revisions, teaching related requirements, and the list goes on. I’m currently coming up on my annual progress report for my thesis work which entails a meager 5-pages of proposal style text + unlimited figures & tables and a 20-minute presentation to be given during a 2 hour meeting with my dissertation advisory committee (DAC). Generally, the meeting is held to benefit the student’s work and ensure the student is making adequate progress towards degree completion. My first DAC meeting was a very positive experience (unlike my preliminary qualifying examination) and I’m optimistic for this year’s meeting. Despite knowing the meeting is held for the student’s benefit, I always find myself amplifying + fixated on the same endless worries of grad school: have I done enough, and am I good enough? Sound familiar?

Usually during this time of year (e.g. my DAC deadline), I’m a ball of stress. This year is different. I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation daily since May, and I’ve been noticing its benefits in many aspects of my daily life. Being mindful has really improved how I handled my deadline this year. I was more proactive in the early stage than I used to be, and noticed I was more present when I was working and less anxious or overwhelmed by the task of summarizing my last year’s worth of thesis work. I still experienced a dull, low sense of pressure in the few weeks leading up to my deadline and did have one day of crazy stress, but, as strange as it sounds, I was better connected to myself and handled these feelings better than I used to. For me personally, I have a large appreciation for how mindfulness meditation has helped me understand and face my emotions and reactions in life. If you struggle with stress and anxiety from work and life or maybe you just want to handle deadlines better, then I recommend giving mindfulness meditation a try. If you don’t know how to get started, I recommend checking out the free app, Insight Timer. Feel free to join our community, “Mindful Scholars,” on there and connect with fellow scholars trying to build a mindful perspective in graduate school.

Building mindfulness in graduate school

Welcome back to Mindful Path to PhD! This week I want to divert from my usual reflections on how mindfulness impacts my graduate school experience, but rather talk about how I actually made time for mindfulness amidst the chaos of pursuing a PhD. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in higher education is familiar with the concept of juggling multiple facets of your life and always feeling like there’s not enough time to get everything done. When I first began thinking about trying meditation, (sometime in my 3rd year of PhD out of necessity for my well-being) I felt like it was completely out of my reach. I thought there was no way I had time for meditation. The idea alone made me anxious (on top of my grad school anxiety) and guilty that I would be taking extra time out of my day for myself that was not 100% devoted to my research. I didn’t know if this was OK.

One of the luxuries & difficulties of graduate school is the lack of structure and freedom of time, to some extent. To me, it feels like the general consensus with all of this flexibility is that graduate students should always be working. In reality, more discussions should be had around helping grad students develop good time management skills for creating a healthy work-life balance. By my 3rd year of PhD and with the guidance of a superb lab mentor, I reached an understanding that it was healthy to say “I’ve done enough today and the rest will be waiting for me tomorrow” and an understanding of when I’ve reached that point each day. After many months of practice (and still some difficulty remains), that understanding led me to create a little bit more time in my days for myself. That little bit of time was just enough to begin trying mindfulness meditation.

I began my journey in mindfulness by reading the book, “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” by Mark Williams & Danny Penman, during my commute to and from work each day. I highly recommend this book if you are new to mindfulness. The book teaches you what mindfulness is often using real-life examples of people’s stories and gives you a series of meditations to practice (usually 10 minutes or less). I recommend reading the book if you can fit it in because you’ll learn that mindfulness is much bigger than the 10 minutes you spend on daily meditation. Mindfulness is all about connecting to your inner self, your breath, and using that connection to help you better react to things in your life. In my opinion, mindfulness permeates every aspect of your life and becomes a shift in perspective, one that helps you feel truly alive.

Creating time for the meditation aspect of mindfulness is important because those are the moments when you are actively cultivating a mindful perspective which can then carry over to the rest of your time. For my schedule, I found it useful to take 10 minutes every morning when I wake up to follow a guided meditation and simply sit + breathe before I begin getting ready for my day. Over time, I began to fit in a second, 5 minute evening meditation that I do right before sleeping. This helps me unwind and shed any burdens on my mind to free it for a peaceful and restful night of sleep. These 15 minutes each day actually make me feel like I have more time and improved productivity for work. If this sounds reasonable to you & something you are interested in, head over to the Mindful Scholars page to learn about an initiative started by Lynn Curry and I to spread mindfulness to scholars of all levels. At the very least, please head over to my mindful scholar page to learn more about the wonderful Lynn! We invite you to join us in the group Mindful Scholar on Insight Timer- an awesome, user-friendly, free meditation app. Here’s to finding your zen!

 

PhD: It takes a village

Welcome back to the Mindful Path to PhD! For this week’s topic, I’d like to chat about the importance of having a support network, or being a part of a community, during graduate school. Pursuing a PhD was once traditionally (and in some cases, presently) thought to be a solitary and isolating journey. To some extent, the experience may be influenced by your field of study (e.g. humanities vs STEM) or chosen lab/ work atmosphere. Even in STEM where research is moving towards a more collaborative environment, it’s easy to feel alone during graduate school. With the pressures that come with pursuing a PhD, it’s no wonder how stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health illnesses run rampant amongst graduate students.

Despair not! My advice to combatting the struggle of PhD isolation is to actively build your own community; a community that you can call on when the lows are low and the highs are high. Everyone agrees to the importance of developing a career-centric network during grad school, but what about a network of people who are there for you and your whole well-being? It’s easy to become too busy in grad school and typically the first thing to go when we are crunched for time is socializing. However, spending time with family and friends by sharing a meal together or talking over the phone should be considered as self-care and not relinquished unless absolutely necessary.

Personally, I’ve found great solace in my PhD by making time for coffee & tea chats with my two best friends (also peers in my PhD program). By getting together with my friends who are also my peers, it’s a time to be open and honest in a judgement-free zone about the trials and tribulations of grad school knowing that we can all relate to what’s happening. In my opinion, camaraderie (aka comradery) is essential for thriving in graduate school. Another source of aid to combat isolation in graduate school is to seek out a suitable mentor outside of your lab or program, someone who can be there for you without any underlying motive or bias. I’ve had a mentor since my first year of grad school, and she has been an invaluable listening ear and always seems to know just what to say. Don’t forget to acknowledge the real MVPs of our support network: family. We may unintentionally take our families for granted, but knowing they always have our backs and only want what’s best for us should be remembered more often so that we know we are not alone.

My practice in mindfulness meditation has reminded me to cherish the existence of my support network and the joy and pleasure they bring to my life. The hustle and bustle of modern, everyday life makes it too easy to forget about the good things that are constant, like our friends and family. Mindfulness teaches you to be present in the moment and to appreciate all beings, including our loved ones. Although grad school keeps me busy and at times can feel dominating and secluded, I’m grateful to have my practice in mindfulness which helps me see through those feelings- bringing acceptance and peace while grounding me in the moment. Here’s to finding your zen!