Failure

Failure. Bringing to mind the word ‘failure’ is enough to make my stomach turn and my neck and shoulders tighten, and I’m left feeling queasy and tense. How many of you experience similar sensations when thinking about ‘failure’? Have you ever stopped to wonder why it has to be such a dirty word? I felt inspired to write about failure after enduring one of the most difficult yoga classes I’ve ever attended. Two weeks ago, I went to my usual Saturday morning Kundalini yoga class. However, we had a substitute teacher and her style and pace was completely different from the usual teacher. I tried to remain open-minded and embrace the new challenges I was facing, but as the class went on I found myself struggling to even get into the poses… One after another, I couldn’t do them. I felt so bad, so frustrated and embarrassed. I kept thinking to myself, “the teacher must think I’m so lazy!” In those moments, I felt like a failure.

There have been moments in graduate school where I have felt these same emotions and where I have been fearful that I would ‘fail’. Honestly, graduate school has not been a perfect, easy-going experience and I wonder if it ever is for anyone! For instance, I even received a “conditional pass” on my preliminary qualifying examination and had to re-do my thesis proposal and present my work a second time to my committee. Despite concerns of self-inadequacy, I am grateful for the challenges I have had to face during graduate school. These challenges are a bit like that substitute teacher led yoga session mentioned above where I am completely removed from my comfort zone and tossed into the metaphorical deep end. Being outside of my comfort zone is naturally helping me learn and grow. In my opinion, it feels like much of graduate school is spent immersed in the realm beyond what you are comfortable with and over time you begin to dominate again.

I feel that there is a crucial element all graduate students need to not only help them cope, but to thrive outside of their comfort zone, and it is proper self care- including a healthy work-life balance. Graduate school is all about developing our technical expertise in areas of interest and gaining critical thinking skills. However, it is easy to become personally invested into our thesis projects and develop an unhealthy attachment which leads us to feel that if our projects fail, then we fail, too. My practice in mindfulness meditation has led me to feel more at peace with exploring the world outside of my comfort zone and has helped me cultivate a sense of acceptance towards the uncertainty of graduate school. It is easy to let our “working mind” run away with ourselves and be concerned about achieving the tangible markers of a successful PhD, which at least in STEM is marked by high impact factor 1st author publications. Yet in my experience of developing my “being mind,” I’m able to extract myself a tiny bit from my projects and remember that even if my projects fail, I’m still successful because I’ve learned valuable skills and will be able to demonstrate what I’ve learned when the time comes (and hopefully my committee will think the same 😉 ). My main take away message is that I feel like failure is only a matter of perspective; the sun will always rise tomorrow and there will be bigger, better things waiting for you if you have the mindset to see them.

Change & Inspiration

This past week I found myself settling back into my daily grind after having visited my friends and family in the lovely, serene area of rural Southwest Michigan. I’ve been living in Cambridge, MA for three years now, and returning from my Michigan trip this time really had me feeling like I was coming home. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always consider SW MI to be my home and I always feel some sadness (and maybe guilt as I touched on last week), when I leave MI. However, it was incredible to feel that sense of belonging and comfort in the city life that I made for myself and to think of it as home, too.

Change is inevitable in life. Growing up amongst corn fields and dirt roads to living as a young adult in an urban area walking 10k+ steps daily and eating kale & quinoa veggie bowls for lunch. Wow. Life can become the unexpected! Visiting friends and family this year made it apparent how we all walk our divergent paths, but can all come together to share our lives and stories. The love never goes away. I think this is important to recognize for first generation college students who go on to pursue higher education. First gens may feel disconnected from everyone around them… from family members and childhood friends who haven’t chosen similar paths to colleagues in their field, in part, due to imposter syndrome. As a first generation college student, I have certainly experienced this feeling of disconnect for the longest time. For me, I think my enlightenment and acceptance of the differences between me and others (particularly my family and friends) was brought about by my practice of mindfulness meditation. I’m constantly in awe over the ways mindfulness has permeated my life and brought fresh energy & perspective with it.

My trip home not only gave me clarity on the changes that my life has taken, but provided a healthy dose of inspiration- one I hadn’t realized I was in the need for at the time. I always visit my middle school science teacher when I’m in my home area. She was my first cheerleader to encourage me to go into science, and she was there to guide me with the necessary advice about undergraduate majors & doing research throughout college. I was beyond ecstatic to show her my first, first authored publication (for which I’d received the final print notification that week)! Her delight and encouragement reminds me that I can do it (even though it’s really, really freaking hard sometimes).

The Hays 2018
My middle school inspiration (left)

Fate smiled upon me on my travels back to Boston, and I crossed paths with my undergraduate research mentor at the airport! Seeing her filled me with a sense of purpose and confidence, memory that she taught me how to conduct basic chemistry research and she nurtured my passion for science and research when it was most important. Those two women will forever be my inspiration to carry on in graduate school when the times get tough. May you all remember your own inspirations and call on them in moments when you need it the most.

Dr. Lee 2018
College inspiration ❀

Self-criticism: Can mindfulness help?

Do you find yourself often being too hard on yourself? Maybe you gave into your craving and ate that decadent slice of chocolate cake or perhaps you left a small work task for the next day so you could go home and be with your loved ones an hour early. A key training component in graduate school is to develop our critical thinking skills. Personally, I think my self-criticism has a positive correlation relationship with the development of my critical thinking skills during grad school thus far. These thoughts come to mind after having taken a much needed vacation to travel home and visit family and friends.

The week before my travels, I felt so guilty about taking time off lab and my research. Furthermore, my guilt had led me to ask for only one week off (with even fewer days being spent in my hometown). The short time I spent at home was spent with some internal conflict. I remained feeling guilty about taking time off work, and I also felt guilty about not spending enough time with my family. Overall, you can say I felt a little crummy. Although I have come to learn how important self-care is, I still find myself struggling to ask for all of the self-care I need. By this, I mean that I’ve been improving my daily work-life balance and growing in my mindfulness meditation experience to improve my coping mechanisms in the high stress environment of PhD training. However, a large part of me still strives to work, work, work, even in the face of burnout!  I haven’t yet gained acceptance for the necessity of taking a dedicated vacation and unplugging from work. This act of self-care definitely triggers my self-criticism!

While I haven’t completely shed my acts of self-criticism, my mindfulness meditation did help me face the struggles I experienced this past week with the vacation. While my usual routine was disturbed by the travels, I incorporated time to meditate each day. The meditations were short, only ~5 minutes at a time, but they reminded me to be present and to be accepting. Acceptance included the negative feelings: the feelings of guilt about time away from work and not enough time with family. With acceptance, I can acknowledge all of my emotions and thoughts and allow myself to enjoy being in the moment. I lovingly told my family and myself, “I know my time here is limited, but a short visit is better than no visit. Let’s enjoy the short visit.” Until the time our culture and mindset in the academic workplace (at least within the US) can be adjusted to better value a healthy work-life balance, we need to each take the necessary measures of proper self-care that work for us. May mindfulness meditation be a solid foundation that you stand on to view yourself and the world around you.

Celebrate your victories!

As summer is drawing to a close and the new academic year is approaching, fatigue and disappointment may be lurking nearby. Maybe you didn’t take all the trips you had dreamed of or you didn’t check off all of the items on your summer to-do list. Perhaps you are finding that your work is dragging on and taking longer than you once hoped for, leaving you feeling frustrated and tired. The academic summer is one that is usually spent trying to make large leaps of progress due to less obligations that are typically demanded during the academic year. However, for those of us living in wintery climates, summer is a time when we want to be outside to refresh and recharge ourselves before winter comes again. In the end, we may end up with incremental progress on our work and only 50% recharged for the upcoming academic year.

Now, have you ever considered why you end up in this tired and slightly disappointed state of mind about mid-August? A factor that may be contributing to these sensations is our unwavering work ethic and work-centric academic culture in the US. I consider myself blessed to be exposed to many culturally diverse people throughout my scientific training so far. Our conversations about different work attitudes and perspectives on life around the world have been very eye-opening to me. Couple this knowledge with my recent mindfulness journey and I can definitely say my own perspective has begun to shift! I have begun to congratulate myself for completing the small tasks that culminate into the desired end-goal outcome. More so, my practice of mindful meditation has helped me learn to cherish the daily grind because life is not only about the destination, but also about the journey on how you reached it.

In my opinion, remembering to be present and live in the moment is incredibly beneficial to graduate students. As doctoral students, we all have one big final destination in mind: the PhD! On top of that, we have yearly-based destinations in mind such as officially declaring your thesis advisor, passing qualifying exams, and annual dissertation advisory committee meetings that all go on to say that we are making adequate progress towards the final destination. I feel that it is easy for grad students to become overwhelmed and anxious and begin to dwell on reaching and passing the yearly destinations. Our fixation on overcoming these checkpoints can often lead us to forgetting to enjoy ourselves along the way. Mindfulness helps pull all of these strings together by teaching us to be present, to be accepting, and to have self-compassion. As I mentioned before, I remember to humbly celebrate my victories (however small or incremental they may be) because this helps me feel positive and energetic to continue climbing towards the summit.

Success blackboard

Gratitude

This week on “Mindful Path to PhD,” let’s talk about gratitude. Graduate school is full of challenges and obstacles, but it’s also a time full of growth and opportunities. Eduction is a privilege, but when we find ourselves facing difficulties we have a tendency to take things for granted. Mindfulness meditation, in my experience, has been like a beacon of light in the darkness, one that reminded me of the balance in life. Without darkness, we cannot appreciate light; without running, we cannot appreciate walking; without obstacles, we cannot appreciate a clear path ahead.

My practice of mindfulness has reminded me to appreciate the challenges that I have faced in graduate school. Each year of graduate school, so far, has presented its own obstacles. The first year was all about settling in and trying not to feel like a newbie (new school, new people, new lab or projects). During the second year, stress often begins to build around the occurrence of qualifying exams and the steep learning curve that may come with new thesis projects. Then the “3rd year slump,” as it’s most often endearingly referred to as, hits. In the 3rd year of a PhD, you feel far enough along in your projects that experiments should be yielding usable results, but this is still often the time when things aren’t working. The 3rd year of my PhD was a time full of difficulties and consequently, growth. I was often doubtful and lacked confidence, especially when facing “failed” experiment after “failed” experiment. However, I persevered during my 3rd year of graduate school. I learned to take time for myself, and I began to develop a work-life balance to stave off burnout and maintain healthy relationships with my family and friends.

I’m beginning my 4th year of graduate school, and I am grateful for the opportunity to pursue higher education. In science, troubleshooting and optimizing experiments is the nature of the beast. However, how you react to situations is a matter of perspective. Mindfulness has allowed me to adjust my perspective to one that brings curiosity and acceptance to the challenges of completing a doctoral thesis. I hope you may all find your own sense of gratitude and appreciation for something that has brought balance into your life.

“Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.” – Rumi

 

Finding clarity

Last week, I had an enlightening conversation with one of my colleagues (who happens to also be a dear friend) and she mentioned that she finally felt she discovered her passion in life. Her inspirational words rang deep within me. In that moment I remembered that I, too, have a passion and sense of belonging in this world only I had allowed my fear and worries to diminish my spirit. From a very young age, I was always fascinated with science and I had a certain naiveté in life that allowed me to be incredibly optimistic. I appreciated the challenges and difficulties I faced when I was learning natural sciences. Furthermore, I was given an experience with cancer that ignited my passion and bolstered my motivation to choose a path in science despite being faced with the challenges of being a first-generation college student.

Education is certainly a privilege. My passion in life has always involved science and my wish from a very young age was to be involved in somehow making cancer therapeutics better. Without my education, I would not be able to pursue my passion in life. Upon entering college, I was fortunate enough to continue having brilliant and supportive science teachers and discover what’s really going on in the life of a scientist (or researcher). During college I learned what a PhD was and how one could be paid (at least in STEM fields) a livable wage to obtain this high degree. I remember thinking, “wow, if I study hard and work hard enough, this is definitely possible!” I was flabbergasted by the idea that I could be paid to obtain a degree and specialized training to do what I was most passionate about in life.

I think I was prepared, at least in some ways, for the difficulties of graduate school. What I wasn’t prepared for, was the realization that these difficulties that I face during graduate school would make me doubt my passion in life. During grad school, particularly in my third year, I internalized the challenges I faced in research and began to question if I really had what it took to “succeed” in doing what I thought my greatest passion was. Mindfulness meditation has woken up my inner spirit from its slumber where it had been resting after being burdened by increasing self-doubt. In my experience, mindfulness meditation has not only lifted the veil from my eyes, but has also begun to strengthen my mind. Altogether, my practice of mindfulness has provided me with clarity once more and self-confidence to believe in myself and continue doing what I love.

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” – Rumi

Self-care & essential “me-time”

On this week’s “Mindful Path to PhD,” let’s talk about self-care and the importance of work-life balance. In today’s hustle and bustle that has become everyday life, how much time, if any, do you set aside for taking care of yourself? More specifically, how much time do you set aside for taking care of your soul– not just doing the bare minimum to keep functioning at a somewhat human-like level attempting to maintain a semblance of normalcy to others? Furthermore, when you do take small snippets of time for yourself, how often do you feel a pang of guilt, regret, or weakness afterwards?

For many graduate students, these questions probably resonate inwardly to some extent. Personally, I’ve only just begun to develop an appreciation of self-care after years of putting research/ work/ studies first, and yet I still find myself feeling guilty for asking for time off to visit my family (when it’s been over 1 year since I’ve done so). One could argue that perhaps if I hadn’t worked so hard and sacrificed so much, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am now. Also, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work hard, but rather I’m trying to shed a small light on the importance of taking care of yourself holistically. Proper self-care will allow yourself to always be at your best and thus do your best work. More importantly, when you are at your best, you will be happy, you will feel alive. Burnout is a dangerous beast to encounter, and it can be encountered at any stage of a person’s career. Experiencing burnout can make you hate what you once loved and if not treated appropriately, it can lead to more serious issues, including physical and mental health concerns.

As a PhD student, and a young, aspiring scientist, burnout is a common concern. In my opinion, there’s a large amount of external pressure and competition in the general area of academic research. “Publish or perish” and “getting scooped” are ugly, common fears that can drive unhealthy lifestyles amongst researchers. Furthermore, in science there’s always (or nearly always) something that can be done next based on current findings. This perspective of focusing on broader implications and what’s next can dampen the feelings of completion or satisfaction young scholars may feel towards themselves. This all sounds pretty negative (and I’m sorry for that!) and you might be feeling somewhat cynical at the moment wondering where your rose-colored glasses went… (this was pretty much me during my whole 3rd year of PhD), but don’t despair! While we cannot change the system and the culture in which we work overnight, we may begin to slowly shift the perspective. Be confident and make time for yourself and actually take that time. Go for a jog, attend your favorite yoga class, sip and savor your favorite coffee. Do whatever it is you like to do that makes your soul smile. Your work will thank you for it in the long run. Lastly, let’s talk about these topics more. Let’s develop a culture with a frame of mind that encourages and values “me-time” and that sees the true potential that comes with proper self-care.