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.

Owning it

Confidence. Google Dictionary defines confidence as a noun meaning, “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” When was the last time you felt confident? When was the last time you brought to mind affirmations of your own abilities or qualities? Each person responds to confidence in a different way. For me, I’ve always shied away from confidence. I more commonly experience bouts of self-doubt and insecurity. During grad school, I’ve found these moments of uncertainty bring unnecessary stress and anxiety to myself. Luckily for me, I have a supportive thesis advisor who recently (and time and time again when I express these challenging moments) said to me, “own it.”

Now, by no means do I want to become a person filled with arrogance or who loves to brag, but I absolutely love my PI’s (Principal Investigator) words, “own it“. Sometimes, I think we all need a cheerleader, especially for graduate students who may be routinely facing things that don’t seem to work. Everyone can benefit from having someone there to remind us that we know things and we have (and are developing) valuable skills. For me, I’d like to make “own it” my personal little mantra to guide me through the remainder of my graduate school journey. For those who struggle from self-doubt and lack of confidence, I encourage you to consider doing the same.

Cultivating self-love and self-appreciation creates a healthy perspective that could lead to greater happiness. The practice of mindfulness is one approach towards cultivating self-love and self-appreciation. In my experience, mindfulness is teaching me how to bring kindness to myself. Building kindness for myself also builds my confidence. By owning my science, and owning myself, I’m better able to communicate my work to others, and I’m more likely to speak up at group meeting. I desire to weave a small sphere of confidence that can shine deep inside of myself, that I can call on to illuminate the way when I face the lows in my research. I hope that all graduate students can create their own internal beacon, whatever it be, to help guide them through the ups-and-downs of research. Always remember,

Image result for i am strong i am beautiful i am enough

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Problem solving

Pursuing a PhD challenges you in ways you may not have thought imaginable. In science, the success rate of experiments is typically something like 0.01% (or 0.000000001% if I’m allowed to exaggerate a bit). So often times, our hard work in science is repeatedly met with “failure”. When these things “fail” or simply aren’t working, this is usually the time that we get to flex our brain muscles and expand our critical thinking skills. These times when we are troubleshooting or problem solving is arguably the time we are learning the most. Personally, I think this is a powerful way to learn new things, but I also feel it is one of the most emotionally and mentally draining way to learn. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that mental health is a large concern for graduate students (see Science Magazine article for discussion of recently published results surveying mental health in graduate students globally, and it includes a link to the primary publication).

I recently had a troubleshooting battle in my own thesis project which went on for at least 4 weeks. Those 4 weeks were incredibly frustrating, and as silly as it sounds, but half of the time was spent figuring out what the problem really was before being able to solve it. Being able to discern what the problem is is often not as straightforward as it seems. Furthermore, those 4 weeks of trial and error felt like a massive waste of time! Although it was slow going, I succeeded in my troubleshooting and learned beyond what I needed for fixing my problem.

My mindfulness practice helps me navigate and persist in the “failure” encountered in my doctoral studies in many ways. Through my practice, I am cultivating a sense of compassion for myself which helps me not internalize the perceived failures as personal inadequacies. I remind myself that I’m still learning and it’s OK not to know all of the answers right now. Mindfulness has also helped me stay present. Being present and “in the moment” reduces my anxiety and frustration over things not working. It’s common to feel the tug of a downward spiral when things aren’t going as expected for extended periods of time, but by staying present you can shift your perspective away from a negative vantage point (the one that keeps showing you all of your previous unsuccessful events) and towards a positive outlook (the one that brings hope and encouragement). Lastly, remember to make time for yourself. Proper self-care goes a long way in managing stress. So go see a movie, have coffee with a friend, or do some yoga, and remember to give yourself kindness.