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.