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.
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.
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