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!

Establishing balance: Part II

Welcome back, everyone! Thanks for checking out this week’s “Mindful Path to PhD.” Two weeks ago I touched on the topic of work-life balance in my post titled, “Establishing Balance.” As fate would have it, last week this topic was continuously brought up during my daily grind and it compelled me to write a second post. So, I have a big question for you… What’s with the stigma of work-life balance in graduate school? This past week, I attended a graduate student event on campus and heard one of my peers say, “there are some people in our lab who don’t work very hard… They leave so early!” I felt so upset about this judgmental statement and felt further agitated remembering the archaic notion that whoever spends the most number of hours in the lab is the best and most hardest working graduate student. Have you ever heard these statements or found yourself in the same scenario?

Let’s talk about this stigma. In my opinion, the notion that work-life balance is unattainable for graduate students is pretty messed up. Unfortunately, for many graduate students this is the reality. In the academic world, there are few checks-and-balances in place to ensure graduate students are being treated fairly and are studying in a healthy work environment. To further complicate the issue, each student’s scenario is different and largely dependent upon his or her advisor’s personality and what kind of lab dynamic has been fostered by the advisor. Lastly, the ambiguous demands of graduate school make it incredibly hard for students to know how much is enough and when they may benefit more from stopping at the end of a rough day and waiting to try again on a new day.

You might be wondering now, just like I found myself wondering last week, what can we do about this? My suggestion is let’s talk about it more often, and do so in an open and honest manner. The first place these discussions can be happening is peer-to-peer. Let’s encourage one another to develop a work-life balance and that it’s OK to do this. Having the support of fellow students will make it easier to go against the grad school norm. Additionally, I urge students to begin cultivating their own practice of mindfulness meditation. In my experience, mindfulness has helped me begin to quiet that judgmental voice that sometimes seems to act on auto-pilot, and in its place I’ve come to develop peace with simply observing something as it is. If mindfulness sounds like something you are interested in trying, I recommend downloading the freely available meditation app, Insight Timer, to begin your own journey. While you’re there, check out our group “Mindful Scholar” and go to my page Mindful Scholars here on my website for more info! Here’s to finding your zen, my fellow scholars!