Be a tree: Resilience in grad school

Fall tree harvard IG
Fall foliage @ Harvard University. Follow me on Instagram @MindfulPhDstudent

Earlier this week, I was awe struck at the beautiful, fiery fall foliage all around campus and the city. I was beyond impressed by how lush the trees still are for this time of year, particularly so because we already had our first Nor’easter of the season. The strong wind gusts and heavy rains were no match for this tree, just yet, anyway.┬áIt made me begin to think about how we should be more like trees. Sounds silly, right? Let me explain!

Trees are one of nature’s finest examples of resilience: grounded, stable entities; can weather nearly any storm; they bode change beautifully; when the time comes, they let go; when the time is right, they flourish again, year after year. I feel like we could all benefit by being a little more like a tree. As graduate students, we are required to weather numerous “storms”. There is the qualifying exam, challenging experiments, annual progress reports, and, finally, the defense itself. In my experience, each new year of the PhD is not like previous years. Each year has its new opportunities and challenges, so we need to be amenable to change. While it seems contradictory, every academic year has its usual flow and this can help us find the time of year that we flourish the most. When we begin to understand how we respond to the different academic “seasons”, so to speak (and to some extent, maybe it just is related to the seasons themselves), and accept that some parts of the year can be a little more dormant than others, we will be more at ease knowing our time to thrive will come again.

Perhaps most importantly, there is learning to let go. We should all learn from our mistakes, but many grad students (myself included) don’t let go things that are unnecessarily draining to our soul. Failed experiments, a snappy response to a colleague under a moment of stress, poorly communicated criticism from others, our own negative feelings of inferiority, the list can go on and on. Spending time and energy dwelling on worries from the past and for the future can impede our scholastic endeavors, not to mention ruin our overall quality of life. If we can learn to let even just some of these things go, we’d be making space for other opportunities and able to better perform those other tasks by being more at peace with ourselves.

My practice in mindful meditation not only let me recognize and appreciate the resilience of trees, but to realize how important it is for graduate students to be resilient, too. I like to think I’ve always been a resilient person, but after 100+ days of mindfulness, my resilience has transformed like a caterpillar into a butterfly. I used to manage difficult things in life by putting my head down and distracting myself with either work or something else, living life in blissful ignorance. It wasn’t until work (i.e. grad school) became one of my toughest experiences that I realized how unhealthy my coping mechanism was. It was then that I began practicing mindful meditation. Mindfulness has given me the courage to keep my chin up and face difficult things head-on, and has taught me kindness and acceptance as means to handle those difficult things. My resilience has now become more grounded, deeper and stronger. I hope you can all develop your own reliable resilience to help you thrive in graduate school. Thanks for stopping by this week’s Mindful Path to PhD!

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