Facing the future

Two weeks ago I was in the warm, comforting environment of my mentor group meet-up when my mentor asked me point blank, “How is your career planning going?” In that moment, I froze. I couldn’t remember what the status of my soul searching future career plan was. I then remembered I had begun thinking seriously about post-graduate plans some time ago, only to let them get pushed to the back-burner by more pressing present day lab work and life events. After all, most of my post-graduate plans rely on having a PhD, so I can’t forget about that! Perhaps my procrastination was in part due to some fear of the ever-looming question mark that I felt like I was always facing. Doesn’t sound familiar at all, right my fellow PhD students *wink, wink*.

It’s taken me a long time to come to a point of acceptance that it’s okay not to have every little detail planned out about the future because so much of it may be hinging upon future outcomes that I cannot predict (as much as I shake my magic 8 ball). However, I’m realizing it’s helpful and appropriate to have some sense of what I want to do (broadly speaking should be okay) to help guide my current endeavors. I have begun facing these ominous questions not as an act of escapism of my present day graduate school life, but to ensure that I’m doing the best work that I can do now to put me in a position that I want to be in in the future. It’s important to remember that we got to where we currently are by hard work, and we can’t stop that hard work because we are afraid of unknowns (i.e. what career path is best for us). In my opinion, one the most important things that have helped me face the scary question mark that is my future has been a better understanding of myself and what I desire in my life to be happy. We need to be realistic with ourselves and not force ourselves into a glass slipper that just doesn’t fit.

So, happiness, huh? And no, I don’t mean the happiness of other people around you, but your very own individual happiness. Something that each and every one of us deserves to have. I began to better understand myself and what I require for happiness through my practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness has helped me be honest with myself, even if that honesty scares me for many reasons (do I *really* want a career as a tenure-track faculty member of an undergraduate-focused academic institution?!). Another source of clarity that I found from mindfulness was a better understanding of my personality, my strengths, and my weaknesses. The big question is does everything line up? Do my characteristics mesh well with my desired career option. If yes, great! What do I need to do now to be in the best position possible when it comes to finding that job. If no, can I look more honestly at career options that are more suitable for who I am? Personally, I have felt more peace in this process thanks to my practice in mindfulness. The whole process of needing to stay grounded in the present moment while facing the future is so contradictory. However, facing the future while being grounded in the present moment will likely provide paramount perspective. With that, I’ll say thanks as always for stopping by this week’s Mindful Path to PhD! Comment below with your own thoughts/ advice on how you face the future.

Looking inward: Acknowledging our comfort zones & facing our fears

This past week was a very interesting one! All week long, I was dreading an experiment I knew I needed to get done, but for reasons I’ll discuss here, I continued procrastinating until Thursday. I feel that there were two intertwined trends going on that I want to highlight in this week’s post. First and foremost: stepping outside of our comfort zones. Secondly, perhaps going hand-in-hand with the first topic: facing our fear. I have recently been working on trying to wrap up a small, collaborative side project in the lab that needs to be finished, but is not necessarily related to my leading thesis projects. This work has recently given me a lot of internal (and external) grief because it is completely different from the main body of work I’ve been ardently pursuing the last two years and, like we all know in science, any project is rarely a “small” or “easy” project. Thus, I’ve been pushed outside of my comfort zone in the lab trying to do this work while my fear of failure and mistakes (which were made aplenty this week) reached new heights.

Throughout the week, as I continued procrastinating on the work to be done (with other work I was more excited for), I finally asked myself deep down inside, “What is my problem with this experiment? Why have I set myself up as my own roadblock to getting the job done?” These are really tough questions. On the surface, I replied to myself saying, “This project is really annoying… it’s not at all relevant to my main thesis projects… I should be focusing all of my time and energy on my main thesis projects (aside, they have a lot of work remaining, but are so close to becoming my next publication that I just want to focus and get the work done)… this project is going to be difficult and take a lot of my time and energy to complete, etc.” While all of these superficial items are very true and should be acknowledged, I knew there was another reason why I was hesitating. A very small part of me deep down inside in a timid voice that was barely a whisper was saying, “I’m not comfortable doing these experiments. This work is beyond my “expertise” I’ve worked so hard to gain in the last two years.”

This awakening to better understanding myself was an “aha” moment that made me realize I’ve done this to myself many times throughout my PhD. Of course the practical side of my brain is constantly reminding me that stepping outside of my comfort zone is good for learning (and I need to know how to do this work if I want to continue it in my professional life) and that you’ve got to start somewhere when learning something new. Despite knowing these two logical factors, my perfectionism drove an immense fear of failure and fear of making mistakes which ultimately fed my subconscious to continue procrastinating on other work at hand. After all, why do something if you can’t do it perfectly? Right? NO WAY!! First, there is no such thing as “perfect”. Second, many of us learn better by making mistakes. My journey in mindfulness meditation has been invaluable in being able to better recognize why I do what I do and being able to face what I find with a judgement-free perspective that encourages self-love, respect, and kindness. Collectively, this allows me to feel better and ultimately to be better. If any of this resonated with you, please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts! As always, thanks for stopping by this week’s Mindful Path to PhD!