Foggy brain

Hello, March! The weeks have been quickly passing and I’ve been simultaneously enjoying clarity and fog. Strange, right? As my belly grows, I’ve embraced some inner inspiration coupled with a kind reality check about my post-graduate plans. While I’m gaining clarity on my timeline and future directions, I’m struggling with getting things done in lab and, as ridiculous as it sounds, pregnancy brain! It feels like the last two weeks, I’ve been making my daily plans in lab like usual, but letting myself get diverted with other things. I’m left feeling unfocused and drained.

If I’m honest with myself, my mindfulness practice has been slacking these weeks. I have been fitting my daily meditation time in before bed, which is great for unwinding before I sleep, but perhaps I’m not reaping all of benefits I could be without my morning practice. As someone who knows how much better I feel when I take the time to meditate, why aren’t I squeezing it in in the mornings you might wonder. Sleep. I have been neglecting my morning meditation session for sleep. During my early pregnancy days, I was incredibly tired. To accommodate the changes happening in my body, my daily routine shifted to focus on maintaining my physical health for me and my developing baby. Now that I’m well into the second trimester and back to feeling a bit better, I’m realizing how much I’m missing the benefits of starting my day off with a few mindful minutes. Especially since I feel like I’m struggling with a generally foggy brain, limited attention span, and serious forgetfulness!

The beautiful thing about mindfulness is that it is a practice, and it is non-judgmental. Mindfulness doesn’t mind that I was a little lazy the past ~4-5 months. Mindfulness has also taught me to this date that I, myself, shouldn’t mind my own laziness either. It is up to me to slowly adjust my daily routine and squeeze my morning practice back in. Change is certainly one thing in life that I’m focusing on accepting with little to no negative feelings or resistance. Starting a family is always life-changing, but starting a family while pursuing a PhD is even more of an adventure. I’m grateful to have my practice in mindfulness meditation with me along the journey.

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!

Prioritizing You

This past week I (and my better half) have been down for the count battling the pesky cold virus that’s going around this time of year. There’s nothing quite like being sick to remind you that you are human (not an invincible god/goddess you might like to always think you are) and need to take proper care of yourself! Additionally, my husband and I are currently expecting our first addition to our family. Pregnancy and having a cold have made it very obvious how little attention I used to pay to my health during graduate school. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to generalize that many graduate students often neglect their health and well-being over other factors they may feel are more important during the moment. This week, I’d like to take a moment to remind you, and emphasize, the importance of prioritizing yourself and your well-being.

During graduate school, you’ll likely begin to feel that the whole process of achieving a PhD is really quite ambiguous and incomplete. You will always feel like there is one more experiment that you need to do. Furthermore, during the early years of grad school when your project is just getting off the ground and you are busy learning relevant techniques or theories, you may face an overwhelming sensation that you should always be working. This work, work, work, one-more-experiment-then-I’m-done mentality takes a toll on your physical and mental health. It is really easy to over-work yourself during the early days of grad school and become more susceptible to burnout and feel more jaded as time goes on. However, this experience presents an opportunity to learn when to say “enough is enough” or when to put things on pause (at least for the day).

Learning when “enough is enough” takes time and is better realized with the more self-awareness you have. For me, I began to create this self-awareness through mindfulness meditation. My practice of mindfulness helped me better sense when my mind was fatigued at the end of the day or week and when it was actually going to be more productive to stop for the day and switch to something else. As someone who loved to sit down and do things (assignments, writing, etc) in one go, this was a really difficult change to adopt because my underlying drive says “finish” despite my brain no longer having the capacity necessary to complete the task (or perhaps my work has become more nuanced than something that can be done in one day). The insight I have gleaned through mindfulness has allowed me to take better care of myself, physically and mentally. When you are not toiling away fruitlessly trying to “finish” something that isn’t realistic at the moment, you create more time for yourself to do things that rejuvenate you while not being stressed out by overworking yourself. I think we can all agree on how much better we perform when we feel well (first trimester fatigue and morning sickness was a very apparent eye-opener for me on the connection of how well I feel and how well I work). This coming week, I encourage you to do one thing a day for each day of the week that “prioritizes you” and see how you feel at the end of it. I hope you find yourself feeling more invigorated and inspired. As always, thanks for stopping by this week’s Mindful Path to PhD!

Knowing oneself

Hi there! Thanks for stopping by a new Mindful Path to PhD post! I’ve had many topics come to mind recently, but have been busy adjusting to a new aspect of my daily life, one that has certainly changed my daily routine. However, today’s freezing rain and snow mixture has made it a perfect opportunity for staying indoors and writing! (Thanks, Mother Nature!) Despite the gloominess outside of the window, I want to share my thoughts on how I feel mindfulness has impacted me the most, and that is actually beginning to know myself on a deeper level. I know, sounds cheesy, right? But please hear me out!

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, I may have alluded to my key characteristics as a perfectionist and a workaholic. I have known about these self traits for a very long time. However, it wasn’t until my third year of graduate school, around age 25, and after beginning my practice of mindfulness meditation that I realized I had been using my work-centric focus in life to bury my head in the sand and not face my feelings or emotions when times were difficult. I’m sure I’ve discussed this topic before, at least briefly, but it has recently been at the forefront of my mind. As I face new changes in my daily life and get closer and closer to needing to be thinking about what I want my next steps to be in life after PhD, I embrace my new self-insight.

Mindfulness has taught me how to listen to myself, even when I’m most reluctant to hear anything at all. Mindfulness has cultivated a deeper sense of self-awareness that I had previously and subconsciously buried to avoid any pain from life’s difficulties. Has mindfulness miraculously shown me what I want to do with my future career like a magic 8-ball, nope. However, mindfulness has equipped me with the toolset that I need to recognize what my inner passion will lead me to and the courage to take action when that time comes. Perhaps most importantly to me, mindfulness has provided me with serenity in the face of the unknown. I used to always have to have a plan, and don’t get me wrong, I still prefer to have a plan even knowing that life will likely deviate from said plan. But now, I accept that there are many things in life still waiting to happen that will help direct me to my next steps. As long as I continue working hard and towards a forward direction with mindfulness guiding me along the way, I’m certain I will find a place and option that makes me, and my little growing family, happy. Until next time, everyone!

Mindful New Year

Happy New Year! I find it hard to believe another year is wrapped up and in the books. It feels as if the last few weeks of 2018 were so fleeting! My life has been full of welcome changes, both expected and unexpected, that have kept me on my toes and away from my laptop more than I liked. However, for today I’m back and I’d like to chat about reflections + resolutions that come with the New Year. How many of you take a few moments to reflect on the highs and lows of 2018 before gearing up to take on your New Year’s Resolutions to develop the “new & improved” you? I remember being in middle school and hating New Year’s Resolutions, but I don’t quite remember why. Nowadays, I don’t mind them so much, but I think that’s because of how I approach them.

Every year brings a certain amount of change and adventure, but 2018 was by far a game-changing kind of year for me. I recently reflected on the year, taking care to remain present and not lose myself to the memories so as to view the events from a new perspective, one that is disconnected from the emotions of the moment. What I found was that several events that had in the moment felt like life was handing me lemon after lemon, are now moments of learning and growth. At the start of 2018, I was feeling burned out, a little lost, and in doubt of my decision of pursuing grad school. I felt as though I had lost my passion for science. I was half-way through my 3rd year of PhD at the time and really couldn’t see a light at either end of the tunnel. However, with a dash of perseverance, sprinkle of self-honesty, and whole lotta encouragement from those who I admire, I made my way through those tough times. Along the way, I strengthened friendships and I found mindfulness. All in all, I have a very different perspective at the end of 2018 and it includes a light at the end of the tunnel.

I’m excited looking ahead at 2019 because I get to apply and strengthen the “tools” (or self-care practices) I developed for myself in 2018. This means making time for coffee chats with my fellow PhD student best friends, fueling myself with nutritious meals and snacks, and fitting in plenty of movement and minutes of mindfulness. I’m not going to lay out explicit New Year’s Resolutions, but I’ll divulge a few big picture things. I want to spend more energy on trying my hardest & accepting the outcome for what it is; I don’t want to waste my energy and add stress from trying to achieve unrealistic perceptions of perfection. I want to add more moments of stillness & “digestion” before reacting to scenarios. Lastly, I want to embrace change and see something good in everything. Here’s to a bright and mindful New Year!

Playing catch-up

Hi there, and welcome back to the Mindful Path to PhD! November and early December were a bit of a blur for me. I allowed myself to overload my thresholds for stress and work and consequently some things fell through the cracks (including my blog writing). I found myself socially, physically, and mentally withdrawing from anything that wasn’t getting my work done. Ultimately, this left me feeling exhausted, cranky, and generally unwell. I kept saying to myself, “Just get through this last deadline, and then everything will be back to normal.” However, I neglected to think about the ripple effect of procrastination that was occurring as I tried to focus on completing one large task. Now that those big deadlines have passed, I stare at the pile of things that is life + grad school items waiting ever so patiently for my attention, but I’m tired. I only manage to look at them thinking, “Can’t I just take a break?” Furthermore, my flow feels off. I feel like there is a disconnect between my brain, my mind, my spirit, and my body. Does this sound like something you’ve ever related to? 

Now that my deadlines have passed, I feel like I’m left playing catch-up on all of the things I should have been maintaining over the last 4 weeks. I feel large waves of relief and accomplishment for having passed my annual dissertation advisory committee meetings with positive feedback & discussion for my future career prospects, and for having submitted my independent research fellowship application despite all of the administrative challenges we had to overcome. Perhaps it is somewhat related to the time of year with the holiday season just around the corner, but my personal battery is drained. I need to rest and recharge, without the feeling of PhD guilt lingering on my mind. I think I’m feeling extra negative energy these days because I’m feeling the pressure to power through some critical experiments during the holidays to ensure the project can wrap up before one of my lovely colleagues finishes early next year. When I found out this news, it was a little bit soul-crushing as I had mentally planned to begin these experiments upon the New Year. You could say that I shouldn’t be complaining, because it is good to wrap up projects and this may be the driving force we needed to finish it for good. However, I am a grad student who is feeling stretched too thin, so please allow my complaining as a form of self comfort. 

Despite letting so many of my normal routine daily or weekly tasks slack during the hectic time of reaching my deadlines, I did not neglect my practice of mindfulness meditation. For me, mindfulness was and is critical to my perspective on pretty much everything in life. Mindfulness reminded me to be accepting of those things that I could not control, like uploaded PDFs being “corrupted” or bureaucratic drama playing out. Mindfulness continues to remind myself to be present and not let myself and my mind get swept away as if I’m white water rafting my to-do list! I could go on and on about the ways mindfulness helps me, but I want to end with the most meaningful way to me that mindfulness impacts my daily life and that is kindness. Having kindness towards myself is so important for not only getting through difficult times, but for making it out to the other side without feeling beaten and bruised. We all deserve happiness, even in times of great stress. Learning how to be kind to myself has shifted my perspective to a more positive one, collectively helping me accept and be present in life. May you all enjoy the holiday season and bring a little mindfulness to make it even more special. Thanks for stopping by! 

Giving thanks

Welcome back to this week’s Mindful Path to PhD! Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, coming very early this year (or perhaps I just feel that time is flying by much too quickly now) and I wanted to take pause and reflect on a few things I’m thankful for. Here are my top three things I’m thankful for this year:

  • Those I cherish most, my family and friends
  • The opportunity to pursue higher education
  • Giving mindfulness a chance & prioritizing self-care

I never wish to take my loved ones for granted, so I must say my family and friends are something I’m always grateful for all year long. While this might come as a surprise and despite how challenging graduate school is, I’m grateful for having the opportunity to pursue higher education. Finally, this year I’m thankful for having tried mindfulness meditation and for having incorporated self-care practices as one of my top priorities. My highest, and arguably only, priority used to be work. However, the demands of graduate school really began taking a toll on my overall well-being, particularly my mental health. So this year, I’m going to take some time to acknowledge how far I’ve come and be thankful for all of the support and opportunities that have come my way. 

I still have one giant deadline looming over me and that is my first independent fellowship application to the NIH. I will likely be needing to really focus on work during the Thanksgiving holiday, but I’m going to do so mindfully. I’m going to do the best I can do, and not dwell on ensuring each and every word is correct. I’m going to keep working hard and complete the task. I plan to mindfully be present in my work when I’m working and then to be mindfully present with my loved ones when I’m celebrating the holiday with them. My family’s tradition is to put up our Christmas tree on Thanksgiving evening and I am choosing not to let my deadline ruin that tradition this year. I hope you all take some time to reflect on those things that matter most to you. Happy (almost) Thanksgiving!

Surviving + thriving the daily grind

Welcome back to this week’s Mindful Path to PhD! This week I want to talk about how to survive and even thrive during our daily grind, no matter how difficult things get. This past week I had terrible commutes nearly everyday both times of the day, I had the first of my three big deadlines come and go, and I had to jump from one task to another without a moment’s hesitation. Have you ever experienced days or weeks like this? How do you usually end up feeling? I noticed by Wednesday I was experiencing a serious mid-week slump with my body feeling sore and lack of energy and motivation to do anything that required my attention. More so, I felt cranky, frustrated, and generally down; very unlike my usual smiling self.

Frustrating days like what I had last week, they come and go in our life. I try to view them as nature’s balance. What I especially noticed last week was how upset I was over my commute each day, in particular my morning commutes- something about getting to work later than I planned for and after having been packed on a bus like sardines in a can, really made a terrible way to start my work day. Waking up and realizing how I reacted to my daily struggles brought a smile to my face. I congratulated myself for having recognized my reactions and used this self-awareness to breathe through my burdens. I wondered how many other people muddle their way through their own daily struggles, carrying their burdens without ever realizing how much baggage they lug around each day.

Mindfulness meditation teaches us ways to thrive during our daily struggles. So how does it help, you ask? One of the core tenants of mindfulness is learning how to be present. When we are present, we can become aware of how we are feeling and reacting in those moments. This provides us with the option to simply notice and let ourselves be experiencing those moments fully or to guide our minds to another perspective to shift how we are experiencing those moments. Being present helped me notice how frustrated I was becoming over my challenging commutes last week. To some extent, my miserable commutes are outside of my control- they are just something I have to handle living in the city. Mindfulness also teaches us acceptance. My practice in mindfulness meditation over the last 6 months has enabled me to go beyond handling these difficult daily struggles, but to build peace and happiness as beacons of light, illuminating life when it becomes dark. I hope you all may begin, or continue, your own practice of mindfulness meditation. May you all find light amidst the dark, and may you all begin to thrive in your daily grind. Thanks for stopping by!

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. It 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!