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!

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!

Being present

I love this time of the year! The time of the year when the leaves are changing to the picturesque yellow-orange-red gradient and there is a slight, crisp chill in the air. Like all good things that must come to an end, the characteristic “fall” time is only around for a few fleeting weeks. If you are not careful, you may even miss it! As young adults busy in school, the fall is the beginning of a new academic year and we can often lose ourselves to the hectic demands that come with it, forgetting to divulge in the beauty of the nature that surrounds us.

There are many tenants of mindfulness meditation and one of the key aspects is learning and practicing how to be present. This past week, I really found myself struggling to stay present. I am a creature of habit and not fond of my day-to-day routine being thrown off, particularly if it involves my sleep schedule taking the hit (I’m a firm 10 PM – 6 AM kinda gal), which was the case last week. I found myself struggling to focus and losing my concentration to memories of the past. Towards the end of the week, I noticed that I was simply going through the motions, including my mindfulness sessions. Upon this realization, I congratulated myself for “waking up” and did not let my brain waste effort on feeling bad for this little slip up. Instead, I turned inward to ask myself why this happened and reflect on what I could learn from it.

Life has a sneaky way of piling up everything at once and it is during these times that we may unintentionally seek escapes, even something as simple as dreaming of the future or longing for the past like I found myself doing last week. I currently have 3 large tasks that all require my full attention with similar and imminent deadlines, which means I’m trying to juggle all 3 simultaneously and maintain some semblance of a healthy work-life balance. During these times when I feel like I’m shouldering more burdens than usual, I remember that life doesn’t give us more than we can handle. I feel that the best way I can tackle these challenges is to remain present in every moment. To achieve this, I will continue my practice of mindfulness meditation and follow my personalized self-care practices. By maintaining my self-care practices, I’m slowly putting to ease the nagging part of my brain that has always felt unsettled by not giving 110% of myself to my research. Lastly, I will remember that I’m more efficient and better at work when I’ve properly taken care of myself.

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” — Buddha

Establishing balance

Happy Mid-Autumn day everyone! Fall is officially here, and it has inspired this week’s discussion about creating balance during graduate school. Living in New England (and being from Michigan), I’m used to nature being balanced: 4 seasons, sunshine and rain, wind and humidity. This past week was very unproductive in the lab and left me feeling down and cranky with myself for “slacking off”. The change of the season, along with another birthday passing by, helped me realize that graduate school is a time when we should begin to establish balance in our lives. And yes, I am talking about work-life balance.

As a PhD student, I feel like there is always something I should be doing. I should be checking recent literature in my area, writing (there’s always something that needs to be written), analyzing data, or thinking about what I should do next. However, working all the time is a recipe for burnout and fatigue. Graduate school years typically coincide with the young adult years when people are busy beginning to live their lives. I feel that during graduate school, as we naturally age, we no longer see our PhDs as “school”, but as the beginning of our careers. If grad school is the beginning of our careers, then it is very normal to begin focusing on other areas of our life and create a healthy work-life balance.

Unfortunately, from my perspective it seems that academia (and perhaps our American culture sometimes) emphasizes a work/career-centric lifestyle, often making it difficult to establish a healthy work-life balance without extraneous feelings of guilt. My journey in mindfulness has helped me seek balance in my lifestyle. Does that mean everyday is a 9-5 kinda day, unfortunately no… However, for me it means that I find acceptance in some days being work-focused and some days being “life” focused. Also, it means that I have become appreciative of achieving smaller goals that can be accomplished in a normal workday. Employing a mindful perspective throughout my day enables me to focus my energy when I’m being productive while allowing me to be friendly to myself when things are taking longer than expected to be finished. Please remember, living life is not only about reaching your desired destination, but is also about being present on the journey to get there.


Failure. Bringing to mind the word ‘failure’ is enough to make my stomach turn and my neck and shoulders tighten, and I’m left feeling queasy and tense. How many of you experience similar sensations when thinking about ‘failure’? Have you ever stopped to wonder why it has to be such a dirty word? I felt inspired to write about failure after enduring one of the most difficult yoga classes I’ve ever attended. Two weeks ago, I went to my usual Saturday morning Kundalini yoga class. However, we had a substitute teacher and her style and pace was completely different from the usual teacher. I tried to remain open-minded and embrace the new challenges I was facing, but as the class went on I found myself struggling to even get into the poses… One after another, I couldn’t do them. I felt so bad, so frustrated and embarrassed. I kept thinking to myself, “the teacher must think I’m so lazy!” In those moments, I felt like a failure.

There have been moments in graduate school where I have felt these same emotions and where I have been fearful that I would ‘fail’. Honestly, graduate school has not been a perfect, easy-going experience and I wonder if it ever is for anyone! For instance, I even received a “conditional pass” on my preliminary qualifying examination and had to re-do my thesis proposal and present my work a second time to my committee. Despite concerns of self-inadequacy, I am grateful for the challenges I have had to face during graduate school. These challenges are a bit like that substitute teacher led yoga session mentioned above where I am completely removed from my comfort zone and tossed into the metaphorical deep end. Being outside of my comfort zone is naturally helping me learn and grow. In my opinion, it feels like much of graduate school is spent immersed in the realm beyond what you are comfortable with and over time you begin to dominate again.

I feel that there is a crucial element all graduate students need to not only help them cope, but to thrive outside of their comfort zone, and it is proper self care- including a healthy work-life balance. Graduate school is all about developing our technical expertise in areas of interest and gaining critical thinking skills. However, it is easy to become personally invested into our thesis projects and develop an unhealthy attachment which leads us to feel that if our projects fail, then we fail, too. My practice in mindfulness meditation has led me to feel more at peace with exploring the world outside of my comfort zone and has helped me cultivate a sense of acceptance towards the uncertainty of graduate school. It is easy to let our “working mind” run away with ourselves and be concerned about achieving the tangible markers of a successful PhD, which at least in STEM is marked by high impact factor 1st author publications. Yet in my experience of developing my “being mind,” I’m able to extract myself a tiny bit from my projects and remember that even if my projects fail, I’m still successful because I’ve learned valuable skills and will be able to demonstrate what I’ve learned when the time comes (and hopefully my committee will think the same 😉 ). My main take away message is that I feel like failure is only a matter of perspective; the sun will always rise tomorrow and there will be bigger, better things waiting for you if you have the mindset to see them.

Change & Inspiration

This past week I found myself settling back into my daily grind after having visited my friends and family in the lovely, serene area of rural Southwest Michigan. I’ve been living in Cambridge, MA for three years now, and returning from my Michigan trip this time really had me feeling like I was coming home. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always consider SW MI to be my home and I always feel some sadness (and maybe guilt as I touched on last week), when I leave MI. However, it was incredible to feel that sense of belonging and comfort in the city life that I made for myself and to think of it as home, too.

Change is inevitable in life. Growing up amongst corn fields and dirt roads to living as a young adult in an urban area walking 10k+ steps daily and eating kale & quinoa veggie bowls for lunch. Wow. Life can become the unexpected! Visiting friends and family this year made it apparent how we all walk our divergent paths, but can all come together to share our lives and stories. The love never goes away. I think this is important to recognize for first generation college students who go on to pursue higher education. First gens may feel disconnected from everyone around them… from family members and childhood friends who haven’t chosen similar paths to colleagues in their field, in part, due to imposter syndrome. As a first generation college student, I have certainly experienced this feeling of disconnect for the longest time. For me, I think my enlightenment and acceptance of the differences between me and others (particularly my family and friends) was brought about by my practice of mindfulness meditation. I’m constantly in awe over the ways mindfulness has permeated my life and brought fresh energy & perspective with it.

My trip home not only gave me clarity on the changes that my life has taken, but provided a healthy dose of inspiration- one I hadn’t realized I was in the need for at the time. I always visit my middle school science teacher when I’m in my home area. She was my first cheerleader to encourage me to go into science, and she was there to guide me with the necessary advice about undergraduate majors & doing research throughout college. I was beyond ecstatic to show her my first, first authored publication (for which I’d received the final print notification that week)! Her delight and encouragement reminds me that I can do it (even though it’s really, really freaking hard sometimes).

The Hays 2018
My middle school inspiration (left)

Fate smiled upon me on my travels back to Boston, and I crossed paths with my undergraduate research mentor at the airport! Seeing her filled me with a sense of purpose and confidence, memory that she taught me how to conduct basic chemistry research and she nurtured my passion for science and research when it was most important. Those two women will forever be my inspiration to carry on in graduate school when the times get tough. May you all remember your own inspirations and call on them in moments when you need it the most.

Dr. Lee 2018
College inspiration ❤