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!

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!

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

Failure

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.

Self-criticism: Can mindfulness help?

Do you find yourself often being too hard on yourself? Maybe you gave into your craving and ate that decadent slice of chocolate cake or perhaps you left a small work task for the next day so you could go home and be with your loved ones an hour early. A key training component in graduate school is to develop our critical thinking skills. Personally, I think my self-criticism has a positive correlation relationship with the development of my critical thinking skills during grad school thus far. These thoughts come to mind after having taken a much needed vacation to travel home and visit family and friends.

The week before my travels, I felt so guilty about taking time off lab and my research. Furthermore, my guilt had led me to ask for only one week off (with even fewer days being spent in my hometown). The short time I spent at home was spent with some internal conflict. I remained feeling guilty about taking time off work, and I also felt guilty about not spending enough time with my family. Overall, you can say I felt a little crummy. Although I have come to learn how important self-care is, I still find myself struggling to ask for all of the self-care I need. By this, I mean that I’ve been improving my daily work-life balance and growing in my mindfulness meditation experience to improve my coping mechanisms in the high stress environment of PhD training. However, a large part of me still strives to work, work, work, even in the face of burnout!  I haven’t yet gained acceptance for the necessity of taking a dedicated vacation and unplugging from work. This act of self-care definitely triggers my self-criticism!

While I haven’t completely shed my acts of self-criticism, my mindfulness meditation did help me face the struggles I experienced this past week with the vacation. While my usual routine was disturbed by the travels, I incorporated time to meditate each day. The meditations were short, only ~5 minutes at a time, but they reminded me to be present and to be accepting. Acceptance included the negative feelings: the feelings of guilt about time away from work and not enough time with family. With acceptance, I can acknowledge all of my emotions and thoughts and allow myself to enjoy being in the moment. I lovingly told my family and myself, “I know my time here is limited, but a short visit is better than no visit. Let’s enjoy the short visit.” Until the time our culture and mindset in the academic workplace (at least within the US) can be adjusted to better value a healthy work-life balance, we need to each take the necessary measures of proper self-care that work for us. May mindfulness meditation be a solid foundation that you stand on to view yourself and the world around you.

Self-care & essential “me-time”

On this week’s “Mindful Path to PhD,” let’s talk about self-care and the importance of work-life balance. In today’s hustle and bustle that has become everyday life, how much time, if any, do you set aside for taking care of yourself? More specifically, how much time do you set aside for taking care of your soul– not just doing the bare minimum to keep functioning at a somewhat human-like level attempting to maintain a semblance of normalcy to others? Furthermore, when you do take small snippets of time for yourself, how often do you feel a pang of guilt, regret, or weakness afterwards?

For many graduate students, these questions probably resonate inwardly to some extent. Personally, I’ve only just begun to develop an appreciation of self-care after years of putting research/ work/ studies first, and yet I still find myself feeling guilty for asking for time off to visit my family (when it’s been over 1 year since I’ve done so). One could argue that perhaps if I hadn’t worked so hard and sacrificed so much, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am now. Also, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work hard, but rather I’m trying to shed a small light on the importance of taking care of yourself holistically. Proper self-care will allow yourself to always be at your best and thus do your best work. More importantly, when you are at your best, you will be happy, you will feel alive. Burnout is a dangerous beast to encounter, and it can be encountered at any stage of a person’s career. Experiencing burnout can make you hate what you once loved and if not treated appropriately, it can lead to more serious issues, including physical and mental health concerns.

As a PhD student, and a young, aspiring scientist, burnout is a common concern. In my opinion, there’s a large amount of external pressure and competition in the general area of academic research. “Publish or perish” and “getting scooped” are ugly, common fears that can drive unhealthy lifestyles amongst researchers. Furthermore, in science there’s always (or nearly always) something that can be done next based on current findings. This perspective of focusing on broader implications and what’s next can dampen the feelings of completion or satisfaction young scholars may feel towards themselves. This all sounds pretty negative (and I’m sorry for that!) and you might be feeling somewhat cynical at the moment wondering where your rose-colored glasses went… (this was pretty much me during my whole 3rd year of PhD), but don’t despair! While we cannot change the system and the culture in which we work overnight, we may begin to slowly shift the perspective. Be confident and make time for yourself and actually take that time. Go for a jog, attend your favorite yoga class, sip and savor your favorite coffee. Do whatever it is you like to do that makes your soul smile. Your work will thank you for it in the long run. Lastly, let’s talk about these topics more. Let’s develop a culture with a frame of mind that encourages and values “me-time” and that sees the true potential that comes with proper self-care.