Monday, March 23, 2015

Harder than Rocket Science? Fumbling with Mental Health in Grad School. Part 2

This follow-up to a previous blog entry reflects the collective reminiscing of experiences that one or more of the contributors have had during the duration of their graduate student journey.

Does this graduate school process have to be so destructive (see cheese grater in previous posting)? After watching the easily digestible documentary film Happy, which oversimplifies topics but is still worth watching, it became painfully clear to me (author SK) that my dissertation process and the culture of academia often does not provide me with much of the following well-documented sources of life satisfaction:

  • Connection and Community. Long days in academic rabbit holes chasing after intangible concepts can get in the way of feeling like our research connects to what matters to people. In contrast to working as part of a team, much of the dissertation process tends not to be conducive to strengthening connections to people on a day-to-day basis.
  • Exercise. We remain uncertain if a treadmill desk is worth the investment!
  • Compassion. Weeks and months of research and writing can make us feel disconnected from the concerns of others. Sometimes compassion is modeled in grad school, often in times of crisis. I (author SK) have struggled to be compassionate with myself since I’ve felt behind in my dissertation progress for years.
  • Cooperation. The majority of our thesis or dissertation time is spent conducting independent research rather than working with others towards a shared goal.
  • Mindfulness. Non-judgmental focus is essential to mindfulness. We spend considerable time honing our abilities to be critical of our own thinking and writing and that of others. I (SK) have run into trouble in knowing when to turn off or tone down my critical thinking so I can be more caring rather than a critical, skeptical, judging scientist.
  • Gratitude. Expressions of gratitude for academic research tend not to be common. Sure, seeing that our work is cited via Google scholar is a little ego boost, but it’s not that common to get in-person feedback on the end products of all this work, specifically publications. On the darker days, it’s hard to feel gratitude for a process that can feel so isolating.  
  • Self-improvement. As grad students, we tend to invest effort in academic self-improvement at the cost of not putting time into other dimensions of personal growth.
  • Flow is associated with achieving the right balance of competence and challenge. We have tended to feel incompetent the majority of the time because we’re constantly trying to learn, which means we often don’t know what we’re doing.
  • Living according to intrinsic values, which are linked to concern for others and the environment, kindness, understanding, appreciation, tolerance and protection of people and nature. Ideally, our research can be framed with these values, but the day-to-day work often feels disconnected from these values.

Often staring down a list of all the things we need to do for balance can end up like this (from this site)…. 
… or this!

So how can we include more of these basic things into our everyday lives? How can we avoid collapse and reduce anxiety and suffering? How can we make this endurance contest feel less like an ego cheese grater and more like a quest for something important? How can we ensure that this PhD (or MSc or MA) feels more fun, provides us with more satisfaction and more of those basic ingredients of happiness?

How can we re-think and redesign the day-to-day experience of this educational process and other dimensions of our lifestyles to experience more of these sources of satisfaction? Below is a compilation of what has helped us and others in our lab group feel better about how we’re spending our time.

Graduate school too often feels like a solo mission. Some of us frequently feel like we’re too extroverted to be good academics. Days on end of dissertation writing make us lonely, especially when we feel like we’re not very good at it. Working with RAs and doing lab projects helps increase our feelings of connectedness and confidence that someone else besides our advisers and committees care about the work we do. We feel more connected when collaborating with non-academic partners, even though these collaborations are not always recognized in an academic setting.

Conferences remind us there a lot of people who care about the issues that interest us. They’re good for networking and learning even though they can also feel tangential if dissertation/thesis deadlines are tight.

Basic biology
It’s easy to forget that sleepingeating well and regular exercise can work wonders. These basics help moderate cortisol and stress hormones, which, if elevated for prolonged periods, make us feel cruddy and age faster.

Affirm the achievements, however small
I (author SK) keep a file with emails from people who have expressed interest in and gratitude for past work that I’ve done.

Most of us have a to-do list. When we check something off, we cut and paste it to the bottom section to remind ourselves that we have been productive.

The longer we’re in grad school, the more we realize we don’t know. We have to remind ourselves that we know way more than we did when we started this process.

Practicing Mindfulness

Buddhists are onto something profound. We dabble in meditation and read books on the topic. Practicing mindfulness can help us let go of negative thoughts, reduce feelings of being overwhelmed and focus on the task at hand.

and perhaps chocolate....
source of this insight) 

Spending time on other things that matter: fun, friends and family
We can be more productive when we plan on doing something fun with people we enjoy after we accomplish a task. Also, knowing that we will need to stop working at a certain time can help us focus.

Dedicating some time to something entirely different – i.e. gardening, athletics, a pet, ceramics, reading books for fun, anything else – allows us to relativize the graduate school process: while important, it is NOT the only thing that matters nor the only thing that defines us.

Productive procrastination, within reason
If we really need to delay a task, we try to make that time productive (while recognizing that some unproductive time is also important). Collaborating on another research paper is a good option since it will likely get a paper out and it might be more fun than our own thesis work (the novelty factor). We like to read books that have nothing to do with our work since they might give us new ideas nonetheless. There can be benefits to collaborating with people because we find them interesting rather than because it aligns with our research. These ‘productive’ procrastination tactics might deter from your own work but might pave the way for new pathways post PhD. Also, it beats staring at a blank computer screen, facebooking, making and drinking tons of coffee and tea and watching TV compulsively.

Time Outside and preferably surround by nature
Time in nature is good and restorative for us in so many ways, see this review on why and how.

Think about Plan B
There’s a world of options outside of the ivory tower and grad school’s one of many paths. We’re privileged to be in grad school, even if it doesn’t always feel like a privilege. It’s healthy to remember that this path isn’t for everyone and we’re free to leave if we’re not sufficiently satisfied.
Check out
We take regular breaks and sometimes, we take a big break. We recommend baths and saunas. Time far away, physically and mentally, can help.

During our check out times, we really check out. We don’t take our work with us but rather leave behind the academic books, laptops and the To-Do lists. Bringing work to the beach, a week-end retreat and countless other places makes the time away less restorative and we tend not to get much work done anyways. It can be hard to let go of constant thoughts of “I should be writing” but that low-level self-imposed anxiety wears us down. We’re more efficient when we take the time to fully check out of work.

PhD comics: reminding us we’re not alone since 1997.
If you need just a wee break, check out PhD comics to remind yourself that you’re not alone in the ups and downs of grad school!

Remembering why we started doing this in the first place

All things considered, the grad student lifestyle has a lot of perks (as long as you’re okay with being rich in ideas and relatively poor compared to peers who landed professional jobs). Turning academic guilt into feelings of gratefulness for the flexible lifestyle and ability to spend our days learning can help.

Living according to one’s intrinsic values - the extra challenge of building a sustainable world
Doing a PhD in an interdisciplinary field that aims to solve problems (i.e. sustainability, development etc.) can be extra challenging because 1) People that entered such fields usually want to help the world in some way and a PhD can, at times, seem like a highly ineffective way of contributing towards solutions; and 2) We need to understand and integrate several fields of thought, without having well-defined disciplinary standards, which can increase feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. On the bright side, it gives us the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of seeing the world, which can be empowering.

Embrace the Game
Grad school, like much of life, is a bit of a game. It’s been harder than we anticipated to feel competent and have fun at this game, but it’s taught us about our strengths, limitations and what we need to thrive.

Naomi Klein wrote “building a livable world isn't rocket science; it's far more complex than that." Part of embracing this complexity and creating a satisfying graduate school process is realizing that we can’t do everything at the same time. Becoming a more informed, engaged and compassionate scientist, person, and citizen is part of the solution.

How I feel after writing that last part.
We circle back with a cheesy space metaphor: rocket ships work because they carry everything they need with them. They don’t rely on external forces. But if one of their essential parts breaks down, the mission is compromised. Long term balance is just like this. We pursue graduate degrees so that we can make lasting and tangible contributions. You know where this is going… we won’t make it to the long term if we don’t attend to all our rocket ships’ needs.

Harder than Rocket Science? Fumbling with Mental Health in Grad School. Part 1

by Sarah KlainAlly ThompsonKarina Benessaiah and Verena Seufert

This blog entry reflects the collective reminiscing of experiences that one or more of the contributors have had during the duration of their graduate student journey.

When we reach the end of this graduate school expedition, we want to look back on it as time well spent. Even though it will not be a giant leap for humanity
a realization most students reach a few years into a PhD programwe want it to be a personal leap of success, a source of pride based on working hard to contribute to making the world a little better. 

Chris Hadfield rocks the space science
We want our grad school journeys to avoid the disastrous fate of the Apollo 13 expedition and be more like Chris Hadfield’s stint at the International Space Station which we see as a mix of cool science, amazing people (come-on, who else but Hadfield can pull off that moustache with so much style?!) and brain expanding experiences, spiced with some nerd-fun and good tunes (e.g., Space Oddity). Such a mix would make the requisite hard work feel worthwhile. 

Making our graduate school experiences emulate the most rad Canadian astronaut’s experience in space is much easier said than done. This educational process has required substantially more endurance, courage, tenacity and pain tolerance than we ever anticipated. You think running a marathon is tough? Well, try doing a PhD. It’s kind of like a marathon that tends to last for, let’s be honest, 6 years or more. A PhD tests your emotional stability, sanity, sense of purpose and self-worth. A PhD inevitably becomes extremely personal. Doing it gets at the very core of who you are and what motivates (and de-motivates) you.

Running up and down mountains has proven far more straightforward 
and often more satisfying than working on our dissertations
The grad student lifestyle can be awesome because we have a remarkable amount of autonomy, freedom and flexibility to pursue answers to the questions we choose. We basically live the intellectual’s dream, get (under)paid to pursue topics we care about, have no real boss to tell us what to do, operate mostly on our own terms and on our own time, while surrounded by other similarly nerdy people.

But there are darker dimensions to this PhD experience. Nearly all graduate students flounder and suffer to varying extents and lengths of time. Sooner or later the grad student life gets to most of us. We’ve been startled when we have conversations with other graduate students whom we perceive as extremely competent. These brilliant students, however, often struggle with self-doubt, anxiety, loneliness and depression. This rather prevalent dark underbelly of graduate school is too often not openly discussed.

Grad student life is more of a roller coaster than we imagined. Most of us have a few shining moments of glory when we feel smarter than we’ve ever been before. But this is tempered with stretches of feeling like we know nothing or at least we are overwhelmed with all that we now realize we don’t know.

If you’re lucky and strategic, you might feel like you are changing the world with your work. More frequently, you will likely feel like your dissertation will never end, like filling a bucket that has a hole at the bottom with water. Sometimes you feel connected to many inspiring people who care and think about the same things as you do. Then there are the days when you’re convinced you’re alone in this world of your little PhD rabbit hole.

What makes a graduate school fun is also what makes it so challenging. The fact that we can work on whatever we want means that our identities gets wrapped up in our work. We perceive our dissertations as a signifier of our value. It’s too easy to think that if my research is not good, then I'm not good.
The freedom and flexibility we have also means that our productivity is our own responsibility. If we procrastinate, we have to take personal responsibility for it. Our academic supervisors tend not to breathe down our necks. They train us, their students, to be independent. Our advisers tend to be exceptionally academically intelligent, insightful and sometimes harsh with their critique and feedback. They are always busy, usually really busy (there’s intense selection processes relevant to who gets hired as tenure track and tenured profs these days. See this story with the following excerpt:"Peter Higgs, who won the Nobel prize for his work on the Higgs boson, recently said that the imperative to publish all the time would disqualify him from contemporary academe.")

Wishing that our intellectual rabbit holes were wormholes
transporting us directly to scientific insight

In contrast to most work environments, professors tend not to demand greater output and faster deliverables. Motivation to complete a graduate degree must generally come from largely within ourselves. We have to motivate ourselves to do work that can be boring and repetitive, like data cleaning or transcribing. Add to this the fact that much of what we do is like searching for a needle in a haystack often without even knowing what we're looking for. We've gone down intellectual rabbit holes (wormholes would be way cooler) involving weeks and perhaps months of reading up on theories and topics that end up not being part of our theses or dissertations. These tangents tend to leave us with little to show for large blocks of time and a feeling that we're not useful.

Going down academic rabbit holes feels kind of like this

The result of this is that many people come out of grad school (particularly PhDs) with their egos grated down, dragging themselves over the finish line on their last legs.

In our time as grad students, we have not seen a single person go through the PhD process without moments of close-to or total-break-down.

Does this graduate school process have to be so destructive? See our next post for navigational tips on this master's or PhD journey, which tends to be through at least a few existential crises.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Setting Sail for conservation on the BC coast

Former CHANS lab post-doc Russ Markel now owns and operates Outer Shores Expeditions, which leads marine excursions along the BC coast aboard his 70 foot schooner, Passing Cloud.

Check out his post on the Beaty Biodiversity Museum's blog, which explains more about his organization, his expeditions -- including destinations like the Great Bear Rainforest and Haidi Gwaii -- and how this role merges his passion for research, natural history, and education as part of a larger mission to raise awareness and protect marine ecosystems.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Culture Clash, concluding thoughts: Can Science Save Us? Can We Save Science?

Conclusion of conversation between Dr. John Robinson and Dr. Kai Chan, who both weigh in with their final reflections below. 

This is the final part of the series.  If you missed it: part 1part 2part 3part 4, part 5.

KC: How did two amicable colleagues resort to raised voices discussing sustainability and the imaginary? In part 1 of this exchange between Sustainability thinker John Robinson and myself (Kai Chan), John introduced a fascinating new research project/exhibit on sustainability as an imaginary problem, and I responded with concerns that science was not parallel to religion. In parts twothreefour, and five we debated the extent to which science is religious, ideological, or morally prescriptive, and decided finally that what John was calling 'science' was actually better termed 'materialist metaphysics'. At that point, I think we both felt a happy near-complete resolution. Little did we realize what tension lay ahead....

KC: Walking briskly out of a faculty meeting where we met with President Arvind Gupta as a department, John and I commented on the weekend's extended email exchange. Just like what students seem to imagine of university professors, John joked, spending weekends writing long philosophical emails to one another. I laughed and noted just how rare it is for me to email about work at all on the weekend.

As we reached the base of the stairs in the beautiful new Earth Sciences Building, in the heart of the wide-open lobby (five floors of open space above), we stumbled upon one remaining point of difference. If I remember correctly, John noted that he was glad that the substitution of 'materialist metaphysics' for 'science' allowed me to see that this philosophical perspective on which science is founded is indeed prescriptive.

Taken aback, I blurted out, surely too adamantly, "Well, I don't agree with that."

"What do you mean?? Of course it's prescriptive!!" John exclaimed, surely exhausted by the five rounds of emails and the notion that they did not--after all--come to resolution.

And that was the beginning of a tense few minutes. While we reconciled what we meant by 'prescriptive', I also weighed in on my concerns about how the planned Sustainability in an Imaginary World exhibit might send dangerous signals about the nature of science--even if the choice presented to participants was between 'Religion', 'Literature', and 'Materialist Metaphysics' (but noted as the foundation for science). (Note: partly as a result of our exchange, the names of two of the three perspectives have been changed, as discussed in John’s concluding remarks below). After agreeing that by one interpretation, the latter is certainly prescriptive (more on this below), I expressed my worry that other folks would interpret the choice as I did (clearly making logical leaps based on my sample size of one), and John pointed out appropriately that I'm not the first person they had explained the planned exhibit to, but the only one to have such a reaction (I interpreted John's body language as seeing my reaction to be clearly mistaken). At that point, it seemed clear that John no longer believed me that I was not deeply immersed in the materialist metaphysics perspective; I was just trying to play devil's advocate.

And that's when steam rose from my collar, and our voices escalated as we gesticulated, to the point that I glanced up and wondered whether President Gupta and Dean of Science Simon Peacock were watching this animated display of academic zeal. A friend on sabbatical, David Earn, punctured the tension. With hugely self-conscious awkwardness, I said hi and apologized that I really could not leave this conversation at that juncture.

Looking back on this moment, it's all so laughable. And fortunately, John and I both realized that and reflected on which implicit assumptions brought us to that bizarrely escalated moment. 

As a practicing scientist, I certainly see the great value in the scientific perspective, which I see as accepting the materialist metaphysics position temporarily for the sake of applying the scientific method to better understand cause and effect. I agree that we cannot know 'truth', but that doesn't trouble me much. Science helps us get closer to making sense of how much of the world appears to operate, and that's good enough for me 99.9% of the time.

As someone who studied and publishes in philosophy, I was shocked to find myself so strongly at odds on these issues with a humanities scholar. But my primary philosophy education was logic and ethics, much more than epistemology and metaphysics. So for me, 'prescriptive' meant a complete and logical moral argument about what one should do.

John's training is obviously much broader across the humanities, and from his perspective, worldviews are prescriptive in the sense that they colour what we view as right. Of course they do! I argued that the scientific method (including peer review) is an imperfect but intentional and somewhat effective tool for critiquing such implicit assumptions, and for rebuking inappropriately value-laden conclusions. John held the position that the scientific community openly embraced deeply consequential value-laden assumptions.

Thinking then about John's own background, I realized that since we were using 'science' inclusively (both natural and social), when John said 'science' he also imagined economics. (I remembered that John has often critiqued the implicit assumptions in economics, and John was Tom Green's supervisor for an excellent PhD dissertation on the limitations of undergraduate teaching in economics.) Much more than chemistry, physics, and biology, I certainly agree that economics makes broad and substantial assumptions about value, which are clearly prescriptive in the sense John intends. Think of the distorting power of GDP measures and economic growth in discussions about the health of a nation. Everyone can agree to beat up on economics, can't we? ;)

Twice (with 'prescriptive' and 'science'), we used the same words in substantially different ways without knowing it. Ah, the challenges of interdisciplinarity!

Reflecting on the Sustainability in an Imaginary World Project, my concern lingers that it may inadvertently result in further confusion about the role and utility of science. In this time when science is so badly being distorted, maligned, and ignored in official circles in both Canada and the USA, I dread anything that lends credence to the arguments of those anti-science interests. Perhaps irrationally, I fear climate skeptics using this exhibit--which seeks to make sustainability more imaginary (with less emphasis on fact)--to justify ignoring climate science, choosing instead to 'imagine' what human actions will incur for our climate.

That said, the planned exhibit also makes superb points, so I'm looking forward to experiencing it!

And now, from Dr. Robinson

JR: I felt exactly the same as Kai: an apparent happy resolution to our disagreements in our email exchanges seemed to dissolve into thin air and here we were at loggerheads again. As he so well describes, we discovered, yet again, that different implicit assumptions each of us had about both our own position and that of each other, were in play. I think our experience in this exchange reinforces the argument that deep forms of interdisciplinarity require actual immersion in each other’s world: there is no substitute for lots of time spent together in discussion.

Directly as a result of our exchange, I have decided that we need to change the name of the three perspectives/worlds we are exploring in the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project. They are derived from Richard Rorty’s brilliant article “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre” (in Philosophy as Cultural Politics, Philosophical Papers, Vol 4, Cambridge University Press, 2007), where he says that “that the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature.” He goes on to say that the last gasp of the philosophical stage is a belief in materialist metaphysics. Rorty describes it this way: “This was the attempt to put natural science in the place of both religion and Socratic reflection, to see empirical inquiry as providing exactly what Socrates thought it could never give us—redemptive truth.”

In my exchanges with Kai, I used the shorthand of “religious, scientific and literary perspectives/worlds” to describe the three positions. Based on our discussion, I think it would be better to say “spiritual, materialist, and literary perspectives/worlds”. That allows a separation in principle between science and materialism. Many scientists are of course deeply religious, though I would guess that materialist metaphysics is by far the most prevalent philosophical position of most practicing scientists. This change of language also allows us to include, in the spiritual category, those that see redemptive truth in the non-material realm, but perhaps don’t belong to any organized religion.

I think this issue underlies the question of the role and status of scientific understanding. Kai says “Science helps us get closer to making sense of how much of the world appears to operate”, and I agree with that. But, from a literary perspective point of view, much turns on what we mean when we use terms like “world” (not to mention “making sense” and “appears”). Does this world exist independent of our beliefs, values and understandings? Both the spiritual and materialist perspectives/world would say that it does. We may have only partial understanding of that world (we see through a glass darkly in one famous religious statement) but it exists independently of us. The literary perspective/world challenges this view. In Rorty’s language “we only have each other”. There is no external reality or divine plan that exists outside us.

I hope this helps to explain why I have used the awkward term “perceptive/world” in this brief comment. In both the spiritual and materialist worlds, these questions are matters of perspective or world-view: a view we have of the world, which exists independently of those views. But in the literary world, it is not a question of a perspective but of the nature of the world itself. Put in somewhat literary terms, the world is fictional all the way down.

The purpose of the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project is to explore the question of whether the difference among these three perspectives is important for addressing sustainability concerns. In particular, what would it mean for sustainability to adopt a literary view (the other two are much better understood, and practiced, I think). What worlds do these three approaches give rise to?

From this point of view, it is not just economics that is prescriptive (though I certainly agree with Kai that economics is prescriptive in particular ways that physical and natural science are not). But science itself, as a way of thinking, almost always posits the existence of an external world that exists, and operates, independently of human existence. (Indeed, explicitly championing that point is a central argument of much of environmental science. We have to escape from anthropocentrism, it is claimed, and recognize the existence, and value, of a world independent of us if we are to save or preserve nature.) It is in this ontological sense that the materialist perspective/world is prescriptive, and such ontological prescriptions have very large practical consequences. I think Kai and I agree on this. [KC: Indeed, we do!]

As Kai says, he comes at these questions from the point of view of logic and ethics, while I am more focussed on epistemological and metaphysical questions. As a result I have a lot of trouble with the fact-value distinction, and therefore with the view that prescription applies only to a moral realm.

As to Kai’s final point about the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project potentially undermining public perceptions of science, I prefer to think that it instead offers at least the possibility of suggesting a different kind of science than is usually provided. As Rorty is at pains to argue, the literary approach does not deny that science is the best social process we currently have for predicting phenomena (as opposed for example to saying objectively true things about some reality that exists external to us). But science is itself of course a human endeavor (as a century or so of science studies has exhaustively shown). The challenge here is to articulate what a literary approach to science would mean. My suspicion is that it would be both very different from, and perhaps more useful for sustainability, (and maybe even less “distorted, maligned, and ignored”, despite having “less emphasis on fact”) than the kind of science that is usually on offer. But even to raise this question means trying to articulate what this different approach might look like, and how it compares to more conventional approaches. That is a major purpose of the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project.