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.


  1. Thanks for the great article! I appreciated your evolution of reflections, unwrapping the challenges of being a graduate student first (Part 1), and then looking and finding constructive suggestions on how to balance our life in grad school (Part 2). It helps to realize that we are all in the same boat and that we can reach out, talk about challenges and support each other in finding new ways of dealing with them. Grad school is much more than our scientific contributions, but also a life experience and opportunity for growth. A friend once told me once, doing a PhD is like having three different jobs: begin a project manager with/for your committee, an expert in your field of study, and a communicator of your research. This is just one example illustrating your point on 'affirming the achievements'.

  2. I loved everything about this article! Very well written! Such important stuff here. The only comment I would make is where you suggest being in an interdisciplinary field is more challenging because people who go in them want to help the world in soma way. I would say students in all fields to. Medical fields, engineering, education fields - we all want that. I myself am in a non-interdisciplinary field, but I too want to help the world.

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