A PhD is stressful. A PhD is torture. A PhD is one of the hardest things that you will ever do. These and many other phrases get thrown around so often that it would be easy to get overwhelmed when starting a PhD, or to be scared away from doing a PhD altogether. I am not saying that doing a PhD is easy or stress-free. Like all other professions or challenges we commit to, it requires hard work, patience, and a passion for what we do. There are countless blogs and articles out there with tips on how to finish a PhD fast, what skills are important for a PhD student, and what personality traits make a good PhD candidate. One of the best blogs for these tips is the Thesis Whisperer. But this blog post is slightly different. This blog post is about the “right attitude” for doing a PhD.
This “right attitude” is something between “this is hell” and “this is super easy”, but most importantly it is something that needs to be experienced for ourselves. It would be so easy to simply get wrapped up in memes and slogans depicting a PhD degree as a descent into madness. The harder path is to accept the choice we have made and go forward with a more positive outlook. What helped me with this positive outlook happened to be just the topic that I was doing my PhD on: mindfulness.
As a mindfulness researcher, my PhD has been (so far) a dual path of investigating mindfulness through objective research in my work life and practicing mindfulness and meditation through subjective experience in my personal life. These two lives are not separate, however (as most PhD students will tell you), and in my case, they were integrated fully. Research that I do as part of my PhD influences my personal practice and my personal practice influences my understanding of mindfulness and the research that I do. But practicing mindfulness outside of my PhD has also helped me cope with the stress and challenges that are common in the life of an academic, and today I would like to share with you some tips that have helped me through so far. Or, what doing a PhD in mindfulness has taught me about doing a PhD.
Rejection and failure are acceptable
This might seem contradictory to doing a successful PhD, but failure and rejection are a huge part of academia, as they are in most areas of life. Papers will get rejected from publications many times over before they get accepted, and even senior lecturers and experienced researchers are not immune from this rejection. Studies will produce negative or null results and you won’t always find the correlations and outcomes you were looking for. You won’t be granted every fund you apply for. You won’t be accepted to every conference. You won’t win every competition. You won’t always recruit the amount of participants you were looking for. Computers and machines will malfunction. The list goes on and on. Mindfulness teaches us to accept feelings of failure and rejection without getting carried away with them. It teaches us to let go and move past them. And it teaches us to not react as strongly, or judge ourselves as harshly, for things that are often outside of our immediate control.
Success comes in many forms
Surrounded by so much rejection and failure, it is not unusual for PhD students to find themselves overwhelmed, stressed, and disappointed. On top of this, we only tend to celebrate certain achievements. We celebrate big successes, such as our paper being accepted for publication, being invited to speak at a conference, or finishing a chapter in our thesis. This makes our accomplishments seem sparse and the periods between them long. But what if we celebrated “smaller” accomplishments? What if we celebrated finishing a study, writing a paragraph, reading an article, or simply presenting our research? Mindfulness teaches us to live in the present. It teaches us to be grateful for every day and to appreciate every single moment. And it teaches us that every success is worth celebrating.
Mental health comes first
I will never stop saying this: mental health comes first. It doesn’t matter what you are doing in life; if it doesn’t make you happy, it is not worth doing. Many jobs come with their own stresses and hardships, and a PhD is no different. But while difficulty is a natural part of life, if feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression start affecting your mental health and wellbeing on a daily basis, it may be time to reconsider the path that you are on. Even while doing a PhD, it is important to take breaks, rest, meditate, and take “mental health days”. These can be occasional days off in the comfort of your own home or spa and meditation retreats. It can even be as simple as taking short breaks throughout the day to breathe and reconnect with yourself. Mindfulness teaches us to pause, reflect, and stay connected throughout the day. It teaches us to tune in with our thoughts and feelings and notice any sensations of discomfort within us. And it teaches us to be kind and compassionate to ourselves.
Maybe I am lucky that my PhD is on the topic of mindfulness. It allows me to step out of my PhD and “step in” to myself to deal with challenges as they arise. Yes, I still get stressed. Yes, I still get overwhelmed. And yes, doing a PhD is hard work. But hopefully this blog post can offer you some help, or at least a different perspective, on the path that you have chosen to take. As for me, I am now halfway through my PhD, so the next challenge will be to keep my mindfulness and meditation practice going for the second half!