Post Ph.D. Defense:
A Time for an Introspective Analysis and an Open Conversation about Well-being
On June 8th, 2018, I successfully defended my Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science at the University of Maryland, in the company of my family, friends, and an outstanding committee. While this day has come and gone, I still find myself in “crunch mode”, where I am unable to relax, feel relieved, or feel accomplished. If the most difficult part is over, then why do I not feel like I tackled this great achievement? After talking with others, I found that this feeling of being an imposter is quite common. While working on my edits to my dissertation and finishing up some research, I am also working on mental health and reflection. The life of a student, especially a graduate student, can be so taxing on your mental health. I do not think that universities, especially graduate programs, do enough to inform students of available mental health resources and focus groups. In this world of social media highlight reels and constant comparison, it is so easy to feel lost, alone, or like a disappointment. The unstructured graduate student workstyle can leave students feeling isolated and burned out, with a seemingly overwhelming burden of examinations, presentations, and publications to ace. Becoming an expert in a field of interest does not mean that you should become inept in everything else – especially health and wellbeing. I spent a few days after my defense to take an inward look at my graduate school experience. I am by no means an expert on how to ace your defense or dissertation, but while it is fresh in my mind, I would like to share my personal experience and potentially shed light on to others who may be struggling with issues.
Mental Health in graduate school and leading up to the defense
“Put your oxygen mask on before assisting others” is a well-known instruction in the case of a plane crash. This is because you can’t help others if you didn’t first help yourself. Unfortunately, in graduate school, it is easy to lose sight of personal health and wellness by accepting too many projects, co-authorships, and meetings. Declining well-being can manifest itself from lack of sleep and exercise and can exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues. Mental health problems are often stigmatized by the public, and the only things people tend to share on social media are the “highlight reels” of success, positive news, and great looking food. You rarely see a post on Facebook about how someone applied to three jobs and never received one, or, on Instagram, a bowl of unsightly discounted mac and cheese because that is all someone was able to afford that week for dinner. Instead, we see how Moe is moving to NYC for high-paying job and Jane’s beautiful dinner that cost more than many people can afford to spend on food. But remember, these are the highlights – the things that people want others to see and how they wish to be perceived. In this world of instant gratification and the portrayal of perfect in every aspect of life, the imperfect moments are often masked and buried away inside one’s self. We must work to normalize mental health issues and to make a resource network that is accessible, judgement-free, and friendly to anyone who needs it.
From the time I was a child, I had high-functioning anxiety. From the exterior, it appeared(s) like I was(am) successful: good grades, well-groomed, great group of friends, and many amazing opportunities. However, what many do not see is the constant fear of failure, perfectionism, nervous ticks (like playing with my hair or scratching my fingers until they bleed), and panic attacks.
I’m sharing this because it is okay to function this way. I should not be judged for who I am, and I am not afraid to be vulnerable to the public, for it is how we normalize it. This anxiety makes me who I am – a dedicated, punctual, caring, and detail-oriented person. I’ve learned that the stress of graduate school can certainly exacerbate certain symptoms. After years of research for my PhD, along with a side research project on myself, I found that the following has helped to reduce my anxiety and led to the successful completion of my dissertation/defense:
Have a morning routine: People with anxiety tend to also have decision fatigue early in the day. If you wake up and try to make decisions about what to eat, what to do for exercise, what to wear, where to go for work (grad student problems), and what type of coffee drink you want, you have already made most of the good decisions you will make for the day before you even left the house! By having a routine and keeping it simple, you can save your energy for the more important decisions you have to make in your day that are work-related. I pick out my gym clothes, my clothing for the day, know what I am going to do for exercise, and know what I am going to do for lunch all the night before.
Maintain physical health: I have always been an avid exerciser, but lately, I have focused a lot more on my diet. For a long time, I thought that as long as I exercised, I can eat bad food. I’ve cut out many of the “bad foods” like fried, sugary, and processed foods, as well as empty carbs. I’ve incorporated leafy green foods into my diet daily, as well as blueberries, walnuts, dark chocolate, cinnamon, and turmeric. In addition, I started taking magnesium and ginko in addition to my multivitamin. I’ve found that since I started taking magnesium, I feel as if my anxiety has leveled out quite a bit. Placebo effect? Perhaps. But I feel great, so I give it credit. While I was writing my dissertation, I made sure I was still working out almost daily before 7am, I went for many, many afternoon and evening walks, I worked in public spaces (e.g., Whole Foods) during the day and privately (my office or at home) in the evening, listened to baroque classical music, and I kept fun things on my agenda. Lastly, if I felt my anxiety was getting too high, I took a shower with a quick burst of cold water at the end (~30 seconds). Cold water does wonders for anxiety – I highly recommend!
Maintain relationships with people: While graduate school (or independent work in general) can feel like an isolated experience, it is important to take a step back from your laptop and chat with other people. This might be common sense, but can often be over-looked. I am lucky to have a partner who knows and understands my research, but am also lucky that we are able to chat about a variety of other non-work related topics. In addition, I scheduled coffee with people in the field I wanted to get into (science policy) at least once a month for the past year. I found these coffee chats to be incredibly energizing and motivating, and received amazing advice. I also chatted on the phone with and texted many friends, especially while writing my dissertation to keep me feeling supported. These social interactions are so important to maintain. If you don’t exercise a muscle, you experience atrophy. The same can happen to your social skills if you do not exercise them! *Remember: I love to chat. So please reach out to ME if you need to practice your social skills muscle! 😉
The day of the defense: “Welp, here goes nothin” – Billy Madison
On the day of my defense, I woke up at my usual time (6am), went for my usual morning run, and had my usual breakfast and coffee with David. I wanted to maintain a sense of “normalcy” as much as I can. I was shaky, nervous, and scared, but also feeling excited. I had practiced (and timed) my talk two times prior and bought all of the defense snacks and accessories days before. The only thing I needed to do was talk (which I love doing) about the stuff I’ve literally dedicated my blood, sweat, and tears to for almost five years. I also did a tapping routine by Nick Ortner (https://www.thetappingsolution.com), which is a bizarre light tap with guided meditation that oddly enough, really works. I also maintained the disposition that I am a life-long learner, and that today [the day of my defense] is a snapshot of where I am in my knowledge and skills journey. Learning is not static, but dynamic. Learning stops if you believe you already know everything and have nothing left to gain. I constantly reminded myself to maintain a “beginner’s mind”. Additionally, when I was critiqued on something, such as my science writing skills, I remembered to myself that I haven’t honed grammar yet. By deciding to add “yet”, you are always working towards something and bettering yourself. These mindsets truly helped me through this stressful and challenging time. It is also important to remember that no two people’s dissertation writing and defense experiences are the same. Everyone’s projects, committees, and expectations vary, so it can become an isolated, but personal experience.
There is no great accomplishment if there is no you
For workaholics or people working towards some professional or personal goal, it can be easy to overlook mental and physical health. But remember, these goals will not be achieved if you are not around to achieve them. You can’t do much with the initials Ph.D. if they are also next to the initials R.I.P. Mental health problems are serious. For people who think “oh it’s just in your head”, well… yeah, it is. But it can manifest itself physically in very serious ways. I ultimately want people to not feel alone or shamed by any issues they are trying to overcome. After analyzing years of life in a stressful environment, I’ve decided that I want people to know I have high-functioning anxiety and that things are not “easy” for me, and life is not always a highlight reel. I want people to know that it is okay to have problems, and that there are effective ways to help cope with symptoms. I want people to know that it is okay to be you! There are so many people dealing with similar issues in all professional and personal settings. It is always a choice to reach out, but I strongly encourage people to seek resources, tips, and advice wherever and whenever possible. Society needs to accept that humans are imperfect, complicated, and beautiful beings. Mental health is so vitally important, and should be subject to open conversation (if desired). It needs to be at the top of each person’s priority list. With so many choices to make in a day, before your decision fatigue sets in, always make sure to choose you, first.