Sunday, 27 May 2018

On cheerfully going about a PhD

This post takes on a different tone from others. It's about taking care of one's mental health as a graduate student, especially as a PhD student.

Among the subset of humanity that's free from war, poverty (some might argue PhD students are in poverty) and other forms of instability, the path that a PhD student takes is among the most ambiguous. What makes it especially challenging is the ambiguity that's faced at almost all levels.

Fresh from an undergraduate institution, for perhaps the first time in one's life, there's heavy isolation from friends. And a significant number of PhD students pursue it abroad, away from family and familiar settings. Finding the next stable relationship(s) is a challenge, especially so in a foreign country.

Then there's the ambiguity that comes from the nature of work itself. One toils for months trying to understand a particular topic, a few months down the line formulate a problem, work on it for a few more months, and yet face the prospect of a paper rejection. In the middle of it all, there's the question of meaning, if this problem - on which one invests hundreds of hours from the best years of one's life - is actually worth it.

It's easy to go off track and enter a phase of gloom. I've heard multiple accounts of how PhD students go through something similar, both from people I know and from various studies, quoting a recent study, "Based on clinically validated questionnaires, 41% of respondents showed moderate to severe anxiety and 39% moderate to severe depression, both of which are more than six times the prevalence found in studies of the general population". Having endured such a phase for almost a year now, I've grown to accept this is as a problem and here are a few things that are helping me get back on my feet. I'm choosing to write this now as opposed to a time when I'm fully back to cheerful ways so that I can best relate to someone who might be going through something similar.

I like to think of the way out as a pattern of thinking that I must cultivate. While cultivating such a pattern of thinking is mostly about habit, what I'd like to share are a few starting points that have acted as a guide. A guide to deciding what changes to make, for instance, what routines and changes in attitude to aim for.

First, in this unfamiliar surrounding, I find that there's the absence of a few essential things - things that unawares helped me maintain my well-being hitherto. These particular things, the sooner I'm able to identify, the more I can actively work towards compensating for. One recent success in this regard has been in identifying the importance of home-cooked food, food that reminds me of home. Simply resuming my long-abandoned cooking, rediscovering dormant food delights has helped tremendously. I hope to make many such self-discoveries along the way, and perhaps at the end of it, I might be able to see this period as a phase of growth.

Secondly, I notice that I need an abundance of happy hormones. Perhaps nothing contributes most to this than regular routine and physical exercise. Just going to the gym and exerting those muscles has gone a long way. I remain skeptical about the impact of things like yoga, meditation but that is something else I've been trying out periodically.

While the above two 'strategies' are more universal, in my case I also perhaps need a change in attitude. I've lately realized that a large part of my frustration has been in trying to conform to this figure of an 'ideal' PhD student. "I am not what I do", said a recent quote from a cool relative of mine. In the present age, and perhaps more in academia than elsewhere, there's a tendency to define the ideal self as someone who revels in one's work 24x7.

But then for most people, much of work is boring toil, that one assigns certain hours to, just as man has gone about it for generations. While there's some who's nature is always in tune with work, academia, and research, I've come to realize that in my case it's an unrealistic goal to strive for. I find it liberating to accept this, and simply sticking to a schedule has helped me get back on track with research.

Edit: A month later, and my observation has been that taking better care of fundamentals has created an unexpected rejuvenation in interest towards research. If I were to re-write this post, the tone of the above two paragraphs would be a lot milder.

And rather than tying up all my sense of meaning with work and research, I've tried exploring other avenues. For example, I've discovered that I derive a certain joy and meaning in educating the less fortunate. Pursuing some of this by tutoring refugee kids has been a very rewarding experience. Another is identifying that I derive a sense of meaning in being close to family.

Finally, considering the progress I've made in the past weeks, I probably don't have to seek out professional help. However, I have multiple friends who've had the need for a therapist. There is absolutely no stigma in doing so, and in fact, it's an act of courage to identify that one needs support, and is prepared to take whatever support there is out there.

Wishing cheerful days ahead for one and all!

P.S.: I've also discovered that growing a beard and occasionally stroking it is a surprising source of wisdom.

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