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*This guest blog post was originally published on GradShare.com in 2013.
This summer I'm reading for my exams. Which basically means that in my free time (and often times during my work day), I alternate between panicking and worrying.
By now, my friends are used to me showing up to social occasions bleary-eyed from reading restoration comedy on a computer screen all day. They're used to me turning any conversation into an excuse to review theater history. Those closest to me have even come to expect the teary mid-day phone call with hysteria edging my voice and have developed their own methods of talking me off the proverbial cliff.
Academia can be rough. It can be brutal. We often don't feel safe or comfortable enough to admit to our colleagues that the process of acquiring the coveted letters after our name is exhaustive, fearful, threatening, intimidating, and a host of other scary words that can make up our reality for fear that said colleagues will, like a pack of wild lions, attack the weak wildebeest. Isn't it ironic then that said colleagues can make the best support system when we're going through a tough time?
Among the other skills I have acquired this summer, I've also learned something about dealing with the darker parts of the Ph.D. process. If you, like me, are dealing with a particularly difficult segment of the road to Doctorhood, here are some tips to help guide you through the trying times and navigate you to stiller waters.
1) Remember that panic and worry are wastes of energy and, above all, you don't have time for this. If you are going through a rough spot, chances are you have five million items of business on your plate. Worrying and panicking will not help you get these things done. It's often difficult to recall this in moments of weakness, but like anything else it becomes a habit. If you find yourself in the gear-grinding cycle of either worry or panic, take a moment to breathe and remind yourself that you could be doing something productive right now. It takes strength, but this is the first step to getting yourself back on track to getting things done.
2) Recognize when you are having productive thoughts and when you are having unproductive thoughts. Productive thoughts will lead you to action plans which will lead you, in the long run, to less stress (example: I'm not covering enough material, I'm worried I won't get through everything I need to get through on time... okay, let me look at my book list and my calendar and see what kind of a study plan I need to make and stick to that). Unproductive thoughts are generally the product of anxiety about things beyond our control (example: I'm worried I won't pass my exam and thus my fiercely-defended, very expensive life choice will amount to nothing and I will become a failure at life). Try to turn the unproductive thoughts into productive ones (okay, well, I won't fail my exam if I study correctly... maybe I should examine my study techniques and evaluate how I'm doing based on past exams).
3) If you absolutely cannot stop worrying, here's a trick that one of my psychiatrists taught me: schedule your worry time. It may sound odd, but think about it. If you absolutely must worry, you can at least confine the worrying to a certain ten-minute subset of your day (he recommended no more than ten minutes to curtail the cycle of unproductive worry). If you do begin to worry in a time that isn't "worry time," remind yourself that it's not time to worry and you can worry about whatever-it-is during its allotted window.
4) Speaking of psychiatrists, remember that you are not an island. There are plenty of people willing to help, and sometimes it takes some professional training to get you the best help. Extreme stress can cause all kinds of negative physical and psychological symptoms. If you're feeling overwhelmed, there's no shame in finding someone to talk to. Chances are your school has a mental health center, and if not, your insurance company can recommend someone in your area.
5) Take breaks, eat well, sleep well, and exercise. All of these things have been proven to assist in information processing. In addition, there's no way that you can do your best work if you aren't feeling your best. Take care of yourself and you will be more productive.
6) Know thyself. Know how much work you can do in a day, how long it will take you to accomplish this, and what your ideal work conditions are. If you can optimize your work-time, you will accomplish more and have even less reason to legitimately panic. Figure out what makes you function at your peak, and provide yourself with that opportunity to succeed. In some instances, this may involve adjusting your work hours - I know my peak functioning time is generally between 3 PM and 9 PM. Also figure out what you can do to pull yourself out of a slump when it (inevitably) happens. Do you need to call a friend? Take a walk? Give yourself a treat? Look at cute cat pictures on the Internet? Whatever it is, find out and do it. Taking ten minutes to comfort yourself when you're having a moment will, in the long run, be less intrusive on your day than stopping work for an hour because you got caught in a downward spiral.
7) Know when to say "no" and when to say "me." If you are experiencing academic crunch, you are allowed to be selfish with your time. You are allowed to need things while studying for your exams. You are allowed to say, "I can't do you this favor because I need to work this weekend." You are, in fact, encouraged to find the space for yourself in order to get through whatever it is that you need to get through. Your friends will understand.
8) When all else fails, try to remember why it was that you got into your field. What made you want to go for the Ph.D.? What inspired your work? What do you love about this? Far too often we get caught up in the hassle of the daily grind and forget to return to the "love" portion of our inevitable love/hate relationship with grad school. Beneath the layers of administrative red tape and nightmare-inducing qualification exams, there's a kernel of joy. If there isn't, you wouldn't (and shouldn't) be here. Finding that joy can keep you grounded amidst a maelstrom of troubles if you can only take the time to remember.
As the summer wanes, I realize more and more that there is light at the end of the tunnel. While the process of becoming is not one that will ever truly end (take your exams, then you have to write your dissertation proposal. Proposal accepted, then you have to write your dissertation. Dissertation finished, then you have to defend it. Defend your dissertation, then you have to look for a job. Find a job, then you have to find a way to get tenure...), there will be darker places and lighter places. What's important to remember is that whatever stress you are under now, there will always be a definite transition point into something new, different, and hopefully less burdensome (... at least for the moment).
Keep calm, and study on, my brethren.
Danielle Rosvally is a Ph.D. student in Drama at Tufts University specializing in Shakespeare in performance. She holds an MA from Rutgers University and a BA from New York University. In addition, she has trained as an actor at such institutions as The American Globe Theatre, The Actor's Institute, Shakespeare & Company, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She publishes anecdotes about her academic adventures via her blog: http://www.daniprose.com.