Still Here

Hi Friends,

It’s been over two months since we last posted. Perhaps you thought that we had disappeared, but we’re still here and still passionate about helping YOU get through your PhD in a way that is physically, mentally, and emotionally beneficial for you.

One thing humanities PhD students know we’ll is that, if you don’t find time to take a break then you will have a breakdown.

In interviewing PhD students about their experience I was commonly told that folx would push themselves through the semester focusing on teaching with grand plans to write at their next break. However, break would roll around and they would spend it exhausted, sick, or both. This was frequently accompanied by feelings of guilt around the “lost” productivity.

Almost unanimously, the graduate students I interviewed believed that a certain measure of adrenaline kept them going during the semester and the minute they were on break their bodies crashed.

You learn to take breaks or you breakdown.

Recently, someone asked me about work-life balance. As we’ve talked about before, balance is an individual process, which means there is no work-life balance practice that will work for everyone. However, I will share my work-life balance philosophy with you:

There will always be people willing to give you more work. No one will ever give you more life.

This is why it is essential to prioritize your life over work.

What makes this particularly difficult for many of us who work in higher ed is that our work is an expression of what we are passionate about in life.

I wrote a dissertation on how the concept of virginity is crucial to the patriarchal nation-state because of my experiences with the sexual control of women in Christian Nationalist churches. I recently met someone who was drawn to academic advising, in part, as a way to help other students avoid the mistakes he made. One of my clients is doing an amazing black feminist analysis of digital activism because of how vital the internet was to her own identity formation as a black girl and black woman.

Without exaggeration I can tell you that everyone I personally know who has completed a PhD has done so on a subject that is vital to their identity. It may not always be obvious. I know a Revolutionary War scholar whose topic doesn’t seem particularly related to who he is as a person until you realize that a love for the history of the American Revolution was something he and his dad shared growing up.

This deep connection to our topic of study may seem obvious–after all, you can’t study something so deeply for, on average, seven years without passion for it whether that passion takes the form of love or hate.

What this means in practice, though, is that beyond #NeoLiberalCapitalismProblems, which demand we all feel like we need to work all the time to be good people, academics often want to work on their topics because it feels like a vital, creative expression of our own existence. Together, these forces can prevent us from taking breaks, even though all the good science says that we desperately need them in order to avoid a physical, mental, or emotional breakdown.

All of that is to say, taking a two month break from this site wasn’t something I planned on doing, but I needed a break after a very eventful 2018. The thing is, I didn’t know I needed a break until I found myself in it. In true grad student fashion, I was in denial that I needed a break until I had a little breakdown. After that, I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about needing a break. Finally, I just leaned into that sh*t and owned up the break.

I missed y’all terribly and I’m so glad to be back. We have some exciting stuff planned for the rest of 2019 but the most important message for today is this: We take breaks so we don’t breakdown.

Happy Labor Day!

How right and how fitting it is that we should end our summer series on rest this Labor Day. Yes, Labor Day is traditionally seen as the end of summer, with many U.S. schools going back into session the days of carefree summer fun are at an end. More importantly, however, Labor Day is a holiday created by union workers who wanted to advocate for more time off.

If you belong to a campus with a graduate student union I hope you join it.

Whether or not your campus is unionized, I hope you honor the spirit of the holiday by taking some time off for yourself.

If our summer series on rest has piqued your interest on the research behind the connections between taking time off and increased productivity you can follow-up here, here, here, and here. (Fair warning: I haven’t actually read any of these books so please feel free to report back on their quality in the comments.)

Come back tomorrow for the start of our September series on teaching!

Mindfulness

Some days rest is easy: the sun shines, the breeze blows, and your inbox is empty.

These days are magical.

And Rare.

If you’re a typical PhD student your days are more likely to be spent in a small, windowless office shared with several other graduate students.

Other graduate students in your field, and the connections you form with them, are a vital part of success, and sanity, in your later academic career.

But they can be a heckuva inconvenience when you really need to get some writing done and all of your officemates are catching up on departmental gossip or meeting with students or doing anything else that makes your office feel like Grand Central Station.

This can be truly devastating to your productivity given that it takes over 20 minutes to recover from an interruption in your work.

For me, the spiral of thwarted productivity goes something like this:

Officemates in our shared office; living their lives.

Interrupting me.

Me: [Gets annoyed.]

Me: [Feels bad for being annoyed.]

Me: [Tries to work.]

Me: [Is distracted.]

Me: [Doesn’t make progress.]

Me: [Gets mad at myself for not making progress.]

Me: [Gets annoyed at officemates for thwarting my progress.]

Me: [Is annoyed and distracted and makes no progress.]

Me: [Leaves office hours.]

In the face of this destructive cycle mindfulness can be a lifesaver.

Like flow, mindfulness isn’t so much a form of rest as it is a way of approaching an activity whether that activity be rest or work.

Chances are, you’ve heard about mindfulness before. It’s been touted as a treatment for an impressively wide range of problems and seems to have several different definitions ranging from being present in the moment to observing your responses without judgment.

While there’s nothing wrong with being in the present, we’ll stick to the latter definition of mindfulness: observing your responses (thoughts and emotions) without judgment.

Let’s replay that earlier scenario with a mindfulness practice:

Officemates in our shared office; living their lives.

Interrupting me.

Me: [Gets annoyed.]

Me: [Feels bad for being annoyed.]

Mindfulness: [I’m feeling bad. Why am I feeling bad?]

Mindfulness: [I’m feeling bad because I’m annoyed at my officemates for talking even though this is their office and it’s not their fault.]

Mindfulness: [Is there anything I can do to improve this situation?]

Me: [Yes, I can enter attendance now which doesn’t take much attention and reschedule writing for after I teach.]

Me: [Takes a deep breath.]

Me: [Feels better.]

The power of mindfulness is that it cuts through that voice in your head saying “I should be doing X!” That voice, while meant to be helpful, is actually a distraction that prevents work from getting done. Mindfulness helps silence that voice and actually get work done.

A mindfulness practice is, well, just that–a practice. The goal isn’t to do it perfectly but simply to do it. Over time, a mindfulness practice can help you feel, if not rested, a sense of peace in even the most chaotic of environments. And after all, what is a grad student office but the most chaotic of environments?

 

Flow: A Very Doable Magic Trick

I debated long and hard about whether or not to include the concept of “flow” in our summer series on rest because flow isn’t really a way of resting so much as it is a way of working.

The flow state is more commonly known as “being in the zone” and you’ve probably experienced it at some point. I know some people who report getting into a flow state when playing video games or running (not at the same time). Part of the reason I chose a math minor during undergrad was because I often fell into a flow state when doing math problems.

As a PhD student, falling into a flow state when writing is akin to finding the Holy Grail.

But the flow state, the zone, as elusive as it might seem from the outside, is actually something that can be cultivated.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is the positive psychologist who has researched and popularized the idea of flow. According to Csíkszentmihályi the key to flow is that the task is “just about manageable.” In other words, the task is a Goldilocks: not easy enough that you get bored but not hard enough that you feel defeated–instead it’s juuust right. The task is a challenge but one you feel up to.

The key to flow, as with so many things in graduate school, is understanding task management. [1] We seem to achieve flow when we pick a task that is difficult but not overwhelmingly so. There also seems to be some evidence that we achieve flow when we work on a task where we can observe measurable progress (remember the video games and running from before?). Unfortunately, not a lot of tasks in graduate school, are ones where we can sit down and see measurable progress at the end of an hour or working. A dissertation certainly isn’t that type of task.

The first step of inducing flow in dissertation writing is to break the actual writing itself down into manageable chunks.

You know your writing speed best so start by picking a goal that is at the outside limit of what’s manageable for you in a day–remember, it needs to be challenging but doable. For instance, I can easily write about two-three pages a day. A stretch goal for me would be to write three pretty good pages. My partner, on the other hand, writes slowly. He can, generally, write about two paragraphs a day. A stretch goal for him would be to write one and a half good paragraphs a day. [2]

The second step of inducing flow is to give yourself permission to write badly.

No, really. When I talk to graduate students they often report that putting words on paper isn’t the difficult part. What’s hard is dealing with the fear that what you write won’t be good enough or second-guessing how what you’re writing right now will fit in with what you write when you finally get to chapter four. That leads to this:

giphy

Instead, take a deep breath and remember

Quote-Ernest-Hemingway-first-draft-anything-shit

Give yourself permission to just write in the moment without worrying about how this sentence connects to what you said in your prospectus or how you’d defend this claim in a job talk. (No, seriously, I used to spiral out on that last one ALL the time and all progress would stop.)

The third, and final, step to inducing flow is to give yourself restful conditions.

Restful conditions here doesn’t mean a comfy bed, but instead means conditions under which you can focus without being interrupted. [3] If you’re a person who needs complete silence then scheduling time to go into your office on the weekend might be your way to flow. If you need some ambient noise picking a coffee shop where you aren’t likely to run into friends could put you on the road to flow. Once you’ve found your spot you can mute your phone, turn off your notifications, and enter into that smooth and beautiful flow.

If it doesn’t work the first couple of times don’t worry. It’s going to take some trial and error. You might find out that a student theater troop practices (loudly) in a classroom next to your office every Saturday and need to restrategize your location. [4] You might find that what you thought was a reasonable goal is too easy or too hard and need to recalibrate. The hardest part is letting go of expectations for your writing. This takes consistent practice but you can absolutely do it.

Although flow can be magical, our real lives aren’t often conducive to flow. For instance, how often are you able to schedule uninterrupted writing/reading time?

Yeah, same.

That’s why our final post in our summer session on rest will be on mindfullness which you can apply even when all of your officemates are meeting with students in your tiny office and your email is blowing up.

We are currently taking suggestions for our subject for September. Let us know if you would prefer a month focused on teaching tips or writing advice.

  1. Why is this? I don’t actually know but I think it’s because many advisors don’t actually know much about task management themselves and use one, or both, of the following methods:

alltheworkwhile-crying-240091150_2271838629704588_95508656639967232_n2. Neither of these writing styles is better and writing faster doesn’t actually mean you finish faster. I tend to do a lot of research, sleep on it, then write a lot. My partner tends to write as he goes. I also wind up deleting most of what I write the first time around and he doesn’t. We take about the same amount of time to finish projects.)

3. The comfiest bed:

giphy1

4. Yes, that really happened to a friend of mine.

We Bend So We Don’t Break

Yesterday someone I follow asked the Twitterverse how to keep working when one’s natural impulse is to drive to the Trump administration’s concentration camps and tear them down with their bare hands.

Yesterday, I had an answer–something about trusting that our work is dedicated to tearing down systemic injustices and will create a more equitable society in the long term.

Today . . .

Today I had Kesha and ice cream and time alone.

I am a U.S. based scholar and this site is primarily geared towards people moving through the U.S. PhD system. You might have noticed that the U.S. is, well, this image says it best:

IMG_0767

So, by my reading we’re at Stage 7? We could debate it but, why? At the end of the day, the U.S. is way too damn far along this path.

You may be wondering why I’m bringing this up during our month on rest?

I have yet to met a PhD student in the humanities who isn’t also an activist. In times like these, when there is such an urgent and immediate need for activism, it can be incredibly difficult not just to focus on our work but to maintain our mental and physical health.

Remember that your activism will have more effect if you can sustain it over the long term. Remember that this administration is counting on you becoming too sick and tired to fight their agenda. Remember that resting is an important part of your activism.

I’m not here to give you a hard and fast guide for how to balance activism with grad school, now or ever. As with so much in grad school, there is no hard and fast rule.

I’m here to remind you to bend so you don’t break. Do what you can when you can and don’t feel guilty when you need to take a nap, watch Moana, or wander around Target.

When you do have the time and energy to #Resist here are four things you might consider:

Adding this excellent ContraPoints video to your class to teach your students how to spot fascist propaganda. Seriously, I don’t care what class you’re teaching–I’m sure you can find a way to work this in even if it’s just as extra credit.

ResistBot might be the best invention ever for those of us that want to be involved but have phone anxiety or, for whatever reason, can’t call. I frequently use ResistBot when I’m on the bus but it can also be a great writing break. Also, if you’re teaching any kind of composition class having students compose a resistance letter might be an idea 😉

5Calls is amazing. You tell it what you care about and it tells you who to call and gives you a script. It also tallies how many calls you’ve made (it feels so productive!).

Kindness Is Everything–The photo that heads this post is a real (shitty) photo of the front of my house. I found this print by Kristin Joiner, bought the digital proof off of her Etsy store, and had Office Depot make me a big a** poster. I have another one in my office window on campus. I’ve also used my student print quota to print 100s of these things and fliered them all over campus. Seeing them in the student health center is actually the accomplishment I’m most proud of.

Over the weekend, I’m going to be working on some posts about the science of rest and why need to make time for it as you work towards your Phd. In the meantime

#Resist #Persist, but don’t forget to rest and drink water.

Balance

If you search for “academic work-life balance” you will get a lot of contradictory results.

You may see some advice that says the main responsibilities of a graduate student are producing research (here and here). Then you will find more realistic advice which acknowledges that academics, including graduate students, are not only asked to do a lot but also to do a lot without getting paid for it (here, here, and here).

Why is their so much contradictory, often bad, advice about how to achieve work-life balance in academia?

Part of the answer is that their is often a misrecognition of what balance is. I can speak to this because for years I had a bad idea of what balance was. I thought balance was reaching a state where everything was easy and my time was equally dedicated to my academic self and my non-academic self. I thought this was a state I could, with enough work and planning, achieve and then never leave.

What I’m really describing there is perfection and stasis–two things that don’t exist in real life because of entropy and other people.

Because perfection and stasis don’t exist any conception of balance that relies on them is doomed to failure.

But that doesn’t mean balance doesn’t exist.

When I think of balance now I think of a tree. Specifically, I think of my first yoga class at a community college when a bunch of yoga newbies were struggling with tree pose. The teacher said, “Think of trees. Trees are almost always moving with the wind but they are balanced. Balance isn’t the ability to be still. It isn’t inactive. Balance is the constant movement you engage in to maintain your equilibrium.”

I have yet to encounter a better definition of balance.

This is the second key to why a lot of advice about how to achieve balance is not as helpful as one might wish: balance is inherently individual. Therefore, recommendations for balance from other people tend to be specific to them (and not helpful for you) or so general as to not be helpful at all.

Balance is all about understanding how to maintain your equilibrium and equilibrium, in turn, is about honoring your priorities.

For instance, my priorities looked very different the first year of my PhD then they do now. In the first year of my PhD program I was 27, single, healthy and intensely focused on creating an academic career for myself. Although it might not have looked balanced from the outside, I would routinely work in my office on campus until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. In this last year of my PhD I am 32, married, and have an autoimmune disorder. I now rarely work past 6:00 p.m.

Neither is better than the other. I simply had different priorities and abilities at the beginning of my PhD than I do now, honoring those priorities looked different so my equilibrium and, therefore, my balance, looked different.

 

The first step to any meaningful type of balance is to think about and honor your own priorities and allocate your time accordingly. Put very, very simply: put your energy mostly into the things that give you energy and don’t worry if it looks like “balance” from the outside.

This takes some trial and error, but you can do it. However, even when you’ve decided your priorities and allocated your time in a way that feels sustainable to you hiccups do happen.

Even if you’re really good at planning your day sh*t happens.

The very best way to deal with the everyday stuff that could derail you is to deal with it before it happens.

This is a tip I picked up from the book “High Performance Habits.” Brendan Burchard, the author of that book, recommends identifying your three biggest priorities for the day ahead and when you will address each of them. THEN make a contingency plan.

For me this often looks something like, “I will work on chapter edits during my office hour today. However, if my office hours are interrupted by students or talkative office mates then I will work on my chapter edits for an hour after I teach.”

This way, if something comes up that derails your carefully laid plans the balance of your day isn’t thrown off. You’ve already thought about what adjustments you can make to ensure that your three biggest priorities are met for the day.

Again, balance isn’t stasis or perfection–it is the constant motion we engage in to maintain our equilibrium.

Go forth and be great, my friends!

Soon we will have a Weekly Roundup of some of our favorite advice about balance in academia.

 

 

WTF: Rest

Our theme for this month is rest.

Seems simple, right?

Who needs to be told to rest? Let alone, how to rest?! Seems ridiculous.

Maybe, to a lot of people, that idea is ridiculous, but for most graduate students I know struggle with knowing when or how to take a break from work is a big problem. In fact, among the graduate students I’ve surveyed being able to take a break was the number one problem reported.

It’s not that the graduate students I talked to never took breaks. Of course, they did. However, their breaks tended to fall into one of two categories.

The first category was the sheer-exhaustion break. One common example of the sheer exhaustion break is when grad students get sick over spring break or holidays. They have been pushing their bodies so hard, without taking care of their health, that the minute they stop running on sheer adrenaline their immune system crashes. This often induces a lot of guilt and anxiety because what was going to be a productive break of writing turns into a lot of sleeping and bleary-eyed Netflix watching while trying to feel better.

The second category is the guilty break. This person manages to take a break before they reach the immune-compromising state of sheer exhaustion BUT they feel guilty about it the whole time. This is the person who keeps a book on their lap while “watching” a show on Netflix with their partner. They may even manage to read a few sentences but they don’t do either activity well–they don’t fully relax with their partner and they don’t get their reading done in any real way.

I have been both of these people. Sometimes at the same time.

The thing is, rest is necessary for good scholarship in a myriad of ways. Yes, I mean rest as in getting good sleep, but I also mean rest as in doing things that are not work. Taking breaks keeps you healthier, ultimately allowing you to work more consistently over longer periods of time, and keeps you creative. That’s two out of the three C’s that make PhDs!

Academics, in general, are bad at resting.

There’s a bit of popular advice that academics should structure their schedule like a 40 hour work week.

This advice works for some people but, by and large, most of the academics I know became academics because the idea a 40 hour work week gave them hives. Beyond that, academics are being asked to do more than ever. There is simply not time to fit all of one’s teaching responsibilities, research, and any committees you may sit on into a neat 40 hours.

I’m here to tell you that you can work more than 40 hours a week and still find time for rest. You can work 40 hours a week and still tend towards balance.

How? Well, that’s what we’re focusing on this month. We’ll be covering why rest is important for your physical body, and how it improves your scholarship. We have some great links and resources lined up to share with you and we’re going to be super honest about the very real obstacles that prevent grad students from resting like other ambitious, early-career professionals.

We’re going to start with the concept of balance. Most people, when they think of balance, get the concept wrong. Come back Wednesday to learn more about how real balance is totally within your grasp even as a busy, underpaid grad student.