Thursday, August 9, 2012
When I ran cross country in high school, the coach would tell the team that distance running is a mental sport. "Everyone can finish a race if they've been going to practices," she stated. It was more or less true. The key to reaching the top of Heartbreak Hill on a rival's course was to ignore the pain in your knees and know that it would be over in a matter of minutes.
Being in a PhD program is also a mental game. Just as in cross country, finishing is not only reserved for those whose talents exceed the normal human being's. And as in cross country, having such talent does not guarantee success, unless you also possess the capacity to absorb and ignore your personal discomfort, so to speak.
The tricky part of this is that in both circumstances there is the danger of going too far. This was pointedly illustrated to me during one of my last races. Being at the end of the season, it was an important race, and all if the schools in the state participated. A girl on my team, a junior with a lot if promise, came in minutes later than she should have. When I saw her, tears were streaming down her face. You could tell that every step was agony as she unsteadily pulled herself across the finish line. The next week she was confined to the bench for two weeks, having pulled all of the muscles in her back.
The physical risks are less dramatic in the world of higher education, but, I would argue, just as dramatic. It's easy to become engrossed in a project and try to comply with every wish of your advisor. This is almost the logical path, as you tell yourself that your thesis will be used to judge your intelligence and that will in part determine your future.
I think this attitude contributes in part to so many students hating their adviser by the time they graduate.
I don't hate my adviser, and its not because he's a wonderful human being (lol he is, but plenty of wonderful human beings are hated regardless). I don't hate my adviser because I don't do everything he tells me to. Sometimes I do more; sometimes, I do less. This has helped me take ownership of my work and actions, lending greater satisfaction and an attitude that is more practical than hopeless in time of failure. I work extremely hard but I don't feel like a cog in the system, which makes all of the difference. Then, when I know that I'm tired and need a break, or that revising something one more time is not going to matter to the end product, I stop. This keeps me from pulling my back muscles, so to speak. I'm able to preserve my sanity and allow myself to avoid hitting the lowest low, thus allowing me to bounce back more easily.
This has been a major issue that I discuss with my therapist; dealing with stress and keeping the levels as low as possible so that I less often come to a point where I'm mentally or emotionally paralyzed and the stress just creates more stress. A great way to do this is to keep things in respective by allowing oneself to laugh at even negative experiences. (As a side note, Laughter societies/groups are a wonderful way to do this, and have been popular in India and Europe for a long time and are becoming popular in the US as well.) Sometimes breathing helps to release stress, and I've been practicing blowing out air when km especially frustrated and start thinking in circles. Exercise can also help to shed anxieties by releasing endorphins, and I think that listening to music that you enjoy does the same.
The key is to recognize that as an adult, you are in control of yourself and are responsible for listening to your mind and body. This is difficult at first and you learn the same way that kids learn not to wet the bed- by making the mistakes first and then recognizing what it felt like just before the disaster occurred. Then, when you can identify when you're at your limit, you can work on implementing ways to keep yourself from over exerting so that in the end, you're more often at your peak performance.