Swan Dive, again

Early in the summer of 2008, I was making some drastic changes to my life. I remember listening to this song, among others, almost every day in my car to and from work. I remember wanting to be in control of everything, but I felt broken and I knew something had to change. I made a choice. A choice to move forward. I was ready to take the next step. I was about to embark on a new journey. I was about to move to Virginia and begin working toward a Master’s degree.

I fell a few more times along the way.  “Why do we fall? So we can pick ourselves back up again.” I put the pieces back together.

I finished. I changed. Grad school changed me in a way I never thought possible. I was pushed to the limit in every aspect of my life in those first two years. I learned how to habituate to the feeling of drowning. In 2010, I decided to take another leap and started a PhD program. I wrote about it on the blog.

I fell again. I broke again.

Recently Chelsea wrote about breaking.

Break, because contrary to what “breaking” infers which is isolation, imperfection or delay – the truth is that breaking means movement and light, both of which are beautiful, sacred and profoundly gratifying.

I left some pieces behind when I broke the last time. I left them scattered on the floor beneath me so I could let the light in again. So I could fill myself with the fragments of a new life. New people. New perspectives. New definitions of success. New experiences. New love. Contentment. Movement and light, as Chelsea so beautifully described.

I realize today that we don’t just take these BIG leaps, these swan dives, when we make those BIG LIFE decisions. Actually, we leap into new opportunities and new paths along the journey just by making a choice to move forward even when we are broken.

I’m about to take another leap (two leaps, in fact). I’m terrified. I’m excited. I’m filled with gratitude. I don’t know if I’ll land on my feet or if I’ll break this time around. I do know that when I break again (because breaking is part of progress), I will be OK.

I’m still finding my Way.

So, here we go.

Cradling the softest, warmest part of you in my hand
Feels like a little baby bird fallen from the nest
I think that your body is something I understand
I think that I’m happy, I think that I’m blessed
I’ve got a lack of inhibition
I’ve got a loss of perspective
I’ve had a little bit to drink
And it’s making me think
That I can jump ship and swim
That the ocean will hold me
That there’s got to be more
Than this boat I’m in

‘cuz they can call me crazy if I fail
All the chance that I need
Is one-in-a-million
And they can call me brilliant
If I succeed
Gravity is nothing to me, moving at the speed of sound
I’m just going to get my feet wet
Until I drown

I’m cradling the hardest, heaviest part of me in my hand
The ship is pitching and heaving, my limbs are bobbing and weaving
And I think this is what I understand
I just need a little vaccination for my far-away vacation
I’m going to go ahead boldly because a little bird told me
That jumping is easy, that falling is fun
Up until you hit the sidewalk, shivering, stunned

And they can call me crazy if I fail
All the chance that I need
Is one-in-a-million
And they can call me brilliant
If I succeed
Gravity is nothing to me
Moving at the speed of sound
I’m just gonna get my feet wet
Until I drown

~Ani Difrano, SwanDive

How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?

Last week, Ashley blogged about finding balance as a grad student. She wrote about making the choice to stay in grad school despite the challenges she faced. Her guest post described what most of us grad students experience when we choose this path. Many of us become discouraged when we hit a brick wall or when things seem to fall apart around us. And when we reach that breaking point, many students choose another path.

A friend recently sent me an article that I wanted to share on the blog.

Aru Ray asked this question over at StackExchange.com:

How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?

You can read his full post here. As you know, I’ve asked similar questions on this blog before. Often when I’m feeling discouraged or depressed about grad school, I read as many articles as I can about what to do to get out of the funk. I ask for help, but mostly I seek help from strangers on the Internet.

Most of the advice I read involves the following words and phrases:

Quit

Stop

It’s not worth it

Move on

Find your calling elsewhere

Don’t torture yourself

Take care of yourself

We aren’t all meant to be specialists

If you don’t feel passion now, you won’t feel passion later

The comments on this other thread were remarkable. They were full of hope and encouragement.

I thought the end game was deciding I was a real mathematician, but it turns out it’s developing the confidence not to worry about this, and I’ve been much happier since that point.

Take breaks, find fulfilling things to do outside of work, and realize that everyone (even seasoned researchers) feel the same frustrations and highs that you do.

Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome. Everyone “actually smart” is hearing exactly the same voice in their head saying “Oh, if only someone who actually knew how to hit walls with their forehead hit this wall, it would come down like a stack of cards” when in fact the wall really is made of brick.

Eventually, you’ll move from hoping that you’ll be able to knock down a wall with your head someday, to being surprised at how often the walls you hit with your head actually fall, to finally believing that you really can knock down walls with your head sometimes.

Part of the problem is that it’s tempting to focus too much on the destination: proving theorems, writing papers. These things happen only occasionally, and thinking about them (or their absence) too much is an easy way to become depressed. Instead, you want to reach the point of enjoying the journey itself. This takes some perspective and confidence, but it will come with time.

Sometimes we look for the answers we want, especially when we’re struggling. It’s easier for me to focus on the answers that tell me to move on because deep down, that is what I want to do. Reading comments like the ones on this thread nudged me in a different direction. They made me feel a little more hopeful for my future as a grad student.

Their comments also reminded me that grad school (at the PhD/JD/MD level) is not easy for anyone. It’s not even easy for those people who claim to love grad school (or for those who truly do love it). It’s not easy for those who are experts at memorizing details from every journal article. It is not easy for those who are the most productive in terms of publishing.

At some point, we all struggle as we pursue this degree. We dedicate 5 or 6 or 8 or, God help us, 10 years of our lives to this. Those are years beyond a Bachelor’s, by the way. Most of break at various points along the journey. Some of us struggle on a personal level (weight/health). Some struggle at home or in their relationships (divorces, breakups) or with their finances (ignoring debt). Others struggle in work, in research, and in classes (taking on too much, not publishing, not getting all As, not making deadlines). In the beginning, many of us struggled in all  of these areas.

But some of us make the choice to stay.

I think the reasons they cited in those comments above are excellent reasons to make that choice.

On the other hand, it is still absolutely essential to ask yourself tough questions in the most discouraging moments. Ask the why questions. Why should I stay? Ask questions like the ones Vivek Haldar asks in his blog post: Advice to Prospective Grad Students.

What it boils down to is that this is one of the most intense questions of self-knowledge you will ever face. The answer is simple: you should do a PhD if you really want to. Look into yourself to figure out if you really want to.

{Guest Post} Finding Balance (Or Not) As a Grad Student

So my name is Ashley, I blog at Writing To Reach You, and I am currently working on a PhD in theology. I met Alex on the internet, and we have spent the last couple years bonding over the soul-sucking nature of grad school and trying to offer each other encouragement. Alex is interested in whether balance is possible for grad students, and I am here to share my experience.

I finished coursework last year and am currently in a far more relaxed and self-directed part of my program where balance is a real possibility, but it was a bumpy road getting here.  Grad school has a way of being all-consuming, which makes it easy to sacrifice large parts of your life just for success in school.  My life has more than once become so unbalanced that the only way I could continue was to get things back on track.

The first thing to go was my health. Eating well is something I have always struggled with, and I had just moved away from home, so this was the first time in my life I had ever been completely responsible for all of my meals. Stress makes me lose my appetite, and late in my first year of grad school, I was extremely stressed.  I struggled to eat well and eat enough, but that’s really difficult when you don’t have an appetite.  I felt nauseated a lot of the time, and then I started getting dizzy.  Not light dizziness, but a feeling like the entire room was spinning.  I remember sitting in class trying to focus on a lecture while feeling so dizzy that I thought I was going to fall out of my chair. I left that class early and decided that something had to change.  I created space in my days for real meals, and let myself eat whatever I wanted, regardless of cost or calories.  Once I felt better, I reintroduced moderation and started exercising again.

The second thing to go was my finances.  This actually began the minute I started grad school, but I ignored it until it was a problem too big to hide from.  It took me two years to realize this wasn’t a temporary debt problem.  My debt had humble beginnings.  I thought I could afford what wasn’t covered by scholarships and student loans, but I had underestimated my living expenses (having never lived on my own before) and finally I was so far in credit card debt that I wasn’t just avoiding the problem, I was actively making stupid decisions to bury myself further in debt. It came to a point where I was either going to have to quit school or figure out how to work a full time job while remaining in school.  I did the latter, and after working 15 hour days, six days a week for the better part of two years, I paid off all of my credit card debt and could finally breathe again.

The third thing to go was my emotional well-being.  I’m a person with a lot of feelings, so I would describe my entire grad school career as emotional, but in the years where I was in PhD coursework and working 55 hours a week to pay off my debt, I was so busy that I didn’t have enough time to deal with my feelings and it started to show.  In one year, I had three out-of-character mini-breakdowns. Crying on the floor episodes that took a day to recover from. My work was unaffected, but I didn’t feel at all like my normal self.  And that, more than anything, was why when I had finally paid off my debt, I quit one of my jobs and slowed down.  It was a difficult decision, because I felt like a total bad ass being able to do so much and do it well, but I knew that I was ignoring parts of my life just to prove how hard I could work, and having accomplished my goal, it was time to make a change.

When your life for five years has been defined by success in school, constant stress, and an impossible-seeming workload, you feel a little bit lost when things are suddenly quiet.  And that was when I became grateful for the parts of my life that I never sacrificed for grad school. They made the adjustment easier.

When I was working on my MA, my life started to feel very small.  Everything was about grad school, and I felt like I had lost touch with my other interests.  So I started a blog. And this crazy thing happened as a result: I made friends. About the same time, I started writing fiction again, and I wrote a novel.  Through all of this, I remained a dedicated journaler and made sure that every week involved enough alone time to keep me a sane introvert.  I listened to music and enjoyed wine and kept in constant contact with people who make me laugh.  These things kept me happy along the way, and kept me from falling apart when I was suddenly not too busy to deal with the parts of my life I’d been avoiding.   Because as hard as it is to be a busy grad student, it’s the perfect excuse not to deal with some of the more difficult parts of life, but that stuff doesn’t go anywhere.  It just waits for you until you slow down.

I look back at mistakes I have made as a grad student and think, “how could I have been so stupid?”  They all still feel so real and immediate that it’s difficult to say that I have no regrets.  But I know that I wouldn’t be this person if I hadn’t gone through those struggles, and I feel like a better and smarter and stronger person not just for what I learned in the classroom.  My attitude to grad school has changed a lot over the last six years, but I didn’t just make the decision to come here. I have also made the decision to stay a million times.

So as for the question of whether balance is possible for a grad student?  Maybe. But you might have to earn it with mistakes, and you will probably have to fight to keep it.  It’s enough for me to know that every time my life got too extreme, I eventually found my way back to center. I’m probably not done doing that yet.

3 Ways to Decrease Test Anxiety

I’m taking “the” test of my graduate career in a month and a half. To say that I feel anxiety over it is an understatement. So, I thought this was an excellent topic for the blog. I have always had problems with test anxiety. My first real memory of anxiety during a test occurred as early as elementary school. Anxiety is common for many students. Anxiety is also major part of getting into graduate school, with various placement and entrance exams like the GRE. Anxiety is also a major aspect of graduate school as a whole, certainly during major exams and presentations.

Robert of LSATFreedom and David Greenberg of Parliament Tutors offer some advice for coping with anxiety on test day. As someone with a psychology background, I absolutely agree with the advice they provide. In addition, I’d like to add: Sleep. Fatigue exacerbates the feelings associated with anxiety.

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For many students, the biggest obstacle to a good test score – whether on the GMAT, LSAT, or any other big exam — is psychological.  Dealing with anxiety and stress can be crippling for many students, particularly on life-shaping exams.  Below are 3  proven ways to ease your anxiety on these types of standardized tests.

1) Watch What You Consume

Drinking alcohol is a common way to deal with stress, and, in low doses, alcohol has the effect of lowering anxiety levels.  However, turning to alcohol to reduce anxiety is a bad idea, which is a fact recognized by experts in the field. Likewise, drug use, particularly depressants such as marijuana, can be tempting ways to deal with anxiety and stress. However, these substances inhibit brain activity and will lower your potential on the actual exam. Anxiety caused by marijuana is a disease all to itself as well.  This is a treacherous path for many people; don’t be tempted.

2) Exercise

Exercise is a powerful way to relieve anxiety.   By expelling your excess negative emotions and adrenaline through physical activity, you can enter a more relaxed, calm state of being from which to deal with the issues and conflicts that are causing your test anxiety.  Exercise is one of the most important coping mediums to combat anxiety and stress, and often overlooked by students maximizing study time.  It is important to do this regularly, so your anxiety does not accumulate.

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, releases hormones, stimulates the nervous system, and increases levels of morphine-like substances found in the body (such as beta-endorphin) that can have a positive effect on mood.  Exercise may trigger a neurophysiological high, which is a shot of adrenaline or endorphins, that produces an anti-depressant effect in some, an anti-anxiety effect in others, and a general sense of “feeling better” in most.  In other words, it reduces anxiety and puts you in the right mental state to be at your best on exam day.

3) Take a Vacation

This may seem obvious, but is often overlooked by die-hard students looking to study every minute they can.  Taking a vacation from studying and allowing the material you have been studying to soak in will help you retain a lot more information and give your brain some well-needed rest, not to mention the obvious benefit of relieving stress and anxiety.

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What other advice do you have?

Quitting vs. Moving On

The other day I was talking to someone who graduated from my program. We were discussing Comprehensive exams and he was giving me some study tips. To give some back story: Shortly after he finished his exams, he was offered a job outside of academia. It then took him about six years to complete his Dissertation. It’s difficult to complete a Dissertation, but when you’re getting paid more than $12,000 a year for 100+ hours of work per week (like most grad students), the motivation shifts. At some point in our conversation, he said that his stomach was hurting just talking about grad school and that he still has anxiety-induced health issues because of his life as a grad student.

That made me think of the many students I know in programs around the world who have left their programs before finishing. Some have failed the Comprehensive exam portion of a program, and some just had enough. They have all moved on to happy lives with amazing families working in great jobs making more money than they ever did as grad students. And from what I understand, they’re all happier. I hear some judge these students because, obviously, only incompetent or unintelligent individuals fail such exams. Others judge these students as quitters who can’t handle the pressure.

Questions

All of this made me think more and more about this lifestyle. More and more questions about my own values, strengths, goals. Over the last few months things have been “clicking” for me. As some things come together in my life, others fall away. Or maybe I let go of them.

I have been asking myself some difficult questions in an attempt to understand why I feel this strange push and pull between different aspects of my life. I am the happiest I’ve ever been. And for the last year or so, I’ve been completely honest about that happiness. Sometimes we think we’re happy or we pretend we’re happy. Still, as I’ve mentioned on the blog, there is this nagging feeling that I’ve made a mistake in following this one path instead of changing course ever so slightly. Maybe it’s just fear rearing its ugly head at a critical time when I need to keep that fear at bay.

The questions still linger even if I know I need to keep my eye on the prize. (And this all reminds me why I don’t believe in quarterlife or midlife crises: We are ALWAYS growing and learning, adapting to the path, and understanding ourselves – or we should be.)

Where do I belong? Where am I today? Where do I want to be tomorrow? Who do I not want to be? What do I value? What do I not value? Why does it hurt so much to find out people are not supportive of me because my values are not their own?

What are my goals? Today, tomorrow? In five years or ten? What do I consider my strengths? What do others view as my weaknesses? What lights a fire in me? What makes me drag my heels?

Moving on or quitting? – a Puttylike perspective

A few months ago I posted the following status update on Facebook:

Moving on from the thing you’re doing today is not quitting. Moving forward instead of committing to something that makes you miserable is not giving up. Your goals and values may not be mine or hers or his. Often we continue along a path because it’s what people expect of us, or because we are afraid to change directions knowing people will criticize, judge, or ridicule. But ultimately, we each know our Truth and “what you think of me is none of my business.”

In March, I read this post on Puttylike.com: Why You Shouldn’t Finish What You Start.

Not knowing your end point is okay as long as you listen to yourself (and not the specialist bully inside). Although having a “Why” can go a long way towards motivating productivity, I don’t actually believe that you must know your exact end point before beginning. A lot of the time we don’t know how the dots will connect, or what we’ll truly get out of an experience, until reflecting back years later. In these circumstances (well, in all circumstances really), it’s important to listen to yourself and trust your intuition.

A little while later, I read this post on the same site: The Fear That Lurks Deep in Multipotentialites.

We default to the most punishing option to avoid seeming weak. That fear is everywhere. It’s like the air we breathe. I have examples beyond counting, not only in my own life, but the lives of clients, friends, and family. We operate from this place of fear and it cudgels us mercilessly. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can recognize the fear-based reaction, recognize how it dehumanizes you, robs you of your sovereignty. You can choose to respond from a place of discipline and self-knowledge.

Multipotentialites

I’ve been reading Puttylike for some time. This blog resonates with me almost every week. I think I’ve mentioned it on the blog before, or I’ve at least shared some posts via Twitter. I identify with some aspects of the term multipotentialite.

According to Wikipedia, a multipotentialite refers to: “An educational and psychological term referring to a pattern found among intellectually gifted individuals. [Multipotentialites] generally have diverse interests across numerous domains and may be capable of success in many endeavors or professions, they are confronted with unique decisions as a result of these choices.”

I like Emilie’s definition much better than the one above. I do not view myself as particularly gifted in multiple domains. It’s more that I’m interested in those domains and want to pursue diverse interests. I certainly consider myself talented in certain areas, especially those that involve service to others. But I do not feel like a specialist despite being a Doctoral student.

A multipotentialite is a person who has many different interests and creative pursuits in life. Multipotentialites have no “one true calling” the way specialists do. Being a multipotentialite is our destiny. We have many paths and we pursue all of them, either sequentially or simultaneously (or both). Multipotentialites thrive on learning, exploring, and mastering new skills. We are excellent at bringing disparate ideas together in creative ways. This makes us incredible innovators and problem solvers. When it comes to new interests that emerge, our insatiable curiosity leads us to absorb everything we can get our hands on. As a result, we pick up new skills fast and tend to be a wealth of information.

While I may not really be a multipotentialite, I have been thinking about the two aforementioned Puttylike posts. There is a lot of pressure in the world to finish what we start. If you don’t commit to something, you’re a quitter. Funny, I’ve written about commitment here on the blog before, too. I made a commitment to grad school, remember? Sometimes we make a commitment and it’s the best thing we could ever do. Other times, we commit for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we commit to something and it leads to something beyond our wildest expectations. It nudges us toward a new path, albeit one that leads us very close to our original goal.

Fear and boredom

Today I can say with some certainty that the fear of seeming weak (or inferior) is a major driving force in my choice to finish my PhD. Maybe it’s driven me just as much as not wanting to let other people down who’ve helped me get to this point along that chosen path. I also know that my love for learning, my love for psychology and making a difference still peek out from underneath all the fear now and then. Usually it happens when I’m conversing with those outside of academia though, or at least, in contexts where the knowledge can be applied. I continue to brush aside my intuition that tells me I would be feel more at peace pursuing a different career path. That path is one that does in fact incorporate my love for helping others, understanding human thought and behavior, and solving problems.

I also see it from another perspective. I remember being restless before grad school. I was in a stable job, making decent money, doing something that was actually somewhat enjoyable. But I wasn’t challenged. I wasn’t living up to my “full potential,” whatever that means. I was bored, maybe. I know part of the problem was that I was depressed, surrounded by people who were not good for me, and I hated living where I was living. I also know I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. So I chose the opposite of easy, right? I found something that could make me fail. Utterly fail.

But I have kept going.

Sometimes we know when we’re punishing ourselves. We know when we’re moving along the wrong road or a road that makes less sense in our bigger picture.

Sometimes it’s not quitting to choose a new path. Sometimes we have to move on.

Have you ever chosen the more punishing path?

Emilie said: “… it’s important to listen to yourself and trust your intuition.”

Shanna said: “We default to the most punishing option to avoid seeming weak.”

Shanna also asked if her readers ever chose that more punishing path. Have you? Do you identify with the term multipotentialite? If you do, I’m sure Emilie would love to hear from you. I’d like to hear from you, too.