A PhD in Zen: Six ways to keep your sanity while in a PhD program and beyond


Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander

Having recently graduated with my PhD in Psychology (2nd best day of my life!), I now look back on my time in the trenches with a sense of fondness only given to those for whom time has granted the favor of forgetting pain. I think back to when I started graduate school: young, driven, fresh-faced and certain that at any moment, I would be outed at the imposter I was. I think back to when I started to get my intellectual footing, especially the moment when I realized, “Hey… I know more than I thought. Maybe I do belong here.” And I revel in the moment before my PhD defense (best afternoon of my life!) when I looked out at the audience, taking in the sea of purple-clad supporters, and I knew that I had already won the battle of a lifetime.

I see the evolution of the woman and academic I am today, and although I’m grateful for the journey, hindsight shows me plenty of ways I could have made the path much less rocky for myself. In today’s post, I’d like to share six ways to make the PhD process a little bit easier on your sanity. Some of these revelations I stumbled upon early on in my matriculation, while others I am still working on. And that’s OK. I will be the first to admit I am a work in progress, but I have strong hopes that my progress will help someone else. So, here is my post I affectionately call “Dr. Alexander did that, so hopefully you wont have to go through that.”

1. Don’t be afraid to say “NO.”

This little gem took me until my third year to get comfortable with, and I wish I had realized its virtues much sooner. Many academics are born overachievers. We’re used to being at the top of the class, juggling all sorts of extracurricular and social activities, and handling it all with an impeccable sense of style. All of us are taken by surprise by the whirlwind of research, classes and teaching that make up the graduate school experience. We are horrified  these professional obligations will suck up virtually all of our time like a black hole. On top of all of this, there are still many outside tasks we are expected to do: to develop professionally, to maintain relationships/friendships, and to gain experiences that will help us gain employment after school.

Despite having precious little free time, many of us may feel that telling someone “I can’t do it” or “No.”, is a sign of weakness, or that you will be “letting them down”. Each of these requests for our time and energy seem equally imperative; as if everything will fall apart if we don’t say yes. We tell ourselves that we can do it all, much like we’ve done it all before. However, what we often fail to realize is that despite being able to “do it all”, we simply cannot “do it all well”. By piling obligations on to an already overflowing plate, we are setting ourselves up in the worst case to fail. Even in the best case, we resign ourselves to a stressful, less than stellar performance on all of our tasks. This results in more stress and a greater decline in performance until it all falls apart.

It all seems like a vicious cycle that is difficult to break, but it’s actually pretty simple: Focus on the important things, the things you are in school to accomplish (PUBLISH good work, create a strong professional NETWORK, GRADUATE with a PhD), and be willing to let the less important things go. I promise that life will go on, and that you will be grateful for more space to breathe. If you have done your prioritizing right (and you must trust that you have), you will find yourself in a happier existence and with much higher quality output. And isn’t that what grad school is all about?


2. Do make time for YOU.

I can’t emphasize how important this is. In order to be the best scientist, engineer, anthropologist, writer, educator you can be, you must have a sense of who YOU are now. What kinds of things YOU like to do. It is easy to get lost in the things we have to do (work, classes, teach) and forget about the things we LIKE to do. Graduate school is an exercise in endurance, and when things don’t go your way during a bad day, month (year. Sigh.), it can be easy to lose motivation to keep going. By creating space in your day to regroup from rough patches, it gets easier to get up each day and try it again. I advocate doing at least small thing for yourself each day, whether it is a coffee break with a good friend, yoga practice, running, watching the game, playing with your kids, etc. This time should be non-negotiable; it happens regardless of what is going on in your life. I’ve found that work setbacks are much easier to handle when I know I have this un-changing “me time” to look forward to. I’ve done different things at different times during my PhD career, but most recently, my “me time” was watching my favorite tv show, Scandal, with friends. I allowed myself to watch this show religiously, and I wouldn’t have traded the weekly opportunity to step outside of my dissertation and academic speak, for the world. Prioritizing “YOU time” will also give you the chance to step out of your circumstances, and remind you that there is life outside of the job.

Another important way to prioritize yourself is to care for your body. It’s something we hear often, but when you are still working in lab at 11:00 at night, and your stomach is grumbling, it’s hard not to reach for that bag of chips or slice of pizza. Believe me, I struggle with this as well. But when you think of your body as the machine that allows you to do the stellar work you envision, it’s clear that preventative maintenance is key. Eating well and exercising to take care of and strengthen your body is just as important as strengthening your brain. Find out what fruits and vegetables will help your body and brain move mountains (hint: blueberries!) and eat them. Go for a walk while you wait for an incubation or if you have writers block. By making the care of your body a priority, you signal to the world that you value the thing that makes you who you are, and that you are willing to keep it in tip-top shape, by any means necessary. The added energy and general feeling of well-being doesn’t hurt either.


3. Don’t be afraid to take a day (or two) off

Sometimes in your quest for a PhD, things just will not go your way. You will have frustrating days, weeks or months that are just bad from start to finish. Your experiment, which has worked perfectly 15 times previously, suddenly decides that it doesn’t want to work any more. You realize that after months of data analysis, you made a mistake, and have to do the whole analysis over again. Or maybe you just feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that your advisor has given you to do, and are paralyzed because of it. Setbacks like these and others can make it seem like giving up is the right and only thing to do. I mean, if you were smart/good/skilled enough, you wouldn’t have these issues, right? Wrong. You may just need some time to reflect and relax. We often feel like there is no time for us to rest, that there are just too many things to do and not enough time to do it. But, I think we forget being in the hustle and bustle of graduate school, we generally have the opportunity to determine our own hours. As a result, if it means producing better work in the long run, we can (and should) take off when we need it. Whenever I felt like things were getting to be too much, or I just needed a break from the struggle, I went home. I took what I liked to call “Mental Health days” where I took the day off for personal reasons, and just spent it resting and doing things I wanted to do. I caught up on tv shows. I painted my toenails. I took a walk in the park. I had “Me time”. Sometimes it was simply an afternoon, and sometimes I took a whole day off. This opportunity to rest and reflect on what was going wrong in my life and how to fix it was often enough to get me motivated and willing to give it another try. Often times,  when I returned to work, things worked themselves out or I came up with new ways to work around stumbling blocks. Either way, my mental health days kept me moving along the PhD path.


4. Do have outside interests

There is nothing worse than dreading an event you feel obligated to attend, because you know all conversation will revolve around two questions “SO, what do you study/do?” and “How is your research going?” You know that the “partiers” will talk about their scientific problems and intellectual achievements all night, while you stare listlessly off into space, counting the minutes until you can reasonably excuse yourself and dash off into the night. It is almost like academics look at social events as a way to gauge our own progress; specifically who is doing better/worse than you and to show off our intellectual prowess. Stop. Drop. And please, please, PLEASE shut down the shop.

It is ok (and even desirable) to discuss things other than what is going on at your lab bench. In fact, it may surprise you that talking about other things you’ve done (like the hike you did last weekend, or the painting you are working on, or even how upset you were at who died on the last episode of Game of Thrones) are much more interesting to others than what’s going on in your petri dish. Even more surprising, talking about the happy things you did during “Me time” can actually help you to relax and let the solutions to your work problems reveal themselves.

In my humble opinion, academics don’t invest enough time in things outside of academia. Try a hobby or learn a skill unrelated to your work. Always wanted to be a roller-girl? Join a derby league. Miss your days of kickball domination on the elementary school playground? There are lots of adult kickball teams. Want to do more personal reading? Start/join a no-science allowed book club with your friends. All of these outside activities and more will give you the opportunity to develop yourself as a person and as a well-rounded academic. Plus, it will make you a much more charismatic party guest. Who can say no to that?


5. Do develop a stable support system

Last week, Dr. Poston wrote an excellent post on how to build a support community within your PhD program. Check out the post here. It is so important to not only develop a stable support system, but to make sure you choose all types of people to be a part of it.  I feel my experience was made richer by having friends from all walks of life and at different stages PhD process. Some of my most cherished graduate school friends were in other departments very different from my own. But we all shared a common experience on some level. The ability to talk about (or not talk about) any issues I was facing as an academic, as a woman of color at a PWI or as a scientist, and know that I was understood and accepted at the most basic level was precious to me.

Their contributions weren’t just personal. My support system was also essential for my professional development. I appreciated the commonalities, but I relished the differences between us, the ability to step out of my little corner of the scientific world, and learn something new from my peers about the world of Africana studies, or chemistry, or political science.  Sometimes, what I learned would inspire me to make changes to my work, for the better. I also knew that if I needed someone to listen to a practice talk or read over a grant proposal, I always had someone who was ready and willing. They helped me decipher cryptic emails from professors, and develop the perfect way to broach uncomfortable topics with colleagues. Their critiques and praises helped me take my work from something I had just “done”, to something I could be proud of.

I would also emphasize the need to maintain connections with people outside of the university/professional settings. If you have a significant other, don’t be afraid to share with them the kind of support that you need. I relied on my boyfriend, Michael, to celebrate the occasional victories and to help me through the inevitable tough times. I also relied on my family and friends who weren’t in school, who reminded me that there was a good life waiting for me on the other side of the PhD. All of these people were indispensable, and none of them would allow me to give up, even when I wanted to. I truly believe I wouldn’t have this degree if I hadn’t chosen these specific people to be part of my support system. And I believe you will find that careful selection of the members of your support system will go a long way in helping you succeed in as a PhD student and throughout your career.


6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I mentioned in my last post Hashtags and (Mental Health): A shared experience, the difficulty many POC have with asking for help when we need it, and the complex reasons for this. Despite this struggle, it is vital that we in particular learn this essential skill. No matter what your parent, your best friend or even your pastor says to the contrary, you and only you know your limits. There is only so much that you can do to maintain your mental, physical, and emotional health, and there are plenty of licensed people, who are ready and willing to help you shoulder the load. There is no shame in asking for help when you need it.

In this article, we’ve talked about various ways of making your time in a PhD program progress smoothly, and I have emphasized the importance of knowing and prioritizing yourself. We can only be at our best professionally, when we know ourselves and what we need. This includes knowing what you need from your support system, your advisor, or your therapist. I’ve asked for help with a tricky protocol and had a coworker suggest a tweak that made all the difference. I’ve met with a therapist when I needed help working out personal issues. I’ve asked my friends to read over a proposal or an abstract before submitting it. Each of these experiences has reinforced the importance of understanding where my limits lie, and the understanding that asking for assistance shows strength and not weakness.

Be encouraged that no matter the problem, there is a solution, and if not, there is always a way around the obstacle. Trust that people are happy and willing to help you, and that you are not in this struggle alone. I still struggle with becoming comfortable with asking for help, but knowing that there are others out there who are ready and willing to help me, makes the asking easier. I would encourage you to try it, and to see whether your personal and professional life doesn’t change for the better.

That’s all I’ve got for now. What do you think? What are some other strategies that you’ve found to stay sane during your PhD and beyond?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s