Okay, I know what you’re thinking. But this is the only pop culture reference I could think of with “relax” in it, so get your mind out of the gutter. This is not that kind of blog.
This blog is about my journeys in graduate school, and if I can go through a rough period and come out with advice and life experience for others, then I’ve accomplished something. If I can articulate my triumphs, setbacks, and activities to my friends back in America, then this blog is doing its job.
It’s now May and all of those conferences and engagements are over. I’m back in York after a trip to the States and back to work. I confess that it took me a really long time to get back into work mode. You may have heard of the Thesis Whisperer. (And if you are a student and haven’t heard of her, well, go to her page. She’s worthy of the title “sage” when it comes to doling out advice about research writing and living.) A few days ago, she posted on “The Valley of Shit“. When I came back from the States, I was definitely in the Valley. I suddenly realised that the listless, “meh” feelings I was having (and am still having to a lesser extent) came from me being intensely homesick. I didn’t feel homesick last year. Perhaps everything was new. Perhaps classes and having others in my course kept me from feeling it too much. Perhaps seeing my parents suddenly seeming older over Christmas flipped some daughterly switch. Whatever the reason was, the fact was that I was slogging through my work–when I did work–feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere. Feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere made me not want to work. And on and on it went. Yup, I was knee-deep in the Valley of Shit and didn’t know how to propel myself forward. I was stressed and couldn’t force myself to really and truly relax.
I finally just cried about it. One big, huge, wailing ball of bawling mess. I cleaned myself up and made a decision to make a schedule for myself in which I would make time for me. I’m not talking necessarily about films, making tea, or writing letters; I do all that anyway. My new mission was to work an allotted amount of hours per day and make absolutely sure that I got home before 9 pm and fit in workouts many times a week. I would burn off the worry in the form of dedicated exercise (and free exercise thus far–YouTube has an impressive selection of full-length Tae Bo workouts that I can adapt for my bad knees). After that exercise, I would actually sleep for 7-8 hours a night, which means not getting to bed at my nightowl-preferred 2 AM.
Since I was born, I’ve had health problems that affected my physical abilities and weight. With all of this worry and anxiety about home, my parents, and my work, I felt like now was the time to really focus on making my mind and body healthy. I’m still in the early weeks, but I want to make healthy living a priority. This means waking up early, going to the workroom for at least 8 hours on a work day while munching on homemade lunches and snacks, getting home to exercise in the evenings, and then enjoying a healthy, fresh dinner. I’ve never been one for “student” food, but I didn’t really keep fresh vegetables in the house, either. That’s changed. My favourite meal is now at least half a bag of greens (and by “greens,” I mean real greens that have nutritional value–not iceberg lettuce), a whole pepper or a bunch of tomatoes, a bit of smoked salmon, some goat cheese, and vinaigrette dressing I make from scratch. Delicious! Instead of snacking on whatever happens to look good on the day, I bring a lentil salad from M&S, some fresh fruit, yoghurt, and low fat cheese, and I make up my own mix of dried fruit and nuts for that 4 o’clock snack craving.
The Hard Stuff Still to Come
Of course, with improvements to my diet and workout schedule, I’ve had to make sacrifices elsewhere. My bank account is less than happy with me. I can’t be as flexible with my time in the evenings. I have to, have to get to bed at a certain time. Lack of funding and sleep always brings its own challenges, and I’m learning now how to overcome these new trials. I have seen that perhaps my friends won’t be understanding when I can’t get cocktails or play the hostess. This isn’t just about one night of fun. This is a badly-needed life overhaul. I need to make sure I have enough time to properly relax. I need to do what many doctoral students have advised: make this thesis a job rather than a monster constantly hanging over my head.
My work itself is still trying. I have my upgrade coming up at the beginning of July. This is a formal meeting among my supervisor, my TAP (Thesis Advisory Panel) member, and another member of the department’s faculty to evaluate my progress and formally upgrade me to official PhD status (or technically “confirm my enrolment” as a PhD student). From what I hear, it’s not a terrifying process on the day. I submit 10,000 words to the three faculty members and will make sure that I prepare documents outlining my entire research project, showing a list of activities and lectures, and generally making me look good and productive. Usually, this process isn’t until some time in the second year. However… Here’s the clincher: in order to teach next year, I must have upgraded. This means I have to have upgraded before the beginning of autumn term, and this in turn means before the end of summer term. While the meeting itself may not be stressful, the preparation is. I have a sizeable chuck of that 10,000 words to write and a lot, a lot, a lot to read in order to write. I have to edit the last section I submitted because not only does it need fleshing out, but it also needs all the footnotes. I have to present good work to the upgrade committee, and that means more time in the workroom.
If I can suggest anything to others, it’s to write, cry, talk about things bothering you. Stay connected to your friends and family; I know the support from my favourite people has helped me to continue with my programme here in the UK. Make a budget and stick to it. I don’t just mean a monetary budget here. Schedule your life and budget the time you have for everything: breaks, work, television, preparation in the morning, everything. There’s a reason my mom encouraged me to set out my clothes the night before, used an egg timer to ensure I was brushing my teeth enough, and always had a mammoth calendar on the fridge: scheduling works. Plus, if you make a schedule, chances are you’ll remember the lectures you want to see and the lunch dates you have. A great tool is Pomodoro, which is available as a Mac app and on Chrome. You can set this little tomato for a set amount of work time which is followed by break time. It also keeps track of each “Pomodoro” (set of work + break time) you complete, rewarding you with a longer break after several sets.
So what does all this scheduling, worrying, and upgrading mean for me and my road to overcoming my unintended sojourn through The Valley of Shit? It means putting myself first, and that may mean putting socialising further down on my life list than I’d like. Don’t worry–this should just be until the big day in July, and my true friends should understand that I really can’t go out. I don’t have the money, the time, or the energy to stay out until midnight. It’s not because I don’t want to, but because I have to get over this hump and through the Valley. I think I’ll be a better, more relaxed person when I climb out.