By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
In honor of November (the most stressful academic month, along with April), this post will highlight three elemental components of self-care, as they’ve surfaced in coaching and advising conversations I’ve had with busy doctoral students over the past semester. As one student observed to me in group coaching recently, the intellectual formation of doctoral students can be a “sense-depriving experience.” It’s something I’ve always called the “brain in a bottle” phenomenon. What practices can grad students cultivate to achieve—as another student in this conversation pointed out—the feeling of “being human” again? And what elemental self-care practices will support your best work as an emerging scholar, teacher, and professional?
Early in the semester, a new doctoral student brought one of her biggest adjustment challenges as a topic for discussion in our coaching group. What was it? Mealtimes. With her move to Durham, she went from living in a communal environment where she prepared carefully-planned meals for herself and others, to living on her own. She struggled to find the motivation each day to cook for herself. Her story resonated with me personally, as I vividly recalled the “sophomore year” of my own graduate experience, when chocolate frozen yogurt and air-popped popcorn regularly constituted dinner. And whether we live on our own or with others, I suspect all of us have experienced times when we’re so busy that we inhale something over the keyboard or perhaps skip eating altogether.
That day, our coaching group engaged in a conversation about reclaiming mealtime as an important ritual, even if it required rethinking as a solo practice. What does it mean to sit down for a meal by yourself? What does an enjoyable dining experience look like, in this context? What do you need to take away from it, besides not feeling hungry anymore? These questions may be all the more critical for times when we’re traveling for a conference or research, and we have to go through the ritual of solo eating, in public, at a restaurant. After much experience, I’m now convinced that learning to enjoy eating out by yourself is a critical life skill. (I recommend dining with a book, although Jess McHugh of the New York Times has different ideas.)
This is not exactly a call for more exercise or physical activity, but an admonition to be more aware of what your body is doing as you go through all the parts of your day. It’s so easy to get lost in thought! Of all the reams of advice heaped upon graduate students (time management, writing strategies, developing mentoring networks, job searching, etc.), it almost never includes the recommendation to stand up straight. Perhaps the last person to tell you this was your mother, when you were fourteen. Yet there’s a lot of research and anecdotal evidence to support links between the nonverbal physical cues we send (everything from poor eye contact to distracting gestures to slouching) and how we are perceived in professional settings.
More directly related to the theme of self-care, it’s worth developing a greater awareness of how often you’re not moving. It may sound impressive that you spent six hours straight writing, but consider that this is also six hours when your spine might be frozen in one position. (Did you know that a healthy spine should be able to flex in six different directions?) I’ve talked with multiple grad students who’ve cultivated a habit of punctuating their long workdays with walking breaks. This is something I wish I did more of as a grad student (and beyond), especially now that the public health community has decided that extended periods of sitting not only contribute to high levels of anxiety and a range of health issues (including terrible posture: see above), but also slow blood flow to your brain.
This is not about getting eight hours of sleep. Rather, this topic springs from my conversations with mid-program PhD students, many of whom are now negotiating an entirely different relationship with work and time. For students who have been in school continuously since kindergarten (or earlier), the sudden cessation of coursework can feel like a disorienting absence of structure. To regain control over one’s time can feel exhilarating—until it doesn’t. Suddenly, there are many more decisions to make. When do I start working and when (and why) do I stop? How do I know if I am working enough? What are the tangible signs of progress, if my comps or dissertation proposal deadline is still months away? In this atmosphere, it’s extremely easy to overwork.
We were discussing these issues in coaching recently, when one of the students had an insight. “Maybe I actually need to take one day a week off…you know, the whole Biblical thing.” He was joking on one level, but the concept of a Sabbath has resonance even in a secular context. (Ironically, the Sabbath lingers in academia only via “the sabbatical,” which one must wait seven years to earn—like Jacob for Leah—and then it’s to be spent working.) While a dedicated day for rest may not suit everyone, the larger point here is that at some point, rest and leisure need to be planned just as intentionally—and that “sacred space” honored just as much—as times for dedicated work. When’s the last time you took an entire day off?
Eating, moving, and resting—this is by no means an exhaustive list. You may already have a range of somatic practices that help sustain you in graduate school, and also support your best work. A recent conversation about locating optimal writing spaces also highlighted the importance of sensory engagement. One student identified natural light as critical. Some of us do well in silence, and others thrive on white noise. I shared a discovery I made midway through my dissertation—that certain smells, such as lavender essential oil and botanical candles—help some people stave off mental fog.
In our quest to do very difficult things, it’s strangely easy to overlook what we may dismiss as the simple things: the elemental basics of self-care. As the days shorten, the weather grows colder, and deadlines pile up, I invite you to slow down, and cultivate practices that free you, at least momentarily, from that sense-depriving bottle.
Image from rawpixel.com / National Gallery of Art (Source)