To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. —Lord Tennyson
I have been missing for a while, and that’s because life got really busy. This time last year, I was filling up applications for Ph.D. programs, and now my first semester as a Ph.D. student at Texas Tech University (TTU) is over! I have met the best of people in my cohort, incredibly smart students in my first-year writing class, and the most caring mentors and teachers. With the semester ending, this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on my experiences in the demanding, yet rewarding program, and some strategies I followed to navigate the stress of being a first-year Ph.D. student. Most of these suggestions are nothing new, but I found these to work for me, and I hope you find them useful too.
Time management: Most people have some form of online or offline planner. Whether you use Outlook, Google, Notes, post-its, scribblings on a paper napkin or a whiteboard, visualizing important activities helps with time management. Besides lesson planning, grading, writing proposals, etc., there are several assignments which can be due on the same week. If you have been a straight-A student, it will be difficult to let go of giving 100% attention to everything, but when there is limited time, prioritizing is a must. It not only makes me more productive, but also improves the quality of my work. I try to choose topics which are somewhat connected, so that I can make efficient use of my time, and hopefully it will take me closer to a dissertation topic.
Vitamins and flu shots: I moved to Lubbock two days after a surgery. Here I was on my own, setting up heavy furniture, in pain, and with low immunity. During workshop week, I fell sick, and a few weeks later, I was so sick again that I couldn’t go to school. After paying a ridiculous amount of money at urgent care in spite of having insurance, I was finally better. I got my flu shot once it was available, and have multivitamins regularly. Sometimes you may do everything right and still fall sick, but taking some precautions can help reduce the chance of an illness.
Diet: Meal prepping and freezing helps, but I do that sporadically. One, don’t feel too guilty about eating processed/fast food; it is better than staying hungry. Two, whenever possible, schedule time for cooking fresh meals just like you plan other assignments. I go grocery shopping while coming home from school, and buy frozen veggies and fruits, which last longer, so that I can make a quick stir-fry or smoothie. I keep some flavorless, healthy add-ons like flax seed powder and hemp protein powder that I throw in with the most random dishes. If you have an office, keep snacks for the days you did not get time to eat breakfast and have a late class (or come to my office for snacks!). Good diet really makes a difference in energy, immunity and sleep.
Mental health: My first week in Lubbock, I visited the TTU Counseling Center. After an initial private session, I enrolled in weekly programs, where I would attend group classes for mood management, meditation, mindfulness, anxiety management, etc. Ph.D. coursework is brutal, time management is overwhelming, and being an international student is the cherry on top of the terrifying trifle of uncertainties. Worse, if there are challenging things going on in one’s personal life, it can make simple things like combing your hair or walking to the kitchen difficult. You also have to write a 3000-word paper, and teach young minds, who are counting on you to be the expert on life, while you’ve had only three hours of sleep! Take care of that magnificent brain, and let the professionals help you. I am also here to listen if anyone wants to talk.
Exercise: I enrolled in a kickboxing class, and it was the best decision I made after moving here. It kept me disciplined, accountable, active, and full of necessary endorphins that are so very important when you live a high-stress life. Unfortunately, my gym just permanently shut down, so I am looking for a new one, or will go to my apartment complex gym. YouTube also has great tutorials for all sorts of timed workouts. Do yoga, Zumba, dance, or just regular cardio exercises, which don’t require any equipment. I am not motivated enough to run outside, but that option is always there too.
Social life: Many Ph.D. students have spouses or children, and while managing a family with coursework can be challenging, it is good to have someone to speak with at the end of the day. I oscillate between wanting some social interaction and not wanting to talk to anyone. However, I am mostly an extrovert, and have organized housewarming or birthday parties, and have attended multiple events organized by friends, faculty and the university. For Diwali, I wore a Sari at an Indian cultural event, for a Halloween party I was a Deadline, I cooked for many potlucks, and spent time with both friends and strangers. This is one way I re-charge myself in an otherwise isolating academic life.
Personal life: I think it is important to address this because many people around me feel the pressures of grad school, and lament the lack of time to have a personal life or date. As we grow older, the pool of people we know keeps getting smaller, and the place we live in may have demographics that we don’t really identify with. If you don’t care about company, it is totally fine to live life the way you choose to. But loneliness is a major cause of depression, and when the brain is jello after writing the 10th paper, small talk on a two-dimensional app with someone you are mildly interested in is not really a priority. I don’t have any advice, but if anyone is struggling with this, keep working on you, and don’t lose hope. I try to find different ways to have a fulfilling life, and if somewhere along the way someone joins me on this journey again, that will be cool.
Hobbies and community service: I like to paint, make crafts, cook, garden, binge watch shows, and play with my cat, Tolstoy. I attended the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert on the week I had almost all my final assignments due. But with planning, it's possible to schedule non-academic activities just like any other chores. We can sometimes get so engrossed in our research areas that we forget to do things that are just fun and are not meant for any assessment. Currently one of my poem-paintings, which I made mid-semester, is displayed in an art gallery for an exhibition. It has nothing to do with school, but it makes me happy.
Another way to have a warm feeling in the heart is to give your time to the community. It’s the best way to temporarily beat any existential crisis because every time your head says everything is meaningless, yell back at it and say no, what I did meant something to someone. I have cried and laughed with strangers while volunteering with Meals on Wheels, The Salvation Army, and South Plains Food Bank. I am still in touch with organizations in Austin, San Marcos and India, and keep contributing to feel like life is bigger than my own grief-filled bubble.
Lastly, be kind—to your students, cohort, teachers, family, neighbors, and above all, yourself.
I look forward to my winter projects, sleeping a lot, and hoping to read more before the next semester starts. A sea of knowledge lies before us, and while we might not be the most experienced sailors, we are on our way.