I once had a near-life experience but it was long time ago and it now appears dimly in my memory. It was a feeling of weightlessness. On a Friday evening, I joined our department’s Ηappy Ηour. I remember a bright light at the top of the Pool table. The ability to see my own hand holding a drink, meet up with friends and loved ones who once were partners in crime in long night Flip-cup tournaments now surrounding me with an unanswered question in their eyes: “Where have you been?”.
This is the story of a graduate student’s (me) experience living life while doing a PhD.
Some of these near-life experiences can be positive. You feel like being in heaven embraced by your community and friends; a warm feeling that you were never gone and isolated in the office for weeks.
Other after-work experiences can often be a torture. They get to remind you what is happening out of your box and that the world is still turning while you are reading exciting papers on how eddy kinetic energy affects the presence of sperm whales. Several cases of fights with all sorts of demons have been documented by different PhD students.
During these near-life experiences, people often hear voices calling them. “Come with us”, they often say. “It’s Eric’s birthday today”, “free drinks at Dan’s goodbye party”, or “let’s go to Mexico” (sometimes it’s your own voice). And you attempt to follow the voices that take you down to dark hallways, to places with loud music or to open sunny spaces with beautiful mountains, luscious forests and sandy beaches. You follow them for so long that it almost terrifies you when the sound of your advisor’s email notification returns you “gently” to the familiar and safe work environment.
While the scientific community is unanimously still skeptical of the PhD students’ recounts of ski-weekends and friendly dinners with high wine flow, others support these near-life experiences to be proof of a healthy workstyle.
And even though this perpetual debate continues, one thing is certain: graduate students can fulfill a proposal with a hangover. And the hangover is usually the proof that students are not making this near-life stories up.
After their experience, students commonly find themselves transported back to the lab, being filled with guilt and last minute inspiration to finish THE paper. That one that offers strong indications that will haunt you for the rest of your life.
Soon after, what follows these awakening experiences is the deep belief and commitment to something sacred and superior. The Physical Exercise! Many have discovered the miraculous effects of endorphins to their mental stability during graduate life.
However, the question still remains: To sleep or not to sleep?
Between proposal writing, classes, working on your own research and other projects, reading papers and writing a thesis, doesn’t seem to be enough space for more activities. Some necessities like food and sleep have proved to help all forms of human beings or human doings to sustain oneself and flourish.
Nutrition can be covered in a well scheduled way. If you don’t mind eating the same food for 5 days, there is no way that you cannot find one evening to make the dish of the week. Just be equipped with five times the quantity of the ingredients you would use for a day’s dinner.
Note to self: I miss my mom.
Note to all: Pasta and legume dishes keep better than fish and salads .
On the other hand sleep is controversial. Some say that the minimum to survive will be enough to get you through graduate school. Others will support that you need enough to properly rest and be productive and good sleep is the key to success. My personal truth lays somewhere in the middle with most weekdays being filled with pints of tea (the amount of times that I get up to fill my tea cup can account for an average person’s daily work out), and during the weekends the bed becomes my best friend that I need to catch up with.
The philosophical mood of the author doesn’t end here.
During graduate school there are certain times that I question the reasons why I do what I do and go through this pain. The same way that I question excessive body piercing and early morning (like it is still dark outside) jogging.
In reality I know very well why I do my PhD and suffer long working days and nights. It is my love for my subject of study and my passion for conservation together with my unsatisfied thirst for knowledge and inquiring nature that motivate me. But the denial comes every now and then, mainly when I bump into Matlab dead-ends.
The reasons behind all our actions are somehow related to the pursuit of happiness. Is it about love, success, money, or something else? It is a different story for each person. Each one has a different perception of what brings/is happiness. Similarly, different communities have diverse definitions of success, that often tend to affect personal beliefs. In a western society money seems to be largely the usual driving force. But fortunately this is not a universal given. Bhutan gives a different official definition of the term success.
Are you ready for this?!
Bhutan has replaced gross domestic product (GDP) with the Gross National Happiness (GHN). It means that the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and the natural environment are used as a measure of success (read more about it here). Mind blowing. Earth shaking. Freaking awesome. Now let me check the climatology of Bhutan… Hmmm, mostly warm and sunny. That’s the place!
I have been recently diagnosed with the disease of being busy (on top of that nasty cold that I caught at the ski trip). Disease as not being in ease.
A characteristic symptom of this disorder is always replying “I am so busy” when people simply ask “hey, how are you doing?”. I also find everyone else replying the exact same thing when I ask them. I swear it is contagious. Being stressed has been quoted by the World Health Organization to be the epidemic of the 21st century. The easier the communication becomes through technology and social media, the less time we have to essentially communicate with people during face-to-face situations. The same time, the busier we become the bigger is the need for an empty space, a pause.Like the pause in a song that gives it resonance and shape.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “This is going to be a very busy day. I won’t be able to meditate for an hour.” He continued, “I’ll have to meditate for two.”
Following Mahatma’s example, I am attempting to acquire PhD and life balance. And clearly, this is how this post resulted. Balance is difficult to acquire. Especially if you are a tall person and the center of gravity is higher.
In my effort to improve my balance, both literally (obtain physical balance and built in attention and focus) and metaphorically (maintain mental health throughout my PhD), I took up Acro yoga. Acro requires a lot of balance.
Now, I can hesitantly admit a timid success. At least with the literal form of the balance I was going for.
***Never give up***