For PhD students – a personal note on mental health
This note is strictly a piece of personal advice, and it is mainly based on my practice of Buddhism too. So, please take any of it if you feel comfortable and discard anything.
When you go through your PhD course, you are expected to publish in high quality journals and conferences before writing a quality thesis you can be proud of. This inevitably imposes pressure on you to become somebody you are not right now. So, if you are not careful, this can lead to mental stress that may sometimes damage your health.
Here are some advices you may consider taking:
First distinguish the difference between “achievement” and “accomplishment”. Trying to achieve is about creating a void and trying to fill it. This causes stress. For instance, you determine that “I will somehow publish a paper in the prestigious journals of XYZ”. What it intrinsically means is that you “become a person” who “does not have a paper in the journal of XYZ”. Then, you work hard with the dream of “becoming the one who has a paper in the journal of XYZ”, you walk the person with a paper accepted in that journal because you build an ego around it, and risk the chance of being very hurt if your paper gets rejected from that journal. The “thud” can be very painful!
In contrast, accomplishment is all about taking responsibility to do all what you can do right now at this very moment to organize the causes and conditions within your control to see a paper accepted in the journal XYZ, but with equanimity. Here, equanimity means a radical preparation to accept anything that comes out of the effort. There is no void in the life of one who tries to accomplish, because they have done their best upto now, and are doing what is within control with utmost dedication right now. So, they live a filled life. The uncertainty of the outcome doesn’t bother them, because they are already doing what they can do to reduce the uncertainty. Note that it also involves knowing what is beyond your control like the kind of reviewers you get out of a large pool of reviewers, thoroughness of their reading, and their impartiality. Therefore, the process of accomplishment involves first making a calculation of what it entails to publish in the journal of XYZ – review the depth and sharpness of your scientific questions and your methodologies of addressing them, look at the quality of other published papers to set your quality bar high enough and to choose a suitable writing style (papers of each journal has its own character and way of articulating stuff), estimate the kind of collaborations needed to fill up for any missing expertise, and make a frank assessment of the risks involved. Then set about doing what you can do right at this very moment with any backup plans in the case of failure, and with an attitude of accepting any outcome.
Though it sounds so simple to “accomplish” than “achieve”, in practice it is very hard not to worry about the voids. It requires a continuous effort to stay at the present moment concentrating on what you can do now, rather than drifting to the past to regret about what you couldn’t do, or drifting to the future to look at the void in front of you. Then notice the pain you get when you drift either way, and also notice the comfort of concentrating on what you can do now. It is this experience that gradually trains the mind to stay in the present. If you are not aware of this difference, the mind will habitually drift bringing you pain and tension because you are brought up in a society and a system that is so obsessed about guilt about the past or panic about the future.
Having being careful with living the life of the one who “accomplishes”, not the one who “achieves”, accept the outcomes of the effort. Well, if the paper gets accepted, first be thankful to all those who supported you before the ego rises up to claim all merit to yourself. Then, give the rest of the credit to the process of accomplishment you took. That will make you more confident in that path next time.
If the paper gets rejected, first radically accept that it is painful. Say to yourself that you accounted for it right at the start. It is even better if you could be thankful to pain for letting you know that something didn’t work the way you planned. It is like being thankful to the bodily pain you get when you injure it. You would die of infection if the body does not keep reminding you to take care of the injury through pain signals. So, the attitude is to radically accept that it should feel painful if the body gets injured. Likewise, the mind. So, allow it to take its own time without creating an aversion and a “self” around it. When you are aware that pain exists in you without making a “self” around it like “I am in pain”, the pain recedes faster. It is like the difference between the thought “I am breathing” and “the body breathes”. Well, if you breathe, it is pretty dangerous because you will die during sleep! If it is the body that breathes, you can peacefully go to sleep, expecting to wake up with a breathing body! Likewise, say to yourself that “there is pain, and given the conditions, no wonder it is there”. If you don’t manage this phase well, the ego will hurt you. Think of it as a fire that spreads to new fuel. Usually ego finds things to blame first. It first tells you that you don’t deserve this pain. It gets you to feel miserable about yourself and to hate your team, the reviewers, etc, because that is good fuel to burn. Then depending on your past habits, it can even get you to seek refuge in intoxication, in callous disregard for what happens to your body. This is simply because ego does not know that it causes harm to anything related to you. It just sees anything else as fuel. But if you just say “there is pain, and given the conditions, no wonder it is there”, ego, grief, hatred, etc, will not find a footing and recede. This is the nature of all things with a conditioned origination. They die down when you are aware of them without making a self around it.
Then, slowly start to take responsibility. Come back with a fresh attitude of accomplishment – to do all what is within your control. It maybe that you need new authors, more time with your supervisor, more time on some meditation, re-arrangement of lifestyle, re-prioritization of what is important in your life at this point, etc. Avoid people who discourages you. Be with friends who have some more experience than you.
The path of accomplishment has worked for me. Well for me, that involves some time for meditation every day to look at what bothers me, my defilements (greed, hatred, and delusion), whether there are voids to be let go, etc. It maybe some time for self reflection if you don’t practice any religion, or sometime for praying according to your religion. Choose whatever is relevant to you to revive the sharpness of your mind on a daily basis. Never go on demanding things from your mind without giving it time to consolidate and sharpen.
It is all about taking responsibility and having compassion for yourself.