Looking for Magic in Graduate School

“I tried to work it away, but that just made me even sadder.

I tried to keep myself busy.

I ran around in circles, think I made myself dizzy.

I slept it away…”

Between my undergrad and graduate school experiences, I have learned that my happiness is probably one of the most important things in my life. Decision-Making 101, right? I also think it is fair to say that every graduate student has experienced some form of crisis while in graduate school. The stress associated with research can take a toll on our health: mental, physical and emotional. However, on top of the everyday stress, I have struggled with the nature of what graduate school is and what it truly means to be a graduate student.

Recently, I learned:

  • what it means to be a graduate student changes throughout graduate school
  • The graduate school experience is different for everyone (literally everyone). Do NOT compare your progress to anyone else.
  • Its widely accepted that it CAN and most likely will get stressful at some point.

In order for me to figure out how to best deal with my stress and frustration in graduate school, I realized I had to actively understand what the sources were.  A lot of my stress was tied to anxiety about meetings, the progress of research, endless deadlines; it all piled up. I felt the increased skin conductance response every time I heard my e-mail notification on my phone (sorry I’m a neuroscientist). I realized I was ALWAYS “working,” even when I wasn’t at work. The worry associated with lab or research was always in the back of my mind. My mind was always on so many different things. I even felt guilty for relaxing. I decided it was time to try to unpack my sources of anxiety and find ways so that I could actively manage my stress.  

A Seat at the Table by Solange Knowles was released a year ago, last week. I’ve listened to the songs on this album so many times; however, recently this album has played an integral role in the process of “reclaiming my time.” Things had gotten so rough at one point that I began to try different things to manage the stress and anxiety that sprouted from the dissonance of being a graduate student and being happy. It helped me, and I figured I’d share of few of the things I tried here.

Issue #1: Decreased productivity—not focusing on the tasks

I work primarily on my computer, and because of that I am the guy with all his devices synced; group messages, e-mails, the Internet—it’s insanely easy for me to get distracted, especially when I should be reading papers or analyzing data. If the right song were to come on, I would end up working on a playlist, instead of anything science related.

Progress: I decided to use the DO NOT DISTURB setting on my computer while working. Although I may miss my friends in the group message, they understand I’m working, and I can always catch up when I am finished or during a break. I also played around with ways to browse the internet to make sure I don’t end up with tabs of random food recipes.

Regarding music, I am picky about what music I listen to while working. Unfortunately for me, I can’t read and listen to music with words or podcasts. However, streaming services have great algorithms that have introduced me to tons of new music. They often have student discounts or specials for a decent price. I am now listening to more instrumental music, ranging from the Juju Experience to Kenny Barron’s, Fungii Mama, which I have fallen in love with. Additionally, I have noticed that I focus more while in the lab or working on my computer, period. The feeling of productivity can be aligned with the progress of research and clarity. However, progress is progress, so I am not complaining.

Issue #2: Anxiety and Procrastination

For a number of very odd reasons, I really have a struggle with e-mail. Yes, there is a list of reasons. Yes, some of them can be considered to be silly. This struggle spans across the board, from sending e-mails, receiving e-mail notifications on my phone, to responding to numerous e-mails. As e-mail is one of the primary routes in which we communicate, I would read e-mails on my phone and then wait until I got to my computer to respond. There have been instances in which e-mails began to overflow to the degree that I either overlooked them or never responded at all. I realized that part of this was a form of procrastination.  Every time I heard my e-mail notification on my computer or phone, like a text message, I immediately began to wonder, “Who is it e-mailing me? I hope everything is fine. Will I have to stop what I’m doing to focus on work?” The arousal and anxiety that came from the notifications were so noticeable. 

Progress: I decided to turn off my e-mail notifications on my phone. I would agree this was a bit excessive. At first, I felt liberated. I had broken the chain that linked me to always working. The funniest part is that every time I look in my phone, which is at least more than five times a day, I check Instagram and my e-mail, without hesitation.  I am less likely to feel anxious about hearing a notification on my phone.  Also, I decided to stop putting off responding to e-mails. The purpose of having e-mail on your phone is so that you can respond without having to be at the computer. If a response requires me to send an attachment, then I have to wait. However, I filter my e-mail to make it more manageable, and now I am not as stressed. I am still trying to get over other things surrounding e-mails. In time, though.

Issue #3: Identity

While the two issues above are more concerned with graduate school and making graduate life more manageable, there are other things—like spending your weekend in the lab, analyzing data in the evenings, and reading the most current review articles—which were exactly the things I thought I should be doing as a graduate student.  I was struggling with my identity as a graduate student and even a scientist in the world. I was in a new environment, completely different from Morehouse and living in Atlanta. I realized that even though I am studying neuroscience and have goals of being a researcher, the world outside of the lab is not going to be put on pause for me to finish my degree. Who am I? Is science my LIFE or is science a part of my life and not who I am? I was constantly asking myself these questions.  I needed to take the time to re-evaluate who I was, and who I was planning to be as a Black Neuroscientist.

Progress: This issue is something that I will continue to encounter at every stage of my career; I am sure of this since there are just SO many layers. I welcome the opportunity to reflect, get serious about self-care, and change how I approach my day, both in and outside the lab. One morning about a year ago while working at a local coffee shop, I first heard the song, “Junie.” I had no idea it was Solange at the time, but it became my go-to song whenever I wanted to be productive. Coffeehouse jams are great for that!

I figured out what kind of graduate student I wanted to be. I decided to make time for myself by trying out different schedules to see what works best for me. Having my alarm go off at 6:45 am, making myself breakfast, and planning out my day before I leave for lab were all things that made for a better and more productive day. I began using my calendar more often. By scheduling time to work, I now spend less time trying to figure out what to do when I first get to the lab. Also, I found that the best time for me to work is when I am motivated to do so. If the motivation to write code at 10:30 pm came, I would code for a bit before bed. I noticed an increase in my overall mood in the lab and things really did start moving. My days in the lab are more productive when I am really focused on the things I set out to do that day.  I am still working on ways to get more done during each day, so when I am home, I can spend more time preparing dinner and allow for time to relax on the weekends.

 “Look for magic…”

The most interesting thing was that it wasn’t until a few months ago that both “Junie” and the interlude prior gained a new meaning for me. When I first came to graduate school, I knew that there wouldn’t be many people that looked like me. I did not want myself to be everyone’s interpretation of my culture, my background, my identity. I wasn’t ashamed, but I felt that the objectivity of science had no room for my culture or my identity. I was here for science and needed to set my identity aside to be the “academic.” This resulted in me holding back many of my thoughts and opinions—my magic.  But, how would I be able to diversify science if I am not embracing my creativity, my way of thinking, and who I am?

Ultimately, I decided to embrace who I am, be confident in myself, my opinions and my thoughts relating to both science and everyday life. I can be an academic, creative, AND a scientist with my identity and who I am.  

“Don’t let anybody steal your magic…”

I hum this every time I get frustrated or distracted from whatever I am working on. To me, this phrase drives the creativity that attracted me to science. I think what is special about research is that we, as scientists, put our spin on it. How we go about answering the questions, experimental design, interpretation of results, it is all surprisingly a subjective. That creativity is really where I hope to continue to thrive. The basis of much of my creativity and my identity has become my magic. 

“I got so much y’all…”


Disclaimer: The stress and anxiety experienced in graduate school is different for everyone. You have to figure out what it is for you; do what works for you. I put together this article to address my struggles, but also how I tried to circumvent them. If you do relate to these stressors specifically, consider the process and trust it; reflection and meditation is good for the soul. If you still have problems, definitely feel free to reach out.

(And if you do not get the music references, listen to the album. You will not regret it.)

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