Reducing Stress, cont.
Wow is doing research in academia stressful! Always some new fire to put out, several things to juggle at once, and -- if you are working on mentoring -- several people who need you. This post is more tips to reduce stress.
Why is this important? Well, if you are stressed out and you are a mentor or an advisor, you are undoubtedly transferring some of that stress to others. You are likely increasing other people's stress, or you are saying and doing things that you wouldn't normally say or do because of that stress. So! Let's work on it together.
As I mentioned in the last post - I think that having a plan is a really good way to reduce your stress. Having a plan and sticking to it is one way that makes me feel like I won't over commit to folks, that I won't lose track of what's happening, and that I won't spend unnecessary time on things that don't matter to me (or waste time). And, according to this Time article, its the best prevention of stress in the future.
But... what happens when the plan falls apart? In doing research, we must depend on many people that don't have the same priorities as you in their day, instruments that don't work all of the time, or samples that just fail to give data that you hoped you would get. What do we do then?
Step 1: Don't suffer in silence. If there is someone who is controlling how fast data (or reviews, document searches, library borrows, etc) is getting back to you and they are behind your intended schedule: let them know. There is no need to be rude or forceful, but remember that they can't read your mind. They may not have noticed that they are running behind, maybe something in their personal life came up, maybe they forgot about your request? In most cases where this has happened to me, a quick email in which I kindly say "I was expecting this last week, do you have any updates for me?" Quickly gets me an answer. Once I have this answer, I can readjust my plans, or plan with this person in order to meet my deadlines. I want to empower you to use this trick! Often I see graduate students really stressed before big deadlines because someone hasn't analyzed their samples as quickly as they thought they would. If you ask them - when was the last time you communicated with the analyst? The answer is usually "when I sent them the samples." My question is - why do you think that the analyst somehow knows that a niche conference has an abstract deadline tomorrow? Communicate.
Step 2: When something goes wrong: reframe it. "Bad data" doesn't exist, it just is data that doesn't answer your question the way you wanted it to be answered - so, ask yourself what you have learned? Maybe that set of samples doesn't do well, maybe that preparation method doesn't work, maybe that lab isn't the right fit - all of these are learning experiences for next time. It isn't the end of the world, even if it was expensive or your last set of samples. Remember, that outside of your very niche field, no one will remember, including you, that these samples "went wrong" in a couple of years. And if you are a mentor to undergrads: definitely do not blame them or make them feel like they failed. This is one really sure-fire way that they will never be able to handle the stress of sample failure in the future and you want to make sure that they are learning resilience in the face of these types of failures.
Step 3: deep breathes. We are all humans, something going wrong or not-to-plan is difficult. It's OK when you have an emotional reaction to it. If you need time, take time, go for a walk around your neighborhood or your office space. Find a place where no one will ask you questions and take deep breaths. Allow yourself to have an emotional reaction for as long as you need. And then, once things seems OK again, bring it back to the bases. What does it mean that things have gone wrong? Where can you go from here?
Step 4: a new plan. Once you have communicated with folks who will help you see what has happened/gone wrong/taken extra time and you have reframed the issues -- make a new plan. Throwing in the towel on any specific thing shouldn't be the last step - yes you may not want to use a certain lab or a certain sample set any more, but make sure that you have a replacement and its in your plan to not use it any more. Completely giving up on something will increase your stress and it will be unfulfilling, but restructuring your plan so that it accommodates what you learned from what went wrong, will be fulfilling. Additionally, this is a good skill to model for your students.
Step 5: when you take this home with you - do something about it. I hate the advice: don't take work home with you, as if we are all robots who can leave our work stress in the office. Its not a bean bag chair we can throw in the corner as we are walking out the door. But, at the same time, it's not useful to keep mulling over it while you are at home. Find a go-to routine that helps you destress or work through your stress and make yourself do them when something has gone wrong. My personal routine is: 1. watch an episode of something while I make myself a nice dinner (this gives me space to not have to talk immediately with those around me), 2. stretch and do rounds of deep breathing on the floor by the coffee table (I don't know why, I like the coffee table), 3. I use a journal to lay out my feelings and to list the things that went wrong, and then I go back to the list and write by each item what I'm going to do about it, 4. do one of these meditations from YouTube, and finally 5. take a bath or a shower with lots of lavender scented things.
I know that you can do this!
I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.