For PhD students – a personal note on mental health

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:

Accomplishment vs achievement: 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.

Noticing the simplicity of the present moment: Though it sounds so simple to “accomplish” than to “achieve”, in practice it is very hard not to worry about the voids in the future. 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. It helps to notice the simplicity of the present moment no matter how daunting the task is, and to notice the pain you get when you drift to the past memories or the future uncertainty. Please notice that staying in the present moment does not mean that you have to entirely forget the past or the future. It is like the foveated vision where you see the spot you are looking at most clearly, and you still see other things in the background, though obscured. Your attention will only shift to them if an object becomes relevant to you. In foveated vision, no matter how complex the world around you is, the spot you are looking at is always simple to understand. Focusing on a task is the same. You maybe doing a very complex project. But what you are doing right now is always simple if your mind is sharply focused on it. 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.

Radical acceptance: 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 accept that it is painful. This is where the process of accomplishment shines most because you had accounted for the pain in the case of a negative outcome. Achievers rarely account for the pain of failure. It is even better if you could be thankful to the pain for letting you know that the world doesn’t work the way you expected. 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. Then your focus shifts from hating to pain to taking care of the injury with care and compassion for yourself. So, the attitude is to radically accept that it is ok to feel painful if something is wrong in the body or mind. When you flip the way of looking at pain from “I am in pain” to “if these conditions are there, it is ok to feel painful” your focus shifts to learn lessons from the conditions that causes the pain than to hate the pain. If you don’t manage this phase well, the ego will hurt you by throwing stories like “I don’t deserve this”, “why did that man get it, and I failed?”, “others are happy, and I am the only one in this world who is in misery”, “it is that guy’s fault, I hate him/her”,…., the list “ego” can throw at you is endless. If you catch any of them, it will create more pain. This is where you need true friends. Meet your supervisor more often. Talk to people with more experience than yourself. Avoid negative friends. Keep in mind that this is the moment you are most vulnerable. Continue to stay in the present moment being fully aware of stories made around the pain, but without getting caught in them. Treat them like a delivery man at your doorstep you never expected. If somebody delivers something you didn’t order, what would you do? You will open the door, talk to him, and say “sorry, I didn’t order it”. If that guy insists, he will stay for sometime and just leave. Treat stories thrown by ego like that by firmly staying at the present moment, being aware of stories about pain wafting around, but without contributing to them.

But if you are not careful, depending on your past habits, ego can even get you to seek refuge in intoxication, violence to yourself and others, or anger in callous disregard for what happens to your body and mind. This is simply because ego is just a mental swirl that does not know that it causes harm to anything related to you. You are just under the illusion that ego is yours. It rises with conditions like failure or victory and just tries to thrive like a fire seeing 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.

Taking responsibility: Then, slowly start to take responsibility to learn from the situation. With an expanded view about how the world works sometimes, come back with a fresh attitude of accomplishment to do all what is within your control to change the causes and conditions of your what you want to accomplish. 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 discourage 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 let go, etc. It maybe some time for self reflection if you don’t practice any religion, or sometime for praying or forgiving according to your religion. Choose whatever is relevant to you to nurture 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.