The Inevitable End-of-Year Wisdom Post

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When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky. -Buddha

After the awkward lab parties, not-so-secret-Santas, and mistletoes, it seems that this time of year is all about rounding up memorable events of the previous 12 months. The best news stories, the best song, the coolest study I did not have time to finish, the highest paying grant I did not get, and the most interesting therapy case.

2013 was unprecedented in terms of professional growth. I was able to change my signature from “Doctoral Student” to “Doctoral Candidate”, I started a project based on my passion for yoga, and I gave some of the best presentations of my career (and won a prize for it, no biggie).

Having to start my dissertation over was by-far the most important professional event of the year. Let’s refer to it the great dissertation malfunction of 2013. In the spirit of moving forward and looking at the world from the top of the bell curve, here are some lessons I learned thanks to the great dissertation malfunction of 2013, and other events, but mainly GDM2013.

  • Have a plan B. Although it will double your workload, having a viable project to land on when your main project falls apart (or simply doesn’t take off!) will save you time and sanity points. As I wrote in previous posts, I started my dissertation from scratch and fell behind a year in my studies. If I had more than one project on the go with my primary supervisor, perhaps I could have fallen back on it.
  • Accept. Accept the situation you are in, regardless of your role in getting there. Acceptance is not synonymous with passivity; on the contrary it is the first step towards change and growth.  Accepting that I had to start my project over, allowed me to move on, with a new project and mindset. Accept an invitation. Saying yes to an impromptu wine tasting was the beginning of a new friendship this year.
  • Be kind, especially to myself. When my project fell apart, I looked for someone or something to blame and I was the main target. I would not let anyone treat a stranger the way I treated myself the few weeks after GDM2013.  I am an imperfect graduate student.
  • Buy someone a coffee. Or at least offer to buy them one. While participating in the 3-minute competition, I had the pleasure to meet a local journalist. At the end of the evening, I made sure to catch her and offer to buy her a coffee. I wanted to know how she came to write a science column for a well-respected newspaper. Over caffeine and emails, we started to build a professional relationship and an invaluable friendship. I have learnt so much from Ann and even had the opportunity to assist her! Similarly, when I ran into a clinical supervisor at a coffee shop, I offered to buy her the coffee. I took the opportunity to tell her how much I admire her work. Offering a coffee is to show interest in someone else, an opportunity to show gratitude, and a chance at a beginning.
  • 1% theory, 99% practice – Pattabhi Jois. So practice. I cannot take credit for this quote, but I realized its value this year. It is true for my yoga practice, my therapeutic skills, and writing. I can watch yoga videos or read books on therapeutic skills, but nothing is more enlightening as getting on the mat or into the therapy office. Falling on your face, sore muscles, and awkward moments are part of the journey. Just practice.
  • Be grateful. Say it or show it. Let the people who matter know and do not take them for granted. I am grateful for a professor who agreed to mentor me and teach me about qualitative research. I am grateful for my friends and family.  I am grateful for my yoga teachers. I am grateful for those who take the time to read my blog. I am grateful to have the time to practice, drink coffee, and write.

What do I plan to do in 2014? I am not sure. Having a rigid plan is a plan for disappointment. So I plan to be prepared and eat lobster.

Happy New Year candidates

Rana Pishva, the candidate.

The End of a Love Story

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Two years ago, I was in love. The type of love that made me stroll through the hallways of the department with a absurd smile on my face, my heart overflowing with hope, my head swarming with dreams. I had a dissertation that would change the world. My project would single-handedly change the faith of anxious youth. It was beautiful. I loved what it represented and its simplicity. Anything was possible; the world was within my reach! My dissertation and I were gallivanting into an academic sunset.

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Our love story came to an end when my dissertation committee told me that the data I spent two years collecting was “not valid”. My entire being melted into the floor, taking my hopes and dreams with it. The past two years flashed before me: the hours I spent coding audiotapes, the Sunday mornings and Friday afternoons I spent at the hospital waiting for participants. All these efforts were as useful as sunscreen on a rainy day.

I am experiencing the loss of my dissertation much like a break-up. I cry, feel sorry for myself, eat chocolate ice cream, and listen to Adele songs on a loop. I talk about it to anyone who will listen. I watch Bachelor Pad re-runs while my colleagues have participants on weekends. I watch my friends do statistical analyses the same way single gals at a wedding watch the bouquet toss. Here I am, starting over while everyone else seems to be breezing through data collection, analysis, and write up.

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A little investigation has led me to believe that my story is not unique.  Others have experienced this dissertation love story and the devastating, inevitable heart break that often follows. Minor and major bumps in the dissertation process are the process. What is shocking is that no one talks about it. Many of us are struggling to get through, to get support from our supervisors, to develop ideas, and simply move forward – yet we are quiet about the process and assume that we are alone. We assume we are the problem: that there is something wrong with us because the process is supposedly easy for everyone else. That is wrong, and this false belief will continue to isolate us from each other if we do not open up about the difficulties we are having through our graduate process. How are we supposed to learn from each other, with each other, if we are quiet and stick our heads into the ground?

Like any heart ache, moving on is the hardest part. From one perspective, I get to start over with a new project: fresh and clean. It’s an opportunity to try something new and hopefully better. On the other hand, I have six months to do two years worth of work.  I am also limited by the topics my committee will accept and my resources.

Despite having written a new proposal (i.e., three new studies) in a month, I am not convinced that I am ready to move on. I’ll be honest: I don’t like my new project. It won’t change the world and it won’t even have a fancy title. There is nothing worse than working on something that is not interesting.

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This is where you – the reader – come in.

I have three options:

1. Go on with this uninteresting but practical project. The proposal is nearly finished, and part of it being revised as we speak. If all goes well, I should be able to collect data in the fall and be done by the winter. It is a boring topic, something that I will never want to look at again. Even my committee members are likely to deny any involvement with it. But it is a project; it is a scientific contribution, and a possible (uninteresting) dissertation.

2. Follow my heart and continue with a new project I love. I have this yoga study on the go – and I love it. The response to the project has been great, both in terms of participation, emotional support, and financial support. I feel like I’m contributing to society by doing this project. Unfortunately, if I were to take this route, I would have to find a new committee and supervisor. I might even have to take an extra year. Being more than half way through my PhD, that is not an easy task….

3. Drop out, move to California and become a wedding planner/baker. California is beautiful and I have friends there. I am a great host and event planner. I love baking. I just bought a car so I could drive there. Seems reasonable.

So what do you think?

What challenges have you faced?
Averagely yours,

the candidate.

Burst my Bubble

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Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth – Ludwig Borne

For about a month now I have been volunteering as an assistant at a local yoga studio. In a class for 40 yogis, it’s helpful for the teacher to have someone walking around, making manual adjustments.

The first day I stepped in the crowded yoga studio, the feeling was strangely similar to the first time I walked into a therapy session alone. Four years ago, I sat across a girl who hadn’t attended school in three months because of delibetating anxiety. With trepidation and excitement, I was prepared to follow the procedure for treatment of separation anxiety, expecting that the little girl would jump right on board and together we could conquer her anxiety! I imagined a shrink-client relationship from the movies: she would open up to me, I would make her laugh, we would hit a bump in the road, she would cry, followed by an “ah ha” moment, and bam! – she would return to school.  We would prance down a scenic road with a single bump (necessary for drama).

The illusion I had when watching the yoga students on their mats, chatting, meditating, or stretching in preparation for the class was similar to my experience before that first therapy session. In my imagination’s movie, the slender lululemon mannequins would breathe and move in unison to the teacher’s voice, they would all touch their toes without bending their knees in a standing forward bend, and I would simply have to brush their necks with my fingertips to release tension.

In both situations, I lived in a shiny bubble that would inevitably burst. Most novice researchers, clinicians, writers, and yogis have flawless illusions and expectations of simplicity.

Illusion is the first of all pleasures” – Voltaire

My therapy illusion bubble burst when the anxious six-year old refused to speak during the first session.  She dropped her forehead on her forearms and gazed at her feet. I offered her crayons and paper to colour, juices and crackers – anything that would make her look at me. I stared at her curly hair wondering what to do.

In the first yoga class, the first “inhale” was enough to snap me out of the yoga clothing commercial. My expectation of coordinated movements was met with jerky contortions and wobbly stances. My imaginary models had forgot to shave and were wearing pajama pants. The room quickly became sweaty and smelly. Despite the presence of a single teacher, there seemed to be 40 individual yoga classes happening at the same time.

I had to think on my feet, leaving the therapy room was not an option – I wanted to connect with the anxious little girl. I looked around the therapy room, picked up a book about emotions from a shelf, and started reading. I first read without asking any questions (including asking for her permission!). Next, I handed the little girl one green crayon and one red crayon. She snapped the red crayon in half while keeping her forehead on her arm. Refusing to be defeated, I read the book a second time, and after every page (i.e., every emotion) I asked “I wonder if you’re feeling like that….show me the green crayon if you are feeling like that and show me the red crayon if you’re not feeling like that”.  Are you feeling sad? Half a red crayon came up. Are you feeling angry? [green], happy? [half a red], scared? [green], lonely? [half a red]…and so on. Without exchanging any words, I learned how this anxious little girl experienced our first therapy session. After the third reading, we were colouring together in silence.

Leaving the yoga class was also not an option. Taken aback, confused, and a little scared, I started walking around the room. I zig-zaged between wobbly arms and legs, watched breath enter and exit the students’ lungs. I did not touch anyone for a first ten minutes, until I noticed the calm and serenity on the yogis faces. Something switched as I reached to touch the first student. I gently drew their hips back, assisted in harm extensions, and applied gentle pressure on necks. While the yogis rested in the final relaxation pose, I glanced around the room, and I saw beauty in the silence.

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We tend to have a whimsical image of what our lives as researchers, clinicians, writers, or yogis will be like. More often than not, these illusions mimic what media has presented to us. However, when reality bursts our bubble, one natural response is to look for an escape.  When our bubble of hope and expectations bursts, it leaves us with wet socks and shivering shoulders in an unknown environment. It’s surprising what a deep breath, patience, and a little imagination can do. There is a world, far more beautiful beyond our bubbles; it’s up to us to discover it.

Did your bubble burst? What did that look like?

How did you cope with it?

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

Strong Spine, Humble Chin

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Strong Spine, Humble Chin

Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self – Charles Spurgeon

A large part of my work as a (future) clinical psychologist is interviewing. Interviewing clients for the first few years of my clinical psychology degree was like entering a large crowded mall. There is information zipping from every direction and too many paths I could take to get to my destination. Although I had a road map with the basic information I should collect (confidentiality agreement, informed consent, medical history, academic background, family history, presenting problem…), I was easily distracted by minor off-topic comments (read: a sale at Banana Republic when I’m shopping for eyeliner). The result was a stilted interaction filled with “okay let’s go back to when you told me about…” and “we’ll come back to this in a minute”. I would step out of the interview confused, exhausted, and missing information.

In other words, my initial interviews were like making half a dozen detours on the way to the makeup counter.

Over time, I have less of what sports psychologists refer to as “cognitive anxiety”, or negatives beliefs and expectations about myself and my performance. For instance, I’m less likely to have thoughts like “I am going to screw this up”. This confidence comes with practice, preparation, and supervision. Over time, I’ve learned to flag items of interest without breaking the flow of the conversation. I learned that a nod or tilting my head to the side with eye contact can be as effective as a follow up question. I have more practice, more skills, and I am more confident.

In short, I know that Banana Republic will still be there once I pick up my eyeliner. Or that the eyeliner will still be there even if I stop by BR.

At least in sports psychology, anxiety and self-confidence independently impact performance: they are not opposite ends of the same spectrum. Self-confidence is the personal belief that one has the ability to complete a task (i.e. “I can do this!”). Intuitively, self-confidence has a positive impact on performance. Meaning that the more I believe I can do it, the better my performance will be (Many American Idol participants will relate to this finding). Cognitive anxiety on the other hand, has a negative relationship with performance.

Therefore, the better I feel about myself and my skills, the better my interview should be. The fewer negative beliefs I have about myself, then I the better I should perform.

Got it.

Not quite.

The incremental sense of assurance about my interviewing skills bit me in the ass when I chose to enter a feedback sessions (a concluding session with a client where the results of an assessment are discussed) without reviewing the history and main findings. I figured I would “wing it” since I had given feedback for a similar disorder before. Unfortunately, during the appointment I struggled to find my words, shuffled through the file and papers, and looked back at my supervisor one too many times to fill the awkward silences. I felt lost. As we left the interview room, he smiled and said “trouble finding your words today?”

No, my words weren’t lost; they were not prepared to begin with.

I once again struggled between confidence and complacency when I tried a new yoga studio. The typical yoga studio etiquette is that more advanced students set up at the front of room, to provide a visual cue for more novice students. Being a recently certified yoga teacher, I confidently unrolled my mat at the front of room thinking “I got this”. I stood tall, with my chin a little too high in confidence. Within 20 minutes of the class, I lost half of my body weight in sweat and wobbled on my feet between poses. My ego dripped from my forehead every time I turned in to a downward facing dog.

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Confidence (just like curiosity) can kill the cat*.

And the ego.

Confidence comes with practice, but maintaining humility as we develop our skills can be as challenging as the skill itself. Confidence can actually result in a weaker performance. When confidence increases, we are more likely to develop complacency, or self-contentment while being oblivious to limitations or dangers. Confident individuals are more likely to use short-cuts, put less effort in the task, and subsequently make mistakes.

In the interviewing situation, I felt confident because I had performed well in a similar task in the past, so I did not prepare as much. The result was a stilted, embarrassing, and confusing session for all parties involved. At the new yoga studio, I felt that my experience and new “status” would result in a better performance. I did not take into account the new challenges that each situation could present, and fell smack on the face – literally.

As some psychologists are discovering, a little bit of self-doubt can actually improve performance, shedding doubt on the previously held belief that confidence is key. Doubt keeps us alert and open to the possibility of failure and ensures that we monitor our actions.

I think the key lies in knowing that I have ability, while accepting that I do not know what can be thrown at me. Maybe confidence and humility are on a spectrum?

I now try to walk into every interview, therapy session, or yoga class with a strong spine – acknowledging the work I have done and things I know – and a humble chin: accepting that I have so much to learn.

Averagely yours,

the candidate

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*no cats were harmed in the writing of this post

Progress

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Progress

If we are facing the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking

Buddhist proverb

Martin Scorsese’s 2006 The Departed is one of the few movies I can quote word for word. Of course, my appreciation of the movie is unrelated to the fact that Matt Damon and Leonardo Dicaprio are lead actors (lie). My favorite scene from The Departed is actually in the ‘director’s deleted scenes’. It is a longer version of a scene that was kept in the movie. In the extended (deleted) scene, Captain George Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) questions Staff Sgt. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) about progress in trying to arrest Francis Costello (Jack Nicholson).

[please read with your best Boston accent]

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Staff Sgt Colin  – So I’m not making enough progress with Costello?

Capt Ellerby – Progress is hardly defined. I make progress every day. In fact, I am making progress right now. There are guys in this department who make excellent progress for 20 years without ever getting anything you can definitely call “a result”. Who gives a mother’s fuck. It’s like any other American industry. Nobody minds if you don’t succeed so long as you don’t fuck up. Objectives get lost sight off. Fair enough.

I love this speech because it reflects an attitude towards life and work that is prominent in graduate school. As graduate students, we are on a long journey with an ultimate goal: the doctorate. From time to time, I stop and ask myself: what am I doing? How did I get it here? Where the hell am I going next? The scariest question of them all: who cares?

I then look up and realize I’m standing in line at Starbucks. I order my personal non-fat grande latte and move on.

Evolution-of-Resumes

I believe Captain Ellerby’s statement about progress can be applied to any endeavor  research, writing, clinical work, or another one of my passions: yoga. I will focus on clinical work, but these ideas can easily be applied to writing or yoga. Simply substitute ‘therapy’ for ‘research’ or ‘posture’ and substitute ‘clinician’ for ‘writer’ or ‘yogi’. The argument is the same.

Therapy [Writing/ Yoga] begins by identifying a goal: a destination. In therapy, goals might relate to change in thought patterns, behaviours, or interpersonal relationships. In writing, the goal may be to finish a psychological report or a research paper. In yoga, the goal may be to hold a posture with comfort and confidence.

Subsequent sessions are steps toward the goal or the destination. Every session is progress, movement towards the destination. However, as a clinician [writer, yogi] I may never see the result. The client can terminate therapy or I might have to leave and refer the client on. I might only see a fraction of the progress. Does that make my work less valuable – is progress enough, or is result necessary? Does the destination really matter?

Captain Ellerby seems to think that progress is enough: “There are guys in this department who make excellent progress for 20 years without ever getting anything you can definitely call “a result. Who gives a mother’s fuck.”

In some cases, progress is the result: change, as long as it is in the right direction, is result. For instance, I once had a chronically depressed client who hadn’t opened his mail in over a year. One of his treatment goals was to open his mail. By the end of five sessions, he had organized his mail, but not opened it. Was my work with him meaningless?

I don’t think so.

Movement, as long as it occurs is positive.

As a clinical psychologist in training [writer, yogi], I have to remember that every step towards the destination is valuable and should be highlighted. In therapy, highlighting progress is important for the client, so he or she remains engaged. It is also important for me as the clinician because observing and valuing progress keeps me engaged and gives me a sense of purpose. The steps and the incremental progress become a goal.

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Captain Ellerby’s statements also bring to light a potential pitfall of focusing on progress. His statements “Progress is hardly defined” and “Objectives get lost sight off” remind us that we should keep track of progress and not lose sight of an objective.

Again, this is true in research, writing, clinical work, and yoga. Highlighting progress presumes that it is measured and evaluated. Throughout therapy, I revisit the goals with the client, re-evaluate the process, and adjust expectations. By doing so, the goal, or the destination may change.

In writing, every draft of a document is progress. The end result can be different from the original idea.

In yoga, every mindful breath is progress. The experience of that breath can be surprising.

In order to survive this long journey, I remind myself of the importance of valuing every step along the journey. I accept that clients move at different paces. I accept that even after I work on a report for 8 hours, it may not be finished. I accept that paperwork, bureaucracy, revisions, and editing, are part of the writing process. I accept that the headstand is a challenging posture for me. 

I am slowly accepting the fact that I may not reach the destination I chose 5 years ago. This doesn’t mean that I won’t finish my PhD. It means that I may end up somewhere I didn’t expect to be. 

In the words of Captain Ellerby – who gives mother’s fuck?

What does progress mean to you?

Is progress insignificant without a result?

 

Averagely yours,
the candidate.

Average: Chronicles of a PhD

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I am a Graduate Student in Clinical Psychology. I am a student of the human mind and behaviour. Over the past four and half years, my friends and I, have had countless conversations that ended with some variation of “we should blog about this”. These conversations included frustrations and triumph of research, challenges and successes with clients, and ways in which our type A personalities impact our lives and those in it. I’ve decided to step up to the challenge and share these stories with you. If this blog fails, at least my experiences will be well documented in a time consuming journal without the perks of confidentiality.

I want to link my experiences, and those of my friends, to what academics have discovered about human behaviour. I hope that you will learn, think, and laugh while reading this blog. Much of what I’ll write will be opinions, ideas, and food for thought.

Methods

The use of a statistical term and logo is merely a coincidence. I will not pretend for a breath that I am a stasty. In fact, as you’ll find out soon enough, in my first semester in Graduate School, I spent more time talking about laundry with my friend than actually doing any stats. I struggled in stats.

Hopefully, the use of the past tense made you believe I don’t struggle anymore.

In the normal distribution, the average corresponds to the highest peak on the curve (not because it’s the highest value, but because the most people are there). The view from the top can be beautiful, emotional, funny, breath taking, and scary. There is clarity at the top. What is so wrong with being at the peak?

Conclusion

In “Average: Chronicles of a Phd” I hope to illustrate life of a Graduate Student in Clinical Psychology from the perspective of the Average: from the top. My experiences (and those of my friends) are typically consistent with the norm but on some occasions, they are clear outliers.

Your comments and suggestions will feed my writing – if there is a topic, anecdote, or story you would like me to write about, please let me know. I don’t live in a vacuum, and I want this blog to reflect our environment and experiences.

Averagely yours,

Rana, The Candidate.

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Note to the Reader
I decided to write this blog to share highs and lows of my experiences to laugh about and reflect on my experiences. I will be true in reporting events within the limits of my memory. Unless people are warned ahead of time, I won’t use real names and change details to ensure confidentiality. Please remember that the blog posts are based on my experience, hence they are inherently subjective. Whenever I can, I will link my stories to research – so bear with me as I figure out the contents of the blog! I will figure it out as I go, and hopefully with your help.