I’m back! And my Dissertation got its Groove back!

 *note: this post was originally published at: http://www.queensu.ca/connect/grad/2014/09/01/guest-post-rana-pishva-on-dissertation-on-the-lake-or-how-my-dissertation-got-its-groove-back/Logo2

The day was not off to a good start. My car-mates and I left before the convoy, and what was supposed to be a 30-minute drive north of Kingston turned into a 90-minute tour of South Frontenac – one that included a pit stop at the home of an elderly couple, who offered us coffee. Eventually, the GPS stars aligned and we made it to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Center (ELEEC). A large “Dissertation on the Lake” sign along with two smiling organizers from SGS waited for us. The ELEEC is a 400-acre biological field station (read: “natural research lab”) that offers graduate and undergraduate students in biology, geology, and environmental studies opportunities to get their hands dirty. For the next four days, the site of Elbow Lake was to be a space of productivity and recreation for 30 graduate students.

We made it!

We made it!

 

Let’s be honest – doctoral studies are one of the few situations where “number of years of experience” in the program is not a positive thing. Starting my 5th year, I jumped on this opportunity to focus on my project, away from all the distractions of the real world (read: walking the dog, laundry, Netflix, re-organizing my sock drawer). I can shamelessly admit that I had reached a point where my dissertation felt like a chore – not a contribution to science or an accomplishment. Simply put, my dissertation and I needed to rekindle our love, and we had a week by the lake to do just that.

 

Given our group’s tardiness, most of the students were already working when we arrived at Elbow Lake. Some were set up in the central lodge that doubled as our gathering space and kitchen. In between meals, the space was quiet and comfortable. Others chose to venture out into the wilderness. Walking to our cabin, I saw people working on their personal patios. I took a stroll down by the lake: someone had snatched a spot inside the gazebo and another typed away on an Adirondack chair. Two others had already gone on a canoe ride – no laptops in sight. The possibilities were endless.

 

Lake

I chose to set up shop outside the central lodge and started my first Tomato. You see, in the late 1980s, Francesco Cirillo was having a hard time focusing on his studies. After some experimentation, he developed the Pomodoro Technique – named after the tomato shaped kitchen timer he used to time the 25-minute work intervals that were separated by short 5-minute breaks. I swear by this time management method, because knowing that a break is coming leaves me less tempted to check out what my friends have been up to, whether by checking my phone, or Facebook, etc. I also record what I accomplished in 25 minutes, which leaves me a rewarding list to review at the end of the day.

 

Three Tomatoes (and 15 pages of coding!) later, it was time for the first communal lunch. It was quiet and people stuck with those they already knew or else kept working. Over time, curiosity about each other’s work, discussions of animal sightings, and the desire for a quick swim after lunch took over the quiet space. To some of us, meal times were a permission to take a break, re-group, and maybe play a short round of “Dutch Blitz.” Everyone eventually returned to their respective work stations, whether in the main lounge or under the shade of a tall tree.

 

I started subsequent days with a yoga practice by the lake, quick swim, and breakfast. Despite this routine, I started my work day nearly 90 minutes earlier than I would have at home. Finding our individual paths toward a common goal was the theme of the week. Each participant brought their own work habits and goals, and used the beautiful site and bottomless coffee to their advantage. There was a mutual – and natural – understanding and respect for space. Looking up from my screen, I was motivated by the focused looks and felt empathy for the occasional sigh of frustration. But all work and no play does not make a dissertation retreat! In between Tomatoes and after dinner, we gathered by the fire for s’mores, played board games, or enjoyed the many amenities at Elbow Lake.

 

Rana-Yoga

 

I had to overcome my guilt about not doing work all day and into the evening. Like many graduate students, I try to squeeze work into every corner of my day: I read articles while food is in the oven and make edits in between episodes of Downton Abbey. There is an odd sense of satisfaction when I unexpectedly accomplish a small, yet important task in a forgotten time slot of the day. But that couldn’t happen while at Elbow Lake, because there was nothing else. Dissertation was my focus and I had the time to gain the momentum I needed to push it to the next stage. I realized that after a productive day – 10 to 12 Tomatoes – I could give myself permission to let go and enjoy the sights.

 

I left Elbow Lake having accomplished more than I expected. Most importantly, having been immersed in my project instead of moving through disjointed half-days peppered with meetings and laundry, I was excited about it again! I drove back from the site believing that I can actually make a contribution to my field of study. To me, this renewed enjoyment in my dissertation – and the 34 Tomatoes it took me to get there – are the most important outcomes of this writing retreat.

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Plot Twist

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Plot Twist!

Earlier this summer I received a text message from my close friend, on the morning she was supposed to leave for a road trip in New York State. She wrote to me saying that her partner lost his passport, and they decided to drive up to Newfoundland instead.

I could imagine the scene: Andrea and Louis looking through every drawer, on every shelf, and under every piece of furniture in the apartment looking for the single item that would allow them to leave on their much anticipated and well deserved vacation. Their car was already packed with tents, sleeping bags, and many overpriced, miniature versions of household items found in outdoorsy stores. They had unplugged their electronics and set up an “away from my mail” response to their emails. They had a plan.

I found myself in a similar situation last spring, when my dissertation committee decided that I would have to start my project from scratch. I originally had a “flawless” plan: apply for the pre-doctoral internship this fall, write-up in the spring, and graduate by summer 2015. Unfortunately, a 200-page document and five committee members stood firmly between my dream and I.

I instantly switched to problem-solving mode: reading articles, talking with colleagues, drafting research ideas, and writing new proposals. I was so preoccupied trying to salvage my project and clinging onto my original plan, that I ignored other responsibilities, such as sleep and maintaining whatever is left of my sanity.

Although a dissertation is slightly heavier than a Canadian passport, getting either involves an agonizing amount of time, paper work, and money. Both involve changes to the original plan.

Having known Andrea for almost a decade, I can imagine the turnaround when it became clear that Louis’ passport was nowhere to be found. She was likely looking feverishly through his messy desk before throwing her arms up in air and saying something along the lines of “Okay Louis, that’s enough. So we are not going to New York this year, but I am not wasting my 10 days vacation. Get in car, we are driving to Newfoundland.”

Bam! That was it. They drove on, had a wonderful trip, and ate delicious lobster.

I knew I had to do the same: accept the loss and the new direction I was facing. I had to accept that my plans changed and that I will be spending an additional year in graduate school.

Then I came across this piece of online wisdom:

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I have moved on. The new plan is to eat healthier so that I live an extra year and make up for the additional one I am spending in graduate school. I will also eat lobster.

Speaking with Andrea about this post, she informed me that Louis recently found his passport, tucked between the pages of a dictionary. It looks like they will make it to New York after all.

ImageAveragely yours,

the candidate

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Blankie ever after

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On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the third and final post about the experience and how it compares to my graduate school studies in clinical psychology.

You can check out the first and second instalment of the Tough Mudder Trilogy here and here.

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Blankie ever after

It was cold. After the Hold Your Wood and Dirty Ballerina, my hands were freezing so badly that Saturday Night Live’s Mary Katherine Gallagher could not have warmed them up. I ran with my arms tucked under my armpits, occasionally dropping a knee into a lunge and screaming “SUPERSTAR!”.

MKG superstar

Superstar!

Before the Trench War-fare obstacle, I asked a first aid volunteer if she had any towels that I could warm my hands with: she offered me a garbage bag. When I told her that all I wanted was to wrap my hands in cloth, she looked through her red box and offered me a triangular bandage.

Meet Blankie.

Safety behaviours are strategies, such a repetitive behaviours or objects that serve to cope with a threat or reduce anxiety. For instance, you might refuse to write an exam without your “special eraser” or feel safer giving a presentation while holding cue-cards just “in case” you forget something. I felt safer completing a ridiculous obstacle course with a triangular bandage.

Once my fingers were wrapped in the warmth and love of Blankie, there was no getting away from her. She became my race-mate. I wrapped Blankie around my neck to cut off the wind, used her to wipe mud off my face and keep the hair out of my eyes. My sole purpose was to keep Blankie dry (keeping her clean was impossible given the circumstances) and she would keep me warm and safe in return. Blankie was my security blanket, my safety behaviour.

You might think I was in a mud-induced delusional state. That is highly likely.

Blankie and I’s first separation occurred at the Walk the Plank challenge. I didn’t want to her to be drenched in muddy, cold, water as I jumped from a 15 foot cliff. I seriously considered bypassing the obstacle. However, water is my element: I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor for almost 10 years; I could not allow myself to skip a water challenge. So I asked a spectator to hold Blankie. He gave me an odd look, similar to those I get when I ask for the time while holding my cell phone or when I tell people that finishing my graduate degree will take seven years in total. He did not further question the sanity of someone who was doing the Tough Mudder challenge and held my Blankie. I was grateful.  I got the same look over and over again when I asked spectators and participants to hold Blankie or to leave her on the ground at the other end of a challenge.

Blankie supported me through the “I’m not happy” portion of the race, which took place between the 5th and 12th kilometer of the 16 kilometer course. During this period, running did not warm me up and my vision was playing tricks on me. I think I had hypothermia. Megan, who seemed to have been injected with happy hormones (I obviously missed that station) tried her best to cheer me up. I saw mirages of a warm blanket and hot coco. I held onto Blankie until the sun made its first appearance of the day and I found hope again.

After the Wounded Warrior Carry, I realized two things.

First, having a security blanket (i.e., Safety Behaviour) is not as bad as one would think. According to some research, Blankie might have encouraged me to do more in the initial portion of the race! She helped me face challenges that I would otherwise skip. I tucked her into my shirt as we ran through the electroshock therapy challenge – one that I had promised myself I would bypass. Yes, I could have completed the race without Blankie, and if for some reason I had to leave her behind, I would have finished the race in her honour. Having her with me gave me a reason to finish – Blankie had to make it to the finish line as much as I did.

Meet Blankie after the race.

Blankie after the race.

Second, as cliché as it sounds: shit gets better. No matter how cold, muddy, or tired as I was, a water station and snack were always nearby, my teammates gave me a pat on the back, and I managed to complete an obstacle and run between different stations. Our bodies and mind can endure incredible circumstances. Just like in graduate school, when our supervisors are unhappy, our results are not significant, when participants and clients don’t show up or clients don’t get better…eventually, things turn up. We find a solution and a reason to keep going. Someone, or something, no matter how faint or muddy is cheering us on.

And if things don’t get better, they will eventually end.

After 16 kilometers, 14 obstacles, 8 challenges, and 4 hours, Blankie and I (and my teammates!) made it to the Finish Line. Someone put a headband on my head, a bracelet on my wrist; I grabbed a protein bar for someone and headed towards the person giving away shirts. I graduated. The next half hour is a blur. My teammates and I were so cold, injured (all of us hurt our knees on the Everest challenge). We cleaned up under the freezing cold showers. It was awful.

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When I ran into my other teammate Rob, who finished the race 2.5 hours earlier, he said “You did it! How did it go?!” I couldn’t think of anything positive to say…. “I don’t want to talk about it”.

People asked me the same question for days after the race. “How was it???” I wish I said that it was a fantastic experience where I pushed my body and mind to its limits, where I discovered how strong I can be, where I met interesting people, and faced my fears. What typically came out was some variation of “It was painfully cold, awful really…but I’m glad I did it”. As our minds like to do, I had to justify the agony I put my body and mind through, so I elaborated “If it wasn’t for the cold, it would have been better….it was hard….we had a great time…the team was awesome…check out my bruises and battle wounds!” and typically ended withyeah….I would do it again”.

That is strangely similar to the answer I give when someone asks “how is that PhD coming along?

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: The Path of Ignorance

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Last weekend I completed the Tough Mudder challenge: a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol, which takes place mostly in – you guessed it – mud. I blindly signed up for the race after a friend’s recommendation, much like I decide to pick up broccoli at the grocery store because a friend forwarded a broccoli and cheese soup recipe to me. “Sure – I’ll do it”. The recipe never made it from my inbox onto my dining table. Tough Mudder on the other hand, left bruises and scratches.

There are multiple analogies I can draw between an obstacle course and graduate school or my work as a clinical psychologist (in training), and I will explore them through a trilogy of posts.

The first analogy is obvious. I was well aware that graduate school and Tough Mudder would be challenging (read: exhausting) and scary (read: terrifying). Despite the blood (don’t underestimate paper cuts), sweat, and tears that I expected from graduate school and Tough Mudder, I signed up for both.

sure, I’ll do it

The Path of Ignorance

Arrive in Barrie Ontario – check-in at the hotel.

There were five us: Rob, the Tough Mudder veteran, who spoke about the endless hills, treacherous roads, and painful obstacles the way university professors discuss their research: confidently disregarding the audience’s angst and ignorance of the topic.

There were Rachel and Brooke, two sisters who had done similar races and athletic training in the past. I did not know what to expect from them, but knew one thing: neither would be wearing hearing aids during the race, meaning that they could not hear anything. No cheering, no booing, no “get out of the way because this 200 pound man is about to fall on top of you”. Communication with them would be with eye or tactile contact.

Finally, there was Megan, the back-to-back-group-exercise-classes-at-the-gym friend who gently coerced me into signing up for Tough Mudder. Megan spent hours – nay days – researching the Tough Mudder obstacles and learning how to mentally and physically prepare for the event. She was the equivalent of the person who compulsively examines the statistics regarding funding applications for graduate students, and who constantly reminds you the odds and timelines. From time to time, a video illustrating a Tough Mudder challenge found its way into my email inbox. I reluctantly clicked on the link, watched the first five seconds where a camera lens is splattered with mud with rock music in the background, then stopped it. I chose ignorance.

In fact, I steered clear from any sort of information before the race. Conversely from my “day job” as a graduate student and clinical psychologist, where I am required to understand my clients and their mental illness from every angle, I chose not to delve into the ins and outs of the Tough Mudder challenges. I chose ignorance over the knowledge of how and when I will be injured or terrified (read: die).  I rather prance through the event blindly and cope with its challenges as they arose. After all, the focus of my doctoral research is the treatment of anxiety– what is a better place to put my “expert” knowledge to good use than an event where my mental stamina will be tested?

awkward silence

This is as good a time as any for me to tell you that I am not a dare-devil. I am a nervous wreck who is susceptible to peer pressure. That is a dangerous combination.  I was not the child who jumped from the rooftop into the pool or who tried to do a cart-wheel on a balance beam. Roller coasters were the highest ranking item on my “extreme activity” list, until I somehow agreed to skydive five years ago. I am the child who wore a helmet and who ducked down every time the ball steered into her direction at dodge ball. Lifeguards never warned me about running on the side of the pool:  I was age-inappropriately alert about the possibility of slipping and breaking my front teeth. The fear of losing my front teeth is also the reason why I do not know how to ice skate. Shameful for a Canadian, I know.

At dinner on the night before the Tough Mudder race, my teammates further dissected the obstacles. Every other sentence began with some variation of “I’m really worried about _______”. The blank was filled in with terms such as “Arctic Enema”, a challenge where contestants jump shoulder deep into freezing water and swim under a barricade, or “Everest”, where contestants run up a quarter-pipe and pull themselves to the other side. My chest was pounding and I was short of breath. I felt as if I accidentally walked into a seminar about structural equation modeling: embarrassingly confused and terrified.

As I gorged down my pasta meal, in the midst of nearby conversations and the hockey game playing the back ground, I heard the following combination of words:

Electric.

Shock.

Water.

I looked up at Rachel and my eyes requested that she repeat her statement. What Rachel was describing was the “Electric Eel”, a challenge where contestants crawl in water, with electrical wires hanging overhead. In short: you crawl in water while being shocked. I paid to do this. I paid to squirm through water while being electrocuted. I held back tears while Rob attempted to minimize the potential damage of the event, much like my supervisor would try to convince me that presenting at a conference is no big deal.  Megan attempted to mitigate my anxiety by reminding me that Arctic Enema would be much worse. Thanks Megan.

My teammates’ general response to my panicked state was “relaaaaaxxxx, you’ll be fiiiinnneee”. Telling an anxious person to “relax” is as effective as trying to explain to undergraduate students that the required readings for a course can be found in the course syllabus. Then trying to tell them where to find the syllabus…..and telling them what the “syllabus” is.

The same way I teach my anxious clients to relax, I took deep breaths and reminded myself that the likelihood of dying while crawling in water under electrical wires is slim. I took deep breaths and reminded myself that no amount of research could have prepared me for these challenges. I took more deep breaths and reminded myself that I paid for the event, drove over 5 hours to the site, and publicly announced my participation. I took deep breath and gobbled down more pasta.

Anxiety is the overestimation of danger and underestimation of coping abilities. In preparation for Tough Mudder, I chose ignorance to prevent exaggeration of threat. I chose ignorance so I wouldn’t be reminded of what I cannot do. However, 12 hours before the race, I was flooded with information I did not want. Most of that information was threatening and my brain refused to process any evidence of safety or ability to cope.

I wonder if the path of ignorance was the correct one to take.  Would I have been less anxious if I knew what was coming?

Would you rather know or be ignorant before an event like Tough Mudder?

Are you typically under-prepared or over-prepared? 

Averagely yours,

the candidate