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.

 

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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 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.

Dear Annual Report

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Spring is the time for graduate students to meet with their supervisors and complete the “Annual Report”, or as I like to call it, the “Annual-Reminder-That-My-Goals-Aren’t-In-Line-With-The-Department’s-Expectations”.

The Annual Report is a grown-up version of the report card, where I tell the university what I’ve “accomplished” (based on the university’s definition of achievement) in the past 12 months, in three categories: publications, dissertation, and professional development. My university (like many) is research focused (as opposed to clinically focused), so the first two categories weight more than the third.  There are no grades or gold stars in response to this report. Depending on the year, the Department Head might send me a generic email to remind me that I am in good standing.

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When did the email become the Graduate Studies version of a Gold Star?

Truth be told, almost five years into my graduate studies, I have no idea what the department expects from me, but based on my responses on the Annual Report, I missed honour roll.  In response to this deficient but necessary process, I wrote a letter to the Graduate Studies Annual Report.

Dear Graduate Studies’ Annual Report,

Thank you for making your yearly cameo in my life, around the time when the weather gets warmer, undergrads slowly (finally!) leave campus, and I allow myself to contemplate about how unproductive I will be over the summer.

Fortunately, you and I never spend too much time together, because the questions you ask of me are not the ones I tried to answer during the year. For instance, you ask me about the number of publications I submitted. I could tell you that one of my manuscript was rejected…not once, but twice. However, I don’t think you would be proud of me, so I will carefully omit this information. I wish I could include the two editorials I wrote for a CPA newsletter, but I cannot since they are not research.

You also ask me about book chapters I published in the past 12 months. I understand that some graduate students work in labs where their supervisor is asked to write and edits books. Consequently, they have the opportunity to publish book chapters. I am not one of those students. So this section will remain empty.

Finally, you ask me about presentations I presented or submitted in the past year. I managed to squeeze some data out of my minuscule sample, so I can add one scientific poster presentation to this section….but its acceptance is pending. Is that of any value to you?

A third of way through, it is obvious that you and I are not on the same page. You evaluate me on criteria that I chose not to value. How can we mend our differences Annual Report? How can I avoid the feeling of inadequacy that your questions create?

Next, you ask me about the progress on my dissertation. I hold back my tears as I write that I have recruited only half of the participants I had planned to have by now. Unfortunately, the multiple choice format does not allow me to explain that I work with a difficult population in a strict setting. There is no room for me to tell you how convincing parents to bring an anxious child to the hospital for one more appointment is tedious and unbearable for them. All I do is check the “incomplete” box and hope that you will understand.

After being reminded for three pages that I did not focus on publications this year,  I finally shine when it comes to Professional Development. I report a page worth of workshops and seminars. This year, I learnt about the long-term impact of trauma, the theory and practice of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy, and ethical considerations in private practice. Unfortunately, Annual Report, I heard through the grapevine that you do not care much for PD. I’ve been told that you ask about workshops and seminars simply to be “comprehensive”, not because you believe it is an important aspect of graduate studies in clinical psychology. Is that true? For a fleeting moment, I thought you and I connected.

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Annual Report, why don’t you ask me about professional affiliations? Why don’t you ask me about supplementary engagements? I would tell you about everything I accomplished in the past 12 months. If you only had one more page where I could tell you that I am now a certified yoga instructor; that I am working on another treatment study with a psychologist in the community; that I am editor of newsletter for the Canadian Psychological Association; that I published a research review on an popular science blog; I climbed Table Mountain; two students wrote me “thank you” notes for the way I marked their assignment… Sadly, these are negligible details to someone who cares only about publications and data. They are crumbs of a cake.

See you next year,

Averagely Yours,

the candidate. 

2.5 years in 3 minutes

A month ago, I signed up for the “3 Minute Thesis” competition at my university. The Three Minute Thesis (3MT® ) is an academic competition developed by The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia for research students. The concept is simple: graduate students describe their Master’s or Doctoral research to a non-specialized but intelligent audience in 3 minutes. The presentation can be accompanied by a single static slide. No animations, no props, no songs, no dance.

Being one of the few people who doesn’t dread public speaking I signed up without hesitation. My enjoyment of giving presentations is probably one of the few areas where I am not on top of the average curve.

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At first, I thought that summarizing my research in 3 minutes would be a breeze. I know my project inside out, and am still at a stage where I enjoy talking about it. It’s my intellectual baby.

I was wrong.

The version was 8 minutes long and my first slide draft looked something like this:

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This presentation forced me to squeeze 2.5 years of my life and hundreds of hours in 3 minutes. Not exactly straightforward. Or simple. It forced to pin point the most important aspects of my research, simplify it without dumb-ing it down, and conveying its importance to an audience that was there to support someone else.

I challenge you to do that about anything you are passionate about.

I wasn’t as anxious as I expected on qualification day. I stayed quiet as I sat with the other participants. Others chatted, discussing their study, explaining how difficult it was to squeeze everything into 3 minutes. The man next me introduced himself. I wasn’t in the mood the talk. I wanted to breathe and change my shoes. Thankfully, he didn’t really give me the opportunity to speak. He engaged in a monologue about his plans to invite the entire department to the finals if he made it, and since he is the president it shouldn’t be too hard. He took a short intermission to greet members of his fan club and turned back to me. I nodded while I vaguely gazed in his direction and took deep breaths. He was not rude, not even arrogant, simply too talkative…about himself. To me, his expression of confidence was a reflection of his insecurity.

It is sad how poorly attended departmental events when there is no free food. Looking around the old auditorium, I noticed that there were as many audience members as there were contestants – everyone managed to bring at least one person. Having posted a Facebook event, I was expected a handful of people. I reluctantly turned around every time the auditorium door clicked open. Finally, two friends walked in and smiled in my direction. My shoulders dropped from my ears – where they like to hang out when I’m anxious – and I was ready to start. It was comforting to know they took the time out of their busy schedule to watch me (and 10 others).

The next 20 minutes were a blur. Students stepped up one by one, described their work elegantly, concisely, and clearly. No mumbles, no “ums”, no trips, or falls. Even the man next to me presented. He had a reason to be confident.

My name appeared on the projector and I jumped up – I didn’t think it was my turn yet. Despite the clear instructions we were given about staying on the X marked on the ground, I wondered back and forth in front of my slide. I was in a trance while I told the story of my mother asking me if the stove was turned off when we left the house.

Let’s fast forward 3 minutes. Let’s imagine my friends giving me thumbs up as I step off the stage. Let’s fast forward through the fact that I finished second place in my qualification heat and made it to the finals!

The chatty guy? He didn’t make it, neither did all the members of his department.

Let’s fast forward to my final presentation, where again, I knew 3.5 people in the audience of about 100.

The .5 is a prof in our department that I don’t know at all, but saw his face on our website. So we he counts as half. I hope he doesn’t take offence. 

I didn’t win, the winner deserved to win though.

I could write about how hard it was to condense 2.5 years of my life in 3 minutes. I could also write about the sadness and loneliness I felt when very few people I knew showed up at the qualification rounds or the finals. I know that many people would have been there physically but instead sent positive vibes. This is not mean to be a criticism of who wasn’t there, it is meant to be a focus and appreciation for those who were.

The idea of support, like I wrote in a previous post, is like layers in the same cake. Layers support and complement each other, and that means showing up at a silly (read nerdy) event during a busy week, reading over each other’s work, or helping out through peer supervision. Thank you to all those who did. Thank you to those who asked about it and supported me through it from close or far. 

A dissertation, like anything else in life (read: graduate school), is not not a solo project. Sometimes supports means being critical of each other, other times it’s about shutting up and listening. Either way, it is critical to success.Support is also about saying (and meaning it!) when you say “good luck!” or “that’s sound so interesting”. Its about congratulating each other for our efforts, achievements, and successes and most importantly it’s about giving each other a little push when we need a little help.

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Averagely yours,

the candidate

Layer Cake: The Anatomy of Graduate Student Cohorts

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Cohorts in Graduate school are like layers of a cake; nicely stacked at first, but eventually the filling sinks into the cake and it settles. If done right, every layer’s taste, texture, and colour complements the other.

The new Master’s students (MSc1) are the top layer of the cake: the icing. They are always neat and presentable for their new position. They are eager, anxious, and maybe most likely to experience the imposter syndrome. You will find them skipping through the halls with their hair dancing in the wind, optimistic at the thought of the knowledge they will acquire and generate in graduate school. On other occasions, you will find them nervously gathered in the hallway exchanging notes. The expectations and stressors of graduate school are made worst by the challenges of living in a new city and starting a new social life. The first year is a brouhaha of anxiety and excitement.

The MSc2’s are the layer under the icing. They are relieved that the first year is behind them and proud to be approaching the first significant milestone of their graduate career. For some, it is a turning point: do I keep going or stop?

PhD1s and PhD2 are sandwiched between the old and the new. It is a no-man’s-land between the novelty of a new phase and the trepidation of the road to come. Presentation takes a backseat since Graduate school has long lost its glimmer. Nevertheless, the excitement of having three new letters at the end of their name is enough to keep most of them going. PhD1 and PhD2s students have proved themselves by defending their thesis and their identity in terms of research and practice is taking shape. Either way, there is a short-lived sense of accomplishment, a night of irresponsible drinking and debauchery, and the inevitable return to a harsh reality.

Interactions with PhD1s and PhD2 should be undertaken at your own risk, as they are a volatile cohort. Like the middle layer of a cake, it is either the favorite flavor or the eccentric addition. Graduate students in the middle years are as stable as dynamite. They are confident and motivated in the morning but have a mental breakdown next to the coffee machine by lunch. Handle this cohort with care.

I am part of the last group: the seniors. PhD3+ students have jumped through countless hoops: Master’s defence, comprehensive exams, proposal, course work, yet they know there is more to come. It is too late to turn back, stop, or to second-guess decisions. Everything has become a checkmark on the road to graduation. Our motto: a good thesis is a finished thesis. For seniors, the excitement of a new cohort arriving has long subsided. Instead of looking forward to meeting the new faces, we wonder if the newbies will take our TAship slots.

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Like a good cake, the layers complement each other in graduate school. MSc1 students benefit from the guidance of every other layer. They remind us of how optimistic we were when we started this journey. The middle year students can be unpredictable, but they provide the necessary drama to mix.

In my opinion, PhD3+ students are mostly likely to crumble under the pressure. If left to our own devices, we would spend our time knitting, quilting, baking, and watching Downtown Abbey in bed with camomile tea. We PhD3+ students benefit from the energy and pristine motivation of the younger students. Do not give up on us!

After all, we are all sitting on the same plate, being eaten up by the same goal.

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

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.

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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.