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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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.

tree progress

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

humility cartoon

*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.

tree progress

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.