Habits for a Successful PhD Pursuit

I defended my dissertation last summer and graduated on August 13. It took three years, 11 months, and 16 days to earn my doctorate degree. Those were not the easiest years I can remember. After all, one and a half year of that time was spent under a pandemic. For nine months of that pandemic period, my country of origin has been in a deadly war in an area where I have extended family and friends. That is almost the entire year of my last academic year spent worrying about their safety and wellbeing. The PhD pursuit on its own is also not an easy endeavor.

I succeeded in this pursuit. I learned a lot, won various awards and honors, published, presented in many conferences. I left my alma mater with a doctorate degree and postdoctoral research associate offer at Carnegie Mellon University, and, most importantly, my sanity intact. When I reflect back, I think of the things that contributed to that immensely. Hard work, drive, and laser-sharp focus are important, needless to stay. So is a supportive advisor and research committee. But in this post, I am interested in talking about habits, ways of life, and lifestyle choices that supported me. I do not want to give the impression that all my habits were good. No. What I am saying is this: I am sharing the good ones in this post.

Sleep. I am an excellent sleeper! And I sleep in a properly made bed, in an orderly, cozy and cool bedroom everyday. I maintained a fairly regular bedtime. I enjoyed my sleep very much, and I did not use an alarm to wake up, unless I have an early morning flight or meeting. I let my body wake itself. As a result, I was alert during the day without needing any caffeine at all.

Healthy eating. If you grew up in my culture, you consumed food made from scratch every single day. This is the lifestyle I knew, and one that I did not or could not – even if I wanted to – compromise on. The entire process from listing grocery items, shopping, and preparing meals gave me great pleasure. I consumed healthful food just like I saw growing up in my family. I think it is a profound way of taking care of yourself for a grueling work regimen.

Exercise. I sometimes wonder if yoga is a spiritual pursuit or an exercise. May be it is both. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But few were the days where I didn’t do yoga first thing in the morning and as a result, few were the days I felt sluggish or fatigued. A few months into the pandemic, I bought a stand and turned one of my bikes into a low-budget stationery bike. I also created a yoga space at home; going to the gym or yoga studio was not an option anymore. In the last semester, towards the end of my last year, I picked up running with more intensity than before. Moving my body helped me be always ready for my PhD-pursuit days.

R & R and social life. The last year in my PhD program, I was very intentional at R & R. There were times were I did poorly on this previously despite having a couple of extracurricular activities (Toastmasters, physical exercise). During those times, I worked every day of the week and experienced intense burnout. I would take a few days to recover and go back to the same habits. Not in my last year in the program. I had learned my lesson the hard way. Evenings and Sundays were always for my social life and relaxation. Some Saturdays I worked to meet early week deadlines. In my last year of the PhD, I learned to buy lots of flowers, and it looking at them brought me pleasure.

Spiritual dimension or something like that. I do not know how to explain this to others. But I can say this: This is the stuff that gets you going when all else fails. My spiritual something was a formal, daily mindful practice and pranayama borne out of a need to get through an incredibly stressful time. Not only did it get me through, it became an important part of my life, for moments of stress or otherwise.

Picture from B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Pranayama, p. 264

Organization. I love routine and planning as it gives me a sense of structure. I develop a routine and follow it with 70% adherence. I don’t intend for perfection, and the 30% flexibility is room for the unexpected. It worked well for me. Every week day, my routine had the same framework; my weekends vary. I worked from my office on campus, clearly demarcating workspace and home. I was lucky, very lucky to be able to do that even during the pandemic. My preference is always to work outside home or a dedicated workspace in the home.

I planed for the week either on Fridays or on the weekend. It gave me a sense of accomplishment when I crossed a task off of my list. During the day and during the week, I continuously reviewed my planner to make adjustments or changes.

Selective task pairing. Multitasking is said not to work or may even have detrimental effects if, for instance, you are driving while on the phone. I call what I do task pairing: simple tasks with more complex ones. I did mundane work such as cleaning while listening to the radio. My place was always clean, and I was well informed about the world. I also rode my indoor bike while listening to audiobooks. I got an excellent endorphin release, and there was a time I was reading two extracurricular books every month. I have no idea what was happening in my brain during task paring or how much of the reading and the news I retained, though. But I find task pairing worthwhile.

Smaller successes. I didn’t wait to defend my dissertation to feel a sense of accomplishment. This past May, I finished a 108-day online advanced yoga program. The process of going through the program and achieving it brought me joy! Last year, I earned my Distinguished Toastmasters Member award around the time I wrote my preliminary exam. Earning a DTM is a big milestone the required a lot of work on its own, but compared to the PhD program and what that entails, it is much smaller. Having these success along the way made my process of earning the doctorate a pleasant journey.

Limited media consumption. Two things will give you an indication of my relationship with technology as it relates to my personal consumption. There is no TV in my house, and my cellphone was an iPhone 5s bought nine years prior. I got a newer version iPhone just recently because most apps wouldn’t work on the old one. (This gave me a great future research idea, by the way!). Another thing: I only have a few apps on my phone. I didn’t mind using web-based formats and logging in every time I check my email, or access an online subscription service, or something else. Social media was something I did at work and for work purposes; I have Twitter and Facebook accounts. I used them for professional purposes. I got my news from a radio app or online newspapers. The only time I watched TV on a screen larger than an iPad was at other people’s homes. My cellphone is always on silent mode. Periodically, I checked for messages or missed calls. I preferred to go to them on my terms reducing unnecessary distractions.

I did not go into the PhD program with all these habits; some of them yes I did, others I refined along the way, and others I acquired while a student. They were all ripe and ready to support me through my last year of the program, which was incredibly challenging due to external situations I mentioned above. For that, I am grateful.

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