In Praise of Not Caring (an after-action review)

This was something I started writing at the end of June and am only getting around to publishing now. But, having recently finished my first semester as a doctoral student, I figured it was also a good time to do an evaluation.

So, I’m starting a Ph.D. in September. Also in Information Studies. With my same advisor.

I think it’s rather appropriate, given my study in Knowledge Management, to do a ‘Post-Mortem’ (called an ‘After-Action Review’ in the US military) on my experience doing the MLIS, in preparation for the Ph.D.

What worked well?

The group-project structure of assignments. I definitely grumbled about them, as did everyone else, but… I think without the help of my classmates I would not have graduated. This format encouraged us to work together and ‘project manage’ (by which of course I mean, ‘manage wildly different personalities and work styles’). When I got my diploma, I felt I should add their names to it.

In a related note, it’s hard during grad school to have good contact with people. Sometimes a friend and I had ‘grocery dates’ where we did our grocery shopping together and used that time to visit. Another friend and I would have ‘parallel study’ sessions in the library… you know how little children first learn to play together by playing separately side by side? It’s called parallel play. We didn’t study together, we just studied at the same table so it wasn’t like we were alone. That helped tremendously. So I guess another thing that worked well was creativity – you have to find the little things that help.

Having a sense of humour. I will be the first to say I am rather high-strung, but I also do have the ability to laugh at the craziness and messiness of life… and even when I can’t, I have friends with amazing, quirky senses of humour and they make me laugh. Even a tiny moment of laughter grants a reprieve from stress. A piece of great advice my dad gave me one time was to enjoy the good times because they help get you through the bad. Sometimes we feel too busy to allow ourselves to enjoy good moments, but they strengthen us; we need them.

Faith. I don’t think I would have graduated without a) feeling loved and supported by God, and feeling that love reflected through my friends and family, and b) a sense of community provided by going to church and singing in the choir. And in the advice of one of my favourite saints: ‘Do not let the best years of your life be overshadowed by chimerical fears.’ Note to self :)

Rest. When I was able to let go and relax, I did so much better. At some point I had to institute a No Studying After Supper rule in order to unwind enough to be able to fall asleep.

What didn’t work well?

Caring too much about… well, everything. Comparing myself to my classmates and feeling like I didn’t measure up, that I wasn’t a good enough student. And it took me a long time before I realized the only person who really cared that I am American… was me. My friends didn’t care and neither did my academic advisor.

This attitude of mine also contributed to a loss of self-confidence. When I started the MLIS in 2010, I had a great deal of it. And that worked well, until it ran out. I think having a more realistic view of the program and of myself would have helped nurture it, as well as managing stress better in general. Granted, there were some family issues which increased my stress level astronomically, and over which I had no control. That sense of helplessness was also a major contributing factor in losing self-confidence.

Not accepting my own work and learning styles. For example, in our society we value staying up late and working around the clock… but I don’t do well operating like that. I am a morning person and while it’s nice to feel like you’ve accomplished everything before you fall asleep, I also know that I am my most productive at 4 o’clock in the morning. So I tried being disciplined and saying, ‘I will stop studying now in order to sleep well, and that will enable me to finish this in the morning’. It was hard to believe that at first, so I had to remind myself of times when this had worked  – then it was easier to ‘let go’ and sleep.

Lack of sleep. It’s harder for me to notice the effects of continuous lack of sleep when I’m not driving. Because I commuted during my undergrad, I had to schedule in enough sleep so I wouldn’t be driving drowsy (it’s the same as driving drunk). And thirty minutes of driving drowsy on a highway would not be a good idea. But here I don’t drive, and, frankly, I found it difficult to start valuing sleep. ‘Oh, I’ll just have a coffee in the morning’. Yeah, that doesn’t cut it. Especially because coffee makes my throat hurt.

Not getting enough exercise. When I was at AC during my undergrad I was on the crew team, and that was excellent. At KSC, I didn’t belong to any sports club, but I did make it a point to walk/run about three times a week. My senior year I learned that the health science students worked as personal trainers at the college gym, so I signed up for that and found that beneficial (and affordable! something like $40 per semester, although this was several years ago).  It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking, ‘Well, I walk around the city all the time so I’m getting exercise’. You are, in the sense of moving, but not in the sense of doing a pleasurable activity that also allows you to ‘burn off’ restless energy and anxiety. When you’re walking to class you are focused on doing a task and probably not enjoying it. When you’re going on a walk you can be in the moment and allow your mind to unwind. At least, this was true for me.

I mention this because one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from my dad when I started college. He said that it’s important to get adequate exercise because as a student you’re spending lots time of sitting and studying. Exercise helps your blood flow well and your brain stay alert. And helps with managing stress (and thus, sleep).

But, lack of flexibility was also something that didn’t work well. One summer a friend and I tried being accountability buddies concerning swimming. Our goal was to swim five days a week. But we had to realize that life gets in the way sometimes and you can’t be so rigid in your expectations. When you constantly feel like it’s a duty, you don’t want to go (especially when you feel you’re falling short on that duty!). So we went when we could and sometimes it was four times a week and sometimes just once and that was fine.

Lack of focus and boundaries. For example, keeping work and play separate by having a place where I only study so that I associate that place with working efficiently. Some great advice I received during undergrad was to study at a place where you only study and nothing else (i.e., your desk). When your mind starts to wander, get up and go somewhere else for five minutes. My senior year I lived in a suite on campus and my desk was in my bedroom. When my mind started wandering I would get up and go into the living room. Usually I worked on a knitting project, I think…sometimes I would stretch and do something physical. Then I would go back to my desk. I made sure not to eat at my desk, nor study in the kitchen or on my bed.

But I forgot about that during my masters and tried to do everything all at once.

Despite Facebook also being something that doesn’t help, I have come across some great articles which were posted by my friends. One was called ‘Stop Focusing on Your Performance’. This is a lesson I am continually learning – hyperfocusing on something does not help. Focusing on the experience, however, does. The first time I realized this was when I was 18. For a few summers, my dad and I did a triathlon as a team. I swam, he did the cycling portion and a friend of his would do the running. I always felt nauseous prior to the race starting, due to being nervous. However, this particular summer I hadn’t trained as much because of my job. Somehow I was inspired to just let that go – I guess I figured I couldn’t expect myself to do that well without having trained a lot, so it wouldn’t pay to get all worked up about it. Quantum leaps aside, that was my best swim time! I remember thinking afterward, ‘Wow, it’s amazing what I can accomplish when I just stop trying!’ Goal: try to remember that :)

This semester

Having done this review in June, I went into this semester more aware of what to look out for. I think I did manage to internalize a lot of these ‘best practices’ and ‘lessons learned’. In addition, a friend who is also doing a Ph.D. shared this advice with me: when you feel stressed, remember that studying is a privilege; what is the alternative scenario? That has been a big help for me in seeing the big picture.

I was fairly successful in getting enough sleep – my mind definitely didn’t feel as foggy as it did during my MLIS. But I would have had more (and better) sleep if I had exercised more. I was able to let go of a fair amount of ‘compare and despair’ and just focus on doing my best and getting done what I could. I work more than I did during my masters, and I’m glad to find that I am much better at time management now.

From talking with other colleagues and my advisor, I learned it’s natural to feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster while getting your doctorate. Sometimes you feel confident about it, and at other times, it seems like nothing is going to work out. But remembering that these feelings were temporary definitely helped me keep an iota of equilibrium.

So all in all, my first semester as a doctoral student went much better than my first semester as a masters student, and I hope next semester goes even better. I will have two jobs, but they are both interesting and meaningful, so I feel very fortunate and am looking forward to it.