Materials Girl: Life beyond academia

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[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

Mortality is not a concept that many young scholars are in the habit of considering. Indeed, students tend to pay little thought to their health within a frequently frenetic, sleep-deprived, caffeine-powered existence of procrastination and salty ramen (or are those tears?). Self-care was not an issue that I focused on during grad school, or even in the following year of post-graduation burnout. Sure, I dropped 15 lbs in two weeks while preparing for quals — however, starvation, 20 hour workdays and anxiety attacks are neither a healthy nor sustainable lifestyle (and needless to say, that weight came right back)… Only in retrospect have I realized the depth to which I was depressed, hyper-stressed, and overly isolated in The Dungeon – meanwhile medical specialists wondered why my health was so  poor for a normal-looking student in her early/mid 20’s.

Graduate school was possibly the hardest, most strenuous “activity” in my life. Had I been in good mental and physical shape, I could have graduated in half the time. Perhaps even more quickly, had I not been stumbling through a miserable haze of fatigue, stress, and some sort of masochistic pleasure in overexerting myself (and often focusing on teaching instead of research). Even now, it seems miraculous that I went from having sporadic, disparate projects without a clue what was going on to pulling together a coherent dissertation.

Being a postdoc is just a step above being fodder for the graduate school machine. While my position is still in academia and involves work far more hours than I’m paid for, I’ve also learned to focus on myself. Not just on my work/career and scientific responsibilities, but also me: MG the human. MG with both scientific and extracurricular activities. MG who has amazing friends and is reassembling something one might call a life.

Last year was a defining time for me — personally and professionally, mentally and physically. One step in “real adulthood” has been learning to take nights and weekends off, things that normal people do! Grad-student-MG would’ve been wracked with guilt. Mentally-improved-MG adapts by actually working efficiently and not allowing distractions or exhaustion to overtake the day. Physically-improved-MG changed a sedentary lifestyle into working out six days each week and cooking healthy meals. Instead of late-night languishing in the office with flagging productivity, my work is done more effectively before scampering off to mixed martial arts classes. Afterwards, I scamper home to unpack, eat, shower, sleep early, and drag myself out of bed around 6:30am. Wash, rinse, repeat, and — most importantly — enjoy.

Behind every speck of data and writing is a person with aspirations and feelings — not just a monkey or nameless face who works in the lab and chugs coffee. As Rebecca Schuman aptly says in The Not-So-Splendid Isolation of Doctoral Study, “One of the biggest mistakes many of us make is to forget that our brilliant brains live inside whole, mortal people — and that those people need taking care of”. We must remember to appreciate not only the research, but also the individuals who discover the science. Respect yourself, take breaks, and never lose sight of who you are. And even if that happens, you can come back. Be mindful and give yourself grace, as a wise friend of mine would say. It makes all the difference in the world.