It’s 5am, the sky still shrouded by darkness. I feel the cool, crisp air and smell the damp earth beneath my feet. A few cars pass by underneath the overpass. A block ahead, glowing in perpetual wakefulness, the building where I work stands calmly. I always trust its light to guide me through the last stretch of an otherwise dimly lit walk. Still, I carry pepper spray in hand. It’s unwise to assume that every shadow is harmless at this hour.
I reach the building and put on a hand sewn mask that Ma had made for me. Ma and Ba live several states and two time zones away. It’s already past dawn there, and Ma must be preparing breakfast. I press the handicap door opener to avoid touching the door handle, walk into a spotless foyer littered with colorful ergonomic chairs. My shoes echo through the silent halls. Motion sensor lights pave the way to the elevators. I scan my badge to the fourth floor. Time to start another day working alone.
By now I’ve developed a much more zen attitude to consistently working in solitude. It hasn’t always been this way, but for over five years, I’ve struggled mentally, emotionally, and physically with living and working in isolation. I’ve broken down and cried alone in the microscope room, in empty conference rooms, in my own living room. Isolation isn’t just a physical state of having no one around you. A lot of the time, it’s a feeling that even when you have people around you, you still feel very much alone. As painful as the process may feel, it formed calluses on my mind that helped me bear through the isolation and endure moments of crippling defeat. The cycle of breaking down emotionally and learning how to get back up helped toughen my spirit.
In retrospect, these difficult experiences have been invaluable to helping me cope through the increased sense of isolation brought about by Covid-19 restrictions. I recognize that this pandemic might cause many of you to experience intense feelings of isolation for the first time in your life. I want to share with you some of the coping strategies that I’ve learned that have helped me live a more cheerful and healthy life while dealing with work-related stress in isolation. These strategies are based solely on my personal experiences and may not apply to everyone, but I hope a few will resonate.
1. Get a pet if you can afford one (or two)
One Saturday after a 90-hour work week last summer, I rolled out of bed absolutely fed up with the deadening silence around me. To this day I don’t know what exactly compelled me to drive to the Humane Society that morning and decide to adopt Max, my tuxedo kitten. The Holy Spirit must have egged me on. The moment I held his squirmy furry body against my own, I knew he must be my cat son. A couple of weeks later, I decided that Max needed a friend and brother, so I adopted a brown tabby named Leo. I cannot express how grateful I am for the joy and love that these two silly boys have brought into my life. Getting a pet (or two) if you have the means to is a great way to boost morale and bring more good cheer into your life. It is worth noting that pets can come with a lot of responsibility, especially if you get them young. Be sure you are mentally and financially prepared for the commitment.
2. Acknowledge and express your emotions: The good, the bad, and the ugly
As a female grad student working in a male-dominated field, I feel pressured to keep my emotions under wraps so that my male colleagues don’t typecast me as a vulnerable, overly emotional girl. I know male coworkers in STEM fields who openly boast about their ability to ignore their emotions as if that’s a superpower. Indeed, that is a superhuman power. It’s something that I have on many occasions completely failed to master. Most of the time I would hide in the bathroom to sob over my frustrations. There have been a couple of times when I couldn’t control it and cried in front of my mostly male colleagues. Let me tell you a secret: Although it might feel a bit embarrassing in the moment, it feels incredibly relieving after all the pent-up negative emotions are released. In my experience, it can often create a deeper bond between coworkers, which makes the workplace a warmer, more comforting environment. It’s taken me many years of working in STEM fields to accept that being emotionally expressive is healthy and human. The image of a stoic scientist is overrated. Intentionally being emotionally inexpressive is not only superhuman, it’s inhuman. We must strive not to embody the cold, analytical nature of our work, but rather, encourage each other to express ourselves authentically.
3. Seek professional help when you need it
Despite what your professor or colleagues might have you believe, the most important thing in grad school is the same as it is in life: taking care of yourself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. This means that you need to develop an internal barometer to assess how well you are doing. For a long time, I’ve struggled with this. I would use other people’s work and life habits as a reference for how long and hard I should be working, how much I should be sleeping, eating, and exercising to become the most productive I can be in all areas of life. After experiencing several cycles of overwork, exhaustion, and burnout in the middle of my second year, I decided to seek counseling. It was undeniably one of the best decisions I ever made in grad school. My counselor recommended a phone app for meditation called Headspace, as well as other strategies to build mindfulness into my life, which has helped me develop healthier, more sustainable work and life habits.
4. Give gratitude to the positive things you have in your life
Grad school is a marathon, not a sprint. There are many unforeseeable challenges that you may experience along the way. I’ve found that giving myself a little pat on the back for overcoming these challenges (however small) helps motivate me to keep working toward larger project goals. Additionally, I’ve found that practicing gratitude in these precarious times when so many people in the world are struggling with COVID-related challenges helps maintain mental peace.
5. Staying connected to other people makes for a happier you
I tend to self-isolate when I encounter setbacks at work. I would talk myself out of reaching out to my friends and co-workers because I viewed spending time with them as time taken away from making progress on my project. This cannot be farther from the truth. Through counseling and much self-reflection, I’ve realized that staying connected to others, especially in times of struggle, is critical for maintaining mental health. These three types of people in my support network have helped me maintain a healthy perspective whenever progress at work takes a nosedive or reaches an annoying plateau: First, reach out to someone who thinks outside the box. This person might not only help you think of novel solutions to your problem, but also might tell you the words that every grad student secretly wants to hear at some point in their career, “There is life beyond academia. It’s okay to leave grad school to forge a different path.” Second, reach out to your loved ones, near and far. Third, realize that you’re not alone in your struggles, that your peers most likely are experiencing something similar. Reach out to them, even if it’s just to say hi.
6. Fresh air and sleep are the best cures to many unpleasant things
Walt Whitman once wrote about this in his poem “Song of the Open Road”, “Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons/It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” Beautifully expressed words of wisdom. We should all take heart.
7. Listen to the speeches of inspirational people who have overcome significant challenges
In one of the darkest days in my graduate career, I literally typed “inspirational speeches” into the YouTube search bar. After listening to the wisdom imparted by famous actors, authors and business magnates (i.e. Will Smith, JK Rowling, Elon Musk), I came across a video by David Goggins. I’ve never heard of him before, nor seen him anywhere. There he was, sharing his incredible life experiences with his interviewer in the most blunt, unfiltered motivational speeches I’ve ever heard in my life. His truth cut like knives, his words truly empowering. “Stay hard!” is the refrain used by this ex-Navy Seal and ultramarathon runner. “Stay hard!” was what I wrote on a sheet of paper that I taped to the wall in front of my toilet. Reading it every morning prepares my mind for the daily grind. It reminds me of all the hardships that I’ve already overcome to get to this point. It reminds me of the resilience I have developed within me to overcome obstacles ahead.
8. Create a vision of what your life will be like once grad school is over
What makes David Goggins’ speeches so powerful to me is the way he weaves soulfulness and practicality together in his message. He calls himself a practitioner, not a theorist. He advocates using visualization as a way to stay determined in achieving a goal. When I’m alone meditating, I like to envision what life is like once grad school is over. When the daily grind of trying to solve often poorly defined problems is over. When working 60, 70, 80-hour weeks while getting paid less than minimum wage is over. I accept that there will be a different set of challenges after grad school. I recognize that we have different goals and aspirations. Whatever you see yourself doing, living, and working beyond grad school, visualize that. When you’re experiencing hardship, visualize that future. Having a positive vision for your future helps build endurance and acceptance for the inconveniences and discomforts you might be currently facing.
As a grad student in STEM, I hope that sharing a few strategies that have helped me cope through stress during these difficult times will help others who are in a similar situation. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about enormous socioeconomic pressures to people around the world. The increased social isolation has been acutely felt by grad students, many of whom are already facing mental health challenges under the overwhelming publish-or-perish culture in academia. Know you may feel alone right now – but know that we are both alone and in this together.
Nancy Yuan, M.S., is a 3rd year grad student in the Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Program (with a specialization in Biomedical Informatics) at UC San Diego. She has a deep passion for using machine learning and deep learning techniques for predicting clinical outcomes for respiratory diseases, and more broadly, for building computational tools for analyzing high-dimensional data. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and writing fiction and poetry, as well as snuggling with her two kitties, Max and Leo. She loves meandering walks on the beach, and taking pictures that she shares on Instagram (@_fanci_nanci_).