A Case Study in Scientist Self-Care

I have a confession to make: I’m not an exemplary student. All of us procrastinate to some degree, and we frequently fail in the self-care department while doing so. As an extreme case, I have some insight and useful tips to impart.

Things have always come easily to me. I joke about it being a gift and a curse, but on the whole, it’s pretty freaking sweet. I waltzed through high school (literally, I played in the orchestra every semester), graduated early, spent six weeks in South America, and then joined the rest of my cohort at orientation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I expected to encounter new challenges. I did, but on the whole those challenges were minimal. I passed organic chemistry with a B on my first attempt, after going to class only occasionally. Instead, I wasted time watching daytime TV (Netflix was still a DVD rental service), napping, and staying out too late. It’s not something I’m proud of.

Despite my incredible time wasting, I still had to get things done. Near the end of each semester, I would stock up on Diet Coke and Oreos, convince myself that sleep was unnecessary, and hole up in the basement of the library to churn out a semester’s worth of work in a week. Once I had turned it all in and sped through the final (on material I learned two days prior), I began a rehab routine. I would sleep poorly for a night or two and then crash. I think I once slept for 16 hours straight, and I would do this for days.

And then, as if by a miracle, I could function again. During these detox periods, I would cut out caffeine completely, eat a few salads, take time for fun and family, and not think about school at all. It was like I excised the monster of my academic career and replaced it with everything that makes a human human. And it was wonderful, until the time came to gear up for the next term. I would swear that this was the term when I would take care of my work on time while exercising every day and drinking plenty of water. It never happened while I was an undergrad because it never needed to. The status quo was a perfectly passable way to get by.

But naturally, my perfected brand of dysfunction fell apart. I was a master’s student when I finally spread myself so thin that when some personal problems crept up, they almost derailed my academic plan. The challenge came not in figuring out how to avoid putting in the work, but rather in how to keep myself from falling apart while completing my degree.

It turned out that I couldn’t get all of my academic work done in two weeks when my mental health was so poor that I could hardly get out of bed. It was my worst time, but I it was also a time to learn and grow. I’m still a recovering procrastinator, but I realized that taking care of myself along the way made my work manageable. Self care has helped me battle procrastination in my professional endeavors. Here’s what I learned.

●     Support systems matter. Even when it feels like none of your friends or family understand what a challenge a career in the sciences is, maintain these relationships. Take time to visit grandparents or reconnect with siblings and friends, and let schoolwork take a back burner for a bit. Giving them your undivided attention helps build connections and maintains healthy relationships, which can boost your own health to boot! And, it opens the doors to teach them about your job and about science.

●     Find a hobby or two. Having fun is important, and stretching your brain in different directions can promote creative thinking. Taking up something like dancing, cooking, sewing, hiking or whatever floats your boat can help clear your mind and provide a healthy dose of non-academic socialization time. Fun and functional, totally worth it.

●     Eat right. Diet Coke and Oreos are easy, but they’re chemical garbage, not wholesome sustenance. Cooking at home, considering proper nutrition, and sizing out portions correctly help prepare your body and mind to engage. Think things through in advance, plan to eat some vegetables, and invest in a crock pot. It makes a world of difference nutritionally, economically, and mentally. Oh, and lay off the booze and the caffeine every now and again.

●     Don’t be afraid to pursue personal milestones. I’m going to come out and say it, I’m glad I got married young, and I wouldn’t be opposed to having a baby while in graduate school. Navigating a work-life balance is something that women in the sciences talk a lot about, but it’s relevant for everyone. The “opportune moment” to get married or procreate doesn’t exist in science, and dedicating time to train for that marathon or that epic hike doesn’t always seem reasonable or responsible. There will always be another experiment to do, or another paper to write, or a different job hunt or promotion to pursue, so consider what you want from your personal life and don’t let those dreams die at the hands of your academic goals. And at the very least, pets are totally manageable!

●     Take a vacation or a staycation. Get out and see the world, or just put the work down and enjoy your own little corner of it. After all, part of what we do as scientists is to try to understand how the world works, and if you don’t stop to enjoy the breadth of experiences we have on this planet, you’ll have trouble contextualizing your research to a broader realm of Earthlings.

●     Sleep. All-nighters are bad for you. Really, anything less than 8 hours feels like a cheat. Sleep refreshes your brain and body, moves memories and information into long-term brain storage, and allows vital repair processes to occur. You’ve got the rest of your career to work, and tomorrow will be more productive with a good night’s rest, anyways.

As the holidays and that glorious four-week break approach, think about what you can do for yourself and your complete wellness. Enjoy time with family, get some rest, go visit a museum (check out our Events section!), or read a book for fun (gasp!), and take note on how it makes you feel. It may not be the most rigorous study with n=1, but use yourself as an experimental treatment. I think you’ll find positive results following the administration of self-care.