Derailed Train

As I write this, I am stuck in a small town in Ohio after an accident on the freeway on my way home from a conference. (I hit a semi wheel that came off a truck and smashed my car’s suspension system. I’m fine but, sadly, my car is not.)  Whether it’s a semi wheel, a sick child or spouse, our own illness, family issues, or something else, at some point in our academic career, life gets in the way of our work. Our response to these circumstances will either further derail our academic life or assist us in getting it back on track. In this post, I offer some suggestions to recalibrate our thinking and embrace the opportunities presented when life throws us an unexpected curve :

Most importantly: Don’t Panic!

Panicking will only raise your heart rate, blood pressure and cause adrenaline to flood your body and your cortisol levels to spike, which impairs your ability to think clearly and create new memories or access things already stored in memory. Okay, now that I’ve told you what not to do, consider some healthier responses:

Take a moment to breathe and remember your priorities. This may be a wake-up call that these priorities have become skewed through the course of graduate school. If this has happened, don’t beat yourself up over it. Apologize and move forward with a renewed sense of what is truly important. Allow this to be an opportunity to create balance and a chance for growth rather than a shame-inducing stumbling block.

Use this time for some much-needed self-care. Inventory what you and those closest to you need the most and do whatever you can to ensure those needs are met. Even if circumstances are chaotic, do what you must to get enough sleep, eat healthy meals, exercise if possible, and take time to connect with those you love. Recognize that this is a stressful time and contact a counselor to work through that stress whether it stems from the unexpected turn of events or the added pressure it places on you as an academic with expectations and deadlines to meet. Reduce stress through whatever healthy activities you find most beneficial.

Communicate with your committee, especially if whatever has happened effects your timeline. They don’t need all the details, just enough information to understand that you may need to turn a chapter, proposal, or whatever else you’re working on, a little later than planned. Work with them to set a new schedule.

Don’t be afraid to readjust your expectations of yourself. You can only do what you can do and no more, and that is okay. We are humans, not robots, and there are times when we will be incredibly focused, creative, and productive, and other times when those things feel out of our reach. Don’t feel guilty about this. It’s life, and it happens to the best scholars. Accept your best efforts such as they are, and be aware that your best form during difficult times looks different from your best form at other moments in you life. I repeat: there’s nothing wrong with this or with you.

I am learning to see these unexpected events as a blessing rather than a curse in academic life. They are forced time-outs and significant pauses filled with opportunities. Finishing tasks I set for myself may take longer than originally planned, but by taking the time to embrace the circumstances in which I find myself, I’ve found that I am happier with my decisions, I view my work in a healthier perspective, and that I have renewed energy for my academic to-do list when I return to it.


What tools, strategies, and resources do you employ when life happens?  Let us know in the comments by clicking here.

[Photo via Flickr user Frosted Peppercorn and used under Creative Commons License]

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