Reflective Practices for Graduate Students

This SCP Student blog post written by Lia Smith highlights some excellent pointers for graduate students in psychology.

Many of us enter graduate school with the assumption that we are about to embark on a unique period of heavy workloads and extreme stress. We are so excited for the opportunity to pursue our long sought-after goals that we’re prepared to virtually throw the concept of work-life balance out the window. Sometimes, however, this focused attention can leave us feeling stuck in our emotions, relationships, and research.

Personally, I realized how stuck I had become during a recent lecture from Amit Bernstein, PhD. During his talk, he discussed his field’s overreliance on outdated experimental paradigms in order to conceptualize and measure attentional bias. In response, he sought to envision his work differently than others in his field. Currently, he proposes a dynamic perspective on the attentional processing of emotional information that may be a much closer approximation to the true nature of attentional bias. I loved that Dr. Bernstein’s research challenged the status quo and made me ask myself, “How often do I step back from the minutiae of my work in order to gain perspective on the challenges of my field?”

Taking a step back when we feel consumed by the daily pressures of our program, research mentors, and external supervisors can help to restore our energy and vision for our work. Indeed, the use of reflective processes to gain perspective on tough challenges may help us to realize limitations and create a space for seeing our work in a different way. In other words, not being “in it” all the time may help us to remember the overarching goals of our individual work, our specific disciplines, and our field overall. This can not only be personally restorative, but may help to advance our work through the opportunity to gain novel insights and ideas.

Here are some specific ideas that you may try for yourself:

Multidisciplinary Approach

Collaborative efforts and discussions across labs and disciplines may often provide you with a new perspective on current practices, issues, and successes. In other words, being able to see your progress from the eyes of another may help you to step back and put your work in context. This may not only help to guide you towards the next step, it may challenge you to deepen your understanding of a particular topic and reflect on connections and/or differences that you had not previously realized.

Stimulate Reflection

The arts can help to stimulate fluent and flexible thinking. Thus, integrating the arts may allow for differentiation of perspective and tap into many different ways of seeing the world. While it may feel like you don’t have time for books, articles, music, or films, these artistic adventures may actually help to make your working hours even more meaningful and productive.

Remember your Strengths

While you may more easily remember criticism (from both yourself and others), praise may also be a powerful motivator. Understanding and leveraging your individual talents can make your work more enjoyable and more successful. Thus, while it is important to improve weaknesses, tapping into strengths and redesigning your work to support these strengths may help you to get more bang for your buck.

Restore your Energy

While it may seem paradoxical (and nearly impossible at times), one of the best ways to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. Indeed, the concept of strategic renewal (e.g., longer sleep hours each night, increasing enjoyable activities each week, and more frequent vacations each year) may boost productivity and overall health. Keep in mind that, while we may not be able to increase the number of hours in a day, we can increase the productivity within the hours that we have.

After reflecting on this list, keep in mind that each one of us is unique and there are many different methods of gaining perspective. While you discover what these are for yourself, keep in mind the wise words of Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”