I’m Viraj, and I’m currently over halfway through my second year as a bioengineering Ph.D. student at Rice University. The past couple years have marked an enormous amount of change in my life, as I left behind a state that I had lived in my entire life to move alone to Texas. Although this has resulted in a lot of growth, rapid growth comes with growing pains. I’m writing here to share my experience over the past years and things I’ve learned with it, and if you’re someone considering a Ph.D., I hope you find my account helpful in some way! There’s a TL;DR: at the end of every section if you’re in a rush!
Sitting in my car alone on the long drive from Palo Alto, California to Houston, Texas, I had nothing but my thoughts to keep my company. As I struggled to use my rearview mirror to peer through my hatchback, stuffed with my possessions, I also knew that I was leaving a whole lot of the life I knew in the rear-view as well. For one, I was leaving the state of California, where I lived my whole life in either Palo Alto & Santa Barbara. Then, I was leaving my entire support system of friends and family. I was not only beginning a Ph.D. workload and lifestyle, but also transitioning to a new field, bioengineering. And at the end of it all, I was also simply just growing up and figuring life out in my early 20s.
I took my lonesome drive as an opportunity to reflect on how my life would be different. I would have new priorities & new work-life structures, I would have to make new friends, find new hobbies, and work to maintain them. Being 21 years old and coming straight from undergrad, I knew that this phase of my life was going to be a critical inflection point in the overall shape of my life, even if I wasn’t moving somewhere new to start a Ph.D.! For most people, the pursuit of graduate school involves many transition points outside of just starting a Ph.D., and navigating those is often challenging. Even though a Ph.D. is a liminal phase of life for most, it still is an investment of 4-7 years.
I knew I had to be ready to face these challenges, and while there were many things I was prepared for, there were several things I didn’t quite expect.
TL;DR: Pursuing a Ph.D. can be a transition in many ways, from lifestyle, to location, to research field, to simply just being young and quickly growing older. Acknowledging that and being as ready as you can is important—but there’ll always be something you don’t quite expect.
Lifestyle & Hobbies—Doing What You Love
Until I came to Houston, I never truly realized how much of my previous lifestyle was shaped by the climate and geography of California. Given the temperate mediterranean climate, I was outdoors year-round, going on long runs and skateboarding to get around. In addition, many of my other hobbies were centered around the simultaneously coastal and mountainous environment of Santa Barbara. I was an avid open-water swimmer, surfer, and hiker, but as I soon found out, those three activities are VERY difficult to do in Houston.
Houston is a touch different than Santa Barbara (to say the least). Between the end of May and late September, it’s so hot and humid that it’s difficult to be outside for five minutes without sweating through your clothes. Houston is also prone to erratic thunderstorms and flooding, and the nearest beach, Galveston, has little surf and is somewhat unpleasant to swim in. Going from being in the ocean 2-5 times a week to only lap swimming was disappointing, and I missed being a beach rat. Then, although Rice and the surrounding area is remarkably green, I missed scrambling through less manicured foothills and mountains. Lastly, from a logistical standpoint, suddenly having to schedule runs around the hot and stormy weather made it easier to skip them.
Restructuring my hobbies and habits to fit the flat, hot, swamp-like climate of Houston was much more difficult than I anticipated, and frankly, it’s still something I’m working on. However, over the past year, I’ve realized just how important it is that I do so! The lack of a physical outlet compounded with all of the other stresses that accompany starting a new life (i.e. homesickness, transitioning to a Ph.D. style workload, switching research fields, building a new support network, meeting new people); this made it harder to overcome all of life’s challenges. Furthermore, many of those activities were also meditative, like surfing and being in nature, which are important to my mental health. For a while, I floundered, knowing that I was missing crucial elements to my physical and mental health and feeling homesick for it.
Then, I began to reflect on what it is I found valuable in my prior lifestyle. Why did I like surfing so much? Why did I like hiking so much? I then focused on replicating those benefits in activities I could do in Houston. Rather than missing the untamed hills and the rolling ocean, I learned to find flow and peace in my runs/walks through the incredible greenery of Rice and Hermann Park, and I explored new trails to find hidden gems. I began to be more proactive about checking the weather and scheduling my runs to avoid the heat, knowing that I needed the physical benefit of stretching my legs. As I started to adapt my physical hobbies, I noticed that it became much easier for me to navigate life’s challenges.
While I still certainly miss a lot of things about my prior lifestyle, I’ve now learned to focus on the whys of doing what I do more than anything. I’ve by no means got it figured out. I’m still learning to be more disciplined about living a healthy lifestyle when things are busy (which they often are), and I’m still working on consistency in my dynamic schedule. However, the self reflection of why I enjoy what I enjoy was paramount for me to start creating the mentally and physically healthy lifestyle that I was missing!
TL;DR: In a new environment, reflect on elements of your previous lifestyle and why they were good or bad. Then, focus on how you can recreate that in hobbies you CAN do rather than dwelling on what you can’t do anymore