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Wednesday
Sep192012

How Surfing Prepared Me for Graduate School

Torrey Trust surfing

It looked like a typical day at the beach—the sun was shining, the ocean was calm. I waxed my surfboard, tied the leash to my ankle, sprinted toward the ocean, and dove right in. I paddled as fast as I could to get out past the break (the point at which waves break over and turn into whitewash). As I started to run out of breath, I looked back toward the beach and noticed that the people looked like tiny dots. I was only ten years old and I had been surfing for less than a year. My heart started racing as I worried that I would never get back to the beach. Then, I heard a thunderous noise and turned around just in time to see an eight-foot wave as it came crashing down on me. Deep underwater, as I twirled in circles, I finally found my bearings and made it back to the surface to take a giant gulp of air. I looked at the next wave headed my way. This one was bigger, but that was not what scared me. On the left side of the wave, there was a giant black shadow moving quickly through the water toward me. I did not have a lot of time to think about which would kill me first—the wave or what I thought was a giant shark—because the wave crashed on my head and sent me back twirling through the dark underwater abyss. I made it to the surface and weakly pulled myself onto my board, gasping for air.

Pod of dolphinsI saw the dark shadow less than 10 feet away, and the next thing I knew, it rose toward the surface. It turned out to be a pod of dolphins. My fear quickly changed to amazement. While enjoying the company of one of my favorite sea creatures, a wave rolled toward me. I turned my board toward the shore, paddled, and dropped down the front of the wave. It was bigger than any wave I had ever caught and I glided along the face of the wave as it carried me all the way back to shore.

Riding that big wave was a turning point in my surfing career. I went from scared to determined and I was ready to face the challenges posed by the ocean in order to be awarded with the thrill of dropping in on the face of a wave. I have continued to surf for over 15 years and here are some important lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Resiliency
Resiliency is the ability to rebound from a setback. Being resilient in surfing means continue to paddle through the waves that knock you back and jumping back on the board to catch another wave after wiping out.

Graduate school can be difficult and there are a lot of potential setbacks (getting a paper rejected from a scholarly journal) and hardships (relationship breakups). You can either let these setbacks knock you down or you can use your inner strength to combat the hard times (you don’t have to do this alone—contact Counseling Services if you need someone to talk to). Resilience is essential to maintaining your mental well-being in graduate school (MayoClinic).

Mentoring
Swami's surfersThere is a common surf saying, “Never surf alone.” This is not only critical for your safety (if you get hurt, you may need someone to save your life), but also for navigating the open water. Surfing is a lot easier if you have someone more experienced who can point out the dangers in the water (hidden reefs and submerged objects), show you where to sit to catch waves, and help you understand surf etiquette.

Your faculty advisor is your guide in graduate school. Make sure you have a faculty advisor who will help you achieve your degree milestones and support you throughout the entire process. It is okay to change faculty advisors if you are not getting the support you need.

You are not limited in the number of mentors you have. Attend department mixers, get involved on committees, visit faculty during office hours and see if you can connect with more individuals who are willing to mentor you. Mentors are invaluable—they can help you select the right classes, read and edit your papers, suggest journals to submit articles to or conferences to attend, and help you find job opportunities. Mentors can also be older students who can provide advice about classes and degree requirements and share the hidden secrets of the department.

Don’t give yourself the added work and pressure of trying to get through graduate school on your own.

Trial & Error
Since waves are rarely the same, figuring out where to catch a wave, how to drop in the wave, and testing different tricks on the wave requires a lot of trial and error. The key is to jump right in and learn from your mistakes.

Trial and error is an important component to the dreaded activity of writing. It is rare to come into graduate school already knowing how to write a perfect literature review or journal article. Use your class assignments to test out your writing skills and make sure to get feedback from your professors. The more you write and get feedback, the better your writing will become. Don’t wait until your comprehensive exams, thesis, or dissertation to perfect your writing skills.

If you are an international student and you are hesitant to write because you are anxious about your English skills, take the first step of writing something small (one to two pages), get advice from colleagues, mentors, or your faculty advisor, and then build your confidence as you write more papers.

Wellness
Surfing is a way of life. Many surfers understand the value of taking care of your well-being in order to maximize your time spent surfing. Laird Hamilton, a famous big wave surfer, wrote a book that describes his shift to a healthier diet, the time he takes to practice yoga and meditation, and his fitness training regime to keep in shape for surfing.

Graduate school brings about many stressors and it is important to take care of your well-being so you do not get run down with a physical or mental illness and have to prolong your time spent in school. Wellness incorporates more than just exercising and eating healthy (UCSB Health & Wellness). Taking care of your well-being means having a strong support network, getting enough sleep, getting care when you need it (Student Health, Counseling Services), taking time to reflect and enjoy life (meditation, yoga, long walks), and being able to cope with stress (hanging out with friends, finding a release). UCSB has many services available (typically free of charge or reduced price) to help you take care of your well-being, so take advantage of these opportunities while you are a grad student.

Torrey Trust surfingPersistence
You don’t get good at surfing overnight. It takes years of practice to figure out which waves to catch. Then, once you catch the wave, you still need to perfect the technique of dropping in and doing maneuvers on the wave. If I had given up the first time I was crushed by big waves and held underwater, I would have missed years of amazing waves all over the world.

One of my previous employers, who had a Ph.D., explained to me that a dissertation is like any other paper, just longer; all you have to do is persist long enough to complete it. Her advice was so simple, and yet, wise. Graduate school is a long journey over multiple years. Being resilient, finding mentors, having a support group, and of course, taking care of your well-being will help you persist through your graduate school journey.

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