The past 3 years, I’m looking at you global pandemic, have been a hailstorm (of Hellfire) that I can pretty much guarantee not one of us saw hurtling towards us at 110mph. Additionally, if you’re currently in the midst of scaling the academic mountain that is a PhD, it may well have made your Ben Nevis resemble something more akin to a Kilimanjaro. A PhD is at the best of times challenging.
If you’ve chosen to take up the gauntlet of achieving that elusive title of Dr so-and-so, then no doubt you knew it would be tough. From my point of view, what I wildly underestimated was the impact it could and has had on both my physical and mental wellbeing.
The last 3 years have consisted of me single-handedly scouring the internet for tips on how to achieve the ever-sought-after “balance” that would allow me to peacefully chip away at my thesis whilst effortlessly juggling my full-time job, family and long-suffering social life.
I’m not here to tell you that I’ve reached academic Nirvana. I have however borrowed and even developed some of my own handy strategies to help prioritise my wellbeing and make this journey more enjoyable. I’ve learnt to do this despite the nagging voice in my head telling me that anything that is worthwhile must be intensely painful.
Exercise to improve physical and mental wellbeing.
This drum has been beaten to smithereens but my goodness, for me there is no better head-clearing reset. If you are expecting your body and mind to sit for prolonged periods at a laptop, furiously downloading articles you swear you’re going to read later, then you should also plan some form of physical activity to balance the scales.
You don’t need to be an Ironman running, triathlon enthusiast, any form of exercise will do. Go for a gentle stroll in nature and look at some green things, take 10 minutes to sit and stretch your entire body which is no doubt coiled tighter than a grad student submitting their first paper to a journal. Whatever form of exercise you enjoy, make time for it, your body and, more importantly, your mind WILL thank you for it.
Take a day off.
The very notion of a day off seems like sacrilege to most post-grad students but you NEED a solid day that is not consumed by your thesis. you will be a more productive, happier version of yourself when you return to that SPSS spreadsheet or Word document tomorrow. If your mind wanders to your thesis, let it, we often do our best thinking when we give ourselves the space to do so, as long as you don’t let the guilt monster creep in and ruin your well-deserved me time.
Open your laptop.
This one might seem counterintuitive considering my previous tip, but throughout my PhD I have developed something I like to call the “laptop ICK” the day after I’ve afforded myself a well-earned break.
I get incredible anxiety about returning to my work and will spend all day using avoidance tactics whilst my cortisol levels hover between high and extremely so. It’s more than procrastination, it’s a genuine fear to even approach my workspace.
The way I’ve tackled this is to set myself small tasks, aka read one article and see how I feel, or a chapter in that book that’s been gathering dust for the last 4…okay 6 … months. I instantly feel like I’ve been eased back in, like a tepid bath, and often feel able to carry on with other tasks now they don’t seem so daunting.
Ask your supervisor for support to ease strain on your mental wellbeing.
Seems like a no brainer, right?
But let’s be honest, how many of you have stressed yourselves senseless over asking your supervisor something you don’t know because you feel intimidated by the wealth of experience and number of published papers they have under their belt?
C.S Lewis was wrong, imposter syndrome is the thief of joy and we all allow it to batter our delicate psyches with its horrid rusty hammer. I have had to repeatedly remind myself that I am learning. I am a student and I am not expected to know everything right now and rather than allow myself to remain in a limbo of “I Don’t Knowsville,” I have learnt to ask. So ask, that’s what they’re there for.
Do not read finsihed PhD theses for the sake of your mental wellbeing.
I’m not saying don’t take a peek at a few finished theses in your field for layout ideas and so on. But do not read that recommended PhD thesis and instantly succumb to the rush of panic that accompanies it.
Remember, this polished article has been subjected to more track changes and red notes than you can shake a self-doubting stick at. No one sits down and writes a perfect chapter. Every PhD has come from the humble beginnings of being saved under draft one, draft two, draft final, draft final FINAL and so on.
You too will end up with your very own masterpiece, so save yourself some waves of panic and shut that British Library EThOS window.
The above tips have made this experience so much more enjoyable for me. Therein lies the entire point though. You must – enact them. Don’t read them and think “Oh lovely I’ll do that.” and then continue to work yourself into a fraught, tightly-wound person who hasn’t received an ounce of natural vitamin D this year.
I have been said person and it was a distinctly bad period for mind and body. Here’s hoping you can avoid the pitfalls and protect your own precious physical and mental wellbeing.
Finally, you are already impressive at the best of times for choosing to follow this path, let alone to do so throughout a global pandemic. So go you! You got this!