Thoughts on Self Care and the Ph.D


I am probably the worst person in the world to be writing this, given I live in an almost-constant anxious state regarding work. But that’s why I’m writing it.

There are a lot of great posts about academia and mental health here.

I found the following quote from this blog most useful:

“Now that I have my doctorate, I see the demands are even greater. I can never do enough, because I could always, always be doing more. Academia will take everything you have and demand more – more research proposals, that book review, those peer reviews, that presentation, that marking, that abstract deadline, chasing more funding … It is a nightmare for someone with anxiety who tends to shut down under intense pressure”.

For the first time since starting my Ph.D, (i.e. not only beginning my studentship at Leeds B in October 2013) but also before starting my self-funded p/t Ph.D at LJMU in Jan 2013 I have not taken more than a 3 day break. This Christmas, I took 2 whole weeks off and did not do any work at all. It was glorious.

I have only had one ‘holiday holiday’ since 2009. I do nights away, long weekends, 3 days, but I can’t do any longer. Sure, some of this is my plane phobia, some is the M.E/pacing situation, some is the physicality of leaving the dogs and husband’s businesses etc. But some of it is just plain old me.

I often feel good about my progress so far until I compare myself with others. The I look at achievements to date and think I’m doing ok at the moment… until I again compare! It’s good to list what you have achieved so far to get a feel of what you have overcome. For me personally just standing up confidently teaching or giving papers is a long way from where I have been.

Everyone has their own battles, commitments, problems. I appreciate I don’t have kids for example. I take my hat off to anyone who is a parent and doing a Ph.D and working. A Ph.D is a balancing act; you need your doctorate but also enough experience to get a job. I have been told this is the most stressful time in your academic career.

I am still in love with my Ph.D (yes I am a total geek) which is a blessing but also where some of the problem lies. Your research becomes a part of you, and it is hard to switch off. My brain is always active, always whirring. This is second nature to me, I just have an active brain, it means I am never bored. However it can also become problematic if it makes me anxious.

To love your job is of course a privilege, and I’ve had enough jobs I’ve hated to know how lucky I am. But that combined with imposter syndrome means it is doubly hard to take time off. I love reading and writing, and much of my downtime is reading and writing for fun. When these cross over into your research area, it is hard to know what is work and what is free time.

I thought I was doing very well with the self-care situation, until I read this: ‘On self-care, balance and overwork in academia’.

As with other people who have long-term health problems or other commitments, I cannot work 9-5. I work peculiar hours, often working evenings or weekends if I haven’t been able to work adequately in the day. I thought I was doing well by always having at least 1 day off per week (usually 2 in the summer) and scheduling daily time for dog walks/yoga/friends/spouse/hobbies etc/ But when I think about how often I actually switch my brain off, and don’t work subconsciously, it’s rare.

In 2014 I had 2 operations, my husband was ill again and we cancelled our holiday due to him breaking bones, and my mum had a health scare. These are things you cannot plan for, but life happens. And when life happens, you do re-evaluate and consider what’s important. I want to work hard but not be a workaholic. And that’s hard for any Ph.Der, we do at least two jobs. We do our research, we teach, we might be research assistants, parents, carers. You might be working full or part time in an unrelated field to pay the bills. You might be helping with a family business in the evening or weekends. You might volunteer and be involved in activism. Our job isn’t clear-cut, it is all-encompassing.

Teaching in any capacity is a vocation, and I guess research is the same. Look at one of my new idols, 95 year old active researcher Dr Brenda Milner.

I think it’s a very middle-class idea that we have a weekend and evenings off. I have many friends in poorly-paid jobs who work 7 day weeks, or work 2/3 jobs as a norm to pay their bills and have a roof over their heads. So I don’t mind working long hours doing something I love, but I need to get the balance right.

I am very lucky, but I see so many researchers and early-career academics being shamelessly exploited. From teaching ridiculous hours per week meaning every single evening and weekend is accounted for, to having to put random names on their publications, to not being named on publications they have worked their behind off for. This is not ok. It is no surprise than in such as unkind exploitative academic culture, it is nearly impossible to have a positive work-life balance.

We need to talk about this culture, and stress the importance of being healthy. If we are meant to be confident enough to be experts in our field by time we submit our Ph.D, we also need guidance on how to be assertive and negotiate the right working conditions for ourselves.

I have found it helpful to unfollow those on twitter who work 14 hour days/ 7 days every week/ publish 700 papers a year. It just sets me up for a fall. I am not saying it is ‘wrong’ to work so hard and be so ambitious, just rather that for me, I need different things in my life and I’m not a genius and so cannot achieve such goals whilst maintaining a personal life.

I have recently starting reading this fantastic blog, and this quote stuck out:
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. ~ Ernest Hemingway. It is true. I see myself sometimes as nothing more than a frustrated writer, with too many ideas and not enough time. I find it cathartic to write. Whether it’s the dripping of words onto the computer screen or the hurried leakage all over my spiral-bound notebook; it’s how I make sense of the world.

My thesis will have a self-reflexive chapter. The role of emotions in the research process if so often overlooked for the more revered calculated sterile product. But by placing yourself as researcher into the research, you perforate once more the imaginary boundary of work/life balance, of work/self, of work/worth. You carry the research in your bad back, in your inability to sleep, in the sick feeling in your throat. You bleed into each other. Research is messy, a sticky, dishevelled business.

I make goals for the new year, things to try and some to achieve. One of them is to write more for myself, and the other is to finally write my novel. I might be the only person who ever reads it, but I want to write it. I also got horse riding lessons for Christmas, and had my first one at the weekend. Hard work but something different and fun.

If I had a resolution, I guess it would be that comparison is the thief of joy. We need to be kinder to each other and continue to build our supportive networks. It is ok to have time off, it is ok to enjoy other things. This sounds so obvious, but your Ph.D does have a tendency to invade your body and head space.

Other goals are to sign up to some adult learner courses…. well old habits do die hard.