Managing Your Relationship with Your PhD Supervisor

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The relationship we have with our academic supervisors can make or break the experience of a PhD. So it is no surprise that supervisor relationships are often the number one issue students highlight to me when I ask them to identify their top frustrations with the PhD. There seems to be something in the nature of the supervisor-supervisee relationship that can feel inherently disempowering.

In the years that I’ve worked with PhD students, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories ranging from unresponsive supervisors to those who micromanage their students or give insulting feedback. But I’ve also heard more promising stories about supervisors who are available, encouraging and completely supportive of their students.

While it may seem as though it’s just the luck of the draw, I wouldn’t leave everything up to chance. There are things you can do to foster a better relationship with your academic supervisor. Below I will share some top tips for enhancing the supervisor-supervisee relationship.

  1. OWN YOUR PROJECT

Many students approach the relationship with their supervisors through the lens of an employer/employee dynamic. In reality, your supervisor should be working for you! Even though your supervisor is more senior than you, this is your project and it is highly likely that you are more of an expert on your specific topic than they are. Supervisors are there to guide you through the process, but at the end of the day, this is your project and it’s up to you to shape it the way that you want.

  1. COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS

Whether it’s more frequent contact, clearer feedback, or joint meetings if you have multiple supervisors, don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. While it’s not uncommon to hear students complaining about their supervisors, the truth is that your supervisor can’t read your mind and if something isn’t working well, it’s up to us to communicate what your needs are. This will first involve identifying your needs and then making a clear and direct request to your supervisor.

  1. SET EXPECTATIONS IN ADVANCE

Unfortunately, there is no guidebook on how supervisors and supervisees should interact. It is often down to the individuals involved to determine how this important relationship will function. As with any relationship, we have an opportunity to establish what the expectations are and set out how those expectations are going to be fulfilled. For instance, when it comes to constructing a timetable for completion, you might wish to jointly work on this with your supervisor. In setting out the timetable, you commit to specific dates for submitting individual chapters to your supervisor, while your supervisor commits to specific dates for returning their feedback to you. In this way, you set a mutually workable timetable that establishes what work needs to be done by each person and by what date.

  1. ADMIT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

If there is something you don’t understand, don’t shy away from admitting to your supervisor that you are confused or unsure about it. Pursuing research at the doctoral level will necessarily involve probing into unfamiliar territory or even a particular methodology that is brand new for you. You don’t need to have all the answers, so let go of the expectation that you should be an expert on everything that is related to your research area.

  1. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘Coping With Academic Criticism’ receiving a lot of negative feedback from a supervisor can feel extremely demoralising. Remember that it’s your supervisor’s job to spot potential holes in your research so try not to take it personally. Of course, it can be challenging not to take negative feedback to heart. What I encourage students to do is to sift through the feedback and ask yourself: ‘will this feedback ultimately strengthen the project?’ If the answer is yes, it may help you to view it more constructively.

  1. ASK FOR CLARITY

It could be that your supervisors’ feedback or comments to you are unclear or contradictory to something else they said to you previously. Not only does this often lead students to feel stuck and uncertain about how to proceed, it can also be incredibly frustrating. Don’t hesitate to ask your supervisor for more clarity. It could be that they have overlooked their previous advice to you or that they need to explain their feedback to you more fully. However awkward it may feel to ask for clarity on something, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the end by having this conversation.

  1. BROADEN YOUR NETWORK

It is not uncommon to see students becoming overly reliant on their supervisors throughout the PhD – depending on them not only for advice about their thesis, but advice more generally relating to job applications, publishing, teaching, funding opportunities and much more. While it’s great to draw on the experience and wisdom of your supervisor, it’s also important to broaden your circle of support throughout the PhD, beyond the tiny bubble of you and your supervisor. For this reason, I encourage students to make their own contacts and connections throughout the PhD, and to take advantage of opportunities to share their work with others. Expanding your connections in the field will not only enrich your research by exposing you to other viewpoints, it will also put less pressure on the relationship with your supervisor.

  1. REMEMBER THEIR EXPERIENCE IS NOT YOUR EXPERIENCE

Another reason to seek other avenues of support beyond your supervisor is because their experience is not your experience. The world may have changed a lot since they did their PhD and as a consequence, the advice they may be able to offer you about – for instance – job applications, may be quite limited. So graciously accept their advice when it is offered, but don’t treat everything they say as gospel. Talk to others and, above all, follow your own instincts.

 

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Why Work-Life Boundaries Don’t Work

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While there are no shortage of books, blog posts and courses offering advice on how to achieve a healthy work-life balance, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of this advice is not particularly well-suited to PhD students. There are a few reasons for this.

When it comes to completing a PhD, there is no denying that the boundaries between work and home life are particularly prone to becoming blurred. Apart from the fact that these projects can feel incredibly personal to us, the time commitment and dedication it requires to complete a PhD is quite unlike most other pursuits.

For those who can approach the PhD like a conventional job and turn their minds off when the clock strikes 5pm, they are lucky. But from my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues, the PhD doesn’t quite work like that. It’s a rigorous process, but also a creative one, and as it is with any creative endeavour, we can’t always schedule our creativity into ‘normal’ working hours. Consequently, techniques for achieving an optimal work-life balance are not always suitable to the unique circumstances of PhD life.

A second reason why some work-life balance techniques may not be particularly appropriate for doctoral students relates to the difference between physically bringing work home and mentally holding on to it. During my time as a doctoral student, what I noticed is that as much as I physically left my work behind on weekends or holidays, I couldn’t quite escape the mental weight of it. As much as I would decide to take time off, my mind was still very much focused on it, and not in a positive way. I would either worry about the particulars of the project or feel general stress about whether I would ever finish it.

Allowing work to creep into our downtime, in either a physical or mental capacity, is often a symptom of deeper anxieties and insecurities. Moving beyond this requires us to investigate the thoughts and internal chatter that arise in relation to our work. Since most work-life balance strategies deal primarily with the symptoms of the imbalance –  instead of the deeper roots of it – they can only go so far.

Moreover, the notion of drawing boundaries between work and life is limited by its starkness. Choosing between work and free-time can often lead to feelings of guilt, or the nagging sense that we ‘should’ be working. In this regard, constantly placing our downtime in opposition to our work, tends to facilitate an either/or choice in regards to how we spend our time. So instead of ‘drawing boundaries’ it may be more appropriate to adopt the terminology of cultivating space – space for something other than work in our lives. Not only does this subtle shift in terminology create room for other projects, interests, passions which are distinct from our PhD projects to emerge, it ensures that we do not take our work too seriously, too personally or allow the process to become all-consuming. This is perhaps the most important step we can take in achieving a healthy work-life balance.

 

Stress in Academia: Debunking Three Common Myths

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Universities have become a breeding ground for stress, so much that I can hardly remember a day going by without hearing the words, ‘I’m so stressed’ being uttered by my students. With multiple deadlines, performance pressure, escalating tuition fees, and an uncertain job market, it is no wonder that students are reportedly experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety. However, students aren’t alone in their experiences, as administrative and academic staff have also exhibited a sharp increase in stress-related illnesses, leading to higher numbers of absences throughout the academic year.

Accompanying the increasing number of stressed out staff and students is an almost tacit acceptance of stress within university culture. Not many people question or challenge the prevalence of stress in higher education –  instead there has been a normalization of stress within academia. This normalization of stress has been propagated and reinforced by several myths. In this post, I will highlight three of the most common myths relating to stress in academia.

 

Myth#1: Stress is Natural

The first myth about stress is that it is a natural part of academic life. I came face-to-face with this attitude when I was attending a Q&A session for incoming doctoral students. When asked about how to manage the anxiety associated with completing a doctorate, one of the panelists remarked: ‘You are a PhD student, you are supposed to be stressed out.’

The trouble with this outlook is that it brushes aside the impact stress has on our physical and mental health.

Stress is not simply a feeling we experience as a consequence of a situation or event, it actually facilitates a physiological response in our bodies known as the fight or flight mechanism. Most of the things that trigger our fight or flight responses – exams, dissertations, deadlines – are things we face on a daily basis. As a consequence, we tend to live in states of prolonged and chronic stress, all of which can have a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing.

So despite the tendency to see stress as a natural part of academic life, when we consider its impact, there is actually nothing natural about it.

 

Myth#2: Being Stressed is a Virtue

Not only is stress seen as a natural part of studying and working in academia, it is also commonly equated with productivity and performance. On this basis, it is easy to assume that there is something virtuous in being stressed out – so many wear their stress as a badge of honour.

I recall on countless occasions asking colleagues how their holidays were and have noticed how their responses are often framed in relation to how much they ‘accomplished’ during their time off. In a profession where individuals have considerable freedom to establish working hours and routines, it is interesting to see how holidays have been transformed into work spaces.

This non-stop, 24/7 approach to work has also impacted students, as reflected in the introduction of 24/7 libraries across several universities. Irrespective of their convenience, the onset of 24-hour libraries sends a message to students that there is no natural end to the working day. In this respect, the stress-as-a-virtue approach is tacitly condoned and perpetuated by many higher education institutions.

 

Myth#3: Stress Comes from Outside of Me

A final myth about stress is that it is something that comes from outside of us. It may be an upcoming exam, publishing your first book, applying for jobs or preparing a conference presentation. When we feel stressed in the midst of any of these tasks, the source of the stress is thought to reside outside of us – it is a consequence of the task itself.

The notion of stress coming from outside of us puts us in a disempowering position since there is little we can do to control our external environment. The fact is, there is nothing inherently stress-producing about an exam, a publication, job interview or a conference presentation.

The root of our stress is not the event or situation, it’s the internal dialogue in our minds in relation to that specific task, the stories we tell ourselves and the way we get caught up in our thinking. When we recognize the true source of stress, it becomes much easier to tackle it head on.

So what does all of this mean? It means that if we are going to lower the rates of stress across higher education institutions, we must make a concerted effort to debunk these myths.

  • First, we will need to counter the tendency to normalize stress by appreciating the actual impact it has on our health.
  • Second, we should stop equating the experience of stress with productivity and performance by refusing to wear our stress as a badge of honour.
  • Finally, we need to acknowledge our thought processes as the true source of our stress.

Things I Wish I Knew When I Was a PhD Student

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The process of completing a PhD is quite unlike any other experience. It’s a huge commitment that undoubtedly requires some sacrifice on both a personal and perhaps a financial level as well. With most doctoral theses ranging between 80 000- 100 000 words, it is an understatement to say that the process demands a high degree of self-discipline. For many students, it can feel like an exceptionally long and treacherous road, with ups and downs as well as twists and turns, and even some roadblocks along the journey.

These features of PhD life are of course balanced out by the many benefits of completing a doctorate. Apart from the potential to set you off on a different career path and open up new doors, having a doctorate in hand can also feel deeply satisfying. Whether it’s the start of a larger body of research or an end in itself, the doctorate represents your own unique contribution to a particular field. Within the world of academia, there are few things that feel as rewarding as completing a PhD.

When I look back at my own experience as a PhD student I certainly have no regrets. There are, however, a few things I wish I knew while I was in the middle of it and I’d like to share them with you.

  1. The PhD is what you do, not who you are

Something I observed while I was completing my PhD was the way in which many of my classmates (myself included) started to over identify with our work. We would often refer to our PhD projects as though they were an extension of ourselves. Given how many years it takes to complete a PhD and the fact that it is an incredibly personal piece of work, it’s only natural to see it become a part of our lives. However, when we start to see it as a reflection of our self-worth, the stakes suddenly become much higher. By over identifying with the work we produce, we tie our fortunes to it and allow ourselves to be stifled when we have off days, and may even take criticism of the project personally. It’s important to stay grounded and remember that the PhD is something you do and not who you are.

  1. Nobody writes 100 000 words

When I used to think about completing my PhD, the task seemed incredibly daunting. I kept thinking to myself ‘how am I going to write 100 000 words?’ But the fact is that nobody has ever done this – it would be impossible! What people do is write small, manageable chunks over a longer period of time. This feels much less daunting to think about. So stop thinking of your PhD as 100 000 words and think of it for what it is and how it will be completed– one chapter at a time – one section at a time. Espousing this subtle shift in perception can make a world of difference.

  1. Take a break (and don’t bring your work with you!)

Like so many of my colleagues, I found it difficult to take long breaks away from my work. Whenever holidays came around, I would do a balance sheet of how much I had accomplished and how much time I could take off as a result. Needless to say, the vacation time that I allotted to myself was negotiable and always dependent on my progress. Given the perpetual feeling that I was always behind, the time I allowed myself to take off, if any, was short. I would always sneak a book or two into my suitcase when I was going on holiday. I can now see how unhealthy my approach to vacations were. And not being gentle with myself actually made me less productive, and generally less happy. Even if you think you can’t afford to take a break from work, the truth is that you can’t afford not to!

  1. Even when you feel like you aren’t making progress, you actually are

One of the most frustrating aspects of completing a PhD relates to the feeling that we aren’t making any progress. I found this to be particularly the case after spending endless amounts of time sifting through journal articles and books in order to determine which ones were relevant for my research. During these periods, I often felt like I had nothing to show for days and even weeks of work. The lesson I learned from all of this was the importance of viewing the PhD as a process, rather than an outcome. It was primarily because of my emphasis on the outcome that I wasn’t able to appreciate or adequately assess my progress at certain points throughout. For further advice on how I overcame this, see my post on process versus outcome where I discuss some strategies for taking a process-oriented approach to thesis writing.

  1. Stop thinking about it when you’re not doing it

I often found that no matter what I was doing, I was always thinking about my PhD. Typically, it wasn’t in an exciting, light bulb moment way where creative ideas would come to me, it was mostly worry. Worry that I wouldn’t get it done on time, that it wouldn’t be good enough and that I hadn’t done enough. During my PhD years, I didn’t know how important it was to be in the present moment and to properly switch off. If you find yourself constantly thinking about your PhD even when you aren’t working on it, it’s an indication that you need to get away from it for a while. Immerse yourself in something different – if not to give your mind a break, then for the sake of your sanity. The last thing you want is to be that person who can only think and talk about their research. See a film, do volunteer work, or go to the gym, anything to create some healthy distance and disengagement from your work.

  1. Life doesn’t automatically become less stressful when you finish

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the stress you experience while completing a PhD will not automatically come to an end on the day that you submit. When I was in the middle of writing up, I recall how much I looked ahead to my submission date as a magic bullet. Unfortunately, I soon found a host of other stresses that took the place of my PhD. Things like applying for jobs, preparing for interviews, publishing my thesis, writing conference papers and research grant applications, to name just a few. In my own experience, some of these pressures actually felt worse than the PhD – perhaps because of my anticipation that life would automatically be less stressful after submitting. So rather than holding your breath and waiting until you’re done, I would recommend making your happiness and wellbeing a priority now. That means finding healthy ways to manage your stress levels and not simply waiting for your submission date.

For further information please visit my coaching page or get in touch with me at info@academease.org

Want to Overcome Exam Stress?

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When it comes to managing exam stress there is certainly no shortage of advice for students. What I have noticed, however, is that most of the advice that is on offer tends to focus on either exam prep or relaxation techniques. The idea behind this is that if students are better prepared and go into their exams feeling relaxed this will significantly minimize their stress levels.

While I wouldn’t necessarily dispute the importance of either of these areas, the fact is that exam preparation tips and relaxation techniques are dealing more with the symptoms of exam stress as opposed to its actual causes.

Contrary to what many people believe, much of the stress that students experience in relation to their exams is by no means inevitable, nor does it really derive from the exam itself. In fact, the roots of exam stress originate in the mind and more specifically, in the types of thoughts that are attached to an exam and the stories a student tells himself or herself in relation to their performance. This is incredibly normal, but it’s no fun for those who experience it.

While it isn’t possible to change the fact of exams or avoid taking them altogether, it is possible to get to the bottom of the stress surrounding an exam and to shift your experience of it. All it requires is a willingness to overcome the stress and an openness to explore your thought patterns and underlying belief systems. I’ve helped many students do just that.

If you would like some assistance in overcoming exam stress, I offer one-to-one coaching sessions as well as workshops for larger groups, so please feel free to get in touch with me at info@academease.org

Being Present

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I remember when I was in school my teachers would begin each class by taking attendance. This would usually involve the teacher calling out the name of each student from a class list, to which we would respond ‘present.’ Although I didn’t give much thought to it at the time, taking attendance was an excellent way to start a lesson by bringing everyone’s focus into the classroom.

Taking roll call is not a common practice in higher education institutions. By the time a student reaches this level, it is usually down to them to decide whether or not to attend classes. In any case, since university attendance is generally quite high, there doesn’t appear to be much need to do a roll call prior to lectures and seminars.

Over the years, however, I’ve realized that physically showing up to a class by no means equates to being present in the room. Much of it has to do with the fact that nearly every student today carries a laptop to class. As we’ve moved away from handwriting to typing, a laptop is seen as an essential tool for learning. Yet, it’s also a device that people use in their leisure time. I can’t help but notice a surge in students who simultaneously type notes while skyping friends and surfing the web in the middle of a class.

The inability to focus is not just an affliction that affects today’s students. The tendency to be present without being fully present has become so widespread in our society. For instance, in restaurants, it has become more common than not to see half (if not all) of the people at a table with their eyes glued to their phones. Similarly, the tendency to walk whilst texting seems to be increasing. We seem to be perpetually distracted and completely incapable of focusing on one task whether it’s walking, having dinner or sitting in a classroom.

The inability to be present is deeply problematic. It means that we are less focused and as a consequence, more scattered in our actions and thoughts. It pulls us in several different directions, makes the tasks we are working on less enjoyable, and allows for a higher degree of accidents! It also detracts from our ability to interact with one another. So there are many good reasons to consciously work on our capacity to be fully present.

Although it may not be possible for instructors at university level to start doing a roll call, there are other strategies that can help students in bringing their focus into the present moment. This could involve getting everyone to switch off their devices at the start of a class; taking a few moments to centre and calm everyone before jumping into a lesson; asking students to consciously let go of any thoughts or concerns regarding what they were doing prior to the class and what they need to do after; or simply stating the intentions for the lesson at the outset. These simple strategies can also assist an instructor in getting into the present moment before a class.

Not only would this set a positive tone for each class, and therefore make the experience of learning more enjoyable, it would help create a habit of developing greater presence both inside and outside of the classroom.

All Work and No Play: Are 24-Hour University Libraries a Good Idea?

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In recent years there has been a noticeable expansion in wellbeing-related activity across many higher education institutions. Nearly every university now has a designated welfare officer or welfare rep, and an increasing number of institutions are starting to organise wellbeing events throughout the academic year. This growing commitment towards wellbeing has, however, occurred alongside another trend which constitutes a significant step back for advancing wellbeing in higher education – the introduction of 24-hour libraries.

In a study conducted by the Guardian, 77% of students that were surveyed indicated their preference for libraries to remain open around-the-clock. In their continuing bid to attract students, many Universities across the UK, including Leeds, Reading, LSE and King’s, have responded by extending library hours.

Among the reasons given by the students who have made this request is a desire for greater flexibility and more convenience. This may stem from the fact that students today tend to juggle their studies with other commitments, and may therefore need to use the library outside of regular hours.

Although the desire for convenience and flexibility is understandable, there is a considerable difference between late opening hours and 24-hour opening. Whatever the reasons are, working through the night and into the early hours of the morning does have a negative impact on wellbeing, as Bridget O’Connell of the mental health charity Mind has highlighted:

“While it is good that universities are allowing students to access libraries at a time that suits them, there is the concern that it could result in students feeling that they should be spending every spare moment studying. This is not a sustainable approach. Extended periods of pressure, including a lack of sleep, not eating properly, a lack of getting outdoors and exercising can all have a huge impact on mental wellbeing.”

Some Universities have opted for something of a middle ground and now offer 24-hour opening during exam periods only. Yet this approach is even more problematic, as it is specifically in times of intense pressure and stress that health and wellbeing so often take a back seat. Keeping libraries open at all hours during exam periods simply buys into the idea that academic performance should be prioritized over everything else (including sleep!).

Another point to bear in mind is that stress does not automatically end the moment a student graduates. Although they may be free of exams and dissertation writing, they will undoubtedly encounter other pressures in life. As such, the higher education community has a responsibility to consider not only the content of the curriculum, but also how students approach their studies and commitments. This includes providing an environment that fosters healthy working patterns and strategies for managing stress.

By having libraries remain open all night, universities are sending the wrong message to their students and enabling a terrible habit that will make it harder for them to cope with stress in the future.

While I can appreciate that Universities want to do all they can to continue attracting students, this objective should not come at the expense of wellbeing.

The Trouble with ‘Keep Calm and Study On’

You are probably familiar with the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, but do you know where the phrase comes from? It was actually coined by the UK’s Ministry of Information during the Second World War. The Government printed the phrase on a number of motivational posters at the height of the war in order to boost the morale of the British public throughout the war effort. The sentiments behind the poster are commonly seen as a testament to the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, which is essentially a form of stoicism in the face of adversity.

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Since that time, the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has been co-opted for several other purposes. These days it is impossible to walk into a greeting card shop without seeing various incarnations of this phrase applied to other situations. So I was very interested when I wandered into one university book shop and spotted a card that read ‘Keep Calm and Study On.’ Although the card was intended as a joke, the meaning isn’t too far off from the general approach towards work and stress management in academia.

There tends to be a belief that, irrespective of how challenging or difficult a task may be, whenever we confront a stumbling block we should ‘power through’. This was certainly the approach that was practiced when I was a student and I continue to see colleagues adhering to the ethos of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ when it comes to their own work.

But I can’t help but wonder – is a war analogy entirely appropriate for coping with academic stress? The message it sends is that we should overlook how we are feeling in any given moment in order to complete the task at hand.

I can definitely attest to instances when I’ve set aside feeling overwhelmed, stressed and tired – perhaps turning to caffeine or sugar to give me the quick boost I need to power through. In such moments it was as though nothing was more important than completing whatever task I had on my plate, whether it was writing a book chapter, answering emails, marking, or preparing a presentation. Many of us have developed a pattern of approaching our work in this way.

Ignoring how one feels may be necessary in the context of a war, but should we really be stoic when it comes to our work?

The reality is that applying a stiff upper lip approach towards our studies and work can be quite detrimental. The more we ignore how we feel, both physically and mentally, the more we set ourselves up for unhappiness, chronic stress, and a host of other health-related challenges. But irrespective of the consequences, once we’ve grown accustomed to neglecting our physical and mental wellbeing, it can be a tough habit to break.

Our work and studies should not be viewed as a struggle or something to simply get through. This is perhaps what is most misleading about the ‘Keep Calm and Study On’ ethos in academia. It teaches us that our work is meant to be a struggle and that we shouldn’t expect it to be enjoyable.

The truth is that it is entirely possible to enjoy our work and it is actually when we take good care of ourselves that things flow. It’s when we don’t that our work tends to take double the amount of time and feels like a slog.

In order to get into the space where our work can flow, it is crucial that we resist the inclination to power through it at all costs and to start to consciously pay attention to how we are feeling. In other words, it requires us to reject the notion of keeping calm and carrying on.

Bridging the Divide Between Academia and Wellness

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On a sunny morning in September I met my friend Ashley at a cafe near Holborn station in central London. I was about to start a new job at the London School of Economics (LSE) – the same institution where I had been a student over a decade earlier. LSE had been a wonderfully vibrant place to study. During the many years I had spent there as a student I remember feeling inspired by my professors, energized by the lectures I attended and excited by the diversity of the student population. After holding academic positions at the University of Oxford and King’s College London I was delighted to be returning ‘home.’

At the same time I was aware that LSE had changed a lot over the years. To begin with the university grounds looked completely different. The LSE campus had expanded and now boasted an impressive collection of new academic buildings. There were also many more facilities for staff and students, including cafes and study spaces, as well as a brand new Student Union building. In addition to these improved amenities, the way in which courses were taught had significantly changed. Nowadays everything was administered online and students could conveniently access all course materials at the click of a button. Reflecting on the endless hours I spent photocopying from the course collection at LSE’s Social Science Library (and all the paper cuts I endured in the process!) I wondered if today’s students appreciated just how lucky they were.

But the more I reflected, the more I began to question just how lucky today’s students really are. Alongside the sprawl of shiny new buildings, the improved facilities and the convenience of new learning technologies, the experience of being a student today is undoubtedly much more daunting than it was in my day. Tuition fees have nearly doubled and the job prospects awaiting graduates are few and far between. Beyond these factors are the added pressures of studying in the midst of digital distractions. Whether it’s checking email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or WhatsApp, today’s students are overloaded with information and constantly connected. As I recounted to Ashley the types of pressures students faced today, she made a suggestion that I will never forget: “Why not begin your classes with a mindfulness meditation or a breathing exercise – something to centre your students at the start of the class and get them to focus?”

The first thought that came to my mind was that this was a crazy suggestion. There was no way I could begin my classes with a meditation or mindfulness exercise. This was a university after all, not a yoga class! What would my students think if I began my classes in this way? Meditation was something that I practiced at home in order to prepare myself for the day ahead and the idea of bringing this technique to work with me was pretty much the craziest thing I had ever heard. So I tried to find a gentle way to express to my friend that her idea was a bit out there. Breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises were simply not something that academics did in their classrooms and I was not prepared to be labelled a hippy and become the laughing stock of the University! Ashley then asked me an important question, which stayed with me for several weeks after: “But do you think your students would benefit from this technique?”

It was tough to deny the growing body of scientific evidence in favour of meditation and mindfulness strategies. Breathing and centring techniques have proven to be one of the quickest and most effective ways to calm the nervous system and alleviate stress. These types of techniques could also be applied beyond the classroom and in that sense, if I were actually willing to incorporate this into my class, I would be giving my students a tool they could draw upon for the rest of their lives.

In recent years there has been a burgeoning interest in mindfulness and meditation techniques across the UK. This has led to the emergence of organizations like the Mindfulness Initiative – an advocacy project that works in conjunction with parliamentarians, the media and policy makers to increase awareness of how mindfulness can benefit society. In 2015 the Initiative oversaw the publication of the Mindful Nation UK report – the first policy document which seeks to address mental health concerns and enhance wellbeing in the areas of education, health, the criminal justice system and the workplace through the application of mindfulness techniques.

After my conversation with Ashley I began to do a bit of research on the extent to which meditation and mindfulness tools have been applied in higher education settings. What I learned is that despite the growing popularity of these approaches and their demonstrated capacity in alleviating stress, surprisingly few universities have started to explore how these wellness strategies might be utilised by students – yet there clearly is a need. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the number of students with a declared mental health problem has more than doubled from 8,000 to 18,000 over the past 7 years.

Reversing these alarming statistics will require a substantial investment in student wellbeing. It will also require more awareness of the fact that how students approach their studies is equally – if not more – important as the content of what they study. My initial resistance to Ashley’s suggestion is indicative of the extent to which this has been overlooked. While I have practiced meditation and mindfulness strategies over the years in my own time, after spending most of my adult life in the higher education sector the prospect of applying these tools in the classroom is something that had never even crossed my mind. It really goes to show the degree to which the academic path has diverged from the field of wellness. I am indebted to Ashley for her seemingly crazy suggestion and for inspiring me to bring two ostensibly incompatible worlds together. Not only do I now believe it is possible to build a bridge between academia and wellness, I believe it is essential that we find ways to do this.