PhD Wellbeing During COVID-19

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The events of the past few weeks have impacted all of our lives in a profound way. Our daily routines have been shaken up and simple things that we used to take for granted have stopped for the time being. What’s worse is that we don’t know how long the current situation will last and when life will go back to normal. Below are a few tips for maintaining your wellbeing during this challenging time.

Cultivate Connections: The PhD experience can be isolating in and of itself, even without the official guidance to practice social-distancing. We may not have access to regular channels of support during this time, but we do have amazing technology at our disposal that can help us feel connected. Starting this week, set up a few virtual coffee dates with family and friends over your preferred technology. Try projecting your laptop onto a TV screen, which will make it feel like your loved ones are sitting in the room with you.

Live in the Now: One of the most daunting aspects of the current crisis is the uncertainty surrounding it. We simply do not know how long it will last. Although this can create a great deal of anxiety, the truth is that we can only live one day at a time anyways. So, try your best to live in the now and focus your attention on what’s immediately in front of you rather than getting caught up with what may or may not come to pass at some future point.

Carve Out Space and Time: Working from home can be tricky for many people, as the lines between work and leisure so easily blur. It can also be a real challenge to motivate yourself in the same space where you would otherwise relax. If you don’t have a separate room to work in, try and designate a particular space in your home that is exclusively for work. Even if it’s just a corner of your bedroom or a table in the living room. Establishing a daily routine will also be immensely beneficial. Have a consistent wake up and bed time to set some parameters around your day.

Limit your Intake of the News: While the media are keeping all of us updated on this fast-moving situation, the way in which the news is presented tends to be extremely alarmist and panic-inducing. Try being selective about how much news you watch and perhaps switch it on at one point in the day instead of exposing yourself to continuous doses of fear and panic throughout the day. It may also be worth replacing your news intake with something more light-hearted, especially things that remind you how to laugh!

Contact Your Supervisor: Apart from maintaining connections with your loved ones, it is also important to connect with your supervisor periodically throughout this time. In particular, it is crucial to discuss the implications of this crisis on your thesis and whether any of your plans, such as field work, might have to be reconsidered. Your supervisor may be able to help you brainstorm a ‘Plan B’ for your research if your original plans are no longer possible.

Stay Active: Depending on how restrictive your circumstances are, there is nothing to stop you from getting fresh air – as long as you continue to follow the official advice and maintain your distance from others if you go outdoors. Try getting out for a walk at least once a day or every other day if that’s more feasible. If that’s not possible, crack open your windows and do some online exercises to stay active.

Embrace the Stillness: Without downplaying the horrendousness of the current situation, there is something remarkable about the stillness of our lives and the world around us at the present time. The usual busyness surrounding PhD life and the many obligations associated with being a PhD student – attending meetings, going to classes, teaching, publishing papers, applying for conferences and preparing job applications, among other things – have all ceased for the time being. Streets have emptied, shops are closed, and everything has gone quiet. While the circumstances that facilitated this are not ones we would ever wish to repeat, the stillness that is on offer may also be seen as a rare opportunity to go within and better connect with ourselves.

If you find yourself struggling and would like some one-to-one coaching, please get in touch with me at info@academease.org

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Presenting With Confidence

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The ability to deliver a presentation with confidence is an important skill for students and academic staff, yet presenting is an activity that many people dread. Since much of the anxiety surrounding presenting is future-oriented, overcoming presentation anxiety will involve taking steps at several stages. In this post I’ll outline a number of tips for alleviating anxiety at each stage.

 The Weeks Leading Up to Your Presentation…

Tackling anxiety surrounding an upcoming presentation will start with taking steps in the weeks preceding the presentation. There are many things you can do to get yourself prepared for the big day and alleviate some of your fears in the process.

  • Make a schedule for preparing | break down the tasks that need to be done so that they are more manageable. For instance, this could involve researching your topic, writing out a script, preparing handouts or power point slides etc.
  • Find ways to get excited about your topic. Excitement is a major antidote to the fear surrounding your presentation
  • Use visual aids (graphs, power point, or a handout) as a way to keep eyes off of you, particularly if you are nervous about being the center of attention.
  • Have a look at the venue and room in advance
  • Arrange for a few friends to attend the presentation if it would make you feel more comfortable to have familiar faces in the audience
  • When you find yourself worrying about the presentation, remember that it’s not happening today

 

The Day Before Your Presentation…

It’s natural to be consumed by thoughts of your impending presentation as the big day draws nearer. The eve of a presentation can be particularly challenging for people, so give the following steps a try.

  • Prepare up to a certain point and then take the rest of the evening off
  • Spend time selecting an outfit that makes you feel your best
  • Do something physical (like going to the gym) to get any nervous energy out of your system
  • See a film to occupy your mind and distract you
  • Remember the presentation is not happening right now – whenever you find yourself worrying, try and replace the worry with an image of yourself feeling comfortable and confident as you present

 

Immediately Before Your Presentation….

On the morning of your presentation, it will be important to spend some time preparing yourself physically and mentally for the day ahead. The action steps below will help keep you calm and centred. 

  • Have a nourishing breakfast and avoid stimulants
  • Get to the venue early, leaving yourself plenty of time
  • Find a quiet space before | focus on your breathing and grounding exercises
  • Listen to inspiring, upbeat music
  • Spend a few minutes shaking nervous energy out of you and doing stretching exercises
  • Keep taking slow, deep breaths to counter any fight or flight symptoms you may experience

 

During Your Presentation…

The action steps you take during your presentation will involve tapping into your excitement for your topic, paying attention to your posture, breathing and consciously slowing down. There are also tips and tricks you can draw upon to break the ice and develop more of a connection to your audience.

  • Recall your excitement for the topic before you begin
  • Stand tall and pay attention to your posture throughout the presentation
  • Keep a bottle of water nearby
  • Connect to your audience (try starting with a question as a way to connect with the audience and feel more at ease)
  • Hold an object (pen or power point clicker) to keep your hands busy
  • Find ways to slow down | take pauses for emphasis | ask rhetorical questions | sip water
  • Consider playing a brief youtube clip to give yourself a break from speaking
  • Take deep breaths throughout to slow down your heart rate.

 

After Your Presentation…

Because negative experiences can breed further anxiety, it is important to continue taking action steps even after your presentation.

  • Challenge yourself to reflect on all of the things that went well
  • Write down a list to build positive momentum
  • Ask yourself in what ways this experience was positive for you? What do you think you did particularly well?
  • Remind yourself that presenting is a skill that can be improved over time. If you find yourself being self-critical, reframe the criticism by writing down anything you’ve learned from the experience and how you might improve during your next presentation

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful. To further build confidence for future presentations, consider enrolling in your local chapter of Toastmasters International.

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Navigating Job Applications

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Applying for jobs in the midst of completing your PhD can feel very overwhelming. Students are frequently told how competitive the job market is. As early as the first year of a PhD, I often hear students starting to worry: ‘what if I don’t find a job?’ When left unchecked, this fear can become all-consuming and start to impede progress on the PhD itself.

My advice to students is to set aside one hour per week and go to a space where they don’t do their regular PhD work, such as a cafe in their neighbourhood. I ask them to bring along a notebook or journal specifically devoted to their job search. During that time and that time alone, they do a broad search of jobs they come across, note them down in the book and keep track of when the application is due. After the hour, I ask them to close their job search journal and leave that space.

Having this time carved out, and conducting their search in a separate space to their normal working environment helps to set some important boundaries. It also allows them to get excited about the prospect of finding a job without inhibiting their work and limits the amount of worried energy that gets expended on this task.

If you are starting to think about applying for jobs, try this technique for the next few weeks and see if it helps make the job search feel more manageable.

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Once you’ve narrowed down a few prospective jobs to apply for, here are a few additional tips to keep in mind.

  • When you find a position that you’d like to apply for, try not to become overly attached to it. The best way to do this is to zoom out and allow yourself to see that there are other possibilities beyond that one job. If you think you need something in order to be happy, it’s a sign you are overly attached to it.

 

  • Give up the mentality of lack and scarcity – the idea that there aren’t enough jobs, publication opportunities or funding to go around. While this mindset is very common in academia, it breeds a lot of anxiety and puts unnecessary pressure on you.

 

  • When you apply for something give it your best shot but remember that you only control 50% of the process. The other 50% is beyond your control, as there may be factors behind the scenes that you aren’t even aware of. All you can do is work on your half of the equation and let go of trying to control the other half.

 

  • Despite the image that most people project of themselves, it takes time to land the ideal job. Even the strongest candidates will encounter their fair share of rejection letters over time. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and comparing yourself to others, remind yourself that patience is a virtue when it comes to navigating job applications.

 

  • Getting to the interview stage is a success in its own right and should be celebrated. If you ever feel like you screwed up an interview or an application, remember that this is a learning process. Interview skills are something you can improve, so try and treat it as a learning experience.

 

  • Whatever setbacks you encounter in applying for jobs, these do not need to define you unless you allow them to. If things don’t work out as you hoped in relation to a specific job, remember that there could be something better out there for you.

 

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Beware of the Urge to Compare

compare-643305_1280How often do you compare yourself to those around you? In many ways, the competitive nature of academia encourages us to compare ourselves to others. With our work being constantly assessed and evaluated, measuring our progress in relation to others may start to feel very natural.

While the comparison game may seem to be a useful way for determining how well we are doing, there is also something deeply counterproductive about measuring ourselves in relation to others. This became particularly evident to me when I was completing my PhD.

During the PhD, there was no obvious basis for comparison between me and the students in my cohort. Although we had course work during our first year and yearly upgrade panels, these were not graded. We were all pursuing our own independent research projects over a four-year period, wherein the only requirement was to submit a 100 000 word thesis.

As our main task was to write, the default mode of comparison became how many chapters each of us had produced. I recall being asked several times throughout my PhD by other classmates: ‘how many chapters have you written?’ and feeling bad that it wasn’t enough in comparison to what some of the other students had managed to produce. It started to feed into the feeling that I was constantly behind and not performing as well as my colleagues.

Of course, this chapter counting took no notice of how unique each PhD project was, not to mention the different working patterns of each student, differences in methodology, and the resulting differences in terms of the timescales for completion. Given all of this, counting chapters – and draft chapters in particular – as a measure for comparison was pretty meaningless.

The futility of this metric became even more apparent as the time for submitting the thesis drew nearer. Interestingly, and to my surprise, those who had written the most in the initial stages of the PhD were by no means the first to submit. This really brought home to me how ridiculous the ‘chapter counting’ comparison was.

But my realization also applies to the more general comparisons we tend to draw between ourselves and others. Whether we are using academic benchmarks or another metric for comparison, we will always find people who seem to be doing better than us as well as people who may not be – it all depends on where we focus our attention.

Either way, we’d be much better off not to make the success or failure, progress or lack of progress of others, mean something about ourselves. As you go forward, try and beware of your own urge to compare and ask yourself whether the comparison is actually serving you.

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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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