Persisting with the PhD: Sustaining Motivation During the Coronavirus

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Are you feeling unmotivated at the moment and perhaps a little distracted by the ongoing global pandemic? It can be challenging to maintain PhD motivation at the best of times, even without a world-wide crisis to contend with. So, it is perfectly understandable if you’ve been struggling to sustain your motivation levels at the present time. In this post I will highlight three steps for maintaining PhD motivation during the coronavirus.

Step 1 is about getting set up and it takes place before you even begin working. Among the most important elements of this step is reconnecting to your ‘Why’– that is, your underlying reasons for pursuing a PhD in the first place. Given that the PhD lasts for several years, it is easy to lose sight of what first inspired you to pursue a doctorate, particularly when the world may now appear very different to when you began. Yet your ‘why’ is precisely what you need to try and hold on to in order to sustain motivation.

Step 2 takes place during your working hours and is primarily about cultivating the necessary focus and concentration to make the most of your working time.

Step 3, often overlooked, but perhaps the most important in terms of sustaining motivation, is detaching after work. This is about carving out non-work time for yourself on a daily basis. This final step has become particularly important in the current climate when people are essentially living in their work space.

The above steps work together in a virtuous cycle. For instance, when we are connected to our deeper level motivation and feeling excited about our work, it’s easier to focus and maintain progress. This in turn enables us to take a proper break, such that when we are ready, we can return to our work feeling re-energised and motivated.

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Here are a few tips relating to each phase of the cycle:

BEFORE | Getting Set Up

  • Find a way to represent your ‘why’ in your work environment
  • Create a collage with inspiring words and images for your desktop
  • List your top distractions and deal with them in advance (whether it’s social media updates, your email notifications, clutter, watching or reading the news, Netflix or your family/flatmates)
  • Find an accountability partner that you can check in with on a daily or weekly basis
  • Do some pre-writing before you start working
  • Establish a daily routine with the same wake up time
  • Get showered and dressed every day even if you aren’t seeing anyone
  • Walk around your block first thing in the morning as though you are walking to your office
  • Identify your incentives and rewards – keep a list of them
  • Prioritise your daily tasks for the following day

***

DURING | Making the Most of Your Working Hours

  • Set an end to your working day in advance and stick to it
  • When establishing your hours remember that less can actually be more
  • Listen to inspiring background music | use a noise app to create an atmosphere
  • Instead of focusing on the long road ahead, focus on the next step in front of you by breaking tasks down into small, manageable pieces – one section at a time, one sentence at a time
  • Take the pressure off by shifting your language around work and your expectations (e.g. sketching, drafting, outline, preliminary).
  • Organise a virtual writing session with one or more peers for mutual motivation
  • Try a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique, especially when feeling stuck
  • Allow for ebbs and flows in productivity

***

AFTER | Detaching from Your Work

  • Draw your work to a close at the time you had planned rather than waiting until you are too exhausted to continue or feeling burnt out
  • Try transition activities to ease your way into downtime (exercising, going for a walk, grocery shopping – online or in person)
  • Find ways to keep track of progress aside from word count (‘PhD Process Journal’/ Pomodoro rounds)
  • Check in with your accountability partner
  • Keep track of your wins
  • Cultivate gratitude for what is going well
  • Volunteer to help someone in your community who has been affected by COVID-19
  • Reward yourself with an item on your list
  • Make time for a new hobby or pastime that you’ve been postponing (learning a language, playing an instrument, drawing, painting, listening to music, reading a novel)
  • Set up a regular video chat with family or friends
  • Maintain the same bedtime | adopt a wind down ritual in the evening to boost your sleep quality
  • Since ideas or thoughts may come to you when you least expect it, have a notebook on hand to make space for these insights and commit to return to them the following day

 

Shifting Stressful Thoughts

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Do you find yourself flooded with negative thoughts and worries about the ongoing global pandemic? Are stressful thoughts making it difficult for you to enjoy most things at the moment?

It has been estimated that we have over 60 000 thoughts a day. At times our thoughts appear to emerge out of nowhere and we seem to have little control over our thinking.

By becoming more aware of our thought patterns, we can consciously begin to choose thoughts that feel better. In order to do this, we need a better understanding of how thoughts work.

THE SPIRAL OF NEGATIVE THOUGHT MOMENTUM: QUICK AND SPECIFIC

Imagine a thought as a rock at the top of a mountain. As the rock begins to roll down from the top of that mountain it gathers momentum, and its speed accelerates. This is exactly what happens with our thoughts when we are feeling off.

We may have one thought that doesn’t feel good and before we know it, the pace of our thought tends to gather momentum and leave us feeling worse off.

We may start off by thinking: ‘I’m worried about this virus’ and that leads into: ‘So many people are getting sick’, ‘A vaccine seems so far away’, ‘What if the vaccine doesn’t even work?’ Or, ‘what if the virus mutates in a way that makes the vaccine ineffective?’ My life is never going to be normal again’.

Notice how specific and detailed these thoughts are. Very often this type of thought pattern occurs so quickly, without us even noticing. When was the last time you experienced a spiral of negative thoughts like this?

The key to overcoming a spiral of negative thought momentum is to first become aware of it. Our emotions are often the best indicator of this – when we aren’t feeling good, it’s usually an indication that we are experiencing negative thought momentum.

SLOWING DOWN AND GETTING GENERAL

Once we become aware, we can consciously try and break negative thought momentum. The best way to do this is to grab a pen and paper and actively write down slower and more generally thoughts.

For instance, from the initial thought of, ‘I’m worried about this virus’  we could try on a few general statements: ‘The majority of people that have caught the virus survive,’ ‘The lockdown seems to be having an impact’, ‘It’s in everyone’s interest to find a way out of this situation’, ‘The medical and scientific communities are tirelessly working on solutions to control the spread of the virus’, ‘However long the situation lasts, it will amount to a short blip in the overall span of my lifetime.’

Whereas negative thought momentum tends to be quite specific and zoomed-in, these statements are more general and zoomed-out. As a consequence, they tend to feel a lot better.

The next time you find yourself feeling low, pause and ask yourself what your last thought was and whether there is any scope for shifting that thought.

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PhD Plan B: Managing Detours on the Doctoral Path

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The journey towards obtaining a PhD is rarely a smooth path. Even under normal circumstances it is not uncommon for students to encounter setbacks. Below is a list of the types of detours a doctoral student may come across:

  • Having to switch supervisors
  • Someone else publishing on your topic
  • Financial difficulties/running out of funding
  • Having to juggle a job alongside your PhD
  • Realising your topic is no longer feasible
  • Having to switch to a different methodology
  • Recent events or developments that make your topic redundant
  • Being unable to obtain ethics approval for your research or risk assessment approval for conducting field work
  • Having to scale down your project
  • Problems with data collection
  • Feeling distracted or unmotivated
  • Falling behind with deadlines
  • Feeling too busy with side-projects
  • Physical or mental health challenges
  • Difficulties with field work
  • Thesis examiner pulling out at the last minute
  • Challenges with interview subjects
  • Loss of a family member or close friend
  • Relationship challenges
  • Failing an upgrade viva

To this list of common detours along the PhD path we can now add one that no one saw coming and that is ‘global pandemic.’

There are a number of ways the Coronavirus has impacted PhD students around the world. Field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, research funding may be in short supply, and regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home.

The ongoing crisis is also forcing students to rethink their timeframe for completion with many having to make formal requests for extensions in order to accommodate these unique circumstances.

As the full impact of this crisis continues to take hold, more and more students are having to come up with a ‘Plan B’ for their PhDs.

It is one thing to come up with a PhD Plan B, however, and another to fully accept it. When you’ve been forced to reconsider your plans due to external circumstances, resistance to any change in direction is perfectly understandable.

The thing that stands in between constructing an alternate path and learning to accept that path are the expectations we carry around about the PhD. Below are a few points to bear in mind, which I hope will help you begin to accept your change in direction:

It Doesn’t Need to be Your Life’s Work

Given the dedication and time it takes to complete a doctoral thesis, it is not uncommon to feel as though the end result must amount to your life’s work. However, this could not be further from the truth. In stark contrast to being overly ambitious, the purpose of a PhD thesis is to answer a single question or problem within a set of clearly defined parameters. In this regard, a PhD thesis tends to open up as many questions as it answers.

Some Element of Scaling Back is Inevitable

As you get further into your research you’ll realise what is possible and what isn’t within the scope of your project and the time that you have available. This will typically result in some element of downsizing. The ideas that don’t happen to fit within your project can still be incorporated in the ‘areas for further research’ section of your conclusion – which nearly every thesis will have. Highlighting avenues for further research is an important aspect of your project, even if you are simply identifying an area of research for another person to pursue. Alternatively, you can think of the parts you’ve had to scale back on as inspiration for a follow-on/post-doc project.

You Only Need to Pass

Unlike other degrees in academia, the PhD viva is a straightforward pass or fail. While that may sound daunting, the fact is that all you need to do is obtain a passing mark and no amount of going above and beyond the requirements will change that. As the end product will not be graded in the traditional sense, it is worth considering whether you might already have enough material on hand to pass the viva.

You Will End Up Revising It Anyways

Most students feel under pressure to ensure that their thesis is a ‘perfect’ piece of work when the truth is that PhD theses are rarely, if ever, published as they are. For instance, when it comes to publishing, students are often expected to revise their theses prior to submitting it to a journal or an academic publisher. This is the case whether the PhD consists of a larger book-style manuscript or a series of separate papers. The likely need for some form of revision or updating may lessen some of the pressures associated with producing a perfect end product.

Time-Frames Are Less Significant Than You May Think

Perhaps you’ve had to take a break, postpone your fieldwork or interrupt your studies while you wait for the current crisis to pass. In reality, the time-frame in which you choose to work on your thesis is less important than you think and may not have as much bearing as you believe. Any piece of research should be viewed as a general snapshot at a specific moment in time. For instance, take a look at something that was published quite recently (this year or even this month) which you consider to be a strong piece of work. Irrespective of how strong a piece it is, you can probably identify areas in which that piece could be updated,improved, or revised in line with recent developments. By its very nature, academic research is dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. As such, the time-frame for completing your research is perhaps more flexible than you may think.

The PhD is a Marathon, Not a Race

Although you began your PhD journey with a group of peers, it is important to remember that you are each on individualised paths. Every project is unique, as is each students’ working patterns, methodology and time scales for submission. In that sense, there is no genuine basis for comparison between you and your peers. Any supposed competition between you and them is more imagined than real. If your project is impacted by the current pandemic and that results in you submitting later than your peers, it makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line, it’s a marathon. You may run alongside others, but you run for yourself and at your own pace.

Changing Direction Is a Normal Part of the PhD Journey 

In order to fully embrace Plan B, it is crucial to let go of your past plans and accept where you are now. Plan A, or the plan we come into a PhD programme with, is often an idealised version of what we imagine our research journey to be before having taken any steps on the path. In that sense, switching plans is quite common, and a significant part of the journey is to realize when such a change of direction is needed. It is when we hold on too tightly to the original idea we had, or are unwilling to change direction, that things become especially challenging. The way forward (Plan B) may not be what you had imagined or hoped for, but it will ultimately lead you to the same end point.

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How to Make Working from Home Work for You

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Although you may have preferred to work from home even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, there is something about being mandated to work from home that can make it feel quite challenging. So if you find yourself struggling to progress with your research at the moment, it’s perfectly understandable.

After giving a lot of thought to this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to pay attention to at least three components in order to make working from home work for us. The first is our Space – organising our physical environment. The second is our Time – structuring our day in a way that suits us. The third and final component is our Self – adopting the right mindset. All three components are mutually reinforcing and therefore equally essential.

In this post I will provide a few tips relating to these three areas in the hopes that they will help your experience of working from home work better for you.

SPACE: ORGANISING YOUR PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

Working from home effectively requires a designated space in your home that is solely for the purposes of work. The space should be clean and organised, and to the extent that it is possible, separate for where you spend your leisure time.

  • Begin by taking stock of your home and how you feel in the space
  • In what ways might you be able to repurpose, organise, or clear the space? Are there things that need to be moved or removed, thrown out, or donated? Are there any areas that would benefit from some decluttering? Could any furniture be rearranged to make better use of your space. Recent research has demonstrated that clutter has a negative impact on our mental wellbeing
  • Undertake a thorough spring clean of your space and set aside one day a week for upkeep
  • The spring clean could also extend to files on your computer, your email inbox and any other area that feels cluttered or disorganised
  • Select a designated space in your home for working during the lockdown that is separate to where you spend your leisure time
  • Try and make your working environment feel more inviting – use colour, pictures, decorations, lights or plants to shift the energy of your working space and to inspire you
  • Create an atmosphere in your working space with a background noise app or a webcam.[1]

***

TIME: STRUCTURING YOUR DAY

Your capacity to work from home will be aided by maintaining some regularity throughout your day. This will involve developing and observing a working routine, while also building in time to take breaks and relax.

  • Maintain a routine each day (including the same wake up time and bedtime)
  • Get showered and dressed each day, even if you don’t have plans to see anyone
  • Take a morning walk around your neighbourhood before you begin working – pretend you are walking to your office
  • Commit to an end point for your working day before you begin
  • Play background music as you work
  • Take frequent breaks
  • Get fresh air and lots of movement
  • Set out your goals with an accountability partner and check in with them either once a day or once a week
  • Share your working plans and goals for the day with those in your house, and communicate your needs. Negotiate your availability and ground rules for the benefit of everyone in the house. Be open to reconsidering your plans if things aren’t working
  • Make a list of possible leisure activities, including things you have always wanted to try but may not have had the time
  • Schedule time to connect with family and friends on a regular basis

***

SELF: YOUR MINDSET THROUGHOUT EACH DAY

More important than anything is the mindset that you adopt throughout this period. While it is easy to slip into feelings of fear and negativity about the current situation, it is also possible to shift your perspective on what is happening.

  • Limit your intake of the news. While it is important to keep up-to-date on what is happening, the news is predominantly fear-based and therefore, being strict about how much fear you expose yourself to on a daily basis will do wonders for your mindset
  • Start a daily gratitude practice. This will help to offset the scarcity mindset, which we are currently being bombarded with.
  • Try your best to take things one day at a time. Remember that we can only live one day at a time anyways. If that feels too challenging, take things one week at a time at most
  • In order to start shifting your perspective of the current situation, spend some time reflecting on what this experience may be offering you. In what ways has this time actually served you? Is there anything it has taught you about yourself? How has it made you think differently about the world?
  • Can you see any potential positives that might emerge as a consequence of this situation?
  • When you are feeling down, acknowledge it, take a break and connect with someone you feel safe sharing with. Although you cannot change what is happening, talking about how you are feeling may help to lighten the heaviness surrounding it
  • Give back by helping someone else. No matter how badly we might be feeling about the ongoing situation and how it is impacting us, there are a lot of people who are much worse off. Ask yourself how you might be able to give (whether it’s your time, compassion, or financial support) and continue to do so every day until the crisis passes. Observe how your mindset shifts as you reach out to others

[1]For instance: ‘How to see the world without leaving your home’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52096529

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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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Questioning the Question: Preparing for an Academic Q&A Session

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For many students the most dreaded aspect of an academic presentation is not the presentation itself, but the Q&A session that follows it. Q&As are not only unpredictable, they are also impossible to prepare for. We can never be sure what we are going to be asked and by whom. It is no wonder that the prospect of a Q&A session is unsettling for many. In this post I’ll share my top tips for navigating academic Q&As.

Question the Question: My first tip is based on the fact that not all questions in a Q&A session are created equal and in fact, some are downright unfair. If, for example, an audience member goes on a rant for a considerable period of time – as almost always happen at some point during a Q&A – it is worth asking if there is a question in what they have asked or if it was more of a comment. In other words, it’s perfectly reasonable to question the question. So, if you happen to get thrown an incomprehensible monologue, by all means, throw it back to the questioner. By doing so you are inviting them to either reframe their question or retract it.

Ask for Clarity: On a related note, remember that it’s not your job to interpret a poorly phrased question so before you attempt to offer a response, ensure that you have understood the question clearly. If anything is unclear, don’t hesitate to ask the questioner for some clarification. One way to do this would be to restate the question as you have heard it and then ask the questioner to confirm if you have understood correctly. Or you could simply ask the questioner to be clearer in how they’ve formulated their question. It may be, as with the case above, that there isn’t actually a question within their question, in which case, you need not spend any time answering it.

Take Notes: A lot of the anxiety surrounding the Q&A comes from the rapid-fire nature of these sessions. There is rarely time to think and gather our thoughts before we are expected to answer. Like many people, I don’t do particularly well when I feel on the spot and I usually think of my best responses hours after an event has passed rather than on my feet! In order to offset some of this pressure, and buy yourself enough time to think, consider writing down the questions as you are being asked them. This tool can be particularly useful if you want to recall key words or phrases as you respond.

Experiment with Another Format: If you’d like to be more selective in your responses, feel free to alter the format of the Q&A to one that would better suit you. This might involve taking multiple questions from the audience and then being more discerning about which ones you’d like to engage with. This will give you the freedom to focus in on the most relevant questions and consider each one at your own discretion.

Repeat Yourself: Although it may seem redundant to you, it may be worth repeating material from your presentation during the Q&A. The audience will not be as familiar with the material in your presentation. What may seem obvious to you or even repetitive, will not be for them. Going back to the presentation will remind them of what you do, particularly if their questions are slightly off topic (as some are bound to be!) An additional benefit of referring back to your presentation script is that it arms you with a ready-made response. This can only help in building your confidence throughout the Q&A session. As I’ve often found, one confident response leads to another and another, and so on.

A Conversation, Not an Attack: Much of the resistance to Q&A sessions stems from the feeling of being on the spot or under attack. Instead of thinking of it as an attack, try and view it as more of a conversation. You’ve just delivered a presentation on a topic that interests you and now you have an opportunity to further discuss this topic. Approaching it as a conversation opens up the possibility for two-way communication between you and the audience instead of a one-sided attack.

Keep Breathing: It is not uncommon to speed up during both the presentation and the Q&A. However, the faster we go, the more we yield to the fight versus flight stress response mechanism. Our fight versus flight response is governed by our more primitive, reptilian brain – the part of our mind that is concerned with our survival above all else. In such a state, we are unlikely to be able to access the more sophisticated and creative thinking associated with our neo-cortex; yet, this is precisely the part of our brain that we’d like to have access to during the Q&A. To ensure that our reptilian brain doesn’t dominate, it is critical to slow down, especially when we feel stressed. So, before you respond to any questions during a Q&A, pause and take a long, slow, deep breath. This simple action will go a long way towards activating the neo-cortex.

Not Every Q Requires an A: Perhaps our greatest fear during a Q&A is that we will be asked something that we don’t know. The most common approach to this type of scenario is to either pretend we do know or to provide an answer to the question we wish we had been asked. Neither of these approaches feels particularly authentic. What if, however, not every Q required an A? If we assume that were true, we could instead say something along the lines of:  ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a really interesting question. I’ll have to give it some more thought.’ While some may be reluctant to admit that they don’t have all the answers out of fear they might look stupid, in my view it signifies the exact opposite – a person who is confident enough in themselves and in their work to admit that they don’t know everything.

I hope you find some of the above tips useful for your next Q&A session. Feel free to get in touch with me at info@academease.org for any comments or further questions.

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Is PhD Perfectionism Slowing You Down?

board-786119_1280Do you suffer from perfectionism? With the constant pressure to achieve in academia it is no surprise that perfectionism is so prevalent among students. The consequences of perfectionism can be quite debilitating, as a recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences reveals a correlation between perfectionism and depression.

While the causes may vary from case-to-case, more often than not, perfectionism stems from a fear of making mistakes. The prospect of making a mistake in and of itself may not be the issue, but more specifically what the mistake might reveal. I’ve noticed this particularly among PhD students and I would argue it has a lot to do with how the PhD process is framed.

When students reach the level of a PhD  – the highest stage in their educational path  –  it can feel like an honour and privilege, but it may at the same time feel quite overwhelming. I often hear doctoral students saying ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ or ‘I’m not good enough to be in my programme.’ In such cases, the weight of the PhD is accompanied with a fear of somehow not being up to the task.

Within this context the prospect of making any mistakes has the capacity to serve as unequivocal proof that we don’t belong where we are or that we aren’t good enough. Determined not to let this happen, many students obsess over every detail of their PhDs and may even find excuses not to share drafts of their work. In this way, perfectionism may temporarily serve us by protecting us from making mistakes, yet it also risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is because perfectionist behaviour inevitably slows us down and therein feeds into the idea that we are not good enough.

Since cultivating a sense of worthiness is not an overnight job, shifting our expectations of the PhD itself may offer the best way to manage perfectionism. With this in mind, there are a few points relating to the PhD that are important to highlight.

1) It Doesn’t Need to be a Masterpiece

Have a look at some of the PhD theses in your university library. You’ll find that they aren’t masterpieces that reinvent the wheel in their respective disciplines. In stark contrast to being overly ambitious, the purpose of a PhD thesis is to answer a single question or problem within a set of clearly defined parameters. In this regard, a PhD thesis tends to open up as many questions as answers and, as such, need not be perfect.

2) You Just Need to Pass

Remember that the PhD examination is a straightforward pass or fail assessment, and all you need to do is obtain a passing mark. Recalling that the thesis will not be graded in the traditional sense may help to alleviate some of the anxiety associated with it.

3) You Will Revise It Anyways

PhD theses are rarely, if ever, published as they are. Typically, students are expected to revise their theses prior to publication. This is the case whether the PhD consists of a larger book-style thesis or a series of separate papers. The likely need for some form of revision or updating may further lessen some of the pressure associated with producing a ‘perfect’ piece of work.

4) Research is Always Evolving

As unsatisfying as it may seem, the truth about academic research is that it’s never really done. By its very nature, academic research is dynamic and continuously evolving. There are aspects of any piece of research that would benefit from being updated, improved, or revised in line with recent developments and new discoveries. This is yet another reason why aiming to produce a perfect PhD may be counterproductive.

As the above points demonstrate, shifting our expectations of the PhD is an important first step in overcoming perfectionism. When we have a more realistic picture of what the PhD entails, we can start to let go of the fear of making mistakes and perhaps even embrace the inevitable imperfections in our work.

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A New Perspective for the New Year

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A few years ago, I came across an interesting quote by the late Wayne Dyer. He said ‘When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at begin to change.’ Although I liked the sound of this, I was unsure how to actually go about changing the way I looked at something that was causing me stress. As we mark the beginning of 2020, I’ll share two practices that have helped me shift my perspective.

Before trying these techniques, it’s important to first identify the thing you’d like to shift your perspective on. It could be a person, a situation, a task, or maybe your work in general.

TECHNIQUE 1: IN SEARCH OF POSITIVE ASPECTS

Now that you’ve identified the issue you’d like to work on, hold an image of the stressful task, situation, person or whatever it is in your mind, and – as challenging as this may be – begin to list its positive aspects.

If it is a person, what are their positive qualities? What do you admire about them? What is their backstory and what factors may be informing their perspective? If it is a situation, what are the potential benefits that you could gain by going through this? What have you learned from the situation?

If it is a task, in what ways have you already made progress? How will completing the task benefit you? If the stress is in relation to your work or the job itself, what aspects of your work do you enjoy? In what ways is it actually going well for you? What does it allow you to do that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do?

Keep doing this on a daily basis and notice if you experience any shifts. If searching for positive aspects feels too challenging, try the technique below.

TECHNIQUE 2: PUTTING STRESS IN CONTEXT

The second technique is to get your attention off of the thing that is causing you stress. Remember that what you focus on tends to grow, so if you are primarily focusing on this issue, person, task or challenge, it’ll start to consume other areas of your life.

In order to shift your focus off of the topic, keep a daily gratitude journal and take note of what else in your life is going well. Challenge yourself to make a note of at least 3 new things each day. Take time to sit with those things and really appreciate them. Even if it doesn’t alleviate your underlying stress, if you practice this technique consistently, you’ll find that it does minimize the extent to which the issue occupies you. As a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology  reveals, there is now scientific evidence in support of developing a daily gratitude practice.

While experimenting with these techniques, the most important ingredient to ensuring their effectiveness is a willingness to see things another way. When we become stuck on a particular story or viewpoint, it closes off the possibility of seeing things any other way.

You may be wondering how something as simple as the above techniques could allow you to change the way you look at things, however, it is very often through small steps like this that major shifts can happen.

As we embark on 2020, challenge yourself to adopt a new perspective for the new year. Try one of these practices consistently for 10 to 14 days, perhaps as one of your new year’s resolutions and then re-evaluate whether your perspective has changed in any way.

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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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What’s hiding behind your procrastination?

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When we think of someone who is procrastinating, it immediately conjures up images of that person being lazy and doing anything to avoid work. But when we look beneath the surface, there may actually be another cause behind the behaviour that is masquerading as procrastination. In this post, I’d like to explore three potential causes of procrastination:

Loss of enthusiasmIn order to dedicate ourselves to research and writing, we need a level of commitment and enthusiasm that can be difficult to sustain over long periods of time. Without that passion and sense of connection, it can feel like there is little incentive to show up at our desks each day and work.

OverwhelmWhen it comes to longer-term projects, it may seem like there is an endless amount of work to do. We don’t always know where to start and so we become stuck. In this case it is a feeling of overwhelm that lies beneath our procrastination.

PerfectionismMany of us carry a deep-seated fear that our work won’t be good enough, or indeed, that we might not be good enough. This causes us to worry about how we might be judged to the point that we become paralyzed unless we can create something perfect. So here we have perfectionism lurking behind the behaviour of procrastination.

What should be noted immediately is that none of the above are mutually exclusive. We can transition between a paralyzing perfectionism, feelings of overwhelm and a loss of enthusiasm. In fact, it’s very common to experience all of them simultaneously. But how do we overcome them?

The first antidote to procrastination is to reconnect with your enthusiasm for the project you are working on. When it comes to longer term projects, it’s completely natural to lose sight of the passion and excitement that once drew you to it in the first place. When this occurs, it can feel difficult and downright impossible to motivate ourselves. This may require taking a self-imposed break, or doing something to distract ourselves from the project in order to get a bit of distance from it. Next, it can be useful to jog our memories and try to reconnect with the initial feeling you had when you began. As I explored in my previous post, ask yourself why you wanted to do this project? What excited you the most about it? Write down your answers and try to build some momentum from there.

Another technique, which can be particularly useful if your procrastination is resulting from feeling overwhelmed, is to break your seemingly unmanageable and never-ending project into something more manageable. Every single task or project can be broken down into smaller steps. After all, no one writes an entire thesis in one sitting. Larger projects are always the end product of several smaller steps. So, sit down with a blank sheet of paper and write down everything that needs to be done in much smaller, digestible steps. Breaking your tasks down can instantly relieve the feelings of overwhelm that often lead to procrastination.

A final approach that can be used to alleviate the perfectionism that often lurks behind procrastination is to title whatever you are working on as a ‘sketch.’ The term ‘sketching’ immediately takes the pressure off and frees us from the expectation that whatever we create has to be perfect. This initial sketch is simply the foundation for what will follow and can therefore be tweaked over time. Although it may sound like something very minor – this subtle shift in language can dramatically help to silence our inner critic, alter our expectations and allow us to get started, which is so often the hardest part!

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, ask yourself whether any of the common causes of procrastination apply to you (loss of enthusiasm, overwhelm or perfectionism) and hopefully some of the strategies above will help you to move through it more quickly.

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