The Five Pillars of PhD Wellbeing

It goes without saying that this is an extraordinary academic year. On top of the usual challenges associated with pursuing a PhD, today’s doctoral students are having to contend with a host of other challenges including: isolating from their family and friends; being forced to work from home; relying on virtual meetings with supervisors and colleagues; having restrictions placed on their ability to travel; and worrying about the health of loved ones. And as if all of the above weren’t enough, students are having to balance their work alongside an unprecedented level of global uncertainty. 

Given these circumstances, there is no question that student wellbeing must be prioritised across all universities this year. On that note, I’d like to share some thoughts on how each of you can maintain your wellbeing during this rather unusual academic year. 

When it comes to PhD wellbeing, there are 5 Key Pillars that I see as crucial. These five pillars are (1) Self-Care (2) Daily Routine (3) Detaching from work (4) Support network and (5) Mindset. 

I’ll briefly explain these five pillars and then share my top tips for each.

Pillar 1: Self Care 

Self-Care involves the things that most of us already know we should be doing to take care of ourselves; yet, these are often the first things to go during stressful periods. It is, after all, in the midst of stress that people tend to neglect exercise, experience difficulty sleeping and eat unhealthily. So how can we maintain self-care practices during this stressful time? Here are a few tips:   

  • Set small, achievable targets for yourself and make it enjoyable – otherwise you won’t do it! For instance, instead of setting a goal of exercising every day for an hour, which sounds great in theory but may not be realistic in practice, try exercising a few times a week or for 10-15 minutes every day. The most important thing is to create a new habit for yourself, which means setting a target that you will stick to.  
  • Go outside at least once a day and get as much natural light as possible – even if it’s just a quick walk around the block. I’m always amazed how much better I feel as soon as I get outside and reconnect to nature. 
  • If you have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, try setting a bed-time alarm and adopting a daily wind down routine. The wind down routine could involve stopping work at a certain time, taking a shower or bath, doing some light reading, or perhaps a meditation. 
  • Another very quick and easy tip to regulate your sleep is to maintain the same wake-up time every morning (even on weekends!) After a while you’ll find that you won’t need an alarm clock anymore, as your body will naturally adjust to this wake-up time.  
  • Finally, make healthy eating a priority by setting aside time to plan your meals and upgrading your food choices. By this, I mean finding healthier versions of the foods that you crave. For inspiration and recipe ideas see Liana Werner-Gray’s, The Earth Diet: Your Complete Guide to Living Using the Earth’s Natural Ingredients (Hay House, 2014) and 10-Minute Recipes: Fast Food, Clean Ingredients, Natural Health (Hay House, 2016).

Pillar 2: Daily Routine 

Among the challenges of establishing a daily routine this academic year will be the absence of a regular work structure and the fact that you’ll predominantly be working from home. What will be key is finding a way to sustain your motivation and remain productive.  

  • My first tip is to establish some boundaries between your working space and living space. One way to do this is to take a quick walk around your neighbourhood first thing in the morning, as a way to signal to yourself the start of your working day. You can even pretend you are walking to your office or the library. 
  • Try using the Pomodoro Technique in order to enhance your concentration. There is something about segmenting time into smaller increments that really helps to focus the mind. 
  • Prioritise your daily tasks by setting achievable (and realistic) goals for yourself. See the Eisenhower Matrix for task management guidance 
  • Manage distractions by checking email and social media during designated windows of time. Instead of having a constant influx of notifications throughout your day, be deliberate about when and how long you will look at your email and social media accounts. Two windows of approximately 20-30 minutes each should be sufficient for reading and responding to messages.
  • Since you are going to be spending a lot of time working from home, try to make the space feel inviting an organized. This may require doing a bit of decluttering, rearranging furniture, bringing in different colours or items that energise you. Even if it’s just a corner of your bedroom that you are working in, small adjustments can make a big difference to how you feel in that space.  
  • If you share your home with others, it’s important to communicate your needs and set boundaries with those around you. For instance, if you have a deadline coming up, let family members, flat mates and partners know so that they can support you and respect your space while you work. 

PILLAR 3: Detaching from Work  

Detaching from work is something that I found very challenging to do when I was a student. Taking time off felt like a luxury that I couldn’t afford because there was always more work to be done. Eventually, I came to realise that time away from my work is what allowed me to replenish my energy and return to my work feeling even more motivated. Below are a few tips to help you detach from your work with greater ease: 

  • Instead of waiting until the point that you reach burnout or exhaustion, try setting an end to your work day in advance. Commit to this time before you begin your work and stick to it no matter what. 
  • Plan an activity for your time off, otherwise you will likely be tempted to keep on working. It could be a hobby, connecting with a friend or family member, or trying a new recipe for dinner. Whatever it is, have something other than work planned for your time off. 
  • Since you may feel some resistance to taking time off, it’s important to confront that resistance head on by giving yourself permission to take a break. Try using what I refer to as a PhD Process Journal.  
  • Switching off can be a challenge for many students. In order to give our brains some space to recalibrate, it can be helpful adopt a transition activity between our work and our downtime. Exercising or even a brisk walk can be a great way to transition between work and leisure time. Another good transition activity is grocery shopping (online or in person), as it gives our brain another task to focus on as we start to wind down.

Pillar 4:  Your Support Network

Finding a way to manage isolation will be particularly important this academic year. I would recommend giving some thought to who will form part of your academic support network and personal support network. 

  • Start by enlisting the support of an accountability partner. This should be someone you can work with on a weekly basis to set your goals, share your progress, discuss challenges that may arise, and mutually motivate one another. 
  • Arrange regular meetings with your supervisor throughout the first term. Even if you don’t have any substantive work to share with them, it’s especially important during this time to check in with them regularly and feel supported. 
  • Set up a virtual work session with a colleague. This can be a great motivator and provide you with some additional moral support during a time of limited in-person interactions. 
  • Schedule ongoing catch-ups with family and friends. It’s important to have things to look forward to every week. 
  • We often think about support in terms of outer support, but it’s also worth using this time to cultivate your inner support system. This may involve integrating some quiet time into your day. You could also use this time to start a meditation practice, which is a great way to connect with yourself.  

Pillar 5: Mindset 

The fifth and final Pillar, and the one that I would say is the foundation for all of the Pillars, is your mindset. The reason I say this is because there are many different lenses through which you could view the ongoing situation. The time will go faster and be easier to manage depending on the perspective that you adopt.  

  • Take things one day at a time. If taking things one day at a time feels too onerous, try week-to-week.  
  • If you find yourself worrying, try your best to bring yourself back to the present moment. Worry tends to be future-oriented, as it’s based on concerns and fears over what might happen. This means that when we worry, we aren’t really living in the now. 
  • Minimize your news consumption. At the moment, the news is filled with fear and negativity. It’s difficult to feel in a positive mindset after watching the news! This is not to say to avoid the news altogether. It’s important to stay informed, but be mindful about when and how long you watch, read and listen to the news for. For instance, avoid the new before bed or when you are already feeling low. 
  • Adopt a gratitude practice to put things in perspective. We are constantly being told how awful things are, but there is also a lot that is still going right for each of us. Take time to write three things down each day. This is a powerful practice that can really start to shift your mindset. 
  • Use music for an instant boost. Create a playlist of calm or upbeat music and observe how quickly your mood can shift. 
  • Nothing creates a shift in perspective like helping those who are worse off. Reach out to others who may need additional support. Search for volunteer opportunities in your area or create them yourself.  

I hope you’ve found these tips useful. For further advice, please feel free to get in touch at info@academease.org  

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How Can I Stop PhD Procrastination?

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I have yet to meet a doctoral student who hasn’t at some point struggled with PhD procrastination. When faced with a task as momentous as writing a thesis, almost any other activity can appear more appealing. This makes it very easy to give in to distractions.    

Distractions can take several different forms. It could be an administrative task or a chore that feels lighter and is easier to tick off your ‘to-do’ list. For instance, if you’ve reached a challenging juncture in your research, doing the dishes or laundry probably feels like a welcomed escape.

You may also feel distracted by the incessant stream of negative news relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Understandably, the current global situation is making it exceedingly difficult for people to focus on what’s in front of them.

A further set of distractions could involve work related to the PhD. This is the kind of distraction that tricks us into feeling like we are progressing with our work while we simultaneously avoid what we are really meant to be working on.

For example, we might continue to read new literature on our topic when we are really meant to be cracking on with writing. Since PhD students are expected to be experts on their topics, they can easily fool themselves into thinking that this additional reading is essential. Yet, the real reason that so many students put off writing is because it may feel safer to read someone else’s work than to start writing their own. 

I must admit that I’ve engaged in all of the above modes of procrastination during my PhD. The moments when I seemed particularly prone to distraction were, ironically, those days that I had the most time available. After blocking out an entire day in the expectation of getting some serious writing done, for whatever reason I would find that I had very little to show for that particular day.

Reflecting on this experience has highlighted to me the importance of managing my time as a way to better manage my tendency to procrastinate. In order to do this, I’ve come to rely upon a tool that enables me to set some parameters around my time.  

The first step is to identify a task that you’d like to complete. It could simply be sketching out the next section of your thesis, working on your bibliography, or progressing with your literature review. Next, set a timer for 25 minutes and for this period of time, do nothing but the task you have identified. After 25 minutes take a short break and then get ready to do another 25-minute round. This simple practice is called the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo.[i]

Having used this tool quite a lot I can definitely attest that it works. There’s something about breaking tasks down into smaller increments and setting boundaries around your time that helps to manage distractions. I’ve found that once I carve out the time and space to complete a task by using this method, it becomes a lot easier to protect that time from things that might otherwise encroach on it.

So, for instance, if the phone rings while I’m in the middle of a Pomodoro round, I’ll let it go to voicemail; if I feel tempted to go on social media, check my email or refresh my online news page, I’ll simply wait until I’ve reached my 25-minute mark. This technique works just as well for short-term tasks as it does for longer-term projects.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, give this simple technique a try and you may be surprised by the results.

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[i]See https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique  

Building Your Mindfulness Muscle

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What is mindfulness and how could a mindfulness practice support student wellbeing?Mindfulness refers to the development of greater presence or awareness – living in the moment. While this may sound simple, many people find it challenging to be in this state, particularly during the ongoing global pandemic.

Rather than being in the present our thoughts are often directed towards the future or the past. Either we spend our time worrying about what might be: ‘what if my dissertation isn’t good enough?’, ‘what if this pandemic never ends?’ ‘what if I can’t find a job when this is over?’ Or we ruminate over, and even regret, what has already transpired: ‘If only I had a stronger CV’, ‘if only I had travelled more before the restrictions came into place’, ‘if only I had made more progress on my thesis.’

Developing greater presence not only holds the promise of enhancing our productivity and increasing our enjoyment of various tasks, studies have highlighted a number of additional benefits associated with mindfulness. According to the Mindfulness Initiative, ‘A recent review of 114 studies found consistent improvements in mental health and wellbeing, notably reduced stress, anxiety and depression….’[1]

Although these are all good reasons to start practicing mindfulness, being in the moment isn’t a state that comes naturally to most of us. The good news is that there are ways to help us build our mindfulness muscle. Below I’ll share six of my favourite practices for cultivating greater presence.

PRACTICE 1: GO FOR A MINDFUL WALK

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One of the quickest ways to build our mindfulness muscle is to consciously engage our five senses. Our sight, hearing, sense of touch, taste and smell are what we stop paying attention to when we become busy and stressed out.

Consider the last time you went for a walk. Although you may have intended for the walk to relax you or give you a break from your work, how much attention were you paying to what was around you? Were you fully present in your surroundings or were you more in head? How many times did you check your phone as you walked? When we allow ourselves to become distracted in this way, it’s as though we are walking with our eyes closed.

Today, try going for a mindful walk. In order to bring you into the present moment, begin by putting your phone on airline or silent mode. Next, select a colour to focus on in advance and simply count the number of times you spot this colour during your walk. The intention of this practice is to use your chosen colour as a device to bring you into the moment. As you do this, see how much more you observe during your walk as you consciously pay attention to your surroundings.

If this practice feels a little strange at first, it’s simply because we aren’t accustomed to paying attention to what’s in front of us. The more you practice paying attention, the more natural it will become.

PRACTICE 2: MINDFUL EATING

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Have you ever felt like you were too busy to eat? If so, you are not alone. With our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles and work driven culture, taking time to eat is seen as a luxury that most of us cannot afford. Eating at our desks or on the run has become the norm. As a consequence of this, most of us eat so quickly that we aren’t really tasting our food.

A survey conducted by Conscious Food revealed that people spend an average of six minutes eating breakfast, eight on lunch and nine minutes for dinner. This amounts to a startling 23 minutes in total for all three meals. This means we tend to spend more time cooking a meal and cleaning up than we devote to actually eating that meal. Kristina Locke, the founder of Conscious Food has said: ‘We are constantly surprised by the lack of time and importance that people dedicate to eating.’

The next mindfulness practice is to pick a snack and consciously slow down as you eat it. It can be a piece of fruit or a square of chocolate – whatever you prefer is fine. Before you begin eating, take your time to notice its texture and begin to smell the food. If it’s chocolate, let it melt in your mouth. If it’s something else, chew it slowly and deliberately and allow yourself to observe its flavours.

You may notice when you do this exercise that your taste buds begin watering before you even start eating and this is not accidental. The digestive process begins even before we start a meal and when we eat too quickly we neglect this important step. It is therefore no accident that a staggering 73 percent of those polled in the Conscious Food survey admitted to suffering from digestive issues.

Eating too quickly not only compromises our digestion, it also ends up robbing ourselves of one life’s greatest pleasures. How much more enjoyable would the experience of eating be if you practiced mindful eating on a more regular basis?

From today onwards, start to make a conscious effort to eat more mindfully. If you eat most of your meals with another person, you can try mindful eating together by encouraging each other to deliberately slow down.

PRACTICE 3: JUST BREATHE

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One of the first symptoms we experience in a stressful situation is a shift in the quality of our breathing. We tend to develop a faster pace of breathing, which corresponds to an increase in our heart rate.

As our rate of breathing starts to accelerate, it also tends to become shallow. In this sense, we tend to breathe through our chest when we are stressed instead of our belly. The shallowness of our breathing means that vital oxygen is not able to properly circulate throughout our body in the moments when we most need it.

This practice involves reversing the symptoms of fight versus flight by engaging in a deep breathing exercise. In contrast to the shallow and quick breathing that has become a habit for many of us, we are going to practice breathing from our belly.

Begin by gently placing your hands on your belly and deliberately taking 15 deep breaths in and out. As you do this, notice your belly rising and falling with each breath. You may also observe your heart rate slowing down as you do this.

Take time to practice a minute of mindful breathing at specific intervals throughout your day, particularly in moments when you feel overwhelmed. Notice whether the practice of slowing down your rate of breathing helps you to feel calmer.

PRACTICE 4: STAY GROUNDED

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The next practice is drawn from a book by Mindfulness expert Anna Black called Mindfulness @ Work.

For this technique begin by bringing your attention to your feet. Feel the sensation of your feet as they come into contact with the ground. Gently push down and imagine your feet glued to the floor as you feel the solid ground underneath your feet. Begin to wiggle your toes and feel the sensation of your shoes or socks.

One of the reasons this practice is so beneficial is because, as Anna Black explains, ‘When something is weighted at the bottom, it is unlikely to fall over. You instantly bring yourself into contact with the present moment. The sense of groundlessness eases off…. Whatever is going on is still there, but you are about to face it from a place of stability and strength.’

If you are sitting at a desk, try and practice this simple and quick grounding exercise throughout your day. A subtle variation of this technique to further ground yourself is to imagine a chord running from the top of your head straight to the ground.

PRACTICE 5: LABEL NEGATIVE EMOTIONS

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Perhaps nothing brings us out of the present moment quicker than negative emotions. Whether it’s sadness, anger, fear, shame or helplessness, negative emotions can be uncomfortable and the tendency is to want to stuff these down or ignore them entirely.

Drawing again on Anna Black’s book Mindfulness @ Work, an alternative approach to dealing with negative emotions is to own the emotion we are experiencing and actually label it. As Black suggests: ‘Labelling creates a sense of distance from whatever is going on. We become like a plane, flying above the clouds. The clouds (emotions) are still there but there is a distance between them and us.’

Through creating some distance between ourselves and our negative emotions, we allow ourselves to be one step removed from them. When we stop over-identifying with these emotions it enables us to let go of them more quickly and easily.

The next time you experience a negative emotion, try to imagine yourself as an observer of the situation and simply label that emotion without judgment. See if this practice changes your perspective of the situation and the way in which you experience it.

PRACTICE 6: BE HERE NOW

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The final practice I’d like to share is a simple one that will reaffirm all of the other practices.

As I mentioned above, our mobile phones are often the biggest source of distraction for many people. However, this tip will involve using your mobile phone to help you cultivate greater awareness.

Select the reminder function on your phone and set three ‘Be Here Now’ reminders for specific points of time throughout your day. Ideally the reminders will be spaced apart (one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening). Use these reminders as an opportunity to evaluate how present you are.

Since our natural tendency is to slip out of the present moment and get caught up in busyness, stress and worry, it can be helpful to build in a gentle reminder to stay in the present throughout your day.

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[1]Carlson L. ‘Mindfulness-Based Interventions for physical conditions: A narrative review evaluating levels of evidence.’ See International Scholarly Research Notices. 2012; DOI:10. 5402/2012/651583; The Mindfulness Initiative, Mindful Nation UK,A Report by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG), 2015

 

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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