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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Staying Motivated Throughout Your PhD

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With PhD projects averaging around 4 or more years to complete, it can be difficult to sustain the motivation that first inspired you to start the project in the first place.

A lack of motivation can show up in many different ways. Whether it’s procrastination, feeling low, getting distracted by other tasks, feeling incapacitated and unable to move forward – it’s often a vicious cycle. When we don’t feel motivated, we end up accomplishing very little and this results in us feeling even less motivated than before! And so, the cycle continues.

Whenever you find your motivation waning, it’s important to be gentle with yourself as you work through this and to know there are steps you can take to move forward.

When it comes to addressing this issue, there are two distinct, yet related levels of motivation: (1) Underlying motivation and (2) day-to-day motivation.

The first level, underlying motivation, is about reconnecting with your passion and excitement – the thing that inspired you to pursue a PhD in the first instance. The second level, day-to-day motivation, concerns the more immediate task of maintaining momentum on a daily basis.

While these two levels of motivation can be viewed as mutually reinforcing, the steps I would recommend for addressing each are slightly different. Moreover, while both levels are equally important, I would suggest concentrating on underlying motivation first. This is because even if we arm ourselves with the best tips relating to daily motivation, these tips can only be a temporary fix if we’ve lost our deeper motivation and can no longer identify why we are doing something.

So how can we begin to reconnect with our underlying motivation? Let’s try the following exercise.

Exercise: Finding Your ‘Why’

Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without distractions. Gently take a few deep breaths in and out.  When you are ready, start to write down all of the things that are worrying you about your PhD on a few sheets of paper. It could be things like: ‘I’m not working fast enough,’ ‘I’ll never get this done,’ ‘my work isn’t good enough,’ ‘what if I can’t find a job when I finish?’. All of the things that are worrying you about the PhD, just write them down.

Now, I’d like you to roll up each scrap of paper into a ball and throw them into a bin, one by one. Imagine yourself feeling lighter and lighter as you throw each piece of paper away. By going through this process, you are opening up space and quieting that critical voice in your head. If you find that more worried or anxious thoughts are coming to you, continue to repeat this part of the exercise.

Next, when you are ready, I want you to begin to ask yourself the following questions and be as honest with yourself as possible: why do I want to do this? What first inspired me to pursue a PhD? Was it a person I met, a place I visited or a book I read? And why did I choose this particular topic? What excited me about this field and this research topic? What can I do with the PhD that I couldn’t do without it? What doors will the PhD open up for me?

Take a few minutes to reflect on your answers. What has come up for you? Was there anything unexpected or surprising in your answers? Many of the students that have gone through this process are able to find their ‘why’ – that kernel of inspiration or passion that first inspired them to pursue a PhD. The thing that so often gets in our way and blocks us from connecting to that passion are our own thoughts, anxieties and worries. But what if you were able to sit in the place of inspiration more regularly? How would it feel to work on your research more regularly from this place of excitement?

As you go forward, can you identify whether there are things that remind you of your ‘Why’? Something that you can glance at that will automatically enable you to reconnect to why you are doing this. It could be a photo of someone, a book, a painting, an image on your desktop or some other object that that reminds you of your why. If you are able to identify something, perhaps you can keep this item in your work space as a way to tap into your underlying motivation more frequently.

Now that we’ve discussed how to reconnect to your underlying motivation Sign up for your free guide ‘8 Steps for Sustaining Motivation During Your PhD’where I address how to sustain day-to-day motivation.

 

Navigating Job Applications

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Defending Your Work

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I’ve often found the terminology that we use for examining PhD theses slightly misleading. At most universities, the examination is referred to as a viva, drawn from the latin ‘viva voce’ meaning oral examination. Yet, most students and staff refer to the examination as a ‘defence’.

While there is some truth to this description insofar as the viva is an opportunity to defend your project – there is also something profoundly unhelpful and counterproductive about this language. It sets people up to go into their viva voce in a defensive mode. The insinuation of this description is that the examiners will be aggressive and on the offensive. They will attack your work and the best way to prepare yourself is to put on your armour and get ready to fight back.

Approaching the viva as a defence of your work not only puts you into fight or flight mode as you prepare, the feeling of being under attack may also inhibit your performance on the day.

Subtle shifts can make a world of difference. Instead of approaching your viva in a fear-based way, my advice is to reframe it as more of a conversation about your project. This will help release some of the pressure surrounding the viva and allow you to tap into what first inspired you about your research area. A conversation does not have to be unpleasant or uncomfortable, and in fact, it can even be enjoyable.

Reframing the viva as a conversation will allow you to show up differently on the day. It will influence how you carry yourself, how you respond to questions and ultimately, how much you are able to get out of the experience. Considering how hard you’ve worked and how many years you’ve put into this, you owe that to yourself.

So drop the shield and the sword. Leave the fear behind and get ready for a fruitful and productive conversation about your work. Here are a few other things to keep in mind as you start to prepare for your viva:

Get Excited

Don’t lose sight of what you find exciting and enjoyable about the project. Given that you dedicated so much of your time to working on your PhD, the opportunity to have colleagues engage with your work is actually something to look forward to and be excited about. Tapping into your excitement is one of the best antidotes to fear and anxiety.

Failure is Unlikely

The prospect of failure may be your greatest fear – yet statistics reveal that this fear is often overblown in our minds. Very few students actually fail the viva and so it’s very unlikely you will be confronted with this result. The truth is, you wouldn’t have made it this far and your supervisor is unlikely to have let you reach this stage if a fail was likely. Remember, their reputation is on the line as much as yours is and in that sense your fear of failure is likely unfounded.

Your Thesis Isn’t Going to Be Perfect – And it Doesn’t Need to Be

For many, the weight surrounding the viva has a lot to do with the expectation that their thesis must be perfect. After all, this is the culmination of years of research and endless hours of work. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the PhD isn’t going to be perfect. Now the good news is that it doesn’t need to be. PhD theses are rarely published as is and the majority will require some form of revision or updating before publication. This is your first major piece of research and not your life’s work. So, try approaching the viva as an opportunity to get helpful feedback on the project and let go of the expectation that it must be perfect.

It’s just the beginning

A lot of the pressure associated with completing the thesis comes from viewing it as the end of a journey. In actuality, this is just the beginning. If you decide to stay in academia, it’ll be the first of many research projects. Likewise, if you decide to go on and do something different, it’ll be the first step on a new path. Even if you end up going into a completely different field, you will have learned a valuable set of life skills that you can draw upon as you go forward. So, however you look at it, it’s certainly not the end

Keep Fight vs Flight Symptoms in Check

While it’s understandable that you may be nervous, remember to pay attention to how that stress shows up in your body. To help keep fight/flight symptoms at bay, take long deep breaths whenever you need to. Have water on hand and drink it regularly. It can also be useful to bring in a notebook with you in order to make a note of key points/questions. Taking notes will enable you to gather your thoughts before responding to questions. This can be a particularly useful technique if you don’t enjoy being put on the spot!

Dress for the Occasion

Rather than picking something standard from your wardrobe for the day, spend some time selecting an outfit. Not only will dressing for the occasion help you exude confidence, it will convey a sense of professionalism to your examiners. If it isn’t feasible for you to buy a new outfit, remember that little flourishes can also go a long way towards boosting your confidence.

As you go into your viva, keep these factors in mind. This will hopefully alleviate the enormity and overwhelm surrounding the task and allow your fears about the viva to dissipate.

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Integrating Wellbeing in University Rankings

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Each year the Times Higher Education Magazine (THE) publishes the results of its World University Rankings. According to the results of the 2019 Rankings, the top 3 performing institutions are the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and Stanford University.

The Times Higher Education World University Ranking, which began in 2004, is widely recognized as the most comprehensive and efficient system for assessing university performance across 1250 higher education institutions. Among the THE’s claim to fame is its’ comprehensive methodology.

THE uses 13 performance indicators to compare institutions, each of which are grouped into five core areas: teaching, research, international outlook, knowledge transfer, and research influence. Apart from providing a sophisticated assessment of performance across a broad range of metrics, the results are audited by Price Waterhouse Coopers, which make the THE Rankings the only global university rankings subjected to full, independent scrutiny.

Despite the continuing commitment to improving and updating the robust methodology of the ranking scheme, there remains one criterion that has been consistently overlooked in the 15 years that the survey has been running and that is a commitment to wellbeing. To date, there is no metric for considering or assessing the extent to which a higher education institution prioritizes the wellbeing of its’ students.

With stress rates soaring across universities, and an increasing number of students and staff reporting mental health challenges, it is more crucial than ever that higher education institutions start to invest in this area. By neglecting to include any metric for wellbeing in the ranking scheme, these surveys perpetuate the perception of wellbeing as something supplemental to the university experience rather than an integral part of it. Having wellbeing included as part of the university ranking matrix would not only help to counter this perception, it would also provide a strong incentivize for universities to further invest in student and staff wellbeing.

We’ve seen evidence of how specific metrics in the ranking schemes have facilitated shifts within the higher education sector – this is particularly the case in the realm of research impact, where the emphasis on transferable knowledge has led to greater collaboration between industry and academia. In this sense, the rankings community has a real opportunity to catalyse a much-needed shift in how wellbeing is approached in academia.

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