From stitching to stretching — your PGR self-care tips

A ball of wool on a sheet

We marked this year’s Self Care Week (12–18 November) by asking Bristol’s postgraduate researchers: how do you look after yourself?

The tips we received were varied — from baths to boundaries — but there was a strong emphasis on taking a definite step away from your research degree to do something different. And, when you’re in need of some peace, knitting seems to be a go-to pastime.

So, without further ado, here’s what helps you unwind, de-stress and forget about your research.

Nicola

‘My #selfcareweek tip for PGRs is to do positive affirmations. ‘I am doing well’, ‘I am worthy of this opportunity’, ‘I am making a valuable contribution’, etc. It’s amazing how they can people to rewire their anxious minds. Check out Louise Hay’s work on this if you want to know more.’

Niels

‘I like to make myself aware of the different ways creativity works.

‘Sometimes when you’re stuck at solving a problem or writing, just do something completely different. Your brain will continue to subconsciously work on the problem (and much more effectively than your conscious mind can), while you can do exercise, nap or eat. Consciously taking time out doesn’t mean you’re being lazy. In fact you’re being more productive, but also taking care of your own wellbeing.’

Suzanne

‘Knitting and Lego.’

Mary

‘Forcing myself to only work the 1 hour I am paid for preparing a seminar, or the 20 minutes I am paid for marking a paper, even if doing a good job means working triple that and working extra for free.

‘Also knitting.’

Pam

‘If your life is busy and full of thoughts and people, find a way to be quiet and alone once a day. I’m no good at doing nothing so meditation doesn’t suit me. Instead I like a hot bath (doesn’t need to be long), a little yoga or a walk in the fresh air.’

Jane

‘I go to yoga class.’

Demi

‘As research can be hectic at times, I try to involve myself in exercise classes throughout the week, taking a break away from my desk whilst meeting new people!’

 

What would you add? Tell us in the comments or share your tips on Twitter or Instagram using #selfcareweek.

Picture this — a gallery of your PGR pastimes

Last month, as part of our ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ competition, we asked Bristol’s postgraduate researchers to tell us about their hobbies. And, once again, our community didn’t disappoint …

The striking ‘PGR pastimes’ pictures we received showcased the broad range of activities that researchers use to take a break — from crochet to climbing, and from engine reconstruction to embroidery.

Below are a selection of the images that you shared with us, grouped into (slightly rough) categories. We hope you enjoy skimming through them as much as we did.

The Great Outdoors

Taking a break by climbing, exploring — or growing your own veg.🌶️

 

Making and mending

The relaxing effects of stitching, building, puzzling — or fixing a pianola.

My doctoral pastime… #PGRpastime #PGRpastimes

A post shared by carolinagordillo (@carolinagordillo) on

Sewing by Naomi Clarke
‘I am a Social Work PhD candidate and my downtime/interests outside of my PhD is sewing! I get lost in the rhythmic, repetitive motion of hand stitch which provides an almost meditative experience as I fall into a rhythmic pattern which appeals to so many senses (audio, visual, tactile). It enables me to create a tangible beautiful object to show for my time and effort.’ Naomi Clarke

 

A pianola in the middle of restoration
‘[This is a] picture of the 1923 pianola which I am restoring at the moment. This was left to my family by my Great Grandmother around ten years ago, but unfortunately it was in a desperate state … So I decided to refurbish it after the last of my masters exams had finished last year, and turn it into the cherished family heirloom it deserves to be. Still a long way to go on it though 🙂 Much more woodwork and fun to be had.’ Mark Graham

Music and motion

Hobbies that are anything but … hum-drum.


Going for a spin (and flying through the sky)

The power of hitting the road, making waves or taking flight.

Skydiving image by Maneera Aljaber
A spectacular skydiving image by Maneera Aljaber

Seerat Kaur with her bicycle
Seerat Kaur with her cycle
Lingfeng Ge driving a boat
‘I love boat trips. And sometimes I drive the boat myself. This photo was taken when I was driving a leisure boat on River Avon in Bristol.’ Lingfeng Ge

How do you take a break?

With a community of over 3,000 postgraduate researchers, this selection is obviously just scratching the surface.

And, although the competition is over, we’d love to see more of your snaps — so please feel free to share them with us on Twitter and Instagram using #PGRpastimes.

What’s your PGR pastime?

Our latest competition gives Bristol research students the chance to win a free trip to the ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ conference — just for sharing a photo of their hobby.

The prize

The competition winner will receive a free place at this year’s ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ conference, which will be held from 13 to 17 August. Travel costs will also be covered.

Held at Cumberland Lodge, in the heart of Windsor Great Park, ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ is an annual celebration of postgraduate research culture in the UK.

The conference invites PhD students and early career researchers to share their experiences, take part in training, and explore the value of doctoral research in an inclusive and supportive environment.

How to enter the competition

To enter, just take a photo that illustrates one of your hobbies and share it in one of the following ways:

  • as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #PGRpastimes Facebook posts
  • as a tweet with the #PGRpastime or #PGRpastimes hashtag
  • as an Instagram post with the #PGRpastime or #PGRpastimes hashtag
  • in an email to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk.

Terms and conditions

The competition is open to current research students at the University of Bristol.

The closing date for entries is 5pm on Monday 25 June 2018.

The winner will be chosen at random. [Clarification, posted 25/6/18: As we will choose a winning individual rather than a winning entry, please note that submitting multiple photographs will not increase your chances of being selected.]

The winner must confirm that they accept the prize by 12pm on Wednesday 27 June 2018. If they are unable to do so, and alternative winner will be chosen at random.

Travel costs will be covered either through a transfer of funds or a reimbursement of expenses.

Entrants will be asked if their images can be used in a future Bristol Doctoral College blogpost.

 

Your wellbeing wisdom — self-care tips for PGRs, by PGRs

To mark self-care week, an annual event that encourages people to manage their day-to-day wellbeing, we asked Bristol’s PGRs what helps them unwind, de-stress and forget about their research.

The ‘top tips’ we received were varied — from dancing to dog-walking — but being able to take a break without feeling guilty was a common thread, as was scheduling time off.

Also: Netflix. (Well, who doesn’t love a box-set binge?)

As Gwen from the School of Veterinary Sciences put it in her thoughtful reply: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, the important thing is to switch off entirely and not feel guilty!’

Wise words.

Your self-care tips

‘I sleep well. I eat well. I celebrate small victories.’
Jane, School of Education

‘Spending free time outside with animals. Dog walking or horse riding would be my choice. 🐶🐴☀’
Marta, School of Economics

‘I go outside, go for a run, walk, meet up with friends, dance, increase physical activity, eat healthy. Also, simply focusing on my breathing when I’m stressed helps me feel better.’
Lily, School for Policy Studies

‘I make sure I build in the time for myself into my schedule, that way I don’t feel guilty as I know I have the time for it! In terms of what I do it can vary from a Netflix binge to a nice long shower to baking… <3’
Sarah, SU

‘Promising myself one guilt-free hour a day to do something completely non-PhD related. Usually this is practising guitar, walking the dog or just having a nap. It doesn’t matter what you do, the important thing is to switch off entirely and not feel guilty!’
Gwen, School of Veterinary Sciences

‘Remind myself constantly that putting myself first is not selfish. Remember to be grateful for all the good things I have. Move slowly and take more rest than I think I need! Oh, and sometimes a nice G&T!’
Emma, School for Policy Studies

‘If you need a break — hours or days, take it. Burnout can lead to drop out, be kind to yourself and binge that Netflix show, take that trip. Then come back when you’re feeling refreshed and with fresh perspective.’
Tina, School of Arts

What would you add? Tell us in the comments or share your tips on Twitter or Instagram using #selfcareweek.

When you think all hope is gone during your PhD

This post by Paul Spencer, PGR Environment Development Manager at the Bristol Doctoral College, originally appeared on his Digital Doctorate blog.

It was January 22 and a little before 4.30am when the phone call came. It was my step mother ringing to tell me that my dad had died suddenly of a heart attack. At that moment my whole world collapsed.

This is a personal post that has surfaced some painful emotions for me (see below for how I’m dealing with that right now) but one that I want to write about because it’s an opportunity to highlight a couple of things about sticking at something when all seems lost.

That tenacity and persistence are crucially important qualities in succeeding during a doctorate, moreso than being super smart. It also brings home how pivotal the people around you are who offer support so I think it a story worth telling.

It is forefront in my mind now because I have been spending a lot of time in the last two weeks standing in front of hundreds of postgraduate researchers who are about to embark on their own doctoral journeys.

Why do a PhD?

As part of these welcome events I’ve been asking the question “why have you signed up to study for a doctorate?” I believe that connecting with the motivation for doing so is profoundly important when things aren’t going so well.

I’ve also been reflecting on what was driving me on, how key people around me helped in me at my lowest point and how all this has shaped my identity. What I have been totally unprepared for is how raw, painful and very real that the emotion of grief and loss feels to me right now as I recall that cold January night 17 years ago…

My motivation

It was the year 2000, the millennium celebrations were slowly ebbing away and I was in my third year as a PhD student studying how oral microorganisms contribute to bad breath.

I hadn’t planned it this way, I’d always wanted to emulate my dad and become a pathologist. He was my hero and I thought medicine was going to be my true calling. Rather unfortunately though I found it difficult as a teenager to work hard in school and, almost inevitably, I flunked my three science ‘A’ levels which all but ended any ambition to apply to medical school. So I had to find a different path.

Many teachers reckoned it was a shame because they thought I was bright and gifted in natural sciences but just unable to apply myself. I just wanted to prove to them that I could do it and most of all wanted my dad to see me graduate with a Doctor of Philosophy to my name.

I was truly devastated, my dad was 63 years old, had not long retired from being a pathologist and was using all of his experience in helping the bereaved by volunteering with The Samaritans at the time of his death. He would never get to see me in my floppy cap and gown at a PhD graduation. I was consumed with grief, a relationship I was in ended soon after and I had serious thoughts about quitting the PhD. In an instant, my main motivation and purpose was gone.

Key people

My supervisor was brilliant with me; he was understanding, listened with kindness and tried not to put too much pressure on me whilst the fog of grief slowly lifted. Close friends rallied round too to keep me company and just to be there.

And then a few months later I met someone who quickly became my rock [let’s call her Jessica to save any embarrassment]. Jessica was my soul mate, my best friend and a true love. She helped me see that I was doing this PhD for myself, that I could succeed, that she was walking beside me all the way. I don’t think I would have gotten through the incredibly tough last 18 months of the PhD without her. She featured heavily in the acknowledgements of my doctoral dissertation. I will be eternally grateful for her support, love, companionship and emotional connection in the time we were together.

Moving on

My PhD graduation was a bitter/sweet day, I was overwhelmed by the sense of achievement and pride yet dominated by the sense of mourning and loss. Sadly Jessica and I had parted ways; she was/is ten years my junior and we found ourselves at very different life stages post study. Letting go of someone so special so they could pursue their life dreams was really hard to accept.

But life moves on and we adapt, grow and find new purpose. I am in a very different place now, I have a young family of my own and a job that gives me the opportunity to do something I am truly passionate about. I guess this is why I feel uneasy at how much I am being affected by events in my distant past.

Making sense

At the top of this post I said that I had been unprepared for the intensity of the emotions, thoughts and feelings I have surfaced and this has unsettled me a great deal. My natural tendency is to internalise, to try and logically examine what is going on before finding some resolution to my conflict. However, this is really hard because these are things that I had thought were resolved and accepted long ago. So I have been taking a different approach and I want to share it in case it helps you too.

Changing the perspective when it all becomes too much

Many people have told me about the Headspace app, a way of learning about simple meditation techniques that helps to change our perspective to those thoughts and feelings that can make us feel anxious and upset. I think the analogy that has struck me most is the idea that these are like traffic whizzing by, blaring their horns and dominating our focus. But it doesn’t have to be this way… I have been trying to learn to sit back and just notice these thoughts, acknowledging them but then just letting them pass and returning to the present, the here and now. Andy Puddicombe explains that much better in this animation.

 

What I think is important to mention, is this meditation technique is good preventative practice at keeping our thoughts and feelings from dominating our present focus and not a solution in an acute crisis.

Advice to those who feel that all hope is gone

  1. Realise that you are not the only person to experience this, talk to your peers, friends, loved ones. It really makes a difference.
  2. Keep pushing! Persistence can and really does pay off.
  3. If you have encountered a significant life event and you don’t know how to deal with it, seek help from your local wellbeing service [this is the Bristol one but there will be similar set-ups in your own institution]
  4. Try not to be too hard on yourself, self-doubt and imposter syndrome affects pretty much everyone
  5. At some point with the writing, you will probably loathe the thesis. This is okay. The mindset you have to adopt is not when will it be finished, or perfect, no you have to get to the point of “That will do”.
  6. Take a look around you, see who else has got their doctorate and tell yourself, “if they can do it, then so can I”
Dr. David Spencer
Dr. David Spencer (1936 – 2000) R.I.P.

Is Ada Lovelace Day a paradox?

For Ada Lovelace Day, Dr Aby Sankaran of the Bristol Doctoral College reflects on the characteristics that have helped her as a PhD student, during her career as an engineer — and beyond.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of Women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths & Medicine). It is held on the second Tuesday of October each year and this year I have been invited to write my very first blog about it by the Bristol Doctoral College!

The invitation is bittersweet; on the one hand I am pleased to have been asked to write about this topic, but on the other, I feel uncomfortable that in this day and age we still need such occasions to mark and highlight female accomplishments.

To me, celebrations like this are a paradox — they propel women forward and showcase their achievements but simultaneously highlight a society where women are not considered equal.

I also feel unqualified to write this blog as I don’t think of myself as an appropriate role model. But this is perhaps my mistake, not celebrating my own accomplishments or valuing my self-worth. I would be doing myself a disservice if I said my career was a product of serendipity, but in reality, it has come about as a result of feeding my curiosity.

I am therefore going to focus on certain key characteristics that have helped me along my career, and hope they will help the future generation of female (and male) researchers too.

Blood, sweat and PhDs

Being an Engineer and having done a technical PhD has meant that I was predominantly around male engineers, but I adapted to the circumstances. I enjoyed a supportive and nurturing environment (mostly) where I have learnt from my male counterparts. However, some women may find it necessary to see female role models as they provide inspiration and demonstrate that it is possible to overcome gender barriers.

I have yet to meet anyone who has had a trouble-free PhD and there is a key difference between failing at various stages of your PhD and failure. Without true grit, I would frankly have struggled to see the end of my PhD.

Back bone, wish bone and a funny bone

When things are not right, fix it. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground, if you see bias at work or demeaning behaviour — call it. It can be as simple as hogging time using equipment in the lab or authorship over publication (male or female).

Most PhDs are at the brink of the unexplored and a motivated, blue-sky approach is needed to see the day. And when things don’t work out as planned, learn to roll with the punches. This was a valuable lesson when I was facing redundancy a year into a new job in a new city!

Be an opportunist

Big goals and bigger picture. Ultimately everyone around you wants you to succeed. Call in favours, ask for help and work your network. There is nothing wrong with seeing an opportunity and seizing it. Being a female does not make you any less entitled to success or its extent.

It’s easy to live in the here and now and not pay attention to the long-term plans, but setting (realistic) long-term goals might exactly be the drive you need to propel yourself forward.

Find a hobby that empowers you

You don’t have to be chained to your desk or feel guilty about doing non-PhD things. Pursue a hobby that lets you de-stress, boosts your confidence and allows you to disconnect. It can be cycling, running or knitting — anything that you fancy.

For me, it was climbing. It has given me time to think (while clinging on for dear life on a rock face), tremendous confidence and at times a much-needed way to vent my frustration.

Dr Aby Sankaran climbing in the Cheddar Gorge
Dr Aby Sankaran climbing in the Cheddar Gorge

Be your own hero

Break the stereotype — we limit ourselves mentally more than we are capable of. Don’t create your own glass ceiling, pick yourself up and be the strong person you need to rely on to see you through difficult times.

In an ideal world, men and women would be equal and we would not need to emphasise female accomplishments — instead, every day would be a celebration of human accomplishment.

However, women are underrepresented in a number of sectors and, in order to address the imbalance, we need reinforcements like this to encourage progress.

Help is at hand

To close out our day of discussing the silver linings of our Postgraduate Researcher’s work, and how they keep their heads up and stay motivated, we thought we’d offer a note about help.

PhD students are more likely to suffer from neglect, isolation, feelings of fraudulence and performance anxiety under pressure. They face an insecure economic future, and an increasingly unstable job market. It’s no wonder that mental health issues are on the rise amongst this demographic – and it’s time that we opened up the door to the fact that Higher Education has problems. We have to confront these painful truths and reach out to help. Institutions owe their students and their staff the appropriate resources and services to help them deal with mental health & wellbeing.

The University of Bristol offers a comprehensive counselling service complete with a list of group therapy sessions and personal wellbeing workshops. It  also has its own physical library and virtual resource centre. We also subscribe to the Big White Wall campaign, and recommend this online resource for anyone struggling to express themselves or reach out about a pressing issue that has been weighing them down.

The city of Bristol also has a host of services, mindfulness groups, helplines and charities available for all manner of support issues. Below is a brief, collated list of free helplines that are available (mostly) 24/7 that deal with some of the most prevalent issues PGRs tend to face in terms of mental illness and emotional support. This is by no means comprehensive, and it certainly doesn’t cover the entire range of issues that any individual may face. See National Mind’s tips for everday support, and this list of Local Mental Health Charities for further information.

Lastly, if you feel that your needs are not being met, please speak up. Never hesitate to get in touch if you don’t know where to turn, because there is always help at hand.

Sabrina Fairchield: “Why I Love My PhD”

Sabrina Fairchild is a PhD candidate in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol.

What has been the highlight of your PhD so far?

The variety of places I have been able to visit. I have conducted archival research in England, the United States, Canada, France, China and Hong Kong. I even got to present my research in Japan. This is one of the unique benefits of being a researcher – and even though travelling can be quite tiring, the experiences you gain are incomparable.

Do you have any funny stories to share from your research and travels?

Once, when I was working at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., I was working with documents no one had touched since the early 1990s. I didn’t know this at the time — all I knew was that all my documents arrived wrapped in really annoying cellophane that I had to rip off before I could open the volumes. As there were no rubbish bins in the document reading area (for obvious reasons) I had to take all the wrapping to one of the floor attendants so they could get rid of it themselves. One day, after my umpteenth trip, the attendant approached me and informed me that the volumes had been shrink-wrapped in 1991 or 1992 to preserve the documents. The fact that the cellophane remained meant that no one had looked at them in the last twenty-years! This was either, he teased me, a very good thing or a very bad thing for my PhD. Since paying attention to the American presence in China has become one of my driving interests, I’ve chosen to believe it was a very good thing indeed.

When you’re stuck, or feeling frustrated, what helps you stay motivated?

I like to do something completely unrelated to my research. I’ve had the best breakthroughs when I leave my desk and gone for a run or a body balance class. I’ll either put the pieces together in the middle of the exercise or while I’m walking back. Often, that feeling of finally understanding something makes the original frustration seem worthwhile.

“Why I Love My PhD” is an ongoing series inspired by The Guardian’s series of the same name, about how our Postgraduate Researchers stay enthused about their work and what keeps them going on the harder days. If you would like to share your story or contribute, please get in touch.

Thomas Farrugia: “Why I Love My PhD”

Thomas Farrugia is a PhD candidate within the School of Chemistry, and was a contestant in our 3MT contest last year. In three words, he describes his research as “Biocatalysis”, “Materials”, and “Proteins”. 

Tell us about a time you have felt a distinct sense of pride in your work.

Finding a way around, or solving, a problem in systems I am working with is always a great kick – one case being where I found that I could produce the films I work with directly in cuvettes, meaning I could easily sample their chemical activity and run more samples in the same amount of time.

Are there any particular funny moments that keep you going in boring or tedious moments?

I remember having one colleague who was working with a pink dye whilst making a molecule – we could always work out where we had been or what he had used and touched because it simply got everywhere!

When you feel frustrated or at your wit’s end with your research, what would you say keeps you going?

When this happens I remind myself that persistence and pacing always pay off. I look back at what I have achieved, and then focus on things that have to be done.

“Why I Love My PhD” is an ongoing series inspired by The Guardian’s series of the same name, about how our Postgraduate Researchers stay enthused about their work and what keeps them going on the harder days. If you would like to share your story or contribute, please get in touch

Tessa Coombes: “Why I Love My PhD”

Tessa Coombes is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Bristol.

What has been the highlight of your PhD so far?

The highlights for me have been the positive interest and support from people within the School for Policy Studies and from people I have spoken to outside the University. To know that others think what I am doing is interesting and worthwhile is always motivating. The fact that some of them even think it is exciting never ceases to amaze me.

When have you felt most proud of yourself during your PhD?

My proudest moment so far was undoubtedly that moment when I decided I wanted to do a PhD and subsequently received such phenomenal support from friends, family and lecturers to actually do it! Applying, getting accepted and starting out on my PhD journey made me feel incredibly proud.

When you feel at your wit’s end with your research, what would you say keeps you going?

The main thing that keeps me going when things don’t quite work out, or I’m having to spend hours on quite tedious tasks, is thinking about where I was a couple of years ago and where I am now. Back then I was working in a difficult and challenging environment, and not particularly enjoying life and rarely looked forward to going to work. Now I’m doing something I have chosen to do, something that I love and enjoy, for all the challenges it throws at me. I now enjoy the process of ‘going to work’, even Monday mornings are good. When at a low ebb I think about the end goal, finishing the PhD and what a sense of achievement that will bring. I would also say having a decent playlist to listen to is critical, as the right music will always lift your spirits and get you through the tough times.

Can you share something that makes you smile about your PhD?

My funniest moments tend to be when working at home and my cat decides it’s time to play or that she needs attention. She’s very good at sitting in front of the computer screen or on whatever I am trying to read, or just deciding to lie across my books and desk.

Tessa's cat keeps her looking on the lighter side of her reading.
Tessa’s cat ensures she takes regular breaks from her work…

 

“Why I Love My PhD” is an ongoing series inspired by The Guardian’s series of the same name, about how our Postgraduate Researchers stay enthused about their work and what keeps them going on the harder days. If you would like to share your story or contribute, please get in touch