What I’ve learned about learning

Cartoon woman with a download cloud above her head | 'Keep Learning'

Week four of our Five Weeks of Wellbeing has focused on learning. Jacks Bennett, a Bristol PhD researcher looking at mental health and wellbeing in students, shares her reflections on why maintaining curiosity matters.

I love learning new things. Things about things (information), how to do things (skills), why things happen (knowledge), and what things say about other things (meaning). I’ve always been curious. As a child, I sat in the shed at the bottom of our garden, the walls newspapered with articles and the shelves littered with potions I’d made from fallen rose petals. From my musty office, I declared myself both writer and scientist.

More than four decades later — I have become, circuitously and arguably, both. At university first time around, I explored French, pretty fruitlessly I might add — c’est la vie. I then learned to write, research, and report at the BBC — where discovering new ‘things’ (in short bursts) became a way of life. More recently, I came back to university as a psychology undergraduate and now PhD researcher looking at student mental health — in at the deep end again. It’s become my raison d’être: get stuck in, ask questions. My family and friends variously call it: ‘enthusiastic’, ‘overthinking’, ‘nosy’, ‘earnest’. I prefer to think of it as meaningful engagement with my one short life.

My learning curves have come in all shapes and shades. I’ve learned how to interview prime ministers, how to make cheese, what to do in a police raid, and how not to be sick during a Hercules take-off. I’ve also learned that I’m not good with pregnancy, vodka, or arrogant people, and that I’m often riddled with self-doubt. But I’m also tenacious, great in a crisis, impossibly fond of communicating, and I can parachute out of a plane. The list isn’t exhaustive and doesn’t include life’s bigger challenges like learning to be: mother, daughter, wife, friend, employer, employee, student, citizen. I’ve also had to learn how to do all those things. I’ve sometimes learned the hard way and I’ve always had to work at it. I still do.

Learning the basics of who you are, what you like, what you need, and what you’re capable of — is all a journey. For me, that’s been critical for my wellbeing and equilibrium. I felt for years that I ‘should’ love to cook — mainly because cooking is wholesome, other people seem to enjoy it, and it helps with the whole feeding the family thing. Actually, I really hate cooking. But I do love to clean or tidy. Bad day at work? Imposter syndrome kicking in? My floors sparkle and my paperwork gets done. I feel better. A light-hearted example — but you get my drift?

It’s not just about self-awareness, there’s also learning for learning’s sake. I’ve made several sea changes over the years; and when I’ve been stuck in my head or in a job that doesn’t fit – I’ve usually signed up for a writing course, some voluntary work or a half marathon. I realise most of us don’t always have the capacity or resources to shake things up dramatically, but you can always do something. Walk a different route to work, strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus, head to the museum at lunchtime and temporarily lose yourself. You never know what may happen. Every time I look outward, my world becomes just a little bit more colourful.

Taking on a doctorate is my current curve ball. Commissioned by the University, the research feels pertinent and timely — ‘What type of support improves mental health and wellbeing in university students?’ Bristol aims to be part of an evidence-based solution to growing concern about young people’s mental health, and our students are sharing their experience in an annual survey, forming the spine of my project. I’m lucky to be involved — another steep learning curve. Those curves just keep coming.

What have I learned about learning (so far)? It matters that you try and work out who you are and how you tick. Align that with your goals and take some risks. Learn from your mistakes: outcomes can be good and bad — and believe me, I’ve experienced the latter — but every experience has shaped me. When life is good — savour it, and when things get tough — push through. Our time here is short and precious, and the world is endlessly interesting. Fill your toolbox with curiosity, kindness and respect, and then grab life by the scruff of the neck and shake out every last meaningful experience.


Want to get involved in our Five Weeks of Wellbeing? There are still plenty of events ahead, including a PGR Movie Night, a Board Game Cafe and a Clothes Swap. Read the full programme.

The discs and the doctorate — why I played Ultimate Frisbee whilst finishing my PhD

Sarah Garner with her Ultimate Frisbee team.

This week, our ‘5 Weeks of Wellbeing’ theme is ‘Be Active’. To kick us off, Sarah Garner, a final-year PhD student in the Bristol Dental School, tells us how she balanced the demands of her PhD with fitness training for the World Ultimate Frisbee Club Championships — and how that helped her get fresh perspectives. 

October 2017: I’ve just started the final year of my PhD. Whilst I’m not in dire straits, the lab work isn’t going as well as I’d hoped, and I definitely feel like I’m behind where I want to be. I’d had good intentions to write up as I went but this quickly fell by the wayside. So I feel the pressure is on, and time is limited. I have a new job lined up for next October and the start date is non-negotiable. But it’s fine, because I’m just going to spend the next year really focusing and putting in the hours on the PhD. Got a plan. Phew. A few 12 hour days in the lab and I’ll be fine.

November 2017: I find out that my club Ultimate Frisbee team has just qualified for the World Ultimate Club Championships in the USA in July 2018. I’ve played with this club for 12 years, captained it and coached. This is the culmination of a huge amount of hard work. I should be excited, right? Bubbles of excitement are spreading through my team. I really want to get excited about it too — there’s nothing like the thought of playing a world championship with a bunch of great friends to get the adrenaline flowing! But, having played at international tournaments before, I also know what’s involved in the preparation: a lot of fitness training! Two weights sessions a week, a conditioning session and anything from 2-4 team training sessions as well. Plus throwing practice, stretching, rolling and yoga. Oh, and a 5k run here or there if you fancy squeezing it in. They say it’s important to ‘stay active’ whilst you’re doing a PhD, but this is possibly a bit overkill.

How can I possibly fit this in around my PhD?

In my heart, I knew I desperately wanted to play, and I also wanted to be at my fittest and strongest possible, so I could play my best. So I’d need to put in the hours doing the fitness. I also knew how physically and mentally tired that can make me feel — not exactly conducive to high level PhD research and writing! So what to do?

I spoke to friends, teammates, my partner. I knew what I ‘should’ do — forget frisbee for once and concentrate on the PhD. I didn’t speak to my supervisors, as I thought I’d knew what they would say — it’s up to you, but the more time you put into the PhD this year, the better. I was torn between my head and my heart!

So what did I do?

I went to the world championships with my team. I reasoned that, if it was what I really wanted to do, I would make time for it, and it would be a useful way of switching off at the end of a long day in the lab.

How was it?

Really, really tough. The fitness programme we had was designed to make us ‘peak’ at the time of the championships, but we were told that up until then chances are we’d feel exhausted, ache in funny places, and be totally sick of frisbee. And we did.

How did I do it?

Every Monday morning, I sat down and looked at my week and decided when and where I could fit in each of the sessions I needed to. I did gym sessions before work twice a week. Sometimes it would really wake me up for the day, and other times when I sat at my desk by 9am I’d feel like I wanted to sleep. That’s where my good friend strong coffee came in.

In the summer we trained as a team twice a week after work. I usually managed to make it on time, but I made it clear that sometimes I wouldn’t be able to leave the lab bang on 5pm and I might be late. My teammates were very understanding and supportive. The other sessions I did ad hoc in evenings or at weekends when we weren’t playing tournaments. And if I missed the odd session for whatever reason, I didn’t beat myself up.

It was really hard to balance training for sport at a high level with trying to complete a PhD. But I also think it kept me sane; it gave me something else to think about and strive for, that had a definitive end point — unlike a PhD, where there’s always more you can do and so you never get that satisfaction of ‘I’ve finished’ until you’ve done the Viva.

Seeing all of my friends train and prepare around me whilst I wasn’t would have given me serious FOMO and probably would have distracted me enough that I would have lost almost as many hours to thinking about what could have been as I would have spent doing the training in the first place!

The final year of a PhD is never easy. Whilst I took the ‘keeping active’ part to the extreme, what I realised was that doing something that you enjoy — whether that’s a walk around the park at lunch or travelling overseas to play a week-long world championship, or anything in between — does help to keep you sane, as it allows you to think about something other than research, just for a bit. PhDs aren’t the be all and end all, and, whatever anybody tells you, the world will keep turning regardless of your findings.

Doing something that allows your brain to get away from the PhD for a bit is so important and will help you look at it with a fresh pair of eyes on your return. Sometimes I find getting the endorphins flowing really helps me kick start some lab work or writing. Find something that works for you and schedule it into your week — it’s as much a part of doing a PhD as being in the lab or library!


Want to get active yourself? Here’s the full list of activities that we’re holding as part of our ‘Be Active’ week. All activities take place in the PGR Hub, on the 1st floor of Senate House, unless otherwise stated.

Competition! Whether it’s jogging, juggling or jujitsu, we want to know how you take active breaks from your research degree. One random comment will be chosen at 5pm on Friday 1 March, and its author will win a free session with a personal trainer at the University of Bristol Sport Centre. (Please note that the competition is open to current Bristol PGRs only. To take part, see our posts on Facebook or Twitter.)

And remember to pick up a free 5 Weeks of Wellbeing zine from the PGR Hub! Collect a sticker for an activity each week and you’ll be entered into a prize draw — and you could win a wellness hamper worth up to £100!

5 reasons why you should apply for Research without Borders

Bec Rengel at the 2018 Research without Borders showcase exhibition
Bec Rengel at the 2018 Research without Borders showcase exhibition

Bec Rengel, the Bristol PGR who picked up the ‘best-communicated exhibit’ prize at the 2018 Research without Borders showcase exhibition, reflects on the festival — and why getting involved was such a positive experience for them.

We’ve all been there. You’re slogging through that research degree (for me it was my MPhil), but it isn’t nearly where you hoped it would be by now. In fact, you’re caught in between being proud of your work, and wanting to bury it in a shallow grave while you flee the country assuming a new identity.

This is how I felt when I applied for Research Without Borders (RwB) in 2018. And here’s 5 reasons why you should too:

1. It helps your research

When designing your stall, you need to think about engaging, creative, and clear ways of conveying your research to members of the public. It prompts you to look at your research in ways that you might not have before, giving you a fresh perspective.

Talking with members of the public, you’re forced to examine every aspect of your arguments, sources, and results. For example, during one in-depth discussion, I ended up having a huge breakthrough and discovering a strong answer to my primary research question. I’m not saying that’ll happen for everyone, but it’s almost inevitable that you’ll come out of RwB with more ideas, clarity, and even new directions for your research.

2. Careers, Careers, Careers

Believe it or not, RwB is a huge event that really packs a punch on your CV. If you’re looking to continue a career in academia, public engagement experience is an absolute must and RwB can help kick-start your career.

If you’re heading outside academia, RwB shows employers that you can manage your own projects, think creatively, and engage audiences. It’s also a fantastic way to improve your communication skills, making interviews that tiny bit less terrifying!

3. Get out of the bubble

Sometimes you can get completely lost in your research, consumed by #gradlife, and forget why you started your degree in the first place! After all, we don’t just do research for ourselves, but to make a contribution to society in our chosen field.

RwB gives you the opportunity to take your research directly to people, finding out what people outside universities think, as well as seeing just how your research can make a real difference in their lives.

4. Get creative

Even if you don’t think you have a creative streak, you’ll be amazed at what you could do! I saw robotics demonstrations, magic, a full pub set-up, screen printing, interactive maps, guessing games. It doesn’t even have to be something particularly elaborate. Sometimes the simplest thing like an artwork display or a prompt for attendees to write their fondest memory of Bristol were enough to draw people in.

5. Networking

RwB doesn’t just showcase your work to the general public. You’ll also be able to meet industry professionals from a huge range of sectors. And don’t despair my fellow Arts and Humanities researchers, RwB isn’t just for science, technology, or business! I met professionals working in heritage, education, civil service, journalism, research, law, you name it! It was fantastic to see what people with degrees like mine went on to accomplish.

You’ll also get the chance to meet amazing fellow PGRs, researching everything from bees to Beauty and the Beast. Research degrees can be pretty isolating — particularly when, like me, you’re working alone with mountains of books every day. RwB is the perfect opportunity to make new friends and leave your self-imposed solitude in the library or lab.

You won’t regret it and you’ll leave with a stronger research project, vital skills, new friends, and great memories. Go ahead and apply!


Want to give it a try yourself? It’s not too late! Just complete the Research without Borders application form before 11am on Thursday 28 February 2019.

Take notice tips with Jiahe Lu

A man meditating | 'Take Notice' caption

Our ‘5 Weeks of Wellbeing’ theme for the upcoming week is take notice. We invited 2nd year PhD student in the School of Cellular and Molecular Science, Jiahe Lu, to share her advice and insights on why taking notice has helped her throughout her research.

Hello Bristol! I’m Jiahe, a PhD student working on T cells and cancer. In my day-to-day research, I do a lot of imaging of cells –  and that has helped me embrace being an amateur photographer. I always take notice of colours and movement and am ready to capture the moment. So, it seems like I am one of those who has a lot to share about how “taking notice” has had a positive impact on my wellbeing.

As a researcher in the early stage of my career, pressure from my project and too many repeat experiments means I have sometimes felt isolated and depressed. My low mood at these times further prevented me from making progress in my project and my wider life, which ended up as a vicious circle. Therefore, I think it’s beneficial for young researchers to keep up a dynamic communication with the environment around them, and drive towards an active status of noticing the world, both mentally and physically.

Instagram

I’m an Instagrammer myself so maybe that’s why I found Instagram a good way to appreciate the world around me. By following some of the Bristol local Instagram accounts like @visitbristol and @bitsofbristol, people new to Bristol could be busy enough for a whole year —- Bristol looks awesome everywhere and you’ll want to pay a visit yourself to all of its neighbourhoods and parks! For people like me who have been in Bristol for many years, it’s a delightful experience to look through others’ eyes and rediscover the place you’ve become so used to –  and maybe even bored with. Sometimes, when I take a lower view of a familiar sight, or stand behind fences, the world is different and inspiration sparkles.

 

Also, I’m a fan of plants, so I visit @uobroyalfortgardens very often. Royal Fort Garden is the mystery garden closest to you and don’t assume you know everything about it. For example, I never knew there is a loquat tree and its flowers smell sweet! Go and have lunch with your colleagues at Royal Fort Garden, spring is around the corner –first daffodils, now crocuses, and then next up is the cherry blossom, we’re really spoiled…

I post my all my lab work’s live cell imaging experiments on my Instagram, as they make incredible art. In my experiments, the cell signals bloom like fireworks; and watching T cells hunting for cancer cells beneath the microscope really is a hunger game!

I love the hashtag my colleague Grace posts, #mypolaroidPhD, as my PhD is indeed a visually enjoyable project and on top of that, I’m a polaroid fan!

Photography

If following others’ views means to take in information, then photography means to put out your own. Take pictures of the blue sky and balloons, take picture of people’s smiles, take pictures of children hand in hand with their parents, take pictures of old couples cuddling each other…

You don’t need to be an expert or have a good camera. Catching the world’s beautiful moment is a present to yourself, and you can revisit your pictures from time to time to remind yourself how lovely the world is, and what a tender person you are. In Japanese the word “tender (優しい)” is commonly used, and I believe having a peaceful mind saves us from low self-esteem. If you’re stuck in your research project and you feel blue, move your sight away from your desktop for a while. Maybe there’s a rainbow in the sky, or maybe there’s a seagull who wants to come in and do some science!

Enough talking about pictures, you may never notice what a remarkable view your workplace has. I’m proudly claiming that our lab has the best birds-eye view of Bristol at night. But I admit that Queens Building has a better view of sunset since it has the Wills Memorial Building in its frame. I strongly miss the library of the old Biological Building, as you can see the best autumn foliage from there.

The view outside my desk (and we can see rainbows every month from our lab!)

I always said to myself that “this is a world worth living (in Chinese, 人间值得)” on my way home, when I noticed how clear the dark sky was and how the diamond stars twinkled there, and then the early dark in winter is forgivable!

At the end of this blog I really want to say you don’t have to force yourself to pay attention to everything happening around you. But when you sniff the danger of sinking into loneliness and indifference during your academic life, remember you can recharge your battery by noticing the beauty of nature and the community right around you.

My Instagram:  @jiahe_lu


 

For this week’s theme, join us for any of the following activities designed to help you take notice within your wider research community. All activities take place in the PGR Hub, 1st floor of Senate house, unless otherwise stated:

  • Mindfulness mural – colour in the walls!: All week
  • Tai Chi: Wednesday, 20 February, 7:30-9:30pm
  • Guided meditation: 22 February, 1-1:45pm
  • *Virtual activity*: share a mindful moment on social media and tag the Bristol Doctoral College. All entries receive a free bookmark or coaster in exchange, available to collect from the PGR Hub

Pick up a free 5 Weeks of Wellbeing ‘Zine from the PGR Hub – collect a sticker for an activity each week, and you’ll be entered into a prize draw for a wellness hamper worth up to £100!

Putting the pieces back, together

Two faces on jigsaw pieces

Our ‘5 Weeks of Wellbeing’ theme for the upcoming week is connect. We invited 1st year PhD student in English, Surangama Datta, to share her thoughts on what the theme of connect means to her and her research.

Research, as I see it, is like a package deal. “Pushing the boundaries in your field” comes with having to push internal boundaries. There are days when I feel like a super productive PGR ninja, smashing away at my keyboard with high levels of passion (and caffeine), clearing my email inbox like a pro, and totally nailing deadlines. And then there are days when all I have is a blank page. And lots and lots of funny cat videos.

After an entire vicious cycle of blank page, funny cats and anxiety, the white page continues to be just as daunting. The more I stare, the larger it seems to get. Meanwhile, “I am not good enough” starts playing on loop in my head.

Slowly but steadily, I shatter into pieces and begin to fall apart.

As a first year fresh-into-the-research-oven PhD student, I have days when I feel absolutely paralysed by the fear of this huge mountain called my PhD. I feel lost, confused and one hundred percent like an impostor.

I have always had the tendency to keep my struggles to myself and it is only recently, after a few moments of letting go and finding surprising results, that I have finally started to realise that sometimes, reaching out can be the antidote you convince yourself you don’t need, but which you positively do.

So here are three things I highly recommend for days days we can’t, just can’t:

1. Connecting to people you know
This could be friends, family, or anyone else that is close. Just call, meet, email or text. This is a safe space where you can be yourself and vent, vent vent away! These people are often the best qualified to remind you of your worth, how you need to take it easy, and know you well enough to understand your struggles. This is the most personalised help you will get. And sometimes, you will find that your friend, or sibling, or even your fellow researcher, is going through a similar crisis as you.

And you will get support, comfort, hacks and solidarity.

Like this one time I went to the gym in my accommodation to blow off some steam after a series of bad days, and struck up a conversation with a friend to kill time while waiting for my turn at the treadmill. Suffice it to say, that conversation lasted two hours, and I walked in with chaos, and came out with at least five different solutions and a very light heart.

2. Connecting with people who know

There is also an entire community of people out there who know. They know what you are going through, have perhaps gone through similar things themselves, and they know how to help. Sometimes, all you need is to reach out to them. These people may be your supervisors, your fellow PGRs, or perhaps your wellbeing advisors. The point is, they understand your experiences and are willing to listen, and provide specific advice.
Sometimes, I spend weeks feeling like there’s no progress. When I finally get around to meeting my supervisors, they tell me that what I am doing is good enough. And sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.

3. Getting to know new people

I have been surprised over and over again at how much connecting can help in contextualising problems, bringing comfort, and providing practical solutions, or the courage to find them. And sometimes, this involves connecting to new people. New people bring new ideas and experiences. They can bring out parts of you you didn’t know existed, and apart from adding fresh layers to your sense of self, they may even add to your project. This can be particularly refreshing especially when you feel stuck.

So I make it a point to socialise whenever I can. Besides, it can be extremely relaxing just to hang out with new people, have some good laughs, and put your problems aside for a while.

***

A nod in the right direction, a few compassionate exchanges and knowing that you don’t have to do this alone.

I walk into the PGR Hub after an awful writers’ block. I find an insanely difficult 1000-piece puzzle lying around. The pieces are tiny and the puzzle is giant. I fumble at it for a while, and am about to give up.

My fellow researchers join me. We circle around and scramble through the numerous, exhausting pieces. And slowly but steadily, we put the pieces back, together.


For this week’s theme, join us for any of the following activities designed to help you connect to your wider research community. All activities take place in the PGR Hub, 1st floor of Senate house, unless otherwise stated:

Pick up a free 5 Weeks of Wellbeing ‘Zine from the PGR Hub – collect a sticker for an activity each week, and you’ll be entered into a prize draw for a wellness hamper worth up to £100!

Five weeks of wellbeing

Cartoon woman with '5 Weeks of Wellbeing' caption

Looking out for our research student community’s wellbeing is a big priority for us.

Taking on a research degree is no easy feat: studies conducted across Universities in the UK have demonstrated that all postgraduate researchers find their degree to be “a stressful experience” at some point. A “stressful experience” looks and feels different to everybody, and is often hard to identify, hard to talk about, and hard to admit – whether in yourself, your friends, or your wider community.

Our wellness campaign celebrates 5 whole weeks of wellbeing amongst our postgraduate researchers, based on the NHS guidelines for Five ways to mental wellbeing. This research-backed set of evidence-based actions has been shown to improve personal, holistic wellbeing. The idea behind the “5 Ways” format is that when individuals engage in modest activities focused on their mental wellbeing, their general wellbeing will improve. We also hope it will provide a safe space for everyone to consider their own wellbeing, others’ wellbeing, and what “being well” means to you.

Each week of our campaign centres on a different theme:

  • Connect
  • Take notice
  • Stay active
  • Keep learning
  • Give

These themes are centred around finding ways to build connections to others through shared activity and healthy relationship-building; to better understand ourselves through self-reflection and mindfulness; and to embrace positive habits such as physical activity and mental stimulation. The “5 Ways” approach views wellbeing as a state of being that incorporates mental health, physical health and emotional health, rather than viewing – and therefore treating – each one as separate and not interdependent on the others.

The Bristol Doctoral College will be hosting a series of short activities themed around each week. All activities are free, and we have tried to offer a range of opportunities for those based on and off-campus, whether you are full-time or part-time.

Of course, wellbeing is something that lasts beyond 5 short weeks. Our PGR Hub offers a range of activities to support PGR development and wellbeing needs, so be sure to look at our calendar of activities. Do you have an activity you’d like to see, host, or share with us during the 5 Weeks of Wellbeing? Fill out this form or get in touch with us directly.

There are also a range of support services available to students who are experiencing more specific difficulties and/or require more direct support. Talk to a Student Wellbeing Adviser based in your faculty if you would like to find out more, either for yourself or on behalf of a friend.

See our schedule below – which will be update continuously throughout the 5 weeks. All of our activities take place in the PGR Hub, located on the 1st floor of Senate House:

(more…)

Being well this winter: wellbeing support and resources

A sketch of a woman wearing a hat and scarf

December has arrived: the nights are drawing in, the winter months rapidly approach (yes, that’s right – despite what the gritted roads and frosty mornings might suggest, it’s not even officially winter yet), and the University’s closure over the New Year period looms. Of course, it’s a festive time of the year, with Park Street’s warm streetlights twinkling over the misted traffic and sparkle adorning all the shopfront and café windows.

December is also a colder, darker time of year – and we’re not talking about the earlier sunsets and longer evenings. Mental health and wellbeing have been huge topics on the University’s agenda this year, and it’s a topic that is here to stay. While the media’s attention has been primarily focused on undergraduates and taught student wellbeing, we at the Bristol Doctoral College are thinking about our postgraduate research (PGR) community. We’re taking this December to reflect, regroup, and reach out to our PGRs, and to remind you that there are places you can visit, helplines you can call, and small comforts you can find for both yourself and those around you.

The needs of our PGR students are varied and numerous. This year, we’re trying to offer more activities and events that will help our community feel better supported. Is there an initiative or activity you’d like to see take place? Do you have ideas for how we can run activities to support PGR students? Get in touch with us about it.

Reflect

Distraction proves an easy feat this time of year. Don’t let a busy calendar of teaching duties, experiments to finish, exams to prepare, papers to write, and holiday events to attend stop you from checking in with yourself, your peers and your friends.

  • Take some time out during the day for a quiet break. There are a number of spaces on campus you can visit:
    • The PGR Hub, 1st floor of Senate House, is a neutral space designed to support PGR development and wellbeing
    • The new Bristol SU Living Room, on the 4th floor, is a space specifically designed for all students to “just go and chill”
    • If you are far flung from the central campus, step outside for a brisk walk over your lunch break so you can benefit from a change of scenery
  • Check in with yourself about how you relax. It might feel silly – relaxation is supposed to be easy, right? – but research shows that discovering daily tips and small ideas that work for your lifestyle can have profound effects on how you cope with stress. Check out charity Mind’s resources on relaxation and try a few new techniques out to see what works.
  • When we talk about wellbeing, we don’t often discuss what it specifically means to “be well”. The 5 Ways of Wellbeing are a scientifically-devised, empirically-researched, and useful measure for your mood and how you are feeling. Read more about them through the NHS.
  • Join the BDC for a calming Christmas “crafternoon”: a perfect mindfulness pitstop just before the winter break. Bring a friend, or just drop in – there is no need to book, and we’ll have board games, puzzles, colouring, and crafting for you. 19 December, 12-3pm in the PGR Hub.

Regroup

Gathering information, figuring out positive steps and making movements – no matter how small or gentle they are – towards looking after yourself, or helping someone else look after themselves, takes time and resources. Find out where you can go for help, and what resources are available to you:

Reach out

Need to reach out and talk to someone? A range of helplines, both broad and diagnosis-specific, are listed below:

You can also find information about peer support groups, local activities, and counselling services through the University, within the city of Bristol, and through national agencies and organisations:

 

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.

How to Break Your Writer’s Block

… or Getting Ideas Out of Your Head And Onto The Page

This post by Bristol PGR Pam Lock, who’s been running Writers’ Retreats at Bristol since 2014, was originally shared on the Bristol Clear Blog.

A man slumped in front of a laptop

Some days writing is hard. Whether you have writer’s block or just can’t translate your ideas into writing, here are some practical ways to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page.

Free Writing

What is Free Writing? Free Writing is a brain dump, a way to write down your thoughts and ideas without constricting them by constantly editing yourself. It can be particularly useful for people who are afraid to ‘dirty the page’ with words that aren’t quite perfect or who lose track of ideas because they are constantly editing as they write.

Free writing is not about creating beautiful prose. That is the next stage, or even the stage after that. As Terry Pratchett once said, ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. Once you understand what story you want to tell, you can shape and translate it for others to read and understand. Free writing gives you a different way to access and explore your ideas.

How do I do it? For five minutes, write non-stop: don’t lift your fingers from the keyboard or your pen from the page. Just keep writing. Don’t stop to ponder or make corrections or look up a word’s meaning in the dictionary. Just keep writing.

If you find yourself stuck for something to say, write, ‘I don’t know what to write next’ or repeat the last word you wrote again and again until a fresh thought emerges. It won’t take long.
Be strict, finish your sentence at 5 minutes and stop writing.

When can I use free writing? There are lots of uses for free writing. I recommend it:

  • As a warm up. If you want to get started at the beginning of a writing day, five minutes of creative free writing is a great way to get yourself into the groove before you start tackling your academic writing. It can also open up creative pathways in your brain allowing you to write more smoothly. Write on anything: the view from your window, your journey to work, a painting or photo.
  • As a method to move forward when you are stuck. We all get stuck. Sometimes we just can’t quite work out what we think about something. Sometimes a walk around the block can be good to clear your head. Or five minutes of free writing to help you access deeper thoughts or accept ideas you may have been blocking for some reason.
  • As a way to develop or close an idea. It is easy to get into an inescapable circular pattern of writing. You get obsessed with one idea and end up writing it in slightly different phrasing again, and again, and again until you have thousands of words repeating one thing. Sometimes you just need to close the idea. Free writing can be a great way to do this so that you can move onto the next thing.

Want to know more? For more information about free writing, take a look at:

Peter Elbow, ‘Freewriting Exercises’, Writing without Teachers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 3-11.

Richard Nordquist, ‘What Is Freewriting? How Writing Without Rules Can Help You Overcome Writer’s Block

Six-word summaries

If you find free writing too unstructured, you could try creating a six-word summary of your article or chapter, or even of a single paragraph that isn’t working.

  • Take a few minutes to think about what the piece you want to summarise is about.
  • You may find it useful to write down a few key words to get you started.
  • Spend five minutes sculpting a six-word summary of the piece
  • Not only can this help you work out the essence of your writing piece, the summary you produce can be helpful in the editing process too.
    • Ask yourself: Does every paragraph or sentence help me to communicate the essential ideas of this piece to my reader?
    • Use it to ensure you don’t include anything redundant or miss anything essential from your writing.

Talk to someone else

For some people, writing can be a lonely process. I advocate finding someone you like to write with and meeting up with them regularly for company and motivation. Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary.

Writing buddies can take many forms. Finding someone you trust to be quiet and productive during your writing time but who will be good distracting company during those very important breaks is a great way to improve your writing.

They can also help you break through writer’s block. Talk for 5 minutes at the beginning of a writing day about what you want to each. Challenge each other. Can you help improve or clarify each other’s writing projects? If you are stuck on something, talk it through with your writing buddy. Even if they are not familiar with your subject, they may just ask the right question to make you look at your ideas in a new way.


Want to get involved in WriteFest 2018, the celebration of academic writing held during November? Find out how the Bristol Doctoral College is marking the month in our round-up blogpost.