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.

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.

Ain’t I a Superwoman?

Jane_Nebe
Jane at the Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel, Glasgow, Scotland. April 2016.

Jane Nebe is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol with funding from the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission in the UK (CSCUK).

On the first day of the year 2016, I woke up very sad and stayed that way throughout the day. I just kept wondering if the PhD programme had been worth resigning my dream job for. I had started my dream job in June 2015, and did not meet the requirement to qualify for a study leave by September 2015. The dilemma for me at the time was not if I wanted to do the PhD, but if I wanted to start the PhD by September 2015. Oh! I forgot to mention that I had received a prestigious scholarship that would fund ALL expenses for the PhD programme and it could not be deferred. Maybe I was just homesick. You see, every 1st January of the New Year was a huge celebration in my family home back in Nigeria. The day usually began with excited greetings of ‘Happy new year’, festive aroma emanating from kitchens in the neighbourhood, happy chattering, and visits to or from friends and family later in the day. On this 1st of January, I was alone. Park Street was quiet and my accommodation extremely quiet. This was not unusual though because some mornings in Bristol are always like that. But this morning, I felt the silence was too loud. In addition to the feelings of aloneness, was the stress of writing two essays for my assessed units that were due for submission in some weeks’ time; as well as the preparation for my next supervision meeting later that month. On that day, the 1st of January 2016, I began to contemplate dropping out of the PhD programme.

Students’ mental health is something that the University of Bristol takes seriously. We should take it seriously too. I was aware that professional counselling was available at the Student Counselling Service, but it was not an option I considered. At the time, seeking professional help meant acknowledging somehow that something was not right with me. That definitely wasn’t my persona, because I am a Superwoman.[1] Or was I not? I remain grateful to my friend and PhD colleague who sensed from our conversations that something wasn’t right and kept listening to me, while encouraging me again and again. Then, I decided to do something different from research, something to be excited about. So, I started swimming lessons at the university’s swimming pool. I thoroughly enjoyed myself while the lessons lasted. I am yet to cross the line between learner and swimmer though. Over the past few months, I have learnt to extend my life experiences in Bristol beyond the triangle enclosed by my house, school and church. It has been very beneficial to my mental health. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I take time-outs. My past exploits include visits to the aquarium and museums, taking a boat ride, walks by the harbour side, joining the gym, travelling, learning to skate, and so on. Just forgetting work and having fun! Afterwards, I return to my research refreshed and reinvigorated, to excel as always. Most importantly, I have decided that if 1st January 2016 ever happens again in the nearest future, I would seek professional help because ‘I ain’t a Superwoman’ after all. So tell me, how do you maintain your mental health?

[1] This is coined from the ‘Ain’t I a Woman?” speech that is attributed to Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), who was born into slavery in New York.

Blue Monday? Blue Any Day.

Blue Monday, popularly known as the “most depressing day of the year” and held on the third Monday of January, receives a fair amount of bashing in the press these days. Rightly so – after all, it was the pseudoscientific brainchild of a travel campaign for an airline that has since gone bust, all in the name of selling more holidays to people who are feeling vulnerable and in need of a pick-me-up.

Let’s be clear. That the world collectively feels more “depressed” on a single day of the year is clearly a misnomer. As many media folk have been quick to point out, this logical fallacy undermines our collective understanding of “depression” in its entirety. Clinical depression is a severe, chronic condition, one that doesn’t exactly take days off nor suffer from what most would call a “bad day”. People battle depression day in and day out, sometimes for months but often as long as decades. For many, it’s a lifelong illness that needs to be managed and maintained as many chronic physical illnesses need to be managed. Neuro-normative brains typically don’t become “depressed” because it’s cold outside, Christmas feels like a distant memory, and we’re all disheartened at the first high winter bill of the season with no festive break to look forward to –  save Valentine’s Day, which, please.

In this sense, Blue Monday’s dubious origins ought to be questioned and critically analysed.

In another sense, any day is an appropriate day to discuss issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing – whether you suffer from a specific, diagnosed condition or not. At the Bristol Doctoral College, we thought we’d take this opportunity to bring into discussion an issue that academia tends to brush under the carpet, but which has recently come knocking at institutional front doors with brute force due to its urgency: the chronic ill mental health of students in higher education, particularly in research students.

I’m not defending #bluemonday, and I’m especially not defending its source; I am reclaiming it in attempt to destigmatize issues around mental health and to encourage critical reflection on our own wellbeing. For many, every Monday is a Blue Monday; indeed, everyday is Blue Monday. Maybe our concern with what the day stands for is a microcosm of the larger problem:  maybe we ought to stop worrying about where ‘Blue Monday’ comes from, and use it as an opportunity to discuss how what most of us take for granted (our own wellbeing) will become a serious crisis for 1 in 4 people in the UK this year. Blue Monday, coming so close to the start of the year, can help us turn the lens on what is ‘blue’ in our own society, and what we can do this year to change it.

At the BDC, we’re taking this opportunity to remind our Postgraduate Researchers that we aren’t scared of talking about mental health. We’re not going to question you when you say you are having a blue day, a blue month, or a blue year. We’re going to point you to the services that are available to you. We’re going to champion the everyday actions that make a difference in everyone’s wellbeing. A part of that involves making sure our own wellbeing is healthy; another, much larger part, is about listening to your stories. Instead of discussing the cynicism of Blue Monday’s origins, we’re going to turn our view to the silver lining, and we invite you to join us.