Soaks, strolls and stretches — how Bristol PGRs take well-earned breaks

A rubber duck floating in bathwater

How did you mark this year’s Self-Care Week (18–24 November)?

As well as holding relaxing events and activities in the PGR Hub, we used the occasion to ask Bristol’s postgraduate researchers a simple question: how do you look after yourself?

We received a range of insights into how you take breaks — from stretching to strolling to socialising — but the clear theme that emerged was the importance of giving yourself time to relax and wind down. And, if you’re keen to cut down on your screen time, bathtime can make for a perfect phone-free zone. (Bubbles and browsing don’t really mix, especially if your handset isn’t waterproof.🛀📱😧)

So, without further ado, here’s what helps you unwind, de-stress and step away from your research.

Sabina
For me the best way to relax is yoga! I go to a weekly yoga session, and it’s heaven! It’s where I can be me, I am not a mum, or a daughter or a teaching assistant. I am able to forget about the outside world! Yoga forever!

Natalie
I leave my office every day and go for a thirty minute walk. It always helps me to relax though it’s a bit less fun in this weather. 🌧

Sandra
Got to say clean fresh bedding. Having to be clean getting in and reading or listening to a book.

Joan
Getting into a freshly made bed after a hot bath is the absolute definition of heaven. I’ve also become very reliant on starting the day with a cup of coffee and ‘morning pages‘. Getting all my thoughts out at the beginning of the day sorts me right out.

Caitlin
I second Joan’s comment about baths! I find it’s really hard to keep away from my phone, but I’m always afraid that I might drop it into the bath, so having a bath becomes, of necessity, a phone-free zone! That makes it a great chance to get some quality time with a (non-work related) and keeps me blue-light free, which is really important for sleep hygiene.

I realise sleep hygiene sounds made up, but when I’m anxious I often suffer from badly disturbed sleep and following a sleep hygiene routine works (a bit). Whether that’s just because I’m doing any routine or because the specific “sleep hygiene” stuff actually works, I can’t say.

Leone
I have a nice hot bath.

Sarah
Ensuring I give myself a good amount of time to wind down in the evening before bed. Watch TV/read/have a bath — strictly no work!

Brittany
Talking and having a laugh with all of my doctorate course mates! We are all in the same boat and if it wasn’t for them I don’t know what I’d do!

Breaks, books and board games — how we’re marking Self-Care Week 2019

A cartoon tortoise reading a book | 'Take it easy this Self-Care Week'

Self-Care Week 2019, which begins on Monday 18 November, is an opportunity for all of us to take stock, think about our day-to-day wellbeing — and to make sure we’re taking breaks!

To mark the occasion, the PGR Hub (second floor, Senate House) will be hosting free events that provide opportunities to relax, ‘raise your gaze’ from your research and connect with other PGRs.

Here’s what’ll be happening during the week.

Board Game Café
Tuesday 19 November, 4–7pm
Three hours of pizza and play in the PGR Hub. We’ll be breaking out some classic and contemporary games — including Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Apples to Apples and Scrabble — and bringing in some free refreshments. Find out more on Facebook.

Silent Reading Party
Friday 22 November, 1–4pm
A chance to read and relax in the Hub’s chilled ‘literary lounge’ — and to enjoy some healthy snacks. We’ll have free bookplates, BDC bookmarks and books of all genres (although you’re welcome to bring your own). Find out more on Facebook.

Competition

We’ll also be marking the occasion by asking for your self-care tips — and collating them for a BDC blogpost.

Whether it’s a technique that helps you to relax or an activity that gives you a break from your research, you can share your nuggets of wellbeing wisdom using one of the channels listed below. We’ll pick a tip at random at 5pm on Monday 25 November, and its author will win 20 Bristol Pounds.

You can submit your tip:

  • as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #selfcareweek Facebook posts
  • as a tweet with the #selfcareweek and #BristolPGRs hashtags
  • as an Instagram post with the #selfcareweek and #BristolPGRs hashtags
  • in an email to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk
  • (from Monday 18 November) by adding to our ‘timeout tips tree’ in the PGR Hub.

Terms and conditions

  • The competition is open to all current postgraduate research students at the University of Bristol.
  • The closing date for entries is 5pm on Monday 25 November 2019.
  • The winner will receive 20 Bristol pounds.
  • The winner will be selected at random.
  • Multiple entries are permitted.

PGR Hub: Pop-up activities throughout the summer

The Brambles
The Brambles — one of the venues for our pop-up summer events.

The PGR Hub is closing its doors for the summer in Senate House for necessary and crucial building works to take place across the building. Its new home will be on the second floor of Senate House while the first floor becomes a construction buffer zone for work to continue throughout the 2019/20 calendar on the new Campus Heart atrium. 

But don’t worry – we understand that a physical space dedicated to cross-disciplinary research collaboration, and your general development and wellbeing, is an important part of being a PGR at Bristol. Also, we appreciate that research students don’t get whole summers off – research doesn’t always follow academic terms! 

We’ll be helping run some summer pop-up activities across campus from June through September for you to meet and mingle with one another, take a time-out, or work on your researcher development. Whether it’s time to focus on writing your thesis or a paper, an opportunity to chat over coffee and cake, or a space to unwind in our calming crafternoons, there is something for everyone to enjoy.  

See our schedule below – which will be regularly updated throughout the summer. All of our activities are open to all research students. 

Schedule of PGR Hub pop-up activities

ActivityDate & TimeLocationDescription
Spring-into-Summer Shindig4-6pm , Thursday 30 May PGR Hub, 1st floor Senate House Meet and mingle with your wider research community over light refreshments and snacks – there will be music, plants for the keeping, and a chance to leave your thoughts about the PGR Hub’s first year
Writers’ Retreat 9am-5pm, Tuesday, 11 June Room 2.26, 35 Berkeley Square Supportive and structured days designed to help you focus on your word count and pick up some tips on distraction-free writing
Coffee & Cake Hour11am-12pm Tuesday, 18 June The BramblesTake a break from your work, meet other PGRs, and enjoy some *free* sweet treats
Thesis Bootcamp: Veterans' Day9am-5pm, Wednesday 19 JuneTBCA day for our Thesis Bootcamp attendees to come and check back-in on their progress and write in peace
Board Game Café2-4pm, Thursday 4th July The BramblesEnjoy a classic like chess, Scrabble or Monopoly — or bring in your own game. It's your move.
Coffee & Cake Hour11am-12pm, Tuesday 16 July The BramblesTake a break from your work, meet other PGRs, and enjoy some *free* sweet treats
Writers’ Retreat 9am-5pm, Friday 19 July Helen Wodehouse Building, 35 Berkeley SquareSupportive and structured days designed to help you focus on your word count and pick up some tips on distraction-free writing
Writers’ Retreat 9am-5pm, Monday 5 August TBCSupportive and structured days designed to help you focus on your word count and pick up some tips on distraction-free writing
TA Talk Series: with Academic Staff Development 2-4pm, Wednesday 14 August The BramblesAre you a doctoral researcher who teaches? Come along to a relaxed informal talk for those balancing research and teaching.
Coffee & Cake Hour11am-12pm, Tuesday 20 August The BramblesTake a break from your work, meet other PGRs, and enjoy some *free* sweet treats

Would you like to run an event or session yourself?  

PGRs will have access to the Brambles space (in the Hawthorns) throughout the summer. 

If you would like to run an event or activity for PGRs during the months of June – September, please get in touch with us with your idea and we endeavour to book you into the Brambles space. 

Please note that we will be unable to offer bookings between 12 and 2pm, during which time the space is used as a relaxation lounge by all staff across the University. 

When does the PGR Hub open again? 

The PGR Hub opens its doors once again on 23rd September. To find out more about the changes taking place in Senate House and the Campus Heart programme, visit their website. 

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!

Paws for a break — banishing the winter blues with the power of pets

After the fun and frivolities of the festive break, January can seem… well, a bit of a slog. You’re back to the normal routine, the emails have resumed and once-distant deadlines now appear all too close. What better time, then, to celebrate the stress-relieving power of our animal companions…

Yes, our PGR Pets competition is essentially just an excuse to celebrate the furry (or scaly) friends that help you take a break from your research routine, or even just help you smile when you’re having a particularly frustrating day. The animal in question can be a cat, dog, fish, iguana — even a squirrel that you always see on your walk into the lab/office. If it belongs to somebody else, though, please make sure that you have their permission to share the photo.

To take part in our contest, and be in with a chance of winning a £20 voucher for Pets at Home or 20 Bristol pounds, just share a photograph:

  • as a comment on one of the Bristol Doctoral College’s #PGRpets Facebook posts
  • on Twitter or Instagram using the #PGRpets hashtag
  • by emailing it to doctoral-college@bristol.ac.uk.

Terms and conditions

  • The competition is open to all current postgraduate research students at the University of Bristol.
  • The closing date for entries is 5pm on Friday 8 February 2019.
  • The winner will receive a £20 Pets at Home voucher or 20 Bristol pounds. (The winner will be able to select their prize from these two options.)
  • The winner will be selected at random.
  • Multiple entries are permitted.
  • If a photograph features a domestic animal that isn’t yours, please ensure you have the owner’s permission to enter.
  • The Bristol Doctoral College may share images from the competition in a future blogpost and on social media.

Note: although we thought this was an original idea, we must credit the University of Glasgow’s PGR Service, who got there before us. Read their PGR Pets and self-care blogpost.

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.

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.