That ever elusive balance

I recently read this article on the importance of self-care in PhD students. Although I may not be the best in practice, I truly believe that self-care cannot be compromised throughout a PhD candidature without also compromising the quality of work and overall experience of the candidate. However, this is very easily said, in practice, what is it really like?

I have had three phases in my PhD (so far). The first phase, was a nice, gentle incline – I had stayed in the research group I had worked in for two years in my undergraduate, so I was lucky to skip the stressful transition to a new city, workplace, and research field. I would do 9-5, and that was that. After about 10 months in, I started teaching which encompassed flipping a classroom and teaching 20 year olds about the importance of starting your lit review early, amongst other things, but none seemed to be easy tasks. Preparation, delivery, following up students, and marking resulted in being out of the lab for three months straight. There were many obstacles that year, for which myself, people around me, and, the research gods were responsible. It is hard to do lab work amongst teaching, and honestly, some interpersonal differences and a lack of guidance made me not very enthusiastic about my project. During these first two phases, my self-care was baking and working out (really, a great combination). But there was very little time when I would check-in with myself, which is something I really wanted to get on top of.

Enter my third phase. Determined to finish within three years (shush, all you nay-sayers!), I have changed tactics. I designed student projects to feed directly into my PhD, which is something I definitely wish I could have done a lot earlier, and treated them as research partners – “we’re learning together!” This made me feel more connected with my research, and I came up with that special, novel idea, the one to be my one grain of sand to contribute to the beach that is Research. But… I still wanted to teach. Realising that what I was doing wasn’t working to tick all the boxes I wanted, I also had to change how I approached lab work. Having those quite hours in the morning at my café was great for my state of mind, as I felt on top of the day before it really started, but it was not great for my lab book. Trying to get lab work done in the latter half of the day, before I had to leave to exercise, a non-negotiable, wasn’t very easy to achieve. Now I start my lab work at 7 or 7.30am, instead of going for coffee, to get through it all, and this means that I now get my caffeine fix at what turns out to be a much better time!

How is it going you ask? If I summed it up in one word: mental. My calendar is packed every day and I have to be at the top of my organizing game to make sure that I have every experiment covered when I’m allocating time. I still have flexibility in my schedule, but, as we know with Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available for its completion! Thus, I find lab work is never really finished. I find myself doing more work in general, but I feel more in control and a lot more hopeful than I have before. Importantly, this blog is a big part of my new self-care regime. I still work out, try and find time to bake, spend time with people who are important to me, and have started listening to a happiness podcast, to keep my mind thinking and reflecting, but these posts give me a tangible outcome of my reflections.

At the end of the day, each PhD students’ self-care looks different, and it is going to come second to their project at one time or another, it is just how we work. But what if there was more infrastructure around self-care in a PhD? Could universities take on some/more responsibility for the welfare of PhD students? In my experience, we pretty much go unchecked, and if you need help you have to seek it out. I do find it strange that we are supposed to be a valuable asset to a university, yet, unless your supervisor or panel is invested in you as a person (and not just a paper-generating machine!), there is very little in the way of support. This is where I think universities might benefit from operating with a different mindset that is not focused on research excellence, but valuing your employees as people, making sure they are happy and fulfilled, and in return they will do good work. At the end of the day, an unhappy researcher is not a productive one, as they not only influence their own work but that of those around them. I think a big challenge facing universities, as a workplace, is to figure out how we can make sure that PhD candidates, and academics in general, achieve that ever elusive balance, in a way that is realistic and works for each and every person.

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