We have Confucius to thank for the adage, ‘Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life’. This concept is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to a PhD, given that the process confronts students with a constant battle to balance the fact that we do indeed love what we do, but must not allow it to occupy our every waking hour.
Finding this balance has been the defining challenge of my first year, along with the need to recognize that I am now in this for the long haul. I have left behind the years of structured education, and my working habits now have to be sustainable over three years. This is most definitely a marathon, not a sprint.
My PhD got off to a rocky start, and I was forced to work towards establishing healthier working habits. I finished my Masters degree in September 2014, and then had one month to write and deliver a conference paper, move house, and submit a journal article for review, before beginning my PhD in October. After the intense year of my Masters, this failure to take time off had serious knock-on effects. A virus that had been rumbling on since August finally took hold and, after evolving into a horrid post-viral fatigue, I had to take a total of about five weeks off. However, I was far too impatient to get better.
The game-changer for me came after an incident at the pharmacy where I work. A regular customer came into the pharmacy and asked why I wasn't there. My manager explained and, without any further prompting, the customer recounted that, fifteen years ago, after finishing her Masters degree and securing a PhD place, she had become ill and had developed chronic fatigue syndrome (ME). As a result, she had never been able to go back to complete her PhD, and had since only been able to do office-based work. While this is an extreme example, I realized that, if I did not start taking better care of myself, I could end up with a similar story.
I am now acutely aware that nothing is more important than our health and, as I near the end of my first year, I have been reflecting on what has helped me to create more sustainable working patterns.
First and foremost, I am lucky to work with two wonderful supervisors. I chose to stay at the institution where I completed my Masters degree, and as such, have developed close relationships with them. I decided not to venture to pastures new just for the sake of having a ‘big name’ supervisor, with whom I might have had little contact. Not only are my supervisors incredibly supportive of my project but, crucially, they care for me as a person, and give me the emotional support needed to actually get through a PhD. This is a winning combination, and one that I would urge all prospective PhD students to seek out.
Secondly, my Department has a great postgraduate community, and the people I work alongside every day are my friends as much as they are my colleagues. From talking to other PhD students, I am in a very fortunate minority with this experience. Thankfully, though, more and more universities are establishing postgraduate support networks. Being able to access such a community of people who understand the peaks and troughs of a PhD is a crucial ingredient for maintaining well-being and happiness.
Moreover, in the current pressure cooker climate of academia, having these support systems in place has already been, and will no doubt continue to be, crucial in teaching me the strategies to negotiate the challenges of this profession. In many ways, this has been the most valuable lesson of my first year.
In addition to working within a supportive environment, I have developed certain tactics and principles that I now try to live by: creating a sustainable working pattern and sticking to it; off-setting periods of long working hours with dedicated time for relaxation; setting boundaries for the number of additional commitments I make each week; and making sure that I do something unrelated to my thesis every day.
Nonetheless, my journey towards the holy grail of true work-life balance is still a work in progress, and I am all too aware of the irony of writing this article when I don’t always practice what I preach!
There have certainly been challenges during my first year, and I am sure that I am not alone in experiencing bouts of academic guilt: feelings that you are not doing enough, or are not good enough. These are anxieties that we all battle, and are certainly no laughing matter, particularly with cases of anxiety and depression in academia on a steep incline.
For this reason, I find the various social media parody accounts regarding the PhD process unhelpful when it comes to avoiding feelings of guilt. While they poke fun at negative, but widely-accepted, problems in academia, they also normalize them. Some examples come to mind: one cartoon perpetuates the idea that taking time off due to illness is a sign of weakness; another draws attention to the guilt of spending a weekend completely thesis-free. I am always the first one to laugh at myself but, in a profession that experiences unrelenting pressures from institutions and governments alike, such damaging emotions and thought patterns need to be addressed in serious terms.
Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year and am excited to see what the next two years hold. While my academic work has certainly progressed, the more important lesson that I have learned has been the value of self-care and self-preservation: two things which will be of fundamental importance both now, and as I pursue my research in the future.
Wiley collaborates with early career researchers through our Wiley Advisors program, a group of ECRs and professionals who serve as a voice for their communities. For more information, please visit Wiley Advisors online or on Twitter @WileyAdvisors.