Self-Care for the PhD Student

This blog post was written by a member of the AMHC Admin team.

You may have seen those lists on self-care circulating on social media: They advise us to take up running, brew green tea, and write in a gratitude journal, all before 7:00 in the morning.

 

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Brightly coloured pineapples and miniature pumpkins sit on a white desk beside an open silver laptop with a black keyboard.

For me, even contemplating a longer to-do list is tiring, so I hesitated at first to take on the topic of self-care this week. But understanding how to foster and maintain wellbeing is a relevant conversation for academics, especially as November rolls around. While the Academic Mental Health Collective often speaks to the challenges of mental illness, today’s post is directed more generally to graduate students, and the everyday challenges that can arise amid the demands of graduate study.

As a researcher in the humanities, and more specifically in literature, I decided to broach the topic of self-care by looking at its uses and its origins. My questions were simple: How is the term self-care appearing in popular discourse? How does that compare to the origins of self-care, and how can this help us reframe the notion of self-care?

I turned to Pinterest and Google for a quick look at the popular uses of self-care. Pinterest showed lists both daunting (100 Things To Do For Improved Self-Care) and doable (12 Self-Care Ideas That Take 5 Minutes Or Less). Google suggested a TedTalk, along with post-election articles on self-care by American news websites. Then there was a spa in Arizona offering a weekend of self-care for $2000.

These headlines assume that self-care is a virtuous behaviour, and that we know we should be practicing it. If we feel guilty about avoiding self-care, that makes us susceptible to self-care hacks and advertising. Pinterest is giving us to-do lists, but if we have the resources, we can skip the work and buy it instead, by spending a weekend at an Arizona spa.

Various magazine articles, in print and online, have been parsing the 21st-century discourse of self-care. In “What Does ‘Self-Care’ Really Mean?”, Jennifer Pan reminds us that talking about self-care means talking about politics, labour, and privilege. (Gwyneth Paltrow famously recommended popping over to France when necessary.) Ester Bloom’s article, “How ‘Treat Yourself’ Became a Capitalist Command,” investigates how self-care has been co-opted by advertising to serve corporate interests.

The modern take on self-care bears little resemblance to the way it was meant to be practiced in the ancient world. In the 1970s and 1980s, Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault began studying care of the self in ancient Greece and Rome. Their work showed that self-care was connected to the quest for knowledge. Spiritual exercises were meant to form the self, and they focused on developing attention, self-mastery, and memory. More importantly, these practices were not meant to be solitary. Care of the self was to be practiced in community. Even the solitary spiritual exercises occurred in the context of relationships.

Given that self-care was originally rooted in the quest for knowledge, and that it has been appropriated more recently by capitalist interests, I figured that rather than writing a prescriptive list, I would invite you to join me in reflecting on my own habits.

 

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On a sandy beach there is a purple shovel with a wood handle sticking up. In the background is the water and grey clouds.

How do I care for myself as a graduate student?

What do I do to care for my physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing? What sorts of habits and practices are helpful, and how are they embedded in relationships and community? I don’t normally think about my daily activities in terms of self-care, but when I reflect on how I cope with a demanding PhD program, a few things come to mind.

 

Sleep

I love my work as a teacher and researcher, and I put a lot of energy into it. During a semester when I’m teaching, it’s not unusual for me to fall asleep spontaneously at 10pm, even if I’m at a party (I can give references for that!). Since my body actually decides my bedtime for me, it’s a no-brainer to get eight hours of sleep a night. Because I have this physical constraint, I really do believe it’s possible to allow ourselves adequate sleep while doing doctoral work.

 

Choosing my small talk

Some people talk a lot about deadlines and stress, and that can be a great way to bond with colleagues. But, I find myself gravitating toward people like my friends F and G, who are serious, focused thinkers whom I admire. When I run into F, she often tells me about how she’s been keeping up with the Kardashians and reading comic books. G typically begins a conversation by asking what films, books, or exhibitions I’ve seen recently. Not being ashamed of the fun things we do is a great way to counter the work-first culture that Kristen Ghodsee wrote about recently. Hearing about others’ fun also reminds me that there are many ways to enjoy life on a university campus. If there are author talks, a climbing wall, and a pottery studio within two kilometers of our workspace, why would we even want to drag out our work hours by scrolling Facebook? Spinning work narratives for our colleagues every day makes us spend more time “working.” Talking about fun reminds us to go and have some fun.

 

Exercise

I wouldn’t call myself an athlete, but exercise entered my vocabulary during my first semester of grad school. I don’t really hold myself to a schedule, but when I feel a bit stuck or distracted in the library, I’ve learned to recognize that as a sign that I need to move. Sometimes I swim 40 laps, other times I get on my bike and do a couple errands around town. A German woman once told me that no matter how blue she feels, she always feels a little happier after biking! When I moved to Paris, I challenged myself to not use public transit at all, except for big trips outside the city. This decision made exercising automatic: I had to bike a couple kilometers even to do sedentary things, like work in the library and meet my friends.

 

Not working

Flexibility is one of the perks of humanities research: you can work where and when you want to. I do not take advantage of this flexibility. Even though I don’t have office space or obligatory hours of work, I go to work from Monday to Friday. I work at the library or the café, and I arrive by 9am at the latest. I sometimes meet friends for lunch, or for a mid-afternoon coffee. Once 6pm rolls around, I allow myself to close my laptop, pack up and go home to my partner, who works on a real office schedule. Sometimes we open our computers after dinner, to answer some emails, read some articles, or in his case, work on developing an app. Some evenings I try to go screen-free, because reading a novel provides a better break from my work than reading articles online.

 

Building a work community

As a humanities scholar, I knew that isolation would be a struggle while writing my dissertation. I’ve found various ways to build social interaction into my work week. I’ve started organizing project-centered work groups, because meeting with colleagues is lower-stakes than meeting with professors, and social meetings are a great reward for solitary work. I put together a reading group to read a difficult French theorist; an article writing group that met weekly for 12 weeks using Wendy Belcher’s book; virtual writing groups with weekly Skype meetings; and a writing group that met on weekday mornings to work side by side for four hours in the library. Because my field doesn’t automatically give me officemates, I try to create spaces for that type of relationship. My writing buddies empathize with problems, ask good questions, and they make me laugh. Plus, they are more generous readers than I am of my own work!

 

Non-Work Community

Work communities are good in an end-focused sort of way; they help me keep up my writing momentum. There’s another sort of community that I’ve found refreshing, and that’s the group of people who are in no way connected to my work. In my case, that’s a faith community, but I could imagine this transfers to any sort of affiliation group (sports, activism, charity work, hiking, politics, even a book group). Spending time and developing friendships with people in different professions and seasons of life reminds me that although academic work is exciting, absorbing, and difficult, it only constitutes one sector of human experience. (Being on-call for a friend who’s about to give birth really puts a dissertation into perspective!)

 

Framing

When I considered doing a PhD, my professor gave me The Talk. It went something like this: the job market is terrible, the economy is not what it used to be, and nowadays you can’t expect a tenure-track job as a reward for writing a dissertation. If you want a comfortable life with a house in Montreal, go to law school. But if you really want to learn, and you’re okay with driving a taxi to pay the bills, by all means, go do a PhD!

That framing has stayed with me, and I let myself imagine working in various jobs. I imagine being a kindergarten teacher, a barista, a writer, a server, an entrepreneur, a bookstore worker, or an administrator in the university. Although I would very much like to be a tenured professor, I always try to imagine multiple futures. I do this for two very practical reasons. First, I research life narratives, and I’ve come to believe that our imagination shapes our reality. Second, being committed to one future plan is too stressful. I am able to write a dissertation. I am able to read stacks of books. I am able to teach intense courses. I am not able to do all this while believing that I must land a tenure-track job the moment I graduate. So I do the first three things (write, read, teach) and reject the fourth task (maintaining stifling beliefs). This is liberating, and I like to think it will help me make the alt-ac switch if necessary.

 

cosy mug and book
A pastel green mug sits in the foreground on top of an open book and a soft-looking blanket.

 

Thinking about how I cope with the demands of grad school has shown me that I do actually engage in practices that could be considered self-care:

  1. Physical health: sleeping and exercising
  2. Leisure: I schedule fun activities with my partner and friends in advance, and I talk openly about my leisure activities to encourage a fun-loving culture among my peers
  3. Putting boundaries on work: devoting certain hours and spaces to work, and allowing myself to shift gears at the end of the day
  4. Community: maintaining various types of relationships in which I am giving and receiving (i.e., my relationship with my partner, supportive professional relationships, diverse types of friendships)
  5. Mental exercises: actively imagining myself doing other jobs to alleviate the pressure of the job market

I try to avoid indulgent behaviours that disguise themselves as self-care. Sometimes I respond to a tough problem in my work with so-called retail therapy at the bookstore, aimless internet browsing, or a slice of cake at a fancy café. If, on the other hand, I invite a colleague to join me for cake, we can often work through the problem in ten minutes, and we leave energized from our coffee break!

Self-care opposes the logic of capitalism, which benefits from increasing consumption and employee output. Instead of openly opposing self-care, corporations have made the term work for them. Self-care sells products and services, and it is mobilized in the workplace to shift the burden of care from the employer to the employee. Companies are persuaded to sponsor lunchtime meditation programs when it promises a decrease in sick days. But if self-care simply means consuming more and turning our bodies into optimized labour machines, it is an empty concept.

*          *         *

Taking self-care seriously has radical implications: putting our relationships, health, and wellness before our professional ambitions and obligations. For me, that means regularly considering taking breaks from my academic life, if my relationships or my health is at risk.

One of my friends, K, told me that she was putting off a long-overdue doctor’s appointment, because she feels badly using the time when her child is in daycare to access medical care for herself. Of course, as soon as she put that into words, she realized that she had been compromising her health for productivity, and she booked the appointment (and I offered to watch her toddler for an hour). If you’re at some sort of roadblock, I encourage you to text a friend with a request: reading a draft of your chapter, giving you a ride to the dentist, or just sharing coffee to talk about what’s challenging this semester. In my experience, people love to help, and asking is the hardest part!

Reflecting about our own self-care in conversation with our friends can certainly help us to map patterns in our behaviour and evaluate how they impact to our wellbeing.

I’ve shared my own reflections here, not as an expert, but as a conversation starter. Honesty about our self-care practices can offer perspective to our peers, and help younger colleagues who may be particularly vulnerable to the pressure to be productive all the time. How do you care for your self, and who helps you with your self-care? Which habits are serving you well, and which practices might you let go?

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