PhD research can often be exciting, rewarding, and genuinely enjoyable. You’re given four years in which you dedicate your time to becoming the leading expert of a topic that you are genuinely interested in! It’s a wonderful opportunity, but one that can feel like a bit of a punishment at times.
You’re suddenly thrust into a new life, where no one is there to tell you what to revise. No one is there to give you coursework grades and affirmation that you’re doing okay. Suddenly, you have to be more disciplined, proactive, and self-confident than ever before. This can, both, aggravate and indeed cause mental health issues. This new way of working can feel terribly ambiguous, with an increasing demand for output but with no step-by-step guide on how to achieve it. In my attempt to steer my life in the direction of success, I had suddenly entered a thick fog, and felt completely out of control.
The situation led me to feel anxious that I wasn’t fit to be a PhD student, and with no experience to take control of my research direction, I found solace in seizing control of more physical aspects of my life. Having previously suffered and recovered from an eating disorder only a couple of years ago, I naturally latched onto those parts of my life I knew I could control. Namely, my weight, my food intake, and my social life, all of which suffered as a result. In the remainder of this post, I want to share my advice on coping, and what to do when you feel like you can no longer cope. [Editor’s note: Daniel recommends WunderList to help organise your day.]
My Advice #1: Write things down
My disordered behaviours were largely brought on by anxiety in different forms, ranging from small-scale social encounters to anxiety about worldwide politics. During the months leading up to my leave, anxiety was often caused by feeling like I hadn’t made any progress. I would often find myself sitting in my chair at the end of the day, feeling like I had done nothing at all. Whether I was reading papers or debugging code, I would chip away for hours, with nothing to show for it.
During my leave of absence, I started a blog, following the footsteps of other inspirational recovery bloggers. Charting my progress, victories, and struggles day by day, was so rewarding. Seeing what I had accomplished gave me a sense of purpose and clarity. On returning from this leave, I decided to continue this practice during my PhD.
I wrote a post after returning from the PhD about the importance of writing things down. Here I said:
“Write what you’ve done. Write what you want to do. Write notes on papers. Write notes on spontaneous thoughts that occur. Because thoughts are ephemeral, they disappear, never to be seen again. Words, written down, recorded, they stick.”
I’m not just talking about PhD-related stuff either. Starting a personal blog, even if you decide to keep it private, can be tremendously helpful. During my recovery, I used my blog to vent frustrations and to chart personal successes. [Editor’s note: And sometimes, these scribblings turn into a resource down the road that can be used to help others. Check out our Contributions page if you’d like to write something, like Dan did!]
My Advice #2: Structure your day
Take time to relax and enjoy yourself
As I already mentioned, organising one’s work day is extremely important in making progress and alleviating anxiety. Indeed, this organisation also extends to the all-important hours outside of work. In fact, these hours are perhaps even more important than our working hours.
The PhD is a largely independent project. We are responsible for putting in the requisite hours. Some supervisors are more hands-on than others, but in general no one is breathing down our necks to make sure the work is getting done. My own supervisor is often out of the country on other academic duties, which means I’m often left to my own devices.
The life of a PhD student largely consists of what I refer to as ‘unstructured time‘, which itself can be anxiety-provoking. My free time was often spent with a niggling feeling of guilt; a voice in my head that taunted “you should be working“. With no work-life divide, my work-life balance soon tilted too far in favour of work. This was neither physically, nor mentally healthy, and on returning from leave I have tried to keep the following points in mind:
- Don’t burn the midnight oil. Unless your supervisor or research group has some sort of 9-5 policy, it can be tempting to start sleeping in. Then you work late to compensate for it, sleep in again, work later, and the cycle continues. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, defined on the NHS website as “a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern”. The depressive symptoms are often more prevalent in the winter months, and so the lack of daylight hours make me feel lethargic, moody, and generally unhappy. It has been proven that daylight has a positive effect on our ability to function, and so being awake to experience daylight is a great natural mood booster.
- Have a ‘quitting time’. When we have a problem that needs to be fixed, it can be tempting to get too absorbed. Many times, I’ve said to myself ‘I’ll just get this little bit working’, and then 4 hours later I’d still be there, staring at my screen in frustration. Inevitably, working late has to happen when a paper deadline draws near, or a presentation needs to be polished. However, try to be disciplined. Choose a time, say 5pm, and as soon as the minute strikes, regardless of where you are, stop. Tidy up, log off, and call it a day. The work will still be there tomorrow.
- Have hobbies and interests outside of work. What do you enjoy doing in your free time? Having something to look forward to after work or on the weekends is great for your health, both mentally and physically. It doesn’t matter whether it’s playing an instrument, learning a language, or going for a walk. There is nothing wrong with Netflix and chill either! Or, if you can’t think of anything, there’s never a better time to start. Websites like hobbylark.com are dedicated to hobbies, and to helping you find one.
- Talk to your peers. I often felt like I was the only one struggling. It can often seem that our peers are organised, focused, and naturally adept in research. Don’t get me wrong, occasionally we can come across people that are like that, people that take to research like a duck to hoisin sauce. Most people, however, are often struggling too. Almost every single one of my PhD friends faces the same issues of feeling lost or incapable every now and then. Try and take opportunities to talk to your peers more. Of course, it can be refreshing to talk about something that’s not research related, too.
My Advice #3: Consider taking a leave of absence
Near the end of 2015, I reached a point where I felt stuck in a vicious cycle. Work was affecting my health, and my health was affecting my work. I wasn’t able to recover, and was slowly killing myself while insistently telling myself and everyone else ‘I’m fine‘. It took a long time, in the lab at 3am, staring at my screen, shivering, hungry, unable to focus, until I finally said aloud:
“I can’t do this”.
Right then and there, I admitted to myself that I needed time off to focus on recovery. This is not a sign of weakness, inadequacy, or failure. To acknowledge that our health has to take priority, accepting that we need help, is a tremendous act of strength.
Within a week of uttering these words, my leave was confirmed and I was on my way home. Universities have services to deal with students, both undergraduates and graduate students, who need to take time off for whatever reason. I explained my situation in an email to my university’s support service, and within a day I received an appointment to talk to Student Services. They were sensitive and understanding, and directed my request to the Student Registry, who initiated my leave within a few days.
My PhD was effectively ‘frozen’ until I would be healthy enough to come back. Initially, I had requested 3 months. But when I was approaching this time, I still felt unable to return to my studies. The request to extend my leave was also received with understanding, and I was easily granted another 3 months to fully recover.
Taking time off to live at home and focus on getting back to full health saved my life. I returned to university 6 months ago, happy, healthy, and focused. It took a short time to readjust, it wasn’t so much ‘hit the ground running’, but rather ‘hit the ground, dust myself down, set off on a pleasant stroll’. The main point that changed is that work no longer affects my health, and my health no longer affects my work.
Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions please message me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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If you are struggling, please know that you are not alone. Below are some links that you may find useful in your area:
Scotland: St Andrews Advice & Support Centre helps struggling students. Telephone: +44
UK: Beat: The UK’s Eating Disorder Charity. Helpline: 0808 801 0677
United States: National Eating Disorders Association. Toll Free Helpline: 1-800-931-2237
Canada: The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC). Toll Free Helpline: 1-866-633-4220
Australia: National Eating Disorders Collaboration. Helpline: 1800 33 4673
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My name is Daniel, and over the last year I’ve been blogging about my recovery from anorexia at http://www.roughrecoveryblog.wordpress.com. I want to offer my experiences, insights, struggles and achievements on my path to recovery. In doing so, my goal is to give hope and assurance to those in a similar situation. I’m 25, Scottish, and a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. Last year I took 6 months off my PhD to focus on anorexia recovery, during which I started my blog. Please have a look at this post on why I decided to take this time off. When I’m not researching or blogging, baking is my passion, and if I get fed up with the PhD, my fall-back plan is to open a bakery.