During the pandemic, cut yourself some slack
Perfectionism Isn’t Possible In A Pandemic
Remind yourself that everything is going to be fine
Suffering In Silence?
Be mindful of whether you’re suffering in silence.
We’re All Struggling, Right?
Beneath every PhD student is a human struggle. Some struggles are big, some are more minor. Some struggle to write, some to manage their time, some to overcome personal issues. Some have to overcome huge adversity to even show up each day, and some struggle to adapt to the role.
We’re all struggling. It’s one of the things that makes PhDs so tough.
But many of the resources and ‘how-to’ guides you see directed at PhD students fail to recognise this. They don’t see the human. This is particularly true of academic textbooks and guides. They’re dull, dry, and written for nobody in particular.
No wonder so many PhD students I talk often feel guilty when they struggle. Many have a latent sense of guilt for finding things tough – it’s no wonder, when much of the advice fails to prepare students for the huge emotional and personal toll that comes with doing a PhD.
It isn’t my intention to normalise struggle or to suggest that you should put up with discomfort and unpleasant conditions. Rather, it is my intention to show you that when you do struggle, it’s okay to prioritise yourself and step away from the thesis. To show you that it’s okay to find things tough and it’s no reflection on your skill or competence.
It’s a part of life to find things tough and have emotional ups-and-downs. PhDs aren’t immune to that, however much the academy would like to pretend otherwise.
So keep showing up, do so conscious of the struggle you are overcoming, and recognise that to err is to be human.
Be mindful that you’re not struggling alone.
Don’t Feel Guilty For Taking Time Off
Some days you won’t be productive. That’s a fact of life.
It’s not something to feel guilty about.
A side effect of the modern world – and a pandemic – is an implicit sense that we must always be productive, and that time away from work, our PhDs, writing, teaching or whatever else we ought to be doing is somehow a waste of time.
But it isn’t.
There is no shame in taking the afternoon off if you need it and you are able to. There is no shame in not being 100% effective when you sit down to write. There is no shame in focusing on yourself at the expense fo your PhD.
The pandemic is creating a lot of extra stress. So if you body or mind is asking for attention, put the PhD to one side for a little while. Do so lovingly, and see it as time well spent, not time wasted. Recognise that any anxieties you have about being ‘lazy’ or ‘failing’ as a PhD student are a greater reflection on the power of social conditioning than they are on your ability and dedication.
Be mindful of whether you could do with an afternoon off.
The New Normal Isn’t So New Anymore
It can seem like there is no end in sight to the disruption this pandemic is causing, especially as we start to ‘bed in’ and the novelty of new patterns of work and behaviour wears off.
This new normal is no longer that new, and that’s a little scary.
But it’s important to remind yourself of two things. First, how well you’ve coped thus far. Second, this won’t last forever.
However inconvenient your return to university is, it’s a temporary problem. During this time you’ll develop skills that you’ll be able to take with you through the rest of your life. Sure, it’s anxiety-inducing, but it’s also teaching you resilience and adaptability. Try to focus on these positives, where possible.
Be mindful that this pandemic will end.
The Middle of A Pandemic Is That Hardest Stage
It’s in the middle of a pandemic that you’re likely to hit a wall of fatigue – you’re likely overloaded with negative news, and the near future looks fairly bleak. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and despondent.
Take time to reflect on how well you’ve done over these last few months. Life is incredibly difficult, and we’re all facing unique personal challenges as we work out how to carry on and keep everything afloat. Sure, you probably missed a deadline or two, and there have probably been days where you didn’t do much at all, but irrespective of that, you’re doing great.
You must remind yourself of that, especially when you look to the future with trepidation.
If you can get through the last six months, you’ll get through the next six months.
Be mindful of how well you have done this far.
Take Time For Yourself
In Struggle There Is Growth
Your Mental Health Has To Take Priority
The PhD is an ideal environment for mental health problems to fester. A PhD during a pandemic is asking for trouble.
There’s the ever present imposter syndrome, the financial pressures you face, the uncertainty over the academic job market, constant pressure to publish and the isolation that comes from long hours of reading and writing.
But when you think about your priorities and goals your mental health must come first, no matter how pressing the other concerns you have in your life are. Without a sound mental balance, everything else becomes more difficult.
Many people are finding that the coronavirus pandemic has had an effect on that mental balance and have realised the importance of prioritising mental wellbeing. It’s not a one-off task, it requires ongoing and careful nurturing and soothing.
If you’re struggling, reach out for support from a friend, family member or professional. If you’re not, keep an eye out for those around you who may be.
These are strange times we live in and never has it been more important to stay well, whether physically or mentally.
Be mindful of whether you’re putting your mental health second and your PhD first.
Don’t Focus (Too Much) On The Problems
Everything Is Impermanent
Nothing lasts forever.
No matter how good or bad your situation is right now, things are constantly changing. Moods shift, possessions break, people come and go, and problems drift in and out of our attention.
In other words, everything is impermanent.
In your PhD there will be times when everything clicks into place and you’re working effectively. At other times, for seemingly no reason, you’ll find it hard to stay motivated and you’ll start to question everything. This is impermanence in action.
This has two important implications. First, when things are tough and everything seems to be falling apart you can take comfort from the fact that it won’t always be this way. Better days are ahead. Second, when things are going well and everything seems to be working you should actively and purposefully savour the feeling and experience, for darker days will inevitably come.
Savour the good times and ride out the bad times safe in the knowledge that nothing lasts forever.
Be mindful that nothing lasts forever.
If coronavirus is teaching us anything, it’s that catastrophising can, at best, be unhelpful.
Catastrophising is an irrational thought many of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is. It can take two different forms: making a catastrophe out of a current situation, and imagining making a catastrophe out of a future situation.
If you’re a perfectionist and have anxiety about the quality of your PhD, you may recognize your own tendency to catastrophize particular outcomes and to over-react to things that happen in your day-to-day PhD journey. Things go wrong – that’s just the nature of a PhD and being a human – but catastrophising can make them seem far worse than they actually are.
Both types of catastrophising limit the opportunities in your PhD. They can affect our entire outlook, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, disappointment, and underachievement.
But if you catch yourself catastrophising, there are a few things you can do:
1. Accept yourself (and your successes and failures): acknowledge that no-one is perfect and that things will go wrong from time to time, but that doesn’t mean your entire future is in jeopardy. Become more comfortable in your imperfections and fallibility by accepting that you will fail at things and the world will conspire against you from time to time.
2. Take control: spend a few minutes every day writing down everything you’re catastrophizing over. Ask yourself what the likelihood is of each of these things happening, and then ask yourself how serious it would be if they did. This exercise will help you realize that many of the things you are worrying about are unlikely to happen and, even if they did, they wouldn’t be as serious as you think.
3. Use the “best friend test”: Ask yourself what you would advise your best friend to do about each concern, and take that action.
4. Learn to self-soothe: be kind to yourself!
Be mindful of whether you are making matters worse by catastrophising.
Lastly, Be Resilient And Adaptive
If coronavirus has shown us anything, it’s the value of being adaptive and resilient.
Those who are going to adapt most easily are those who are resilient enough to deal with the new situations that present themselves. It could be an emotional resilience, say to deal with the disappointment of travel plans that have fallen through, or professional resilience as you’re forced to work from home.
You can draw parallels to your PhD. Your PhD will throw up challenges and problems, if not now then in the future, and your success as a PhD student is down in part to how well you can adapt and how resilient you are to those changes.
Resilience is key to dealing with challenges in life, so whether it’s coronavirus or your thesis, reflect on how much of it you have built in your day-to-day life.
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