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When I was writing my PhD, I couldn’t think of anything that could be more stressful.
 
Now, in my work with PhD students, I realise I was wrong. Working towards a PhD during a pandemic is far more stressful.
 
Covid has turned something that was already challenging, stressful and anxiety-inducing and vastly increased the complexity of the task and scale of the challenge.
 
What’s more, the situation is rapidly changing, and uncertainty abounds.
PhDs aren’t meant to be easy. PhDs during a pandemic are guaranteed to be difficult.
 
In this post, I want to offer you 15 mindfulness nuggets for you to reflect on as you work on your PhD during Covid. They’re designed to ease some of the emotional pain that comes with completing a PhD at this time. They’ll help to show you that you’re not the only one feeling the way you do, and that the way you’re feeling is completely normal.
 
These tips are varied and cover both the practical and emotional challenges thrown up by Covid. You can read them in any order you like, but when you do, take time to reflect on how they relate to your own thesis and emotional state. At the end of each section is a small nugget for you to think about: pay attention to it and be mindful in that moment.

During the pandemic, cut yourself some slack

 
You’re not going to be on your A-game during a pandemic and things aren’t going to go the way you want them. 
 
I don’t know about you, but one of the hardest things for me to deal with the new reality was that there were so many things outside of my control. Before, I had full ownership over what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and with whom to do it. These were things I took for granted. 
 
In my case, this meant that I could grow my business in the way I wanted, travel where I wanted, and never think twice about the logistics. 
 
For you, you likely never questioned your ability to perform fieldwork, access labs, travel to conferences or any of the other things that are now off limits. 
 
It’s been a stark reminder to us all: we are now having to navigate a world in which (at least for now) we have only limited control. 
 
We’re all having to rethink the ways we do things and, as time goes on, we’re realising that this isn’t a short term blip in our calendars. This is a long term structural shift, and requires us to re-plan far into the future. 
 
But in this context our own minds can become our own worst enemy. If you’re not careful, you can compare the current reality to the former reality. We can question why our productivity or motivation isn’t like it used to be. 
 
But you need to cut yourself some slack. No matter how hard you try, you aren’t going to be able to work in the same way you did before, so why beat yourself up for it?
 
Instead, shift your expectations for what you’re able to achieve. It’ll likely be less, given your lack of access to fieldwork, labs or supervisors, or simply because you’re emotionally a bit more vulnerable than you used to be. 
 
I can appreciate that many of you have funding or administrative pressures that muddy the waters. In these cases, try not to pile any more pressure on yourself by expecting too much from yourself. 
 
We’re in a pandemic, it doesn’t show any signs of going away any time soon, and everything you interact with is suffering, including your own productivity. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality. Tell your brain to accept it rather than change it. 

 

Be mindful of whether you’re expecting too much of yourself.

Perfectionism Isn’t Possible In A Pandemic

 
Many PhD students are perfectionists, and with that comes a pressure (often internal) to succeed at the very highest level. 
 
This perfectionism is bred in the school system, particularly amongst the high achievers that go on to start a PhD. There, there is an implied sense that perfection is the ideal and, with that, that imperfection is, heaven forbid, failure. 
 
Internalised over many years, this fetishisation of the power of perfection can have a lasting effect. It served as fuel to propel you to where you are today. Most likely, you capitalised upon it to excel in exams, ace your undergraduate students and go through the rigorous process of applying for a PhD programme. 
 
But in the context of a pandemic, it has come under threat. Perhaps for the first time, you aren’t able to achieve perfection, no matter how hard you try. You aren’t even able to get close, in many cases. This is particularly the case if lockdown has forced you to abandon fieldwork, or cut short (or call off) experiments. For many, the pandemic may even spell the end of your PhD journey. 
 
Perfectionism isn’t possible in a pandemic. 
 
And for many of you reading this, that means that the pandemic poses more than just a logistical challenge as you try to redraft your research design, or a public health challenge as you protect you and your loved ones. 
 
For many, it presents an identity crisis, as you struggle to come to grips with perfectionism no longer being possible. 
 
So if you’re struggling, remember why. 

 

Be mindful of whether your perfectionism needs a reality check.

Remind yourself that everything is going to be fine 

Everything is going to be fine. 
 
That inner critic might be trying to convince you otherwise, but honestly, it’s all going to be fine. 
 
Sure, there are problems, struggles and crises that you’re dealing with right now, but you’ll work through them, you’ll come out the other side, and you’ll be a little stronger and more resilient as a result. 
 
Things will undoubtedly go wrong between now and graduation. Heck, you may even decide to leave the PhD journey altogether. Whatever route your path takes, you’ll be able to cope and manage. 
 
So if you’re having a hard time with your PhD, know that the struggle is temporary, it won’t last forever, you’re doing far better than you probably realise, and, in the end, one day, it’ll all be worth it. 

 

Be mindful of the impermanence of this pandemic.
covid phd students

Suffering In Silence?

Everyone is as confused and muddled as you, they just don’t talk about it.
 
If you’re anything like I was, and if you’re anything like the PhD students I interact with on a day to day basis, you can often find yourself in a bit of a muddle during your PhD. This is likely more acute during Covid.
 
At times, you can feel utterly confused, and not entirely sure what’s going on.
 
For many, this can translate into imposter syndrome, and a growing sense that you haven’t ‘got what it takes’ or that you ’should’ understand all this stuff.
 
I felt like this during my PhD. I suffered in silence for months, gradually convincing myself that I was stupid for not understanding, say, what a literature review was, or how to use theory in qualitative research.
 
I started to share my confusion and feelings with other students in my PhD cohort.
 
And when I did, something amazing happened. Almost everyone I spoke to shared similar feelings. Gradually, I started to realise that most people felt the same way too.
 
We all felt like imposters.
 
It taught me a powerful lesson: for as long as you keep your feelings and thoughts bottled up, negative thoughts can thrive.
 
Empowerment and positivity come when you open up and share your thoughts or experience with those around you. As you do, you start to realise that you’re not alone in how you feel, that there’s nothing wrong with you and that, ultimately, everything is going to be okay.
 
So if something from your PhD is causing you trouble or worrying you, take some time today to share your stress with a friend. You might be amazed at what happens.

 

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.

covid phd students

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​

What do you get if you mix over-working, worry, and poor self-care? 
 
At best, you’ll end up frustrated, stressed, and grouchy. At worse, you’ll have an emotional breakdown. 
 
In either case, it’s important to understand what both prevention and cure look like. 
 
When it comes to prevention, it pays to develop healthy work habits. I’ve talked in these emails before about the importance of good work-life balance, setting realistic expectations and acknowledging your limitations. This kind of awareness can set you on the path to a healthy relationship with your PhD. 
 
But you’re human and you can’t always strike a great balance. There are times when you slip into unhealthy habits, or where you do overwork and end up on a path to burnout. It’s here that the cure is needed: taking time for yourself. 
 
Whist you want to avoid reaching this stage, if you do notice yourself on the cusp of more unmanageable stress levels or feel completely overwhelmed, that’s when you need to take time out. I know what you’re thinking, I  can’t, there’s too much to do. Well, you just kind of have to. Even just a day or two. Take some time, step away from the thesis, lower the stress levels and come back with your batteries at last partially recharged. 
 
If you don’t, you’ll burn out and you may put the entire PhD in jeopardy. 
 
Remember: you’re more important than your PhD. 
 
Be mindful of your own needs.

In Struggle There Is Growth

As much as I am a strong advocate for working within your limits and being kind to yourself, there are inevitably going to be days when you’re feeling awful but you nevertheless have to show up and get the job done.
 
Whether you’re teaching, marking, writing or researching, everyone has days where they have no energy, where they would rather be in bed or where the inner critic seems to have found its loudest voice yet. 
 
We can often feel a sense of despair and panic on these days, particularly if what we’re meant to be doing simply can’t wait, or if there’s no way we can put it off. 
 
But it’s during the times when we’re struggling to stay afloat that we grow and develop valuable mental grit.
 
Getting through these days is tough and doing so takes it out of you, for sure, but by getting the job done in spite of the odds you succeed in building a little bit more of the mental armour you’ll need to get to the end of your PhD journey. 
 
Be mindful of the opportunity for 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

The pandemic is just one of many things that will go wrong in your PhD all the time.
 
That’s just the way things are. 
 
When things do go wrong, you’ve got a choice over how you react. Either you can think calmly and rationally about the best way forward or you can panic and become overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions. 
 
Our inbuilt negativity bias means we often tend towards the latter. But making a conscious effort to react more calmly can have a big impact on the way you relate to your PhD. 
 
This isn’t to say you should ignore any problems that crop up, but rather you should ignore the inner critic that is trying to blow the problem out of proportion and which is trying to convince you the problem represents the end of the world or that it is evidence of your idiocy. 
 
If you give that critic too much ammunition, you can find yourself panicking about the problem and find it hard to focus on anything else. A panicked response is a poor one, so you’re unlikely to solve the problem when you’re in this state of mind.
 
In reality though, the problem isn’t the end of the world, it is more often than not fixable and problems of any sort are a sign of progress and evolution. 
 
So next time you encounter a problem in your PhD, take a deep breath, think calmly about what you can do to mitigate it and set clear boundaries and time limits for your attempts to do so. Then go and do something else. 
 
Be mindful of whether you’re creating problems unnecessarily.

covid phd students

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.

Avoid catastrophising

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. 

Hello Doctor…

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