Saturday, 19 August 2017

A PhD Journey: A Few Survival Tips



Let's talk about the elephant in the room...





#TeamRolle


Firstly, understand that doing a PhD will take over your life. By that, I mean that it will consume most of your thoughts during the process. As a result, it is likely to affect many aspects of your life; hobbies, family, and relationships. That said, if you can organise yourself like a pro, prioritise, and make time for the things that you value and that are important to you, you will be able to fit it all in. I promise. 


Time management and schedules of work are your friend, my friend. 


Class, gender, education, and academia:
you better work bitch!



If, like me, you came from a low socio-economic background (ex-council-house-single-parent-household-with-disabled-mum-on-benefits…check), and, shock horror, were born with a vagina, it is more likely that you will suffer from some degree of the dreaded imposter syndrome. 

Let me explain… you might have got funding to do your PhD (amazing!) but instead of feeling worthy and entitled to it like some of your peers (espesh public school, penis laden*) you push yourself to work that little bit harder than everyone else, just to prove your worth. This results in burn out (definitely not amazing). You probably didn't have a high quality of education (no public school for you, soz), which means you probably aren't oozing the type of self-confidence, self-assurance, and (mostly) unspoken sense of entitlement that seems to be bred into you at such institutions (I always imagine public school to be a bit like Hogwarts, but without all the flying, magic, and spells. I think... David Cameron and Boris Johnson burning £50 notes in-front of the homeless. Basically, a breeding ground for wankers). 

I know, I know, I know this isn't the case, I know lots of lovely, right-on people from public schools with a penis, but you know, I can be bitter about my poverty if I like. And I'm a woman having her say so you can shut up and let me speak for once etc etc. You won't have mummy and daddy's wealth behind you to fall back on. You won't have the social connections or wealthy mentors who seem to be able to magic up a 40k job out of fresh air if you want one. The old adage 'it's not what you know, it's who you know' is so true, it hurts.

Dayyym. 

You'll just have to go it alone, like the rest of us, plebs. 

Shame. 

* disclaimer. Penis laden refers to and includes anyone benefitting or upholding a patriarchal, phallocentric system and/or world view. 



An aside on hard work and self-worth



Placing self-worth on what you can achieve or produce, is unhealthy. If you fail, your self-worth lays on the floor, shattered, and in tatters. Self-worth, the degree to which you feel you are a worthy human being, comes from within, from recognising all of the amazing qualities and attributes you have just by being you

Not what you can do.

Doing a PhD does not prove anything other than you are capable of doing some stuff and writing about it.

Having said that, the only reason I know and can say that, is because I’m doing one and I learnt this lesson. Doing a PhD serves up a whole host of lessons about who you are.

I am much clearer on who I am now. 

Back i’nt day, I was taught not to display high levels of intellect, or passion, or confidence. They were, apparently, unattractive qualities in a woman.
That’s fragile masculinity talking.
Put that into the box marked ‘BOLLOCKS’.

As a woman... there are still a lot of bollocks to kick, and a shit tonne of social conditioning to unpick.

But please do. 
Emasculate the patriarchy. 
It’s fun!



Some things you might experience 
on your PhD journey




 Guilt            ‘I really need to take a holiday, I’m
 exhausted’. 
*Goes on holiday* 
‘Oh my god, I’m not doing enough work, I’m so far behind’.
You worry that you haven’t done enough to fill your glass. 

Joy            ‘Oh my goodness, I get to spend my time
dedicated to the
things I am most passionate about, what a gift, I am so blessed’.  
You will feel elated that this is your life. 
Your glass is brimming full with energy and enthusiasm.
  
  Depression     ‘I really hate this, I’m not enjoying it, why
am I putting myself through 
this torture?’ 
You will question why you are doing it, you feel unhappy, unmotivated. You struggle with daily tasks and feel resistant and apathetic toward the whole thing. 
Your glass appears to be empty.  

Anxiety        ‘I don’t know if I’m writing enough’
‘I don’t know what I’m going to 
do after I graduate’ 
You have an excess of nervous energy, are over thinking, analytical, and find it hard to relax.  
Your glass is half full, but it's shaking and its contents are spilling out all over the place.

·     

Tips for managing the
PhD process


Take care of your body. We are embodied creatures. Our body is the vessel which carries us around, and what we use to do stuff, think through, and what we use to type things up with. Take super good care of it. This looks like… 

Correct Office Equipment. For the past 6 months, I'd been suffering from shoulder and neck pain. I was buying orthopaedic pillows to sleep on and doing gentle yoga exercises to try and relieve it, but it was getting worse. Eventually someone asked if it was anything to do with my posture at work - that had never occurred to me. I arranged a workstation assessment through Occupational Health (OH) at Plymouth University, and low and behold, my desk was far too low, my seat was not suitable (the seat pan was too short for my longer legs) and the mouse I was using was causing pressure on my wrists. Even if you aren't experiencing pain at the moment, I recommend everyone contact OH for a workstation assessment; Edel Greenwood at Plymouth University was very experienced and knowledgable, and taught me how I should sit at my desk correctly, to avoid injury. Its information you need to know! 

Getting enough sleep. Get as much sleep as you need so that you don’t feel tired in the day. A tired body and mind is less productive (getting enough sleep in order to be more productive should not be the reason you get a healthy dose... rather, it should come from wanting to be kind toward yourself, and take good care. Its a happy consequence). 

Eating well. Did you know that you can eat yourself happy? Amazing right? I found this out when researching what I could do to reduce the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) in my body. I found a super book called The Happy Kitchen (2016) by Rachel Kelly. The recipes are clean, healthy, easy-to-follow, and accessible. The book concludes with a handy 'good mood food' chart which tells you what to eat, and what to avoid (a replica of that chart is here for you to take a look).


It sits on my fridge and I choose which foods to eat off the chart daily. I also decided to buy a smoothie maker to have a go at some of the recipes at home, and now I make smoothies and soups daily, its revolutionised my diet in the best way. Below is the one I purchased off Amazon, which I recommend. 


I also take 4 supplements (most) days. These are high quality fish oil to improve brain function, GTF Chronium used to maintain normal blood glucose levels, and work towards reducing levels of cortisol in the body, Ferrous Iron to boost my energy levels when I stopped eating red meat, and Magnesium at night time to help me sleep (note: these supplements were recommended to me by my Personal Trainer in 2013, please seek expert advice before taking any yourself). 

Exercise. I now take the time to exercise daily. 
Every day. 
Even if I have loads to do and I quietly think to myself... 
'I don't have the time'
No.
No excuses. 
I make time. 
I prioritise. 
Sometimes this is 45 mins of yoga in the morning (which I follow from an app, the one I recommend is below, I've tried and tested most of them!) If the weather is nice (it rains A LOT in Plymouth) I will go for a run around Saltram, or on a costal walk at Wembury, or ramble on Dartmoor. I sometimes go alone, or with a friend (Beth Richards) and her dawg (Obi) which neatly brings me to...


Friends. I moved down from Leicester (where all my friends and family are based) and set up camp in Plymouth to begin my PhD journey. I didn't really know anyone when I arrived, and so I did a few things in order to meet new people. I joined The Postgraduate Society at the University and worked as their photographer for just over a year. I thoroughly recommend joining, as they run monthly lunches for all members, and trips across Devon and Cornwall. I met lots of different people through the group, and it made me feel part of the fabric of the university. I also met people at induction, who have become great friends. Shout out to my #TeamRolle study buddy Steven Paige. I now run an arts collective with my col-lab-orator Dagmar Schwitzgebel called Church of Performance http://churchofperformance.blogspot.co.uk. We've been performing across the UK and Europe over the past couple of years. 
I would say that making friends with fellow researchers and people living in and around Plymouth will be your #1 best resource for keeping you sane along this journey. They will be able to empathise with how much of a slog and a battle this journey can be sometimes... you can of course discuss things with non-phd people, but they just won't quite get it. You can lean on each other through the good times and the bad, and thats invaluable. 


Specific tips for 
soothing stress and anxiety


I now have a shit tonne of tips and techniques for  reducing anxiety, and I'm SO HAPPY to be able to share them with you now. As well as all the above advice that will improve your overall health and wellbeing, I also have more specific tools that I use to manage stress and anxiety. 

  • Pranayama Breathing. At a very basic level, you take deep yoga breaths, making your out breaths longer than your in breaths. This reduces the amount of Carbon Dioxide in your blood stream, creating sensations of calm. I do this when I'm out walking in the countryside sometimes, or when I'm feeling a bit nervy. I also use this app when I want a longer session of calm. 




  • Meditation. I use meditation as and when I need to in order to relax my mind. Lots of people use apps, and Headspace is a great place to start on your own meditation journey with beginner 'how-to' sessions. I tend to gaze into the light of a candle to meditate, as this works for me. I also use candles for quiet time when I am intending good things for people. I find that it helps change negative thought patterns into positive ones.


 


  • Listening to podcasts. I have a few favourite podcasts that I listen to when I'm feeling on edge, or alone and in need of some company, albeit through my earphones! Christine Hassler talks about a variety of issues in her Over it and On with it podcast and has a soothing voice which makes me feel calm. I also feel better hearing her practical and spiritual advice on how to navigate life. This is an especially good episode from Hassler on navigating anxiety. 



I'd also recommend The Smart Couple by Jayson Gaddis, again his voice is calming and I enjoyed learning about healthy relationships.   He talks to many industry experts, and its insightful. Natalie Lue's The Baggage Reclaim Sessions is incredibly empowering for those who are trying to unpick all the social conditioning that come with being born a woman and a people pleaser! She's funny and inspiring. 

  • Audio books. Can you see a theme? I struggle with reading books for pleasure, preferring to listen to a voice rather than look at words on a page because that isn't relaxing for me, and feels like 'work'. At the moment I'm listening to White Hot Truth (2017) by Danielle LaPorte and I can't recommend this book enough. Its a life changer. For those of us interested in the path of personal growth and development, Danielle will shatter those new age illusions and bring you down to Earth equipped with the ability to trust in your self, have faith in the universe, and courage to walk down your own path. She will lift you up with words of encouragement when you are feeling down. Please take a listen...
  • Journalling. When I am going through periods of stress or anxiety and my mind is whirling, I free write. I open up my mind and write down my stream of consciousness, getting everything out that has been buzzing around in my head. I usually find my mind gets more active when Im trying to sleep (nightmare!) At such times, I'll get up out of bed, go sit down at my living room table, and get it all out. Then... just like magic, I can go to sleep! I also recognise that my mind goes a bit 'zingy' when I'm going through a creative period. In much the same way, I get up out of bed and write down everything that has been whirling around in my mind but in a different book, one that is especially for PhD and artwork ideas. Fabulous.

  • EFT. i.e. Emotional Freedom Technique. This was something that my counsellor advised me on in my last round of sessions. You tap a various points on the body, and it releases emotional tensions and blocks relieving the tension and nervous energy so you can feel lighter. I use this before academic presentations and job interviews. Its ace. Have a look at information online and have a go. 


  • Counselling. This has been a tremendous resource and support to me throughout my PhD journey, and I have to say the counsellors at Plymouth University are wonderful. I am now on my third round of sessions (this time for mentoring rather than therapeutic support) and it is helping me to learn and grow as a human. Not everyone has had the privilege of a happy, healthy, and secure family upbringing where you were taught all the tools necessary in order to be able to survive life. Asking for help so that you can learn and grow is something to be celebrated, definitely not something to be ashamed of. There are also womens and mens groups run at Plymouth that you can attend so that you can share experiences and reflections with others. This is something I am going to try this academic year, and I am looking forward to meeting and talking to other women in Plymouth.


  • Socialising (and Dancing!) If I'm not at my desk, I'm probably in a coffee shop with a friend having a catch up (with Dr. Alan Butler, or Amble Skuse). Regular meetings with friends where you can talk and share the load is incredibly important. Doing a PhD can be very isolating, especially for those who are working on individual research projects in the Arts and Humanities. Meet up for that coffee. Ask your friend out for a pint. Go dancing in OMG with Nuria, or at 'Weirdo's' night downstairs in The Fortesque with Dagmar. Say 'yes' to social events. You need human contact and interaction! You need it.



  • Taking a shower or bath. Sometimes when I'm in the midst of feeling angsty and overrun with feelings and emotions coursing through my body, I'll take a shower or run a bath. The feeling of water washing over me is incredibly soothing and calming.
  • Self-Care. Self-care looks like booking in for a massage at an exclusive spa because it relaxes you and makes you feel soooo god damn good (I save up for those!) It looks like spending the afternoon shopping for shoes because you really love shoes. It looks like going to the cinema with friends (or alone, yes, I go to the cinema alone, scandalous!) because you really want to see the latest film with rave reviews. It also doesn't have to cost a lot of money: its cooking dinner for a friend because you both have to eat. Its a girlie night with your besties, in PJs, eating pizza and drinking wine and having a good old gossip because your girls just get it! Its wild swimming with your mum on Dartmoor and getting mosquito bites on your ass (ouch!) Its a G&T on a balcony overlooking Exmouth with the sun on your face, feeling blessed for where your life has taken you. Its taking some home-made sandwiches to the beach and having a picnic. Its asking your friend if you can borrow their dog to take with you on your costal walk because animals are the best friends ever (especially Billy Bob!) 
Its whatever makes you feel good, 
because that is food for your soul. 


A Final Comment

The most fundamental thing that will top everything else on this list, is actively working on building up your confidence and self esteem. You can teach yourself how to do this, here are a couple of pointers; positive affirmation. Showing kindness and compassion to yourself. Respecting yourself. Trusting in your own judgement that comes as a result of living in integrity. Having healthy boundaries and learning to say 'no' to what makes you uncomfortable or doesn't serve you. Recognising your faults and loving yourself anyway because they are a part of you and make you dirty, sexy, human. As soon as you feel good about who you are, and believe in what you can do and achieve, you will fly. When you can hold your head up high and say with great ease and clarity 

'I love and respect myself'
'I know I am capable'
'I know I can do this'
'I know I deserve my funding'
'I know how to take care of myself' 

...you will have won at life, and your PhD will be something that you can work on, not something that you feel works on you, grinding you down. 


Shared as always with love and light

 - Natalie x