We all have times in our lives when things just suck. When things aren’t going quite as we would have hoped personally and yet we still have a job to do – we still have to get our PhD’s. The pressure of this can become exceedingly clear when personal issues crop up and it can add to the difficulties we are facing.Sometimes we can do things to overcome the hard times, sometimes it’s just a case of making the ride a little gentler. Rather than burying our heads in the sand, which can be oh so tempting, there are ways we can make life easier for ourselves. There are steps we can take and things we can do that enable us to feel supported, and most importantly, to take the pressure off whilst we find our feet again. It is inevitable that during the course of a three-year PhD personal issues will come along, but they don’t have to mean the end of your doctoral pursuit and in fact, could help you find a new way of doing things that will help you in the future. Here are some of the things that help me when things suck.
It can be incredibly difficult to do this, but sometimes stepping back and out of your situation where you can, creating some distance and seeing things from a wider perspective can really help. You might feel that you are getting *nothing* done, but a done list might actually tell you otherwise. You might step back and realise that actually, things really are quite difficult at the moment and you need more support than you had anticipated. The idea with this is to just assess where you are at. It can be painful to see, but it’s the first step towards making a plan and making things a bit easier for yourself. You might get this perspective through talking through your situation with a friend or trusted colleague, or perhaps you’d like to take a more structured approach.
A tool I developed for myself during my sixth form days was the ‘PIES’ approach. Initially this was an acronym to help me remember different aspects of Health and Social Care for my exams. However I made it more personal. PIES stands for personal, intellectual, emotional and social. Whenever I tended to lose sight of the shore I’d sit down and see how I felt in each of these areas. Highlighting where things were good and noticing where they were not so good. In some instances I was able to see that socially I had withdrawn and perhaps grabbing a cuppa or going to the cinema with a close friend might help. Other times I could see that my concentration was affected and it might help to change my studying technique. Be gentle with this, it isn’t an exercise to see where you are doing ‘badly’ and then beat yourself up about it. This is an exercise with self-care and support in mind. Rather than chastising yourself, you notice that you need to bring some sort of support in, and that is ok.
Once you’ve got a good idea of where you are really at. You might need to be honest with people. Perhaps telling friends that you’re having a hard time and that you might not be in touch as much could be a way to relieve the pressure of maintaining a front. It may also allow friends to be there for you and support you. Perhaps speaking to your supervisors and explaining that you have some personal issues at the moment which are making some aspects of your PhD work challenging, will help you take the pressure off in terms of deadlines, allowing you some time and mental space to work on whatever is happening personally. Honesty can be hard, it can be embarrassing and it can also be downright painful. Saying things out loud or writing them down and getting a response from someone can reinforce what is going on for you and how much it sucks. But like stepping back, honesty is a really good step towards getting support.
Most individuals doing a PhD have got there through hard work and committment. Most of us push ourselves to achieve our absolute best every single day. Aside from the fact that this is probably not possible normally, it’s going to be even less likely when we are feeling rubbish or we have a lot on personally. Reassessing our capabilities and when we are likely to hit deadlines or complete tasks can give some breathing space and make us feel less anxious. It can be a weight off our shoulders. It’s really hard to drop the perfectionist tendencies and believe our mind when it tells us that ‘slacking off’ (aka taking much-needed space and time to look after ourselves!) will destroy our chances of ever getting a PhD. Is this realistic? No. There is no shame or failure in being realistic about what you are capable of in this current moment. The amount of work you do is not a reflection of you as a person – whether that amount is high or low. It can be hard to believe this and drop the self-judgement. But if it is going to make life easier for ourselves, it really makes sense to do so, doesn’t it?
Lower your expectations
Off the back of being realistic, you may need to reduce your expectations. Give yourself a bit of extra time for tasks, expect that you might take a bit longer or expect to need an extra half day off in a difficult week. Often when expectations are lowered and the pressure is off, productivity can improve without us even realising. When you can feel yourself putting pressure on or forcing yourself to complete something even though you feel terrible and would benefit much more from an early night or an exercise session, step back and see where the expectation is coming from. Is it coming from your own beliefs about yourself? What is the very worst that would happen if you achieved less than you expected? Are your expectations coming from your supervisors? Or perhaps the expectations you perceive them to have? Maybe this calls for that honest chat. With expectations lowered your mind will feel less pressured, you will have space for yourself and for dealing with your personal issues and these are the sort of conditions that allow for productivity.
We all need a bit of extra help and support sometimes. Whether it’s a good friend cheering you on from the sidelines or a professional once a week. Reaching out for support is brave and shows initiative. There is no weakness in knowing that you need some extra help and getting that for yourself, there is strength in it. Speak to your student’s union, reach out to the health and wellbeing team within your university or look for external support. Tell friends how they can support you. Good friends will be more than happy to do this, whether it s a good hug, some cheerleading, a coffee break or just a listening ear. Knowing that you have this kind of guidance and support on hand can make the world of difference.
Whilst I fully advocate thinking positively and not jumping to worst case scenarios, I also advocate thinking ahead and coming up with potential contingency plans. This might mean looking at university guidelines or legislation about taking a break during your PhD, suspending your studies, moving to part-time or taking sick leave. You don’t even have to read these documents if you don’t want to, but saving them somewhere just in case can be really useful. When things are feeling terrible you don’t want to be trawling through the back end of the unversity website to find out what steps you need to take to make things better. Have it ready and on hand when you need it. It is useful to know where you would stand if you decided to make changes to your format of study. Discuss these points with an adviser at university, your funding body or your supervisors. Keep yourself informed so that you can make the best decision for yourself, should you need to.
My final point would be to trust yourself. You’ve made it this far, and chances are that you’ve probably experienced times that suck in the past. Remind yourself that you made it through them before. That you were able to survive and perhaps even thrive. Trust that you will meet those deadlines even if you take time off to look after yourself. Trust that you can make decisions that are the best for you, your health and your well-being. Trust that those around you will support you and see how hard you are trying. And trust that you have everything you need within you to get yourself through this period. Things might suck, but they won’t suck forever. You will be ok.
I read a book a few years ago that really inspired my approach to my studies, and alongside someone very special, I was able to change the way I worked and as a result improve my productivity and outcomes, without making myself ill in the process. The book is called Thrive, by Arianna Huffington and I highly, highly recommend it to anyone looking to achieve some more balance in their personal and working lives.
Thanks for reading, and I hope that if you are going through a sucky time this post has helped in some way, even if just to reassure you that you are not alone. It helps me to remember that the priority in any situation is myself and my health, no matter what. There is no point in having a PhD if I am not in the best state to enjoy it and appreciate it. And the whole point of doing a PhD was to have fun!
If you know someone having a hard time, maybe you could send them this post, or perhaps talk through some of the points mentioned above. The power of social support can never be questioned. Start a conversation, you never know how much someone might thank you for it.
Until next time 🙂