Part II: Self Care & Survival in Academia

The Seed: Self-care is important and PhD students require more support than they can realistically provide for themselves.

The Sprout: A focus on individual self-care places a heavy burden on PhD students to sort themselves out. Equally overburdened professors are not equipped to properly support their grad students. Recent studies highlighting the prevalence of mental health issues in the PhD student population demonstrate the need for a more organized institutional and cultural response to this problem. In this piece, I’m looking into the context of self-care and grad school because that’s a world I know. I imagine, however, that my thoughts can easily apply to a number of different contexts.

The Forest

Hey PhD student—you’re not alone. But it sure does feel that way sometimes.

Often, as doctoral students, we find ourselves overwhelmed, confused, and overburdened. These feelings can be difficult to share—especially when our colleagues might seem to have their shit together. Because of this, it often seems like we’re the only one struggling.

Two years into my doctoral program, I was part of a group of fieldworkers who were about to interview teenagers who exchanged sex for things like money, food, shelter, and clothing.

Experienced researchers in charge of the project said we’d hate ourselves at some point. We would be sitting in our nice warm homes with food in our refrigerators wondering about the 15-year-old we’d interviewed that morning who was counting the days until she could go to hairdresser school. We’d feel horrible when the young person we were interviewing sobbed while sharing his story, but we couldn’t hug him or even pat his arm because it was against the rules. During that project, most of our self-care involved checking in with each other, sharing stories, making sure we drank enough water, getting enough sleep. Because we were all going through the same thing, our individual self-care was reinforced by a community feeling.

I was fortunate to have a supportive community of colleagues, a caring advisor, and kickass mentors who energized me as I worked to complete my doctoral program. But a number of obstacles can trip up even the most promising PhD candidates. These difficulties exist in addition to institutional gatekeeping practices such as preliminary exams, dissertation proposals, IRB reviews, dissertation research, writing, and defending.

Even when PhD students hit every mark—when we publish in decent journals, win prestigious awards, and are recognized for teaching and research—we might not take a beat to enjoy the milestone or success. We’re operating in a group of people who are all smart and who are all expected to publish, win awards, and show promise as scholars and educators.

In years past, an academic career was regarded as a fairly low-stress job. This has changed for a number of reasons—the shrinking of the tenure-track job market heading the list. This volatility is based on the changing university environment, an increasing reliance on adjunct faculty to teach courses, and a decline in tenure-track positions. Doctoral students often enter their programs with very little understanding of the vagaries of the job market. When we do begin to get an inkling that the competition might be tougher than we thought, we’re often reassured that we’re doing all the right things.

Now, aside from the actual work involved in earning a PhD, and the pressure to publish, present at conferences, and hone our teaching skills, increased competition for positions (even low paying adjunct jobs), and financial concerns, means that mental health issues are on the rise in graduate student populations. For years, official data did not reflect this trend. Some researchers suggest that anecdotal reports of increased mental health issues provide a more accurate picture of the situation for graduate students because of concerns about retaliation, stigma, and potential impacts on their future careers. This lack of data is changing. For example, a recent global study, “Evidence for a Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education,” reported “strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression” for graduate students. As one writer put it:

Many PhD students are so accustomed to hard work and self-discipline that they beat themselves up when their efforts to manage depression fail to generate perfect results.

Individual responses to this problem are not enough. An institutional response and a cultural shift may be necessary to prevent and intervene in mental health crises.

In my home department, I worked with others to organize a monthly PhD student roundtable that brought us together to share information about professionalism, but was also meant to uplift each other. I recently came across the email announcement I sent out for our October 2013 wellness-themed meeting and it reminded me that I’ve been interested in self-care and grad students for some time now.

I’m collecting stories for future PhD student-focused blogs. What did you wish you knew before you began your doctoral program? What resources do you need as a current grad student or recent graduate? I’d love to hear from you if you’re a current PhD student/candidate or recent graduate/early career academic—tell me what your journey’s been like.

 

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Resources

Academic Mental Health Collective—mental health blog for grad students and post-docs

Breathing Techniques for Reducing Anxiety

Feel Like a Fraud?—APA article about dealing with impostor syndrome.

Graduate School is a Means to a Job—Chronicle article offering grad school advice you can begin to follow in year one.

Navigating Grad School with Mental Illness—five pieces of advice for dealing with mental illness in grad school as well as advice for professors who are working with/mentoring students coping with mental illnesses.

The Professor is In – this website, blog, and Karen Kelsky’s book of the same name provide a wealth of resources for graduate students who need advice about everything from writing CVs, choosing advisors, presenting at conferences, and many more issues. She also provides advice for academic job seekers and early-tenure track professors.

This is Your Mind on Grad School—A Berkeley Study.

The Versatile PhD—resource for students considering alt-ac or non-ac careers.

6 Replies to “Part II: Self Care & Survival in Academia”

  1. My PhD was a while back now. I was the only person starting a PhD in the subject I was studying that year so it was really lonely a lot of the time and not having other people hitting milestones at the same time was often tough. Even when I handed in my PhD, there was nobody really there to celebrate it with because everyone was at work! I suppose I wish someone had told me that I was going to find it one of the most challenging periods of my life but that I would get through it. Also not to worry about perfectionism. As one of my supervisors said to me, it is the beginning of your career. Actually, for me it was also the end as I moved into another area of work and retrained as a counsellor. But I loved my PhD years and would do them again in a heartbeat. It requires pragmatism though I think and a good support network. In fact it was the therapist I worked with during my PhD that motivated me to retrain as a counsellor when I finished! So that might be the other thing I would have wanted to know. Sometimes it can feel as though you are swimming round in circles and getting nowhere but the lessons you learn during your PhD years (the analytical thinking, project management, writing skills) will stay with you and prove to be useful when you least expect it so don’t worry if you don’t appear to have got the results from studying a PhD that you had originally intended.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I especially appreciated your comments about letting go of perfection and understanding that the skills we pick up during our time as PhD students really are transferable.
      a i m e e

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m in the dissertation phase of my PhD program. Right from the start of my program, I felt anxiety ridden about getting done as soon as possible because I’m an older PhD student (in my mid-30s). I left a successful career totally unrelated to my current field (I wanted to do something that made me happy instead of miserable) and feel panicked constantly about delaying my career as it’s impossible to save retirement or money in general to start a life while existing as a poor grad student. Like many PhD students, I’ve felt extreme pressure to excel and impress my advisor and colleagues. I take on more work and projects than I should, am doing two dissertations in one, and typically work 70 hour weeks. Milestones feel underwhelming. After I passed my prelims, I ate a piece of cake by myself and went to work the next day. I was so stressed out about my passing my proposal that I lost hair (embarrassing I know lol) and was sick for three days after finishing. I celebrated by sleeping. To deal with stress, I’ve taken on terrible habits like smoking and overeating. I think my age and being single has allowed me to be negligent in terms of caring for myself as I constantly battle imposter syndrome. None of this is positive, but I know I have found my calling and what I’ve learned is invaluable. The mentors I’ve gained are priceless. I have no regrets about my decision to do a PhD, but do wish I had come in with better techniques to manage anxiety, stress, and depression, and maintain some semblance of a work-life balance. Since my proposal, I’ve taken a step back and asked myself “what the f are you doing to yourself?” I’ve started seeing a counselor, quit smoking, and am working on eating well, playing with my dog more often, and exercising more. For me, it’s been very lonely. I wish faculty/my advisor would check in with me more often emotionally to provide feedback as to whether what I am experiencing is normal. I constantly worry that if I take time for myself, the longer it will take me to finish. I wish there was more feedback as to how much achievement is necessary to avoid failure and actually get a job. Is it really necessary to get 4-5 publications a year to get a job? If I’m not doing it, I know someone else is and I can’t avoid worrying about that. I’d like to be able to tell my mentors what I’m experiencing and not seem like a whiner lol. Sorry for the long, somewhat sad post. Thanks for writing these blogs.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Shannon! I’ll post some more personal thoughts at some point because I agree that it’s important to have a sense of what others are going through. It’s hard to know what the norms are for doctoral students–especially when the job market is so discipline specific, erratic, and unpredictable. That said, I’m glad you are making those small moves to take care of yourself and protect your time. Thinking of you celebrating passing prelims by eating a piece of cake and heading back into work is EXACTLY what I’ve done with each milestone. I worked hard to achieve each goal and when I did (even the HUGE ones), my reaction was momentary joy, OK then, and moving on.

      You’re making me think that a small thing institutions could do for their students is to formally help PhD candidates celebrate their achievements in a more tangible way.

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      1. That would be great! I think it’s easy to forget you’re part of a community when everyone is so busy doing their own thing!

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