January is always a weird month for me; everyone’s trying to get back into a routine with work, attempting to maintain resolutions to go to the gym regularly and eat healthily, and the weather is dark and gloomy – especially in Aberdeen. This week has been particularly tough for me, I’m lacking in motivation and it’s been a week where prioritising self-care has kept me working. A few weeks ago, Olivia Kirtley shared a thread on Twitter about mental health issues, career pressures and academia. The hashtag #AcademicSelfCare has also taken off into a little online community. So, this week I’m talking about academic self care in relation to PhD students specifically, covering my tips and when you should be prioritising yourself over your work.
Taking the weekend off doesn’t work. Many people shift their focus to self-care at the weekends; they ‘allow’ themselves a lie in, they see friends and they spend time doing things they enjoy. This never works. Book-ending your week with good stuff means the working week becomes a prime opportunity for burnout.
Self-care needs to become an integral part of our daily lives. Whether that means doing something small each day, or doing something a bit more substantial when you need a break.
Here are a few ideas of what I do to keep myself happy when I’m feeling stressed or under pressure:
Take a break and talk about it. I know lots of PhD students that don’t take lunch breaks; we grab a sandwich in between meetings, often eating at our desks. Taking time away from my desk to eat lunch and go for a walk helps me de-stress, and when I get back to my desk I’m then much more productive. It’s also a good idea to talk to other PhD students about how you’re feeling – if you’re feeling stressed, you can bet they know how you feel! Take time out to go for a coffee; realising that you’re not alone and asking for help can really take the weight off your shoulders.
Take advantage of your freedom. Like a lot of PhD students, I manage my own time. I’m rarely seen at my desk before 9am and if it’s raining and I don’t want to walk to work I won’t be at my desk at all. I work from home a lot, especially when I’m having a tough week. This week I worked from home 1 day out of 5, another day I left the office early to go to the gym before it got busy, and another I didn’t get to my desk until 11am. All of the work I wanted to get done, still got done.
Say no. This one’s tricky. We know it’s important to get involved with multiple different projects, we’re looking for opportunities to publish and doing all we can to increase the chances of getting a job once the PhD is complete. If you say yes to every opportunity you’re given, you’ll likely burnout after a few months. Think strategically, and say yes only to the things that fit your research interests, your time scales, and that involve people you enjoy working with.
“But I don’t have time to do any of this stuff!”
Everyone has time to say no. Everyone has time to make themselves a cup of tea and eat their lunch without scrolling through their inbox. It’s about getting into a routine of small things; at first you’ll find that you need to ‘make’ time to do these things, but after a few weeks they’ll come naturally. After that it’s important to recognise the days when you need to turn your alarm off to catch up on sleep, the times that you just leave your desk and go easy on yourself.
Self-care is a process that requires effort, but in the long-term you’ll find it helps you avoid burnout and unnecessary stress, and you’ll enjoy your work much more.