Maria Faleeva is our current Student Ambassador and the recipient of the 2020-21 FindAPhD Scholarship. Listen to her share her tips on how to look after your mental heath and wellbeing during your PhD.
When starting my PhD, I soon noticed how different it was to undergraduate and Masters study. I started implementing strategies to manage my health and wellbeing so I've shared them in my latest video to hope they can help you too!
Hey guys it's Maria here and today I thought we would talk a little bit about health and well-being and how to manage that with your PhD studies, because, as I found in my first year of studies, that the PhD can get quite a lot and sometimes it feels like there's just too many things going on in your life and you don't really know how to manage, but I found that if you have these really well built-in strategies and tactics to fall back on in the health and well-being aspect, then it can just make your whole life a lot easier. So let's talk about it!
To be honest with you guys this whole well-being thing has never been my strong suit. I’ve always been the kind of person that either does something 100% or doesn't do it at all, and this was okay for me during my undergraduate because I could get by with not doing a whole lot during the semester, but then studying a lot for the finals and doing well. This is not a great tactic, I do admit, but this was the default thing that I always fell back on. But this kind of became impossible to do in my Masters, and to an even greater extent during my PhD, because, I mean, if people are doing postgraduate studies, they are into their field, they are always wanting to do more, they're really interested by it and with these sort of courses there is always more to do. You can always be doing more readings or you can be doing more experiments in the lab and it kind of does create the snowball effect where you will be working 24/7 if you don't actually realise this and say “well hold up this is not a well-rounded lifestyle.”
One of the most resounding pieces of advice I got at the beginning of my PhD studies – and I would like to share with you guys – was given to me by this postdoc, and she said: “okay Maria, if you are thinking about coming in on the weekend or staying really late one day you’ve got to ask yourself the question of ‘why am I doing this?’” Is it because I think that by staying late or getting in an extra day of work I can do more or is it because I actually need the time to finish something that I have going on? And if it's the first option, if it's just about wanting to do more, then you're going to have to say “no I’m not going to do that.” Primarily because there is always going to be more things to do. It's kind of this area where you can always be doing more and it never ends, but you have to kind of stop yourself and think there's always tomorrow. At the end of the day, a PhD is from three to five years so there are a lot of times for you to be doing what you need to be doing and by kind of dedicating all of your spare time you are going to end up neglecting your social commitments, your extracurricular activities. Actually, the things that outside of your work do bring you happiness and peace and joy and the more you neglect them week after week and then it turns into months those aspects are slowly going to fade and you will really not have a lot but your work and that is not something that is particularly helpful or healthy. So that is the main important thing that you need to always be mindful of how much you are actually doing and not work yourself to death.
I used to get really stressed out when people would ask me about my hobbies to be honest because I would feel the need to come up with something cool or intellectual, but honestly, hobbies are just things that you do that you know will relax you, whatever is happening in your life that are stressing you out. So for me, for example, I really like to fall back on yoga and playing board games such as chess or something in addition to just a lot of trashy Netflix tv shows where I can just shut off my brain. I first picked up yoga during the first lockdown where we had to stay indoors and it was actually really useful as all that was needed was a spare bit of wall with enough space to stretch out your arms. It's a really good way to get your 20 or 30 minutes of exercise in a day and as it's particularly good if you're not quite such a sporty person like myself because on YouTube there's a whole variety of videos for all different levels and abilities. Also an aspect of yoga I didn't really buy into before I started doing it was the breathing exercises because it's such an integral part of the practice. You have to focus on it and it forces you to put outside all of your worries and thoughts for a while and then when you're done with the practice you can come back to it with a clear head and be able to approach all your tasks with a lot less stress and with a more focused and productive attitude.
Chess is another hobby I have recently picked up, and it provides a great distraction for me. More generally, there have started to be a lot of websites that have adapted to the Covid restrictions to allow you to enjoy activities that you otherwise would do with someone else – like Netflix releasing Netflix Party where you can watch your favourite shows with your friends all online at the same time.
Another thing that's really important is to make sure that you are eating a healthy diet and although this applies to everybody I think it's specifically difficult to remember if you have a lab-based PhD. At least in my opinion because for example you're not at your desk the whole time and I know from experience that if I have a long day, I get in at around like eight or nine and then I’m working and I’m working, and it's experiment after experiment and then at six pm and I realised that I haven't even drunk any water the whole day and I feel terrible like my body's not OK over that. So although it's a really simple piece of advice I find it's really important to kind of remember that if you know you have a long day make sure to take that little bit extra time in the morning to eat your breakfast, make sure that you take at least a 15-minute break every couple of hours to return to your desk and have a snack and have a drink of water because that will give you energy to go back and do the tasks that you need to do and towards the end of the day your body will not feel so drained and dead because you have been making sure that it's sustained properly for the tasks you've been doing.
The final piece of advice that I have for you guys is to not neglect your social aspect of life. It sounds a bit weird considering the whole lockdown and social distancing but even a phone call with a friend every couple of days will really help you maintain your social sanity. PhDs can be an isolating time if you let them. I mean you're really narrowing down on a very specific field of interest which a lot of people will not be really knowledgeable about and this does create a little bit of a barrier between you and others so to say so I think it's really important to not neglect the people that you are meeting or have been in your life up to now because that is really important. It's good to kind of retain this connection to the outside world apart from your work.
So there you guys have it! Essentially really easy to say, more difficult to put into practice, but don't overwork. Work a good amount, put everything that you have into it but make sure that you are leaving time for your hobbies that relax you. Do them every day, you feel sane, you eat a well-balanced diet, you drink plenty of water and you maintain your social contact with all the people that make you happy and a better person in the world and in theory that should be all. Well, I hope you guys are doing well and keeping well and bye for now!
Read Maria's introductory blog to learn a bit more about her research, her background and her PhD journey so far.
You may be able to visit the library or laboratory, but chances are a fair amount of your research will take place at home right now.
Whatever the circumstances, there's nothing quite like starting a PhD. Hannah explains what it was like for her.
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