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Taking Control of Your PhD: Managing Your Well-Being

It's easy to overlook one of the most important parts of a PhD: you! In the final post in her series on 'Taking Control of a PhD', Dr Ania Gruszczynska explains how to look after your well-being whilst researching for a doctorate.

There are quite a few definitions of well-being out there but the one I like best states simply that wellbeing is 'feeling good and functioning well'. Ideally, this is how you should be feeling all the way through your PhD.

But just how important is well-being for postgraduate researchers? The answer is that it’s probably a bigger issue than you think. And, before you start thinking 'I don’t really have time for any of that fluffy stuff', you may want to consider the evidence.

After all, as a prospective (or current) PhD student you should appreciate the significance of research which overwhelmingly indicates that balanced people are more productive, collaborative and creative. Most importantly, they’re also better at pursuing long-term goals and more psychologically resilient.

So, taking care of your well-being will enable you to make most of your time on a PhD. But countless current and former students, (myself included) will probably confirm that they didn’t pay enough attention to that aspect of their doctoral studies and quite often ended up paying a price for it.

Doing a PhD can be an exhilarating and fascinating experience, but it’s also ripe with potential problems, all of which can be a source of stress.

Independent research work can seem unstructured (particularly if you haven’t gotten on top of time management. Undertaking research can also be fairly isolating, no matter how well you manage the relationship with your supervisor. And, finally, you may be uncertain about the outcome of your degree, even if you’re already looking ahead to your career.

Of course, you could be one of the lucky (and resilient!) people who are able to cope with the pressure and demands of a PhD. If so, just keep doing what works for you and we can all probably learn from your experience. But, if that’s not the case, keep reading…

Tip one - build in time to relax and recharge

Make this a non-negotiable part of your overall long-term plan. After all, a doctorate is a marathon and not a sprint.

It may feel like you don’t have the time for such luxuries and, especially at the beginning of the PhD, you may feel the need to demonstrate your dedication and willingness to work 24/7. That may work as a short-term strategy but sooner or later, you’ll end up crashing and running out of steam.

The PhD as a long-distance run

An analogy that seems to work for some of the students I coach is to put themselves in the shoes of a professional athlete working towards an important event.

Yes, the athletes will work incredibly hard when they are training, but they are only able to do so because they rest and recover in between sessions.

If you apply this approach to your own PhD, you will be able to see that investing time in your well-being will pay off in terms of improved productivity and the ability to consistently produce good work.

Visualising the right balance

You may also want to start by thinking about what well-being looks like for you.

A helpful technique to do that is to reflect on the following question: in an ideal world, if you woke up tomorrow and your wish to have a perfectly balanced PhD was granted, what would that look like? How would you be spending your time, who would you be spending it with?

Jotting down answers to these questions at the outset of your doctoral journey will help you put in place foundations to have a healthy and enjoyable adventure with research, regardless of the outcome.

Tip two - get our of your head

As a PhD student you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about highly complex issues. After all, this is probably what brought you to academia in the first place.

But all that time spent 'in your head' could come at the expense of noticing what is going on with your body and your physical wellbeing. This may lead to situations where you only notice the build-up of stress once you are literally at breaking point.

But all that time spent “in your head” could come at the expense of noticing what is going on with your body and your physical wellbeing. This may lead to situations where you only notice the build-up of stress once you are literally at breaking point.

Fortunately, there are techniques to help you take a step back and regain control of some of those unhelpful thoughts and worries.

From mind-full-ness to mindfulness

I would strongly encourage you to give mindfulness a try. You could check out something like this free online course designed by the Mental Health Foundation or simply take a couple of minutes out of your busy day to switch off and enjoy being in the present moment, noticing what is going on around you.

Feel free to be as sceptical as you want, but there is a lot of solid research evidence that practicing mindfulness can help us enjoy the world around us more.

And this can work for PhD students.

When I encourage students to take on the challenge of spending a couple of minutes a day practicing mindfulness, they report that it really helps them manage the uncertainty that can accompany a PhD.

Those couple of minutes spent switching off from the constant state of being 'on the go' can help you become a bit calmer and leave aside those everyday PhD stresses: checking results, waiting for supervisor feedback, or finding out about the results of a funding application.

Last but not least, practicing mindfulness will improve your focus when you are working. That means being better able to stay on task and finish that literature review chapter you are meant to be working on when you’d rather be binge-watching another TV series on Netflix.

Out of the lab and onto the track

It’s not all about passive contemplation though. If the idea of sitting still doesn’t appeal, try vigorous exercise instead to help you clear your head.

Personally, as a keen runner I often relied on the power of exercise to help me with some rough patches during my own PhD.

There's a good chance your university invests in its own sports and gymnasium facilities as well as libraries and laboratories. If so, use them. The equipment inside may be a bit different, but it could be just as helpful to your PhD in the long-run (pun intended).

Or you could try folding some exercise into your daily routine - perhaps by running or cycling to campus.

Tip three - connect with the people around you

A PhD may be a solo project, but you should still invest in relationships, including forging non-academic ones.

Unless you’re working in a lab or on a collaborative project, you are quite likely to be literally the only person in the world working on your particular research question. You’ll probably be undertaking your studies away from your hometown – perhaps even in a different country.

All these circumstances can easily can lead to loneliness and isolation, which in turn will have a negative impact on your productivity and wellbeing.

Time for family and friends

It may feel very indulgent to take a break from your PhD to spend time with friends and family, but those connections are worth their weight in gold.

Putting a 'call mum' appointment on your calendar may not feel terribly spontaneous, but planning will help you make sure that it doesn’t slip off the list of priorities.

It’s great to cultivate relationships with your fellow PhD students but having access to a network of people who don’t understand the first thing about PhD study will help you maintain perspective and step outside of the academic bubble, enhancing your wellbeing.

Time for you

Some PhD students I worked with have also found it really useful to commit to having a non-negotiable appointment with themselves for some 'non-PhD time'.

That could involve taking a class in something completely unrelated to your degree or just spending time on the phone with friends back at home. This should be something you find personally meaningful and, ideally, it should involve interaction with other people.

You may also want to try other tactics, such as building some technology-free time into your week to help you recharge and have the mental space to interact with other people.

Tip four - recognise when there is a need to seek help

All PhDs have their good and bad days. A day or two of feeling off are probably completely normal, but weeks of feeling anxious and depressed should not be taken for granted as a normal part of the PhD experience.

Yes, it is not uncommon for PhD students to experience problems but there are no additional prizes for suffering.

To start with, give yourself credit for noticing that something may be slightly off kilter and please remember that needing or seeking help are not a sign of failure. In fact, it is a real strength – and a mark of professionalism – to be able to recognise difficulties with your project or working situation and seek the necessary support.

Knowing when to aking the next step

This blog post has focused mostly on things you can do yourself but there are times when professional advice may be needed.

If stress or anxiety are affecting your day-to-day functioning, you will be best off starting by talking to your doctor and taking it from there. Your student services may also have advice on what is available to you within the university and locally.

However, I truly hope that you will be able to have an excellent PhD experience overall, even if some occasional troubleshooting may be needed!

Whilst there will be a lot of aspects of the PhD which will be challenging, this post has hopefully given you some practical tips and techniques to manage any stress more effectively and take control of your wellbeing.

Ania Gruszczynska holds a PhD in Sociology from Aston University and currently works in both project management and personal coaching. Check out the other posts in her series on Taking Control of a PhD. You can also sign up to our newsletter for regular updates on advice on PhD news and opportunities.