How I transformed my physical and emotional spaces of the PhD

This post is part of a series of themed, fortnightly discussions run by Katy Peplin, Rebecca Enderby, and myself on Twitter under the #MindfulPhD tag. Want to get involved in the discussion? Join us on Twitter!

Writing spaces

What spaces do you inhabit while you do the work of the PhD?

Do you tend to move from space to space? Or, do you stick to one space like your university office or your couch at home?

In my own experience, I’ve felt the need to frequently change up my space.

I regularly move between my home, my university office, various libraries, and the homes of my peers.

And there is no predicting how long each space will be tolerable to me before I have to move again.

Squeezing into “success”

For a long time I tried to resist my need to work in different spaces because I thought I wasn’t a good student if I could not work from my university office.

I forced myself to treat my PhD like a full-time job. I tried to go to university every day and operate on 9-5 hours.

For some people this works, and that is great.

For me, however, this approach resulted in paralysis because I was trying to squeeze into a mould of what I thought a successful PhD student looked like.

This conception of success wasn’t based on any shining example, but it was preventing my own success in doing the work.

After discovering the suffering-free academic writing workshop I’ve mentioned before, I gave myself permission to implement a more flexible work structure.

social writing

As part of this permission, I embraced the work method known as Shut Up & Write (SU&W).

If you haven’t already encountered it, SU&W is an approach to work that utilises the Pomodoro technique in a group social setting. This technique generally uses a 25 minute “on”, 5 minute “off” method, however you can tailor it to your needs and preferences.

Research has found that productivity, focus, and mental endurance are greatly improved when using this approach, and it transforms the nature of writing as a solitary endeavour to one that is social and collaborative.

This is because it allows you to connect with, learn from, and share experiences with other students in a similar position.

Emotional spaces benefit from Social writing too

I use SU&W in the multitude of spaces that I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

I’ve found that not only has this social writing approach been beneficial in changing up my physical work spaces, but it has also altered my inner, emotional landscape.

The practice of social writing has positively shaped my belief in my capacity to do the core components of academia: writing and research.

What’s more, I’ve developed deep friendships and made connections with a range from people from different disciplines.

I’ve gone on writing retreats with these people, cooked delicious meals with them, and we have found comfort in each other as we confided our hidden agonies of the PhD process.

Social writing has reduced the power of my PhD Gremlins. I’ve realised that I do not have to be alone in academia and that my experiences of it are not unique.

While this latter realisation is a tad depressing, it has helped me to connect with likeminded people who believe that academia can be a compassionate and collaborative place of work.

For me, social writing has not only transformed the physical experience of the PhD as I alternate the spaces I use, but it has transformed my experience of the emotional space, too.

If you haven’t already, give it a go. Join a group at your university, or get one started. If that’s not practical, you can join online groups as well. Good luck!

One of the many writing spaces I utilise – the living room of a PhD friend.

Self-Leadership for PhD Students

As a researcher of leadership, I’ve had significant opportunity to reflect on my own conceptions of the process and how it manifests (or doesn’t) in my life. I’ve come to realise that self-leadership is integral to progress in the PhD, but there isn’t much discussion of this area which utilises the language of leadership.

Self what?

So, what is self-leadership? Manz and Sims Jr. (2001, 78) consider it to be “the influence we exert over ourselves in order to perform better”. According to these scholars, everyone practices self-leadership to some extent and it is a skill that can be further developed.

PhD students are great self-leaders: they are motivated, intelligent, and passionate about their field of study. However, this is not to say that the PhD Gremlins don’t affect them (and hence their confidence to self-lead). In fact, recent research has found that over the course of the PhD, 50% of us will experience mental distress, often arising from our environmental context such as organisational structure and supervisor relationships.

The important thing to remember, though, is that it is always possible to practice self-leadership, and even though you cannot control your environment or the actions of others, you can control your own thoughts and actions in a way that allows you to remain true to yourself, your work style, and your research project.

Here are some tidbits I’ve learnt from various leadership theories, and how I’ve applied them to my own life and PhD experience:

Be authentic

Authenticity is a key focus of inquiry in the current wave of leadership scholarship. One of its core elements relates to the idea of being true to yourself in your work and life.

In terms of how this can be practically applied to the PhD, the key is to have a clear understanding of what you value about research and your life in general. In turn, this helps you to concentrate your energies on the activities and practices that reflect those values.

For instance, if you highly value the creative process of idea generation, activities that may help you stimulate this area could be going for a walk or free writing. In doing the things you value, you are contributing to a happier state of mind that then enables you to better facilitate both internal (self) and external (role/research) leadership.

Find the natural rewards

I also incorporate Manz and Sims Jr.’s concept of natural rewards into the practice of authenticity. Natural rewards are incentives that are inherent to the task you are doing.

For example, if you enjoy reading then a natural reward for reading a journal article is the pleasure of reading in itself. In the context of idea generation, this could involve keeping separate notes of ideas that pop up as you write your chapter or paper. These ideas could relate to your current project, or they could be linked to future research. Even if you don’t enjoy the task as a whole, it is possible to identify elements of the task (natural rewards) that correspond with your values. You could also blog (hello!) or do some creative fictional writing.

Boundaries and ownership

An understanding of your broader life values also assists with self-leadership, because your research is just one part of your life as a whole. Other parts include family and friends, physical, mental and spiritual health, and hobbies. Establishing clear boundaries between your research and other parts of your life will ensure that these areas are given attention. This, in turn, contributes to a holistic wellbeing that will only benefit the progress of your research.

Yet, more than understanding and implementing your values, authenticity means that you own your process. You do the things that work for you and which help you to feel energised about your research. These things will be different for everyone, and it is up to you to work them out.

In reflecting on what works for you, be mindful of the comparison trap. Comparison is useful only to the extent that you can use the practices of others to continue to explore the range of activities and work approaches that might help you with your research. When used as a form of judgment against yourself or others, however, comparison becomes a practice that inhibits self-leadership.

Be a curious listener

Being a curious listener has two distinct benefits. First, it is linked to a growth mindset of constant learning that reflects the transformational leadership style of intellectual stimulation. This style is connected to practices such as innovation and challenging old ways of doing things. It helps you to push at the edge of your research area, because you are consistently learning and questioning.

Second, being a curious listener in your conversations with peers and colleagues assists the speaker’s own leadership development. This is an element of another transformational leadership style known as individualised consideration. Being heard is a powerful thing. It validates and helps the speaker to process the experience.

Being a curious listener does not mean that you have to invest significant amounts of your time and energy into the progress of your peers and colleagues. However, it is possible to have constructive conversations with your peers that build them up. This process enables you to draw lessons from their experiences to inform your own practices going forward.

Break the cycle

The approach also challenges the competitive nature of academia and instead encourages collaboration and support – a key, I believe, to breaking the cycle of broken academics. This could be as simple as congratulating a peer on a recently published paper and having a conversation with them about the process they went through in writing and publishing. Not only do you learn from their experience, but also in drawing out their own reflections on the process, they are able to confirm their own lessons.

Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion, or “self-leadership of the mind” according to Manz and Sims Jr. (2001, 107),  involves challenging the beliefs and thought patterns that are overly critical of your ability to “do” the work of research. As I said earlier, PhDs are highly motivated people, but a prevailing culture of academia that encourages suffering alone and in silence can significantly impinge upon that motivation.

The practice of self-compassion is necessary if you want to progress your work. This is because you cannot effectively do the work if you are not in a good place mentally and emotionally. You also cannot genuinely and sustainably extend compassion to your research and to your peers if you do not first offer that same compassion to yourself.

This aligns with self-leadership practices such as positive self-talk, the re-framing of situations, avoiding comparisons, and doing the work of self-care.

To take positive self-talk as an example, rather than mentally accepting a perceived failure as a condemnation of your ability to research, shape your thinking around an opportunity for improvement. Say, for instance, you are in the middle of a presentation about your research and you freeze.

Instead of criticizing yourself for forgetting your point or using it as evidence that you cannot present in public, view the situation as an opportunity to practice the presentation more extensively in future. It can also serve as a catalyst for reflection on the specific thoughts and feelings that led to the freeze. Or, if you feel that you did not answer a question effectively, consider using it as an opportunity to develop and practice a more thorough answer.

It starts with you

Self-leadership is a lifelong, internal journey of reflection, learning and compassion. Within academia, effective self-leadership will enable you to be a leader in your discipline. However, it is important to remember that leadership itself is not just a role or being at the peak of your field.

It is also a process, and that process starts with you.

So, I’m curious – what are your own approaches to self-leadership? I would love to know and reflect on it for my own self-leadership journey.

Doing the Creative Work of the PhD

I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog recently because I’ve started the creative work of my analysis chapter.

For the first couple of weeks I was stumped at how to “do” the creative work. It’s different to the data. My data is a historical narrative of presidential leadership in Venezuela. The process of writing it has been one of investigation and a fairly straightforward recount of past events. I became used to that style of writing as I’ve been working on the data since 2013.

Yet, as those who have completed an analysis chapter know, the approach is different.

How do we “do” creative work in academia?

For me, the chapter requires a creative synthesis of literature, events, policies, decisions, and speeches to generate my original contribution. While I have kept track of my ideas for the analysis chapter throughout my program and I have been looking forward to reaching this stage of the PhD, I was not quite ready for the change the analysis would bring.

This is not to say that I haven’t done any creative work until this point, however the stakes feel higher, and I realised that I had no clear or consistent strategies for encouraging my creative side.

And, I also have to admit, despite having a pretty good relationship with my PhD gremlins these days, I was not prepared for the intimidation I felt at the prospect of finally doing the creative work. These gremlins said to me that I was not cut out for the creative work. That, despite the years of working with my data and my literature, I would not be able to produce an adequate original contribution.

In an attempt to combat my gremlins, I paid a visit to our trusty old friend Google. I searched for resources that dealt with creativity and dissertation writing. And I came up with pretty much nothing. The one blog post I did find was by the Thesis Whisperer on starting work on the discussion chapter. It contained some good, practical tips on generating ideas. However, I was looking for something else to help me get the creative juices flowing.

creative strategies

To an extent, gaining an understanding of the strategies that best draw out your creative side is an individual journey. Strategies that work for someone else may not work for you, and vice versa. However, the advice and reflections from a book called “The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity” by Louise DeSalvo have been helpful to me. I really enjoyed this book. Though its writing tips are predominantly targeted at novelists, it was not a difficult feat to apply them to academic writing.

The first strategy I adopted was a mindset change. I gave myself permission to take the time to not produce work. In other words, I gave myself space to think and to dream. This is hard when you feel the pressure of deadlines, but creativity needs space. Moreover, I think we too often get stuck in this idea that the only work of value is the kind that produces words on a page. The cult of busyness in academia is one that is well documented, and it is hard to fight those gremlins sitting on your shoulder, whispering, “dreaming is not real work”.

In actual fact, however, it is important work for research.

Dreaming is creativity, and it is essential for the analysis chapter of the PhD and broader academic work.  

To nourish and draw out my creativity to assist my “dreaming”, I use the following strategies, adapted from DeSalvo’s advice:

  • Go for a walk in nature. Don’t listen to music or podcasts – go unplugged, so to speak. Feel the space around you, and let your thoughts gently drift over your data and literature. Don’t hurry; instead enjoy the opportunity to dream and think.
  • Keep a process journal. This is a journal that serves as “an invaluable record of our work patterns and feelings about our work, our responses to ourselves as writers, and our strategies for dealing with difficulties and challenges” (p.70). According to DeSalvo (p.220), John Steinbeck was a big fan of the process journal, recording his daily concerns and tasks in it so that when he was writing he could solely focus on the creative work. It was crucial to his creative process and enabled the development of his ideas.
  • Understand my “rhythms”. This means both knowing and accepting how and when I work best. For a long time, I tried to fit myself into a mould of how I thought the ideal PhD student would work. I held a belief that I should work consistently and productively from 9am-5pm every weekday, no matter what was going on in my life. If I had part-time work, I tried to force myself to make up for lost time on weekends. However, that rigid work structure only induced stress and anxiety in me, to the point that I’d often find myself paralysed. One day, I came across a workshop on YouTube by Associate Professor Alexis Shotwell called “Suffering Free Academic Writing” and it fundamentally changed how I approached the PhD. I encourage all of you going through the same thing to check the workshop out.

One other strategy I use, not included in DeSalvo’s book, but which I’ve somehow developed/adapted for myself, is akin to self-reflection/self-conversation:

  •  Written conversations with myself. I open a new document on my computer or grab a notebook and pose a question to myself when I am feeling stuck.  Often, this first question will ask, “What do I want to say?” My response inevitably leads me down a rabbit-hole of simple questions and answers that allow me to get to the heart of my idea without the pressure of formally writing it in my chapter. I guess, in a way, it’s a form of free writing. I give myself the time to explore and answer the questions I generate, however, unlike the traditional free writing approach. I slow down the process, as Professors Maggie Berb and Barbara Seeber have argued in their book “The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy”.

This whole experience with attempting to generate creativity as I write my analysis chapter has made me realise that there is not much training for PhD students in “doing” creative academic work. In my own experience, there has been no training or resources provided.

 I believe this is an untapped area of growth for universities and PhD programs, but what do you think? And what do you do to encourage your creativity in your own research?

Persistence = resilience

I’ve heard it said on multiple occasions that a successful PhD candidate needs 10% intelligence and 90% persistence. Early on in my PhD, when I was in the grips of impostor syndrome, this little saying got me through. If I could just be tenacious enough, dogged enough, persistent enough, that doctorate would be mine, even if I wasn’t the perfect student. While I’m not quite there yet, I’m hanging on pretty tightly and it’s within my sights.

PhD Persistence

What does persistence look like in the every day life of a PhD student?

What does it actually mean to be persistent?

Well, to me, persistence is resilience. And it is the key to slaying those gremlins.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of organising a workshop shop on resiliency for PhD students at my university campus. Facilitated by the postgraduate student counsellor, Dominique Kazan, the workshop opened with everyone sharing their worries about the PhD process.

It confirmed to me the need to encourage more sharing and discussion between PhD students about the doctoral process in order to reduce isolation, learn from each other, and find solutions together.

These worries, while too numerous to mention all of them, include that old, trusty goalpost of “being good enough” and meeting expectations, finishing on time, managing burn out, managing supervisors and personal relationships, having the patience to wait for findings/results, dealing with writers block and procrastination, and feeling alone in their worries.

Becoming a resilient researcher

A student can become a resilient researcher, however, by adopting a growth mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the student is a lifelong learner, and that every setback or challenge is an opportunity for improvement and further education. In building on this, the workshop dealt with the concept of internal and external locuses of control. When you have a strong internal locus of control, you acknowledge that all you can control is your perception of the event. For instance, the rejection of a paper can be viewed as opportunity to learn and improve rather than a rejection of the usefulness of the research (and therefore your time and ability to be a researcher). 

I’m curious – do you see a setback in an experiment, the rejection of a paper, or the inability to meet a deadline, a condemnation of your ability to “do” the PhD, or do you see it as part of the process of learning? To me, the latter view is a much more mentally peaceful perspective to adopt, as it gives me the space to learn and grow as a researcher. In a way, such a mindset is a practice of self-compassion within the academic context.

Finally, instead of just focusing on all the worries of the PhD process, we also shared what we love about research and the PhD program, and it struck me that, just as many of the worries are universal, so is the love.

As PhD students in Australia, we appreciate the time and flexibility of the program to explore our research area and structure our hours so that it works for our personal lives. We appreciate the opportunity to deeply research a topic, to contribute to knowledge, to learn more about ourselves and how we work and want to contribute to our world. We have become more comfortable with uncertainty (a good sign of resilience), and we have developed emotionally to manage critique and expectations. These are all indicators that we are developing our “resilience muscle” as researchers.

It can take a lot of emotional energy to “persist” in a PhD program when we feel that we are alone in our thoughts of inadequacy. The key takeaway from this workshop, for me, is the need to facilitate peer mentoring to reduce isolation and learn resiliency from each other. In many ways, the PhD process is just as mentally and emotionally challenging as it is intellectually challenging (if not more), yet not enough is done to train PhD students to manage the emotional landscape of research and “persist”.

Resilience takes away the power of the gremlins, yet it’s a muscle that needs to be trained. I think this is an area where universities have a lot of potential for growth and improvement, and I look forward to taking part in this continuing conversation. What are your thoughts?

Slaying the Impostor Syndrome Gremlin

It’s funny how easily the gremlins can sneak up on you.

Since my first post, I’ve had a small gremlin voice in my mind questioning whether I should blog. Questioning the value of what I have to give. Urging me to backtrack and remove this website from existence.

It’s only today that I’ve recognised that voice for what it is.

Impostor syndrome

This is a term that almost every PhD student and academic would be familiar with. It’s a feeling that you’re not smart enough, capable enough, hardworking enough, that your research and your voice are of no value, and that you are a fraud, seconds away from being discovered.

Just Google “PhD Impostor Syndrome” and a plethora of articles and resources will appear in the search results to detail the problem and make suggestions for managing it.

I rather like the contributions of Jennifer Walker and James Hayton. Jennifer’s article provides an important reflection on how the impostor syndrome can manifest in harmful behaviours, while James’ post provides some helpful suggestions on mindset changes to manage the gremlins.

I agree that mindset changes are important. Viewing yourself as a student and, importantly, giving yourself permission to learn, to make mistakes, to question, and to explore ideas, is the kindest thing that you can do for yourself.

Giving yourself permission to be a student is also the most strategic thing you can do for progressing your PhD.

Logically, when you think about it, you will get nowhere if those gremlins have your ear all the time. People succeed when they feel happy and when they have confidence in their abilities. Out-of-control gremlins erode confidence, and low confidence does not help you to return to work on the PhD day after day.

I feel panicked when my impostor syndrome gremlins are in charge. My chest gets tight, I want to hide away, I question my abilities, I procrastinate and have difficulty concentrating, and I avoid some things like mail and email. I will open fifty-gazillion tabs on my computer in the name of “research”, and then feel overwhelmed by them. I will obsess over the phrasing of a paragraph, repeatedly going over it to try to make it “better”. It makes for a pretty unpleasant experience, to say the least.

So, how do I deal with these impostor syndrome gremlins? For me, it’s a multi-step process. First, I have to acknowledge the gremlins. Second, I rebuild my work habits. And third, I practice self-compassion throughout the process.

To some extent I have to ride the gremlins out. I have to let myself feel them. I have to acknowledge their presence and then construct a new narrative in my mind that says, “Hey, you know what? You’re actually doing okay. You’ve got this.” Gremlins are needy – they like your attention. Acknowledge and observe what they are saying, and then move on.

For me, this means that I start again. I rebuild my self-confidence to work on my PhD. Just small, bite size chunks to begin with. In this regard, the use of the pomodoro technique is great, and I also use the meditation app Headspace to calm my gremlins. I talk about the experience – I talk to friends, to family, to a psychologist, and to my PhD peers. The connection to other people and the normalisation of the experience – it’s not just me – helps me to begin to thrive again.

Finally, the practice of self-compassion during the rebuilding process is integral. A question I like to ask myself when I catch my critical gremlins is, “Would I say that to a friend?” and the answer is always no. I then ask: “What would I say to a friend in my situation?” In a way, this allows a deeper truth from myself and about myself to emerge that is separate to my gremlins. This deeper truth is kind and forgiving, and it is supportive of my abilities, my contributions, and my value.

Of course, I am not perfect at following these steps. Like all things in life, the experience is rather haphazard and it can feel like taking two steps forward and then one step back. The important thing is to give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling without letting the gremlins to take control.

Meditation and connection to people can calm gremlins. A self-compassionate narrative also soothes gremlins. If gremlins are something you experience, then, chances are, they will always exist in your life to some degree or another – PhD or no PhD. It’s up to you to recognise them and soothe them, but it does not have to be a lonesome task. You can be a slayer too. We can be slayers together.

Slaying those gremlins

The PhD is a wild ride.

On the one hand, it is wonderful to spend so much time exploring what is an interesting topic. I mean, it has to be interesting for you to want to spend years understanding it, right? For me personally, it is exhilarating to create, challenge, and build upon ideas; to contribute to knowledge and to think about a topic in a way that it may never have been thought about before. It is these feelings that brought me to academia in the first place.

On the other hand, it is no stretch to say that the PhD can frequently be monotonous and isolating, especially for those in the social sciences and humanities where research is not team-focused. And it is these feelings that have had me, at times, contemplating quitting my PhD program. And not only contemplating quitting, but also consumed with anxiety, questioning my self-worth, abilities, and capacities to do the PhD.

It is in these moments, lost in the maze of my mind, that my inner “gremlins” have run wild and free. These gremlins set vague and high expectations, always sneakily moving the goal posts. These gremlins sit quietly on my shoulder, whispering comparisons and criticising my performance. They throw parties at night while I try to sleep, reminding me of all the things I have both failed to do and still need to do. These gremlins cause me to re-write a paragraph over and over and over again, trying to find the perfect phrasing to “make it good enough” for my supervisors’ time. They grip at my chest, either paralysing me in place or causing me to work at a frantic pace.  Needless to say, the gremlins are exhausting and the experience has definitely not fit with my romanticised image of the PhD process: lazing about, reading interesting books and articles all day, doing some writing, and engaging in academic debate  over a pint with my peers in the evenings.

I feel that only now, at the tail end of my PhD, I have begun to understand my gremlins. Yet, with that understanding has come a desire for connection with my peers, for learning, for support. I believe that we are stronger together. Too often we think that we’re in this alone. That no one else is going through the same things that we are going through.

In my experience, however, virtually every other PhD student I have encountered has, and is, struggling with their inner gremlins. I’ve also found that a theme of “struggling alone” is inadvertently fostered by some universities, in that there is a lack of support programs in place to genuinely nurture connection and “real talk” between students, professional staff, and academics. In some instances there is an attitude among established academics that the struggle with the gremlins and the isolation of the PhD is a compulsory experience, a kind of hazing or baptism through fire, in order to weed out those who are perceived to not have what it takes to walk within the elite academe.

I’m not saying that doing a PhD is easy, or that it should not be challenging, or that there is a complete absence of supportive researcher education programs out there. I am saying that the struggle with the gremlins should be more widely acknowledged and spoken about in order to develop more resilient researchers. I am saying that the attitude that the PhD should be some kind of mentally traumatic and isolating experience is one that only produces broken academics.

So, that is what this blog is for. To foster some kind of connection with my PhD peers, to share our experiences and resources, and to learn from each other. I hope that you will join me in slaying these gremlins, one by one!