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.

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.