How to stay sane

I’ll start with a cliché. My PhD was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

My PhD was a strange mix. It was a blend of free-footed travel, exciting collaborations, developing networks with other students, and hilarious and tumultuous share housing. It was exhilarating. I’d moved away from home for the first time. I was finally (!) fulfilling my childhood dream of being a scientist. I made friendships so solid that the very thought brings me to happy tears. I got a dog. I met my girlfriend. I was deciding who I was and how I wanted to be in the world.

At the same time, my PhD was long stretches of desperate loneliness and despair. Sometime during my PhD, my relationship with my supervisor disintegrated, exploded and then slowly died in a ditch. It was shattering. I blamed myself. I cried and I ate ice cream. Every morning for a month or longer, I was bitterly disappointed to arrive at uni safely. I quietly wished that I would be hit by a bus on my bike ride to uni. A bad leg break, at least, would be a welcome respite from month after month of relentless bullying.

I’d invested so much of myself into my PhD – both practically and emotionally – that when it collapsed, so did I. My PhD was my life. I would work three or four weeks straight, often up to 12 or 14 hours a day. We all did. We worked hard and we drank hard. When work was disappointing, so too was life.

At the same time as I PhD-ed and postdoc-ed, I also exercised fanatically.  During my Phd, I played in the Australian national hockey league. I had made a rather unfortunate decision as an eager 11 year old and became a goalkeeper. I stopped growing shortly thereafter. Turns out that I was a foot shorter and 20 kg lighter than my national league compatriots. I trained twice a day to keep weight on, played through broken bones and torn muscles.

By the time I retired, I was held together with strapping tape, constant physiotherapy and ice bathes. I was a rickety and decrepit compilation of chronic injuries. I was burned out and decided to retire from hockey. I took up running. I ran and I ran and I ran. Work, run, work, run. In two years, I’d lost 11 kg and all my iron stores. Exercise was a tremendously cathartic balance to work stresses. Chronic back and nerve pain? Not so much.

Finally, I came to learn that I can’t live my work. And I certainly can’t run the stress away. Here are a few of my tips of how I’ve more (and often less) managed to stay physically and mentally sane.

Work isn’t life

It’s a wonderful experience to be blessed with an inexhaustible love of work. I love that I love work. It can provide great intellectual and spiritual fulfilment. Also, being energetic and engaged is a highly respected character trait. Collectively, we tend to admire driven people. But a love of work can often bleed into a love of loving to work.

Work doesn’t always go well. For me, when it all fell apart, a heavy investment in work meant that I did too. There’s no solution, except aiming for balance. Do other things you love – go rock climbing, bake some bread, buy a dog, call your mum, learn French, do some knitting, climb a mountain. Every PhD or postdoc is hard in its own way, and having too much or not enough distraction are equally challenging. Either way, during my PhD I learnt that being a scientist is only one part of how I live in the world.

Look after your body

Academia is brutal. I don’t know many colleagues who have come out of the other side of PhD without chronic physical problems. At best, most people gain or loss 10 kg. Many develop back, neck or wrist problems. One of my dear friends was abandoned to solo fieldwork in the Papua New Guinea highlands during her PhD. One day, out on reconnaissance by herself, she had a seemingly innocuous fall. On her regular scheduled satellite call back to Australia, she mentioned her fall and subsequent pains. She was advised to stay put and continue the field plans. Turns out she had a nasty break and by the time she made it back to Port Moresby and then Australia, she was unable to gain full mobility in her arm. Sensibly, she promptly quit.

A lifetime of deskwork is physically taxing. Losing or putting on weight isn’t the end of the world, but it’s good that have awareness that physical health is important for mental health. I didn’t look after my body. I thought I was, but in hindsight I can now see that I used my youth to turn my muscles into scar tissue. I wanted to expend everything I had, but unfortunately I didn’t pace myself. Keep moving, but not too much!

Talk to people

I left my PhD shattered. I was tired. My body gave in promptly to several horrendous bouts of tonsillitis. I had no confidence in my ability to be a scientist. But it was still, somehow, a wonderful time in my life. I made good friends and good colleagues, who patiently listened through the good and bad. These trusted friends were supportive and honest. They gently told me when I was being overly reactive or dramatic. At the same time, they encouraged me to be nice to myself and not blame myself for my explosive PhD situation.

During my PhD, I spoke widely in professional contexts of not being able to cope. At times I was dismissed or rebuffed, but without taking a chance, you close yourself off from those who can help. Often, it’s worth taking that chance for help. I also regularly took the opportunity to speak to a psychologist, who helped me navigate the complex ramifications of the relationship breakdown with my supervisor.

Be nice to yourself

External help – through friends, mentors or a trained counsellors – were instrumental in helping my through my early research career. However, no one can make you feel good about your work or yourself, except yourself. Research is hard. It’s involved, it’s self-indulgent, it’s tedious and it’s time consuming. It can leave us uplifted and inspired, but equally, we can feel horribly empty and despondent.

During a PhD or a postdoc, work consumes your thoughts, nagging at us to get back to it. Don’t linger over coffee, Lewis, there’s work to be done! It’s good to aim for balance, but during an extended research project, things slip. You can’t always maintain work, study, family responsibilities, a healthy diet and exercise. That’s ok; just try to be nice to yourself.

One thought on “How to stay sane

  1. Wonderful post!! I did have an evil supervisor in the past. I decided to change him and now its a relief. I have now a very good supervisor.
    The things that you share is very useful. Keep up good blogging.

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