How I Cope is an on-going blog series where colleagues from across the sector – and at different stages of their career – share their experiences of self-care and wellbeing.
Mental health and balancing work and life is increasingly recognised as essential to our happiness and ability to make the most of our talents. By encouraging greater awareness and exchanging tips and helpful advice, How I Cope aims to create a space for us to support each other, and the health of our sector in general.
Jenessa Williams is a freelance journalist and pop-culture academic, currently finishing her Masters by Research before embarking on her PhD in October 2019.
How I Cope
Commuting distances, lack of classmates, competitiveness, career second-guessing, and finance are all part and parcel of being a Postgraduate student. Away from the protective bubble of on-campus, undergraduate life, being a postgrad can be an immensely rewarding way of developing your practice. There’s also no denying that it’s a great stepping stone to a multitude of careers – teaching, senior management, academic research. However, I wouldn’t recommend entering into it lightly.
First, let’s talk about the positives. Being a Masters by Research student is easily one of the most enjoyable intellectual tasks I have ever undertaken. As a part-timer, I’ve had two years to truly immerse myself in a topic (hip-hop and millennial feminism, if you’re asking), exploring it with a rigour simply not afforded on a Bachelors degree.
I have the opportunity to converse with others in the field as equals, without the usual teacher/pupil relationship that can feel awkward or infantilising. I also have the flexibility to work in whichever way suits best, whether that’s in the library or propped up on three pillows with Netflix playing in the background (guilty).
Without the usual encouraging classmates or colleagues to check in on my progress, the emotional demands of prolonged study can take their toll. While I exist in a bubble of study, the world continues on without me – friends and family are chasing new work, building careers, perhaps even (gasp) taking a holiday. This bubble-effect can feel wonderfully protective when things are going well, but then there are other times where I’ve been in the bubble so long that I worry I’ve floated away from my moorings. As deadlines loom and it’s time to re-enter society, it sometimes feels like I might be too far off the ground to survive the fall.
So, how do I cope? Postgrad study has long carried the stigma of 80-hour weeks and mental breakdown, but I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way. I truly believe that life as a researcher can be enjoyable if you know what you’re letting yourself in for. With that in mind, here are the tips I’ve held close during my own academic journey:
Pick a topic you genuinely care about
Competition for scholarships is rife, and can often force you down a road of applying for a study that only half-fits your research interests. Think very carefully before you slot into somebody else’s idea of a good thesis – you are the one who will have to eat, sleep and breathe this topic. If you’re finding yourself nodding off during the proposal phase, chances are your lack of excitement is a warning sign – only pursue work you’re truly passionate about.
Consider part time study
Part-time study is (for me) the easiest way to lift the emotional load of a postgraduate qualification. By spreading my degree over two years instead of one, I keep my income ticking over with freelance writing opportunities (like this one!) and a part-time retail job that’s really helped with any feelings of social isolation.
Any degree is stressful enough without having to worry about money –if you chose full-time study building up substantial savings beforehand is a lifesaver. For those looking to study as a means to improve their work performance, consider speaking with your bosses about potential fee sponsorship in exchange for bringing your expertise to the business.
Find your people
If you’re struggling to connect with other academics at your institution, look to social media to forge connections. A quick search should reveal other scholars with similar interests, or if you’re in need of a more general pep talk, the #phdchat and #phdlife hashtags on Twitter are full of friendly voices to remind you that you’re not alone.
Academia is an industry highly dominated by white, middle-aged men. As someone who fits into none of those three categories, it has been invaluable for me to seek out others who can aid me with advice in situations of racial insensitivity, misogyny and poor representation – all matters that shouldn’t occur within higher education institutions, but unfortunately still do. I firmly believe that ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’, so finding a network of other black, female postgraduates and scholars has been invaluable in helping me the combat imposter syndrome that has held me back in the past.
Work when you’re inspired
Don’t feel guilt-tripped by the 9-5, or pressured into thinking that more hours equals greater productivity and dedication. If your best writing is done outside traditional working hours, so be it – learn to harness your unique productivity. Since I acknowledged that my best writing is done in the afternoons, I’ve moved all of my emails and life admin tasks to the morning, and feel a lot more balanced because of it – no more wasted time staring at an empty screen.
Make use of SCONUL access
Distance learning can make it hard to motivate yourself. If you’re a long way away from your home institution, make use of SCONUL – an online scheme that allows you library access (and often borrowers rights) to a variety of university facilities across the country. It’s a nice way to feel part of a community. Sign up online and you’re away – just be sure to check the requirements of each University before you start.
Take time for yourself
Repeat after me: your self-worth is not entirely dependent on this degree. It is, ultimately, a job. While at times it may require a few extra hours of work a week, it shouldn’t compromise your ability to exist as a happy, healthy human. Get into the habit of allocating regular pockets of time in a week to enjoy the most indulgent whim that enters your mind – take a laptop-less stroll to a local café, enjoy a Wednesday morning bath, or meet a friend with an office job after work for ‘payday drinks’. All these things will help you remain rooted in the ‘real’ world.
If it does all get a little too much, there is never any shame in opening up. Medication, therapy, stress management or a simple deadline extension can all work wonders, and are firmly within your reach. If you think your studies are affecting your mood, speak to your student union who will have plenty of practical advice and support.
Even when my studies are feeling insurmountable, I take comfort in remembering that I’ve chosen this path. Nothing lasts forever, I’m in control of my destiny and all my hard work is part of the path I’m following towards my future. The same goes for you – the journey may seem long, but don’t forget to enjoy the ride!
If you are interested in contributing to the How I Cope series, please contact us. We welcome anonymous submissions, as well as named.