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Happy PhD: Thinking Positively in an Ocean of Criticism

Amber Davis is a political scientist and PhD coach, who studied at the London School of Economics and Leiden University, and holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches stress-management and productivity seminars for PhD students and created the HappyPhD Online Course to help you write your PhD (almost) effortlessly in a couple of hours a day. On her blog, she is giving away the online course twice to celebrate the New Year. Click here to enter the contest.

In the first blog post of this series I discussed how to take care of your brain, and create optimal physiological conditions for doing academic work. It’s the first and most basic level of productivity. The second level of productivity relates to the work structures and habits you have in place. In the second blog post I discussed how to create a workday that boosts your productivity. The third level of productivity is about attitude. In this blog post I will discuss how to enhance your emotional experience of writing a PhD. Creating a new, more positive attitude towards your PhD (and life) is a process. It requires a daily commitment and is not something you can figure out in a couple of soul-searching sessions. But the rewards are very much worth it. There is a way to live and work more effortlessly. You only have to decide to give it a go. And keep at it.

Writing a PhD is difficult, but often it is not the work itself that presents the main challenge, but our thoughts about our work. It is the criticism inherent to academic work, the constant trying to do the near impossible, and then being criticised either by ourselves or others for failing, that gets us down. It can be hard! An academic friend of mine compares working in academia to eating shards of glass every single day. You have to be a bit of a stoic to be able to do it. In fact you have to be an über-stoic. That is bad news for us non-stoics. How to cope when you don’t have insides of steel?

The best strategy for mental and emotional resilience in academia has two components: the first is to become more professional by creating space between work and self. As academics, with minds on overdrive, and highly individualistic work, it isn’t surprising that the distinction between work and self becomes foggy. It’s a recipe for disaster. To help separate ourselves from our work the strategies mentioned in my previous posts (physiology and work day) are crucial: you need to create a time-structure in your day that will make the distinction between work and play for you; and you need to train your mind (using exercise and meditation) so it will be easier to focus on work when you want to, and to relax when so you so choose. Taking control of your time and your mental energy and focus will start making the difference between being stuck in the zone of procrastination and guilt and feeling down, or being in the zone of getting things done and sustaining momentum. Try it.

The second is to start appreciating the positive more, and start taking it as seriously as you take criticism and negativity. Our brain has a negativity bias: it registers what it perceives as a threat or a problem more forcefully than it does positive experiences. It may feel like the absolute objective truth that everything sucks, including your PhD, especially when you are processing a lot of criticism (the job description of being an academic). It is not.

Seeing and experiencing the positive in a situation, and cultivating these qualities in your life will start lifting you out of any PhD blues you happen to sink into. The nice thing about being a non-stoic is that you can use your feelings to lift you up and soar. If negativity impacts you in a major way, so can positive feeling states. Cultivating these feelings is a skill you can develop. It is not about positive thinking, or positive affirmations, or any other sort of constructed positivity. It is about finding and appreciating real excitement, beauty, joy, or wonder, or whatever your positive flavour of choice happens to be. It’s next to impossible to give you a roadmap, as this is such a personal process, but I can suggest a few simple strategies to get you started. Start by choosing to give energy to the things that are going well, and the things and people that make you feel good. Take note of these small positive things daily. Give yourself compliments for every small achievement. And be compassionate with yourself when you feel you are falling short. This may sound too obvious, but if you honestly give it a go, you will see that your experience of life (and your PhD) will change for the better.

Another important aspect of creating an experience of effortless flow in your work is to find out more about your inner drive. Why are you doing this work in the first place? What aspects of your work get you excited and ready to go? Working with our feelings and motivation in this way, helps us shift from a mode of working from fear (deadlines, criticism, failure, aaargh!), to a mode of working from inspiration.

How to do it: Create a workday that works for you, and train your mind (see my previous posts: part 1 and part 2). Start balancing the negative with the positive: actively ask yourself what uplifts you in any situation. Start paying attention. These tiny shifts will keep adding up. It is a muscle that academics, especially, need to train and grow. Finally, reflect on the aspects of your work that excite you. How do you feel when you are truly engaged with what you are doing? How could you cultivate more of this feeling in the way you work? Start to be more aware of whether you are working in the ‘old’ way – that perhaps feels like forcing, pushing or clenching, and see whether, in those moments, you can be aware enough to recalibrate. Take a short break, find your excitement, and choose to work from there.

If you are interested in boosting your mental and emotional resilience, and find more effortless flow while working on your PhD, have a look at the HappyPhD Course I created. It will walk you through it step-by-step, day-by-day, for 6 weeks. To celebrate the New Year (it’s still January after all), I am giving away the course for free twice on my blog.

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