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Self-care in Academia: a Work in Progress

Today I am inviting Jenna Townend to share her experiences and ideas on self-care in academia. Jenna is a first year, full-time Ph.D student in the Department of English, Drama and Publishing at Loughborough University. She is researching the presence of communities in seventeenth-century religious poetry.

I should begin this article by saying that it is really a co-authored piece. Virtually everything that I have learned about self-care in academia, and am sharing here, has been learnt from two academics: my supervisor, and my ex-Head of Department. While I have not always been the best at self-care, a brush with chronic health problems last year shocked me into making some changes.

After finishing my MA degree at the beginning of September 2014, I then had to get through a month of writing and giving a conference paper, moving house, and submitting a journal article for review. This obviously meant that I didn’t really take any proper time off to rest after writing my Dissertation, prior to starting my Ph.D in October. As a result, a virus that had been rumbling on since August finally took hold, and, after it turned into really horrid post-viral fatigue, I was made to take a total of about 5 weeks off. I was devastated, and was far too impatient to get better.

The ‘game changer’ for me, and my acceptance of the fact that I needed time to get better, came as a result of an incident at the pharmacy where I have a part-time job. A regular customer came into the pharmacy on the day that I usually work, and asked why I wasn’t there. My manager explained that, since finishing my MA and trying to start my Ph.D, I hadn’t been well and was taking some time off. Without any further prompting, she recounted her story that, fifteen years ago, after finishing her Masters degree and securing a Ph.D place, she had also become ill and had developed ME as a result. Because of this, she had never been able to go back to complete her Ph.D, and had only been able to do office-based work since. Hearing about this story hit me square between the eyes. There was a very real possibility that, if I didn’t start taking better care of myself, I could end up in a similar position. It was time to change course.

As the title of my post suggests, my journey towards self-care is most definitely still a work in progress, but, thanks to the support of my supervisor and the other wonderful people in my Department, I have tried to incorporate these four elements of self-care into my daily life.

1. Create and implement a sustainable working pattern and STICK TO IT:
Excuse the capital letters, but this is one area in which I know I am notorious for slipping back into old habits. We are told that a Ph.D should be treated like a job. That means working 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday. Realistically, though, and alongside the multiplicity of other commitments that Ph.D students take on, this is not always possible. That said, I now know that I can sustain a working day of around 8am-6pm, as long as what I am doing outside of these hours is, more or less, helping me to sustain it. In order to keep track of this working pattern, I plan out everything that I want to achieve in a day, and write up a record of what I’ve achieved at the end of each week.

2. Compensate for periods of long hours:
One thing that I learned while I was poorly, was that, if I had a day where I did quite a lot (at my worst, this only involved a half mile walk to campus to sit in on an hour of first-year teaching, and then return home), I would need to compensate for this the same day, or later in the week. Now that I am virtually back to full health, this has developed into knowing that if I work, for example, from 8am-8pm for a while in preparation for a deadline or (let’s be honest) because I just got a bit carried away, I need to recoup these hours by taking a full afternoon or evening off, having a couple of good lie-ins at the weekend, or having the whole weekend away from my thesis. I have learnt from painful experience that, for me, 12-hour days (or days that are even longer) are only sustainable for about 3 weeks before I start to notice an impact on my health. I am a firm believer (if not yet a practitioner) in the fact that we should only get sucked into these working patterns when absolutely necessary, but compensating for any long, exhausting days that you have is integral to maintaining a sustainable pattern of work.

3. Set boundaries:
I now try to set a limit on how many ‘extra’ things I do each week, particularly in terms of the hours they take up. I am a ‘Yes’ person, and have a crippling inability to say ‘No’ to things, particularly if those things are asked of me personally. For me, part of working towards a pattern of self-care is controlling this. I try to set boundaries of what I will and won’t do each week in order to preserve my energy and time. I admit that this is one of the things that I am still a novice at (anyone that knows me and is reading this will probably be snorting into their tea), but I am learning that it’s okay to say ‘No’. You are an asset to yourself, and have to take care of yourself before agreeing to help out someone else.

4. ‘Have joy every day’:
Last year, one of my lecturers said to me that “Every day might not be the happiest, but I will have joy every day”. This was uttered in a context not related to self-care, but I think it is nonetheless invaluable advice. My only rule for implementing this is that the joy must not be directly related to your thesis. For many of us, this may sound like a contradiction in terms, seeing as so many Ph.D students subscribe to the ideology of “Do what you love; love what you do”. For me, this joy invariably comes from the laughs and conversations in my Department’s postgraduate office. I am very lucky to have such a community of friends and support, and realize that not all Ph.D students have this. The other ways that I ensure that this happens every day are talking with loved ones or friends, cooking a favourite meal, going to the pub, going for a walk, taking a long bath, watching a favourite film or TV programme, or losing myself in a favourite book.

This is only an overview of the things that I try to do to take care of myself (I haven’t had space here to talk about diet), but I certainly think that more conversations need to happen between Universities, their academic staff and their Ph.D students if we are ever to create a sustainable working environment in the broader sense. If, as Ph.D students, we are planning on careers in academia, then I think that a shift towards better self-care needs to happen sooner, rather than later.

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This Post Has One Comment
  1. Very good points here. I particularly held to number 2 due to the fact that my PhD required long hours stints of experimental research at external facilities (costing many thousands of pounds per day) and so I always had some downtime after each run. When I returned I was fresh and able to tackle the data analysis with vigour. My supervisor thought this so effective that he basically mandated it for all his students.

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