Tag: health

Priorities, the PhD Way

I often get asked how to balance a lot of commitments, especially when studying. I suppose I seem capable on some level. Personally, I don’t think I am that good at balancing a lot of things – normally I just ignore how busy I am and hope it all works out.

That doesn’t work long-term – sure, I busted honours year with a ludicrous amount of commitments, but that was never going to work for my PhD. This year I finally made a list of commitments and prioritized them.

Writing a list is one of those things like goal-setting – my dad told me it would make my life a lot easier, and he is probably right. I have never consciously set goals, but if you have trouble envisioning how to get where you want to go, it is a good thing and you should do it. Don’t be like me, be better than me.

The pyramid below is (to my mind) a manageable amount, but I know that not everyone suffers from my total lack of a social life.

pyramid of commitments ranging from PhD to Free Debate
“Ma’am, do you think you do too much?” “I plead the fifth.” “Ma’am, we’re in Australia.”

The important thing to note here is that in the interest of aesthetics, I put one card underneath the PhD card – the “self-care” card.

I’ve learned that self-care can never fall below any other commitments. If you fail at self-care, you will start to fail at everything else.

Sometimes I forget this, and forget to eat, or don’t give myself space or time. I’m trying to get back into yoga (using Yoga with Adriene) to help regularly clear the cobwebs out. It’s important to remember that while undergrad might be a sprint, the rest of life is a marathon, and we need to make sure to take breaks and drink enough water.

I’ve also signed up for Adopt a Grad Student, a wonderful enterprise started by Jess Shanahan (@Enceladosaurus), a disabled astrophysics grad student in the US. The idea is that being a grad student is suffering; you work long hours, have regular stress, and are underpaid. You deserve a Fairy GradParent. It’s wonderful, and I hope other grad students get on board – if you’re in NZ, YouShop is a good way to help get around the “million dollars plus your soul” international shipping fees.

 

screen capture of a purchase showing item costing $0.01 and shipping costing #23.45
This is why I have trust issues.

 

Looking back at my list of priorities is a good way to reset the whirring to-do list in my head and remember what’s important – health, relationships, and currently, study. It’s also good to remember that this focus on my studies isn’t going to last forever and one day I won’t have Thesis Fear because I will have Thesis Satisfaction.

No matter what you’re doing, remember to take care of you.

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Higher Degrees are Broken

I’m in the middle of my PhD. About two months ago, I cried inconsolably for two hours because I felt I wasn’t good enough. I would never finish my degree, disappoint everyone around me, and bring shame on my family.

Many of my friends are currently pursuing or have recently completed higher degrees. Some have quit PhDs because of mental illness, taken months or years off, developed insomnia or night terrors, and almost all of us have had a meltdown. Most have depression, anxiety, or some combination of the two. Many are medicated.  We’re one failed experiment or bad meeting away from a total nervous breakdown.

All of this is expected and accepted as part of a higher degree.

It was reassuring to tell people I had my first PhD meltdown and hear that it was due about now. Isolation is terrible. But we need to take a step back and realize that if this is typical, accepted, and part of the process, there is a systemic problem.

There is a lot of discussion about what a higher degree is, what it should be, and how to educate for future jobs. The academic and training discussion is an important one to have. So too is the fact that mental illness shouldn’t be an accepted part of a higher degree.

There was a great interview on The Atlantic with William Deresiewicz, who wrote a book about Ivy League schools, elitism, and depression. A lot of the discussion surrounding high achievers can be seamlessly transferred to higher degree students because unsurprisingly, the kind of people that choose to go back to school for a pittance for three to seven years tend to be high achievers.

Basically there are two types of graduate students: the ones who powered through and the ones who got a real job. Neither is cut out for a higher degree.

Powered Through

If you powered through, you probably got straight As, or a few papers out, or did something else pretty great. You might be doing a PhD because you don’t know what else to do (bad idea, get out!), but more likely you genuinely love your work and your topic. You’ve always pushed yourself – a couple of all nighters each year, at least – but it’s always paid off. And besides, with the regular affirmation that comes in the form of being published, or getting another A, or just coming out of an exam knowing you tried your hardest, you know you’re doing okay.

Enter the higher degree. Suddenly you don’t have regular affirmation you’re on the right track. There’s no metric to measure you against your cohort because you don’t have a cohort. You might have just moved countries. You might not speak the language well. You’re good at sprinting, you’re good at semesters. You have no idea how to run a marathon, but you’re terrified of disappointing people around you, so you push yourself until you crash, recover, rinse, repeat. The end isn’t in sight. There might as well not be an end. This is terrifying.

Got a Real Job

You worked for a few years, maybe in research, maybe in industry. You’re self-directed, you’ve got some savings, and you’re ready to knuckle down and get this done. You’re better set up than people who powered through, you spent some time looking over projects, and you know you want to do this.

And now, money is tight, and things aren’t working, and you second-guess your decision. You haven’t written an essay in a while, much less a thesis, and a lot of other people are a lot younger than you. You might be juggling a family with your work and you can’t tell if you’re working too hard or too little. Your relatives, and some of your friends, are probably being a bit critical about your life choices. Some days you agree with them.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves the grad student in a pretty dire position, as they have to be in control of their research, but also the incredible mental toll that research is going to take. They not only need to work hard, but figure out – often for the first time – when ‘too hard’ is. And they need to learn how to ask for help, how to ask for time off, the difference between feeling a bit lazy and being depressed, all of which is a lot to ask of someone who has probably moved countries to do this.

I did the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) ANU offered this year called “How to Survive your PhD“. I’ve “managed” my depression for almost my entire life, so a lot of the suggestions, tips, and classes covered knowledge I had. But I knew a lot of the thousands-strong cohort were getting significant value from it. Thesis Whisperer (the blog of the organiser, Dr Inger Mewburn) also has many good posts on similar topics.

But is it good enough to expect graduate students to heal themselves? Is it sufficient to simply provide resources when 47% of PhD students and 37% of masters students suffer from depression? By putting the onus onto the individual student, we ignore the unifying feature – that higher degrees have this effect on people.

Unless we recognize that higher degrees are broken, there is very little we can do to help graduate students. It is an incredible waste of talent, time, energy, and money, to allow brilliant researchers to sink into the pits of despair, to have breakdowns and to not to anything preventative about it.

I don’t know what to do. But I know nothing will change if we keep ignoring the fact that these degrees risk destroying the brightest minds out there. Higher degrees are broken. Let’s start talking about how to fix them.

Tips for Best Travel, Probably

I have attended a lot of tournaments and conferences now, and learned a lot by making a lot of mistakes. Here are some indispensable tips for any kind of tournament, learned the hard way by yours truly.

1. Always take emergency chocolate.

You think it’ll be fine. You think there will be places to buy candy if you get cravings. You think you won’t really want it.

Well let me tell you right now, you are dead wrong. Have you ever been trapped in Kuala Lumpur about to cry because you want 70% Whittaker’s? No. You haven’t. And if you follow my advice, you will never have to.

2. Eat breakfast.

Even with the (insane) (terrifying) breakfasts we got in Japan) eating breakfast each day was a must. In KL, we had to get up before 7 in order to eat breakfast. Done.

If you’re at a tournament or conference, you’re representing your locality. It’s your duty to be on top of your game. And you’re not going to be on top of your game if you don’t eat breakfast.

Even if you’re not at a tournament or conference – not being on top of your game makes you sad, eat breakfast.

3. Choose your roommate wisely.

If you’re going to be sleeping in the same space as/sharing a shower with/stinking up a room with someone, you better make sure they are a true friend. Thankfully, I’ve always managed to hit the jackpot with my roommates, mostly entirely randomly. Don’t take this risk, some people are bad with personal space.

The flipside of this point is to be a good roommate. Stay chill, don’t clip your toenails on their bed, and just generally be a nice human.

4. Be friends with people you’re travelling with.

No matter how big or small your group, be friends with them. They’re really cool people and probably have a lot of the same interests as you. An optional sub-point here is Do Not Start Dating Or Otherwise Have Relations With The People You’re Travelling With While Travelling I Do Not Care If You Think You Are Both Adults It Gets Weird For You and Everyone.

5. Think Before You Kiss

All right now I recognize that not everyone else is as into the sweet make-outs as I am, and also that other people probably have standards, but this still needs to be said because oh man being sick is the worst:

IF THE PERSON YOU WANT TO KISS HAS A NASTY COUGH OR OTHER ILLNESS, DO NOT KISS THEM.

YOU WILL GET SICK. IT WILL SUCK.

KISS SOMEONE ELSE, OR JUST HOLD HANDS A LOT AND USE A LOT OF HAND SANITIZER AFTERWARDS.

YOUR HEALTH IS NOT WORTH MAKE-OUTS.

Also just like, be sensible. I had the most awkward sex talk of my life at the IBO (age 16), because me and this australian boy were sweet on each other so our respective team coaches told us to Not Do Anything We Would Regret which literally took me like 15 minutes to get that they were telling us to not have unprotected sex.

(also ideally be aware of any professional effects this might have, I’d enjoy it if we lived in a sex-positive utopia, but we don’t, so keep an eye on that)

6. Take work, but be okay with not getting any of it done.

If get sick, it’s the best way to distract yourself from just lying in your hotel room going OH GOD I FEEL SO GROSS THIS IS THE WORST.

Take a trashy novel as well to cheer you up if you get sad.

7. Have fun.

It seems self-evident, but when you’re travelling (tournament/conferences especially) it’s really easy to forget that you need to chill out. Try your hardest, do your country/region/parents proud, but also remember that you’ve done pretty well and that you are allowed to not be stressed the entire time.

Relax. Don’t get wound up. Try to not get to the point where you want to stab someone. You’ll get back home to your bed and shower soon.