Juggling the PhD and the Personal


The Researcher Wellbeing Week at the University of Sussex (25th February – 1stMarch 2013) was an invaluable opportunity for doctoral researchers and research staff to reflect on their wellbeing and consider strategies to manage and enhance it.  This is a reflection on how I have managed my wellbeing over the past six years of doing a part-time Gender Studies PhD in the hope that it might be beneficial to others.  It’s fair to say I have had many challenges since starting my journey at the University of Sussex in 2006 and so looking after myself has been absolutely vital. 

I am a single mother of three and the first hurdle was moving down to Brighton with three children who at that time were 11, 11 and 9.  Much of that year seemed to be taken up with getting the children settled in new schools, organising the house and getting used to my new job as a part-time researcher, alongside my PhD.  Luckily at that time the children still went to bed fairly early and so I made the most of my time in the evenings to read and at the end of year two to work on the 10,000 word transfer of status document.  

I also had a complete changeover of supervisors in that time – fortunately I always had a sense of ownership and a clear sense of purpose in what I wanted to achieve with the research so I was able to “cherry pick” the helpful input and ideas from various supervisors but continue to shape it in my own way.  However, despite the upgrade being successful, the two years of upheaval and emotional and financial stress had taken its toll and my mental health was suffering.  
In retrospect I think a lot of it had to be with being fairly isolated in caring for the children and in my studies.  I had to take a year off from my studies during which I was treated for depression and anxiety.  I was determined to get well again and worked on improving my lifestyle – cooking healthy meals from scratch and walking briskly for half an hour each day.  
There was more upheaval to come – the landlord served notice and we were forced to find alternative accommodation in a short space of time.  I was facing huge financial challenges which were alleviated by applying for the Access to Learning fund through Student Life.  Also, one of my children was really struggling at school.  In the meantime work was extremely busy and I was traveling around the country a lot, doing interviews and attending conferences as well as managing several projects and organising events.  However, as I started to feel better I was enjoying the challenge.  The nature of my job meant I just had to fit in my PhD fieldwork around it as and when I could – in periods when work became quieter I focused my energies on my fieldwork and eventually, after another intermission to complete my work project, got it finished.  I used my work leave to work on the analysis and early writing stages – either the children would spend a week with their father or I would go to my parents’ house where there were more adults around to supervise.  
As the children have got older and have started to develop their own social lives at the weekends, this has freed up extra time for studying and I also give them extra pocket money for doing domestic jobs I don’t have the time or energy to do!  It’s certainly been important to ensure they are helping around the house as much as possible, otherwise I would spend pretty much all of my spare time doing housework.  As teenagers, the children tend to go to bed later than me and often have friends round so it’s a busy, noisy household and I now work better if I get to the library for a couple of hours, forget about the house and the noise and just focus on my PhD.  I do make sure I spend quality time with the children – that’s always been very important to me and I try to have special outings with them as individuals whenever possible.
This final stage of writing has been a bit more possible as I changed jobs and so can put all my research and intellectual energies into thesis writing.  I have come to terms with the fact that life doesn’t stop when you’re trying to write a thesis – I do still have a household to run, the children have needs and then there are other relationships to maintain and all the everyday challenges of life and work.  
Healthwise, there are good and bad days, weeks and months and I try to go with the flow, although it’s always frustrating to have to put my thesis on hold.  However, even when times are busy or difficult I try to do little things with my thesis so I can feel like it’s progressing and it’s always at the back of my mind.  I work hard to create opportunities to become immersed in it, making the most of my leave from work and building up time off in lieu so I can work on it over the summer and during these times I work very intensively and get a lot done.  I do put a lot of pressure on myself to get the thesis finished but also have to be realistic about my circumstances and what is possible and not beat myself up.  
I am in a much better place than in the early days – I have made friends locally, found a writing buddy and have become much more involved in university life, attending workshops through the Doctoral School and TLDU and recently playing my part in the Research Hive.  Although these activities take up time, I feel I am getting the most out of my time here. Communicating with others and reflecting on my work and the research process all helps me stay motivated, confident and part of the researcher community.  I am also leading a better lifestyle, eating healthily, exercising regularly and relaxing deeply (mindfulness and yoga have helped) and I’m not quite sure how I would survive if I didn’t do these things!  I am also relieved I picked a topic that I really enjoy and have remained interested in for the past six years.  It will be a relief to finally get it finished, hopefully by the end of this academic year, but at the same time it has been an amazing personal and intellectual journey – I have become more academically confident and proficient, have learned a lot about myself and met some amazing and inspiring people along the way.


Survival Tips for Jugglers

If you ever experience difficulties, whether personal, academic or financial, do seek advice and support as soon as possible – Student life are a good place to start.  It is very important to talk your problems through with someone.  Do also keep your supervisor in the loop if you are experiencing difficulties, they are there to help.

Do seek advice / consult with your GP as soon as possible if you ever feel you are suffering from stress – if swept under the carpet it can lead to bigger problems.

The Student Union can provide advice and support for issues to do with welfare, including student parents – contact the Welfare Officer for information.
Make the most of training opportunities from the Doctoral School and TLDU – these can help you feel part of the community, build up your confidence and help you develop good strategies for effective working.
Get to know your peers as far as possible – they can be an invaluable source of support.
Do manage your time carefully and have a clear schedule but also be flexible to accomodate life and work and keep it under review.
Seperate PhD time from homelife wherever possible and find a quiet, comfortable environment in which to work.
Keep your brain functioning as well as possible through good nutrition, exercise, plenty of water, a good sleep pattern and relaxation.
Remember to be kind to yourself – the PhD process is hard and you won’t be the first or last person to struggle along the way!

If you would like to contribute a blog relating to researcher wellbeing / the experience of being a doctoral researcher at Sussex and share your story and survival tips with others, please email researchhive@sussex.ac.uk – we would love to hear from you!

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