There are multiple factors which can affect a researcher’s wellbeing. Sometimes researchers are not quite prepared for the level of work or independence expected of them and, for those students who have been academically successful through the undergraduate and taught postgraduate level, this can come as a shock and impact upon their confidence. From being a ‘big fish’ in a small pond, they may find themselves ‘small fish’ once again and at the bottom of a new academic ladder where the newfound lack of status can hurt.
The lack of structure compared with what they are used to can feel bewildering, and some doctoral researchers can float around not being quite sure what to do with themselves to begin with.
Learning to navigate the supervisory relationship can take time — supervision can be a very mysterious, complex process with researchers left wondering what is expected of them. Supervisors come in all shapes and sizes with a range of approaches, and, if you are lucky enough to get one who answers emails promptly, gives you a regular slot, and gives helpful feedback and advice, then you have hit gold! On the whole, doctoral researchers need to learn the art of managing their supervisor — chasing them, setting up meetings, setting the agenda, and being very specific about what they need.
For science researchers working in labs, relationships with their teams and professors can be difficult, whereas, for humanities researchers, the experience can be quite isolating and lonely. In the worst case scenarios, doctoral researchers can be in danger or becoming socially isolated, which can have a detrimental impact on their mental wellbeing. And then there are physical consequences of hunching over books or a computer screen all day, not getting enough exercise or daylight, and, in some cases, forgetting to eat properly and keep hydrated.
Not forgetting the emotional ups and downs, especially when your thesis is very personal to you, when you are doing fieldwork and hearing difficult stories and / or just feeling that your research is a reflection of who you are and your abilities and worth. If the research is not going well, you might feel this is a direct reflection on you and it can make you feel very low. When you invest so much into doctoral research in terms of money, time and effort, there are occasions when you might end up wondering if it is all worth it.
Leading up to the Researcher Wellbeing Week (2013) at the University of Sussex, the Hive scholars collected tips from doctoral researchers about how they manage their wellbeing. Some of these were practical; for example, to help with project and time management — ‘familiarise yourself with referencing software in the early days of your PhD,’ planning, prioritizing essential tasks and working ‘on individual pieces of the total project, otherwise it’s overwhelming.’ Many of them recommended incorporating relaxation into the daily routine to avoid burnout, making sure you ‘have something to look forward to every day,’ get involved in fun activities in order to ‘come back to it fresh’ and to enjoy occasional treats such as a massage.
Exercise was a very popular way of managing both physical and mental wellbeing with researchers getting involved in a variety of activities, such as zumba, martial arts, team sports, going to the gym, running, yoga, and swimming (exercise can be very effective in reducing stress). Ensuring you balance study and other responsibilities with social time is essential for researcher wellbeing, and so researchers advocated making time for family and friends and having a life outside research.
It is equally important to get to know other researchers and feel part of the researcher community, as peers can provide a lot of support, advice, survival tips and share similar experiences. It can also enhance the learning process to keep talking your thesis through and share ideas, so ‘hibernating’ was identified as a common pitfall.
Maintaining a sense of perspective about your research is important, and it was suggested that you should ‘draw the line between you and your thesis. The thesis is something you make, not something you are.’ Another suggestion was ‘Don’t respect the thesis too much — just do it!’ Above all, researchers should heed the advice of ‘Be kind to yourself!’ and ‘Don’t judge yourself too harshly!’ It is a great achievement to be accepted to do a thesis — it does require a huge amount of motivation, positivity, and a proactive approach to make it through, and it’s not for everyone, but there is much to gain in sticking with it. Just remember you’re not on your own; many other researchers will be having or will have had similar experiences, and there are lots of opportunities to get together and sources of support at the university.