‘But all this year’s been a busy blur; don’t think I have the energy…’
The festive tune ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by The Waitresses struck a real chord with me this December. As the year drew to a close, I found myself tired, stressed, and with my energy reserves completely drained. 2015 was a perfect storm of activity – I did too much, and wore myself out. Frankly, I have never needed the Christmas break more than I did this year.
I’ve always enjoyed juggling lots of different things – taking on new challenges, learning new skills, visiting new places, having adventures. It’s that drive which has seen me do some really amazing things over the years – completing the Three Peaks Challenge, scuba diving in Borneo, even starting a PhD. Life is short, and death is long. Carpe Diem.
But this year was also the third year of my PhD, as well as the last year of my twenties: i.e. The Year It’s All Supposed To Come Together. Leaving aside the age thing for a moment, there are lots of pressures on Arts and Humanities PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) in terms of both time and effort.
We’re expected to teach undergraduates (and anyone who has taught knows how much time teaching prep, marking, emails, and other general admin takes, besides the actual teaching part). We’re also expected to publish our work in peer-reviewed journals, and attempt to get our thesis published by a reputable publisher as a monograph. Attending and organising conferences, seminars, and symposia is a given, as well as networking effectively at these events.
Increasingly, PhD students and ECRs are also expected to be digitally competent, and cultivate an effective digital presence on Academia.edu, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc, etc. We’re sometimes expected to volunteer our time and expertise in unpaid work for societies, journals, museums, heritage organisations. If a particular PhD or ECR is really doing well, then they might also undertake commissioned translation work, or appear on radio or television, or write for magazines. Medievalists also have additional expectations on top of all of these regarding skills: we must be proficient in palaeography, languages (usually dead ones, like Latin, Old English, or Old French), codicology…
Oh and of course, the main thing is that full-time PhD students in the UK are expected to finish their thesis within three to four years.
This would (possibly?) be fine and doable to a fully-funded PhD student. But what if (like me) you’re not funded? What if, on top of all of the above, you also need to make money to pay for student fees, as well as for rent, food, and the general cost of living? What if you are also in the final year of your twenties, and have a lust for life, and don’t want to have to reduce your life to merely work and studies, but you also want time for friends, family, partner, self, and new adventures?
This is the issue I faced in 2015.
In terms of money, I was fortunate enough to land a fantastic part-time job as a Research Associate at UCL working on The Academic Book of the Future project. I know how lucky I am to have an academic role before completing my PhD, believe me. I’m incredibly grateful. Work of any kind, though, can bring its own pressures, and I’ll talk about this a bit later on in the post.
On top of all the stresses and expectations of being a final year full-time PhD student (as listed above) with a part-time job, I also moved house not once, not twice – but FOUR times in 2015. I also bought my first house with my partner – again, something I’m unbelievably grateful for, but the process is just as stressful as everyone says it is, and it certainly contributed to my rising stress levels as the year drew to a close. I ran my first marathon, because I wanted to run one before I was thirty and, well, time ran out to put it off any longer! I took an undergraduate teaching position in Bath to supplement my income for house-buying purposes, and to add more teaching to my CV. I spoke at or helped to organise far more conferences, symposia, or seminars than I meant to outside of work, as well as helping to coordinate a whole raft of events over the course of the year and during the inaugural Academic Book Week (9-16 November 2015). I had my first book published– a co-edited collection of essays with Samantha Rayner, entitled The Academic Book of the Future (Palgrave, November 2015). There was lots more, and I spent what felt like a weighty portion of my life on trains, between Bristol (for my PhD), London (for work), York (where we used to live), and Wiltshire (where we now live). Excessive travel, I discovered this year, is really, really exhausting.
On the whole I think it went pretty well. I look back and goggle at how much I managed to pack into this year, and I feel proud, as well as hugely privileged to have had these opportunities. It was only right at the end of the year that I really felt the strain. But I mean, I really felt the strain. It was a strange new sensation for me. I’m used to feeling overstretched, but I would describe the way I felt at the end of 2015 as emotionally and mentally thin. I felt stretched in too many different directions, with too many obligations to fulfil, and I was juggling far too many things. I felt completely raw, without my usual emotional padding. I ran out of time and sent a piece of work through a few days late, and dropped the ball with a piece of editing, and both things felt like the end of the world. I felt I’d let myself down, let my colleagues down, and that I was generally a terrible person. My mental and emotional selves had been grated down to such a level that my resilience to stress was non-existent. It was a scary wake-up call. You can only push yourself so hard for so long before the cracks begin to appear. And they did.
I never want to feel that way again – that way literally lies madness – so I’ve decided I’m going to have to make some changes going forward. This blog post is some of my advice to myself in 2016 and beyond – if you’re a final-year PhD student or ECR, then read on, and learn from my achievements and mistakes over 2015 (and do please leave your pearls of wisdom in the comments below too!).
Just Say No
As an early PhD student in my first and second year, I said yes to every opportunity that came along. This was fine, and was the right thing to do at that time. However, as I’ve become more established and have come to know more people in my field, it’s no longer necessary to say yes to every conference, every networking opportunity, every request. As a final year PhD student I’ve done the social grafting, and now my time is best spent on finishing the thesis – because there’s little point in making contacts and connections if you have no research to share with them and the world! It doesn’t mean I’ll say no to everything, but it does mean that I’ll be more selective and focussed in what I agree to do next year.
Carve Out Time for Research (and stick to it!)
There were lots of different pressures on my time this year. Sometimes (often) something had to give. There are only so many hours in a day, or days in a week, after all, and human beings all need to sleep and eat. Unfortunately, as my thesis is the thing with the least urgent time pressure attached to it (it has to be finished by the end of 2016, as opposed to Academic Book Week, or buying a house, for instance, both of which had very defined, very fixed time limits within 2015), it was usually the thing to be shunted to the bottom of the priority list when other tasks with more urgent time pressures presented themselves. This is a struggle I think all researchers face. It can be genuinely difficult to prioritise your own research to yourself, let alone to others – sitting and reading a volume for two hours for research purposes feels less frenetically productive than slashing through a heaving inbox of emails. It almost seems like a luxury. But it isn’t. It IS important. And I vow to honour this necessary and precious time in 2016.
Prioritise Your Mental, Emotional, and Physical Health
Running a marathon this year felt great. I loved every moment of it and smiled the whole way around the course (I know – but seriously, I did!). But the endless hours of training made me feel stressed – I felt like I could have been doing so many other things on my bulging To Do List. Then, once the marathon was over after October, I pretty much stopped exercising altogether, as I had so much work, research, and teaching to do. Having no exercise at all was terrible for my mental, emotional, and physical health, but I genuinely couldn’t see where I could squeeze it in without giving up sleep – and that wouldn’t have been good for me either. This all contributed to my feeling of mental and emotional thinness at the end of the year. Next year, I vow: healthy body, healthy mind. I’ll go for a small run each day, and do some Yoga, along with lots of walks in the country at weekends. I might even buy a bike. Because there’s no point getting so worn down that you’re useless to everyone, including yourself. A little time out each day goes a long way.
Don’t Feel Guilty For Doing Things That Make You Happy
In fact, write them into your schedule! This year, as you’ll have noticed, my blog got pretty badly neglected. I felt guilty whenever I sat down to write a blog post, because I felt I should be reply to emails, or writing my thesis. This meant that I pretty soon stopped prioritising it, because the feelings of guilt were too much. And it wasn’t the only thing to suffer in this way. I felt like I neglected friends and family too, as well as sacrificing important relaxation time. Without this opportunity to wind down I was a constantly coiled spring, ever tense. A thesis, or an inbox, can expand to fit all of your time, if you let it. This year I’ve discovered the sublime power of scheduled relaxation. It’s only taken a week off during Christmas holiday for me to start feeling like my old self again. It hasn’t always been possible this year because I overstretched myself, but next year I will try to remember that it makes a huge difference to my mental, emotional, and physical health to just STOP for a while. Think about something else. Go for a walk. Have a cup of tea. Do some Yoga. Whatever. Just do something that makes you happy, something you don’t have to do. Make time for this, because it is important.
No One Is Perfect – So Don’t Beat Yourself Up
I think a lot of other researchers struggle with this one too. We want to send off work that is perfect, and punctual, and that will dazzle its readers. The truth is that you could keep tweaking that article/essay/chapter forever. Just do your best, hit send, and then let it go (until you get comments back). Aim for your deadlines, but if something’s a few days late – well, the bottom line is that we’re in a sector where lives aren’t on the line. So if the choice is between your mental health or that article being in on time – choose your health. And don’t beat yourself up.
I could go on. There’s so much more to add (don’t have Facebook open in the background all day!), but I’m mindful that it’s New Year’s Eve and I have an evening of celebrations to get ready for!
Thank you, loyal readers. Thank you, Universe, for all the opportunities this year. But most of all, thank you to my colleagues, friends, family, and my partner, for all your patience, support, and help this year. We got through, we made it, and now let’s make 2016 an incredible (and balanced!) year.
Happy New Year!