Supervision: too often the stuff of headaches. In the current academic world where research output is valued above all else and academics are stretched and stretched, and sometimes overstretched to meet their multiple obligations, supervision too often becomes an afterthought. Add to that an academic culture in which PhD projects are increasingly squeezed into impossibly linear schedules – with the emphasis again on ‘measurable output’, while academics are not in any way trained on how to coach and supervise, somehow having to figure this out for themselves (and are definitely not all innately able!), accidents happen. No fatalities, mostly, but smooth rides are the exception.
Personal story: When I was writing my PhD supervision was one of my top frustrations, and more specifically the lack of time and effort that went into reading and commenting on my work. This got especially bad when I had to finish long-distance, and was no longer around in the flesh to bug my supervisors. It sometimes took them months to get back to me when I had submitted a chapter, and it was all quite disheartening to say the least. That didn’t stop my supervisor from encouraging me to ‘work hard’ in most every interaction we had, or to in some other way to allude to deadlines or other ‘sticks’ to make me ‘work harder’. In all honesty it drove me nuts, and made me feel insecure and undeserving and it is the exact embodiment and worst outcome of the incentive structure as described above.
If you are caught up in similar frustrating interactions the first thing I’d like to say is this:
It is not personal.
It is not.
It’s simply the outcome of an unfortunate set-up.
Advocating for yourself is too often necessary in supervision relationships, but you’ll be more equipped to do so if you can see that it’s ‘not about you’.
You’ll already be in a much stronger position.
Using the following three perspectives may also help improve the supervision situation.
An exercise. Take your time to do this.
1. What does your supervisor need?
Let’s start from the supervisor’s perspective. Put yourself in his/her shoes. Imagine the glamorous life. Imagine the piles of work, grant applications, emails, rejection letters, admin, departmental meetings, chapters to be edited, flights, conferences and so on and so forth to deal with. Oh, and don’t forget that paper they so want to write but cannot seem to get round to… From this perspective: what does your supervisor want and need in terms of your supervision relationship? Is there any way you could make his or her life easier?
A hint: what professors tend to want is for their supervisees to succeed. They do.
Another thing they want: minimum hassle!
Is there any way you could help the cause?
It starts small, reflecting on your communication: are you sending your papers in on time, showing up on time, not bothering them with things you could sort out on your own, communicating clearly and regularly (but not too regularly), and not being last-minute with requests? (Sorry for this. I am going all head-mistress on you… a bit more to come). If they ask you to do something, do you do it? Are you not hiding?
In short: are you acting professionally? Is there anything you could improve on here?
Put yourself in your supervisors shoes, and try to see with their eyes, hear with their ears.
How does your communication come across?
Are your visible? Reasonable?
What is the state of mind they write that single-sentence email in?
What is the state of their inbox?
See their point of view.
Advanced (optional extra) – Reflect on the role your supervisor would like to have: what are his/her strong points? Maybe it is mainly knowledge or content, and a traditional mentoring role. Perhaps they have an extensive academic network they would like to introduce you to. Are there conferences they are involved in they would like you participate in? Or there may be an opportunity to co-author work. Their style could be formal, or informal…what makes this person tick? Think about it: what would make THEM feel good about their role as supervisor? You know, the proverbial ‘win-win’? How could you both benefit?
If you are thinking: “My supervisor could not care less”, (and this may be the case, though most often it really isn’t, it’s just that they are a bit lost in the supervision thing as are you), imagine what the most hassle-free interaction would look like. Start there.
2. What does your work need?
On to the next bit. This question helps separate the personal from the professional, and it is brilliant at taking the sting out of otherwise painful situations. You may be familiar with them: those where egos clash. Put your work at the centre, and the egos matter a bit less. Clarity, thank god.
So, look at your work, as it stands now.
Get inside of it.
Imagine you are it.
What does it need to get better?
What are the next steps?
What does it need from your supervisor?
(As well as: What does it need from you? You can make a list of that too)
Do parts of your work need feedback? In what way?
If you envision your work as fully finished, which parts are still missing, and which part of that needs your supervisor’s input?
I like the idea of two academics – the junior and the senior – contributing to a joint cause: your work.
Your work is the only diva allowed: what does she need?
Any institutional hurdles you need your supervisor’s help with?
Once you find out: push for it.
Make it happen (err…politely of course).
This is your job.
The difficult thing about supervision relationships is that once burned once or twice it becomes tempting to hide. To disappear, as the echoes of criticism or past conversations still hurt. To disappear because no reaction seems to be forthcoming. To disappear, as your supervisor seems to be uninterested and unresponsive. It helps to remember it’s not about you. It very seldom is. (They’re probably simply crazy busy). The key here is to not make yourself inferior or insignificant (even if your supervisor makes you feel that way).
You are not inferior, and you and your work matter.
Real or perceived failure are SO part and parcel of academia. Communication gone wrong so is too. Unfortunately it does take some effort to not let it get to you. And sometimes you won’t manage.
Top strategy: Get excited about your work, and ask for feedback from there. It is the absolute best place to engage from.
Don’t limit yourself to your supervisor either. If he/ she cannot provide the feedback you need, maybe someone else can.
3. What do you need?
And finally…what do you need? Ask yourself what you personally need.
What would you like?
What do you need?
You cannot change your supervisor (oh, if only!), but there are always ways to improve your supervision relationship. Clear and specific goals and deadlines, jointly agreed on, may help for example (no more vague ‘work hards’!, no more waiting for months for feedback, one hopes). Regular supervision meetings and communication may help (makes everyone a bit more human, real and clued up). Speaking to them in person instead of relying on email may help. Clearing the air on something that is bothering you may help (diplomatically). Or letting go of some grievances in private (rant alert!) may help as well. Maybe you need more feedback, or less. Is there any way this could be discussed and arranged?
Take yourself seriously.
If you feel like you’re being dismissed, don’t add to that by dismissing yourself.
In addition to that: it is so important to take care of yourself. Self-care is no luxury in demanding circumstances, and academia can be pretty brutal. Are there ways to be gentler with yourself with regard to the situation? Are there ways to stop making yourself small, if that is what you are doing? Ways to let off steam if you are particularly pissed off? Ways to enjoy yourself more, brighten it all up a bit? To guilt on yourself less? What do you need?
Play around with these questions. In the answers, look for the intuitive hit or ‘aha’. Mostly you want the process to be effortless, not laboured. Works better that way!
How’s supervision going? Any insights to share from doing the exercise? Let me know in the comments! If you want to take it a step further: there is a whole week on supervision in the HappyPhD Course. Also, as always, if you found this post helpful, could you share it? I appreciate it!
Summer. Time to relax, recharge, and…reflect.
How was your academic year?
What went well? What didn’t?
Anything you’d like to change?
This slow time of year (though I know, it’s academia, for some of you conference season may be right round the corner) is an excellent time to reflect and ask some questions we don’t tend to get round to when we’re hopping around from one obligation to the next. With our eyes on the next short-term goal, and immersed in the details of our work, perspective gets lost. The summer is a time to chill out a bit, zoom out. Only then can we see the big picture.
The first part of that: we need to plan an escape. Oh yes, we need to get away.
Especially if you have workaholic tendencies, or if you feel ‘behind’: you need to stop, slow down, and you definitely need to not work for a bit.
I firmly believe in having a daily work/writing routine. I also firmly believe in breaks. Complete breaks.
If you think you are going to use the summer to ‘catch up’: that may be a good idea (or it may not be), but in any case make sure you get away as well. Away, away. No work, no writing, no nothing.
Sometimes I marvel at the non-stop-ness of this world. The always and ever-connectedness. The constant information overload, email, the reading and posting to social media from holiday or wherever. Not that it is bad per se, but disconnecting, letting go, switching off has more and more become a conscious act, which requires some awareness (and a bit of self-discipline!) on our part. Ironically, of course, the more strung out we are, the more difficult it is to get out of the loop, away from the screen, and the phone, and our mind-numbing habits. It is also more difficult to step away from work. We often feel we need to keep going, as in this academic world of self-made man, deadlines always loom. The more tired we are, the more pressing they feel. We need to step out of that. Step out. Get away. Recharge.
Book that ticket.
Get on the plane, or the train.
Get your sunglasses out.
The nice thing about holidays (apart from the holiday itself) is what they allow us to do: see clearly.
They help us unwrap, they give us perspective.
They give us time to reflect, not necessarily in an active way, simply by a change of scenery.
Which leads us to the second part: clarity.
When back from holiday, but before starting work again, ask yourself: If you had to pick one thing, one habit, or one stressor: what has been the biggest energy ‘leak’ the past academic year?
For me, personally, a major shift in my PhD productivity (back in the day) occurred when I realised I was losing so much energy in second-guessing myself. It was time to get out of my own way. That was it. That was all. I had been self-sabotaging in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and it was time to stop. It sounds ridiculous, of course – who in their right mind would self-sabotage?-, but honestly, we all do it in some way. For me, seeing that, and recognising it for what it was, helped tremendously.
So, what is your major ‘thing’?
Is it a circumstance, a bad habit, negative self-talk? What is your (self-)sabotage?
It may be a circumstance, like your living situation or a professional or personal relationship that is not working.
It may be a habit, such as procrastination, or overworking, or being last-minute about everything including important deadlines.
It may be a mental or emotional hurdle such as feeling underconfident, or engaging in unnecessary self-criticism.
It may be really simple, like not getting enough sleep. It may be quite complex, say, a problem with supervision that may be difficult to even define.
(Or you may not have a ‘thing’. Nah – don’t believe you).
What drives you nuts?
Whatever it is, commit to improving on it over the next year.
Most often, when we tackle the big obstacle, the smaller ones simply melt away. The details will take care of themselves.
What is the major ‘thing’ you’d like to do differently the next academic year? How will you go about it? Let me know in the comments. If you’d like some structural support in your habit, or other ‘thing’-change consider the HappyPhD course or a coaching session with me. (I have discounted rates for the coaching sessions for those on my mailing list. If you want in, sign up below). Enjoy your holiday!
Say ‘stress’. What comes up for you?
For most people ‘stress’, means: ‘I have too much to do’ or ‘I am so stressed I want to pull my hair out!’
I want to look at it a little differently. I want to look at stress as a demand you place on yourself, or is placed on you. That’s neutral. It depends on what exactly the stressor is, and how you react to it whether it’s a positive or negative.
To make it more specific: let’s say your stressor is a deadline. We all know how deadlines have a knack for kicking us into gear, for pushing us to achieve, and for actually making us finish projects. The fight-or-flight response quite literally gives us a jolt. That may actually be a good thing!
I was chatting to one of the HappyPhD course participants some time ago, and he mentioned he never understood the importance of stress when it comes to performance until he read a book I recommended: ‘The art of full engagement’ by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. They use a physiological approach to performance, one I also apply in the HappyPhD course, which focuses on managing your energy instead of managing your time. Utilising stress and stressors to improve your focus is an important part of that. The approach they – and I – recommend is to work in intervals, in sprints. Challenge yourself, stress and stretch yourself, then relax.
If you’ve ever worked in a highly competitive environment – and if you’re writing a PhD you probably have – you know what that feels like: the adrenalin pumping, the thrill of a challenge. For me personally the best (and worst) memories of stress were when I was studying at the LSE. The workload was gruelling, and the standards set high. I loved it. Well, and hated it in equal measure! But what it definitely did was make me achieve.
Building that type of experience – the thrill, the buzz of it – into your workday is a good idea, and it is so gratifying. Most importantly forget about high achieving for hours on end. It doesn’t work like that: work really intensely for half an hour, or an hour, an hour and a half at the most, at a time. That’s what works. Take longer than that and you lose momentum. It becomes a steady-state affair, a marathon even. Buzz lost.
If you use stress and stressors in this way, stress becomes a positive experience. It will help you get where you want to go. It will help you achieve what you want to achieve.
Stress turns bad when there is no off-switch. If we push ourselves relentlessly with no significant breaks we suffer, and our word count does too! The same physiological response to a challenge which is so beneficial in the short run has negative consequences in the long run: once stress hormones run rampant in our systems for long enough they tear us down. I’m not being metaphoric. There is ample evidence of the stress reaction over time having a negative impact on pretty much every bodily system, and that includes your brain. You’re asking why you’re underperforming when you’re feeling ‘stressed’? That’s why.
Now stress is never simply about work, it is about our lives outside work as well, and it is about how we handle all the stressors we encounter. Sometimes it feels like there IS no off-switch. And that is why it’s so important to cultivate the off-switch in ourselves. For me, yoga, meditation, taking time off, regular routines, do the trick. Where is your off-switch? How could you cultivate it? Take some time to ponder.
Stress can turn ugly when it gets us spinning our wheels to such a degree that we feel we need to push harder, and harder, yet we are no longer effective. We start to worry, overthink, we react emotionally in situations because we are strung out, life seems to be pitted against us. We lose touch with the saner parts of ourselves. We are in overdrive. It is the fight-or-flight response gone mad. If you are feeling like this: take a few steps back. Take a proper break, a few days at least, maybe longer depending on how you feel, until you regain your sense of perspective.
So many academics I know have had to take time off work at some point because work/life stress got the better of them. Nobody talks about this much, but it is very common. Self-care goes a long way in preventing more serious stress-related health problems. Be kind to yourself, and prevent burning out. Relax, take care, do what you need to do to get back in touch.
How are your stress-levels? Healthy exhilaration or are you chronically strung out? What are your favourite ways to relax and undo the fight-or-flight response? Let me know! If you’re interested in setting up some work and self-care routines for an exhilarated, definitely not-strung-out academic life take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!
At this time of year, time seems to speed up. The summer is in sight, as are too rapidly approaching PhD deadlines. When we start getting panicky about things it helps to step back and ask what might make a difference. A difference to how we work, how we write, how we get things done, how we feel. What might help us accomplish our goals?
I have become a big fan of habits, and have learnt how to build them purposefully and gradually. The gradual bit I am still not too keen on, but as I have found out with much trial and error, it is the only way that works. You can’t go cold turkey into a massive habit overhaul: after an initial enthusiastic burst of ‘good behaviour’ it won’t stick, it’ll be overwhelming and you’ll end up feeling like you’ve failed. It’s a shame this. It would be nice if creating positive habits was as easy as writing them out on a list and implementing like a maniac. Instead, I have found there are three main keys to habit change, and it is best to implement one habit at a time.
The first key is to pick the right habit (for you). Which habit will make the most of a difference? This is your ‘What’.
There are always a million things we could do ‘better’, and as we are probably all perfectionists here, I won’t need to explain the concept. Yet instead of driving ourselves crazy over details, why not ask yourself: what would make a real difference with regard to what you’re trying to achieve? One thing. One. Yes, we are prioritising. (Does the idea of picking only one change make you nervous? Why not simply allow yourself a sigh of relief? One thing is enough. You can always add something later on).
Let’s say you are trying to meet a deadline and your word count is not progressing as you might like.
Some suggestions to consider:
- Rest and sleep – will make you that more clear-headed/ ready for work/ less freaked out. (Recommended if you feel you are indeed on the edge of freaking out/ if it all feels like it’s too much)
- Working in intervals – this makes such a difference. It will allow you to be far more productive, while not wearing you out. (Recommended if work load is an issue)
- Creating a writing habit – write first, before you do anything else. Or at any time of the day you are sure to do it. Habit number one of the prolific academic (True!)
- Stopping on time – often the days seem endless, and our focus fizzles out. Create a deadline in your day, every day. Stick to it, and work hard to meet it. Then stop. Well done. It’s so simple. (Recommended if you are low on energy yet need to write more than you can seem to manage.)
- Working offline – single-tasking. It works, by forcing you to focus and think and write, though be prepared to miss your favourite distractions! (Recommended for all social media junkies/ distraction addicts/ if you have a can’t see the wood for the trees problem)
- Exercise – Just 20-30 minutes three times a week will lower your stress levels, while making you feel more alert and clear-headed (Recommended if you are feeling sluggish or down, and have a difficult time getting going)
- Starting a meditation routine – Increase focus, decrease stress, feel better. (Recommended for centering, overwhelmed, and when in a state of discontent or unable to tap into your intuition)
- Going easy on the coffee/ carbs/ booze – If you’re rollercoastering through your days, using coffee as an upper, alcohol as a downer, sugar as a pacifyer: you may need a break (Recommended if your brain is rollercoastering with you.)
Add any of you own. Now ask yourself: which of these changes might help me the most? Which one appeals? Ask yourself what would it feel like to have that change in place? Feel good? Yes or No? Would it solve some of the problems you are up against? Once your rational mind (sounds sensible) and your feeling mind (feels good) agree: that’s the habit you are looking for.
The second key is to make sure your new habit is compelling. If you want to do it, you are much more likely to do it. This is your ‘Why’.
Changing your habits can be a bit of a challenge. To make new habits stick, and decrease the chances of getting annoyed with yourself for not being able to do such a ‘simple’ task, ask yourself why you would like to make that change. What is the bigger picture? Now, don’t stop at ‘I would like to finish this paper by the end of next week, therefore I need to be more focused at work, therefore I am going to work for two hours on my paper every day, before I do anything else.’
Ask yourself what it feels like to accomplish that. Ask yourself how it would feel right after you have put your two early morning hours in. Ask yourself how it would feel to do that on a regular basis. Now ask yourself how it would feel to meet the deadline.
Picture yourself. Right there, at your computer. Finished manuscript in hand. The date, the time. You are well on time. You are done.
How does it feel?
Immerse yourself in this feeling.
That feeling will keep your habit in place. Anchor into it. Use it. Use it whenever you feel you can’t be bothered.
If your habit doesn’t feel good for whatever reason it’s not the right habit to change. Pick something else. Pick something that you will actually do. What moves you? Pick that one.
The third key is to keep going, and you’ll increase the odds of that happening significantly if you prepare for those moments that might challenge your new habit. This is your ‘when’.
Trigger moments: those moments when we ‘want’ to stick to our new habit, yet we cave in…because it’s not quite a habit yet. You’re ready to start your early morning write, yet email beckons, or coffee beckons, or a chat with your colleague beckons, or (God forbid) an email from a colleague for a coffee, now, beckons. Now you’re outnumbered!! Can’t help it! Off for coffee.
Know your triggers. Once again imagine yourself in the situation: what is going to come up? What will seem more important, or more fun, or just plain easier? Could you plan for any of that? Be prepared…to say no. To do things differently. If you’re having trouble, go back to your why – the feeling of it. It will help you stand firm, and it will help you do what you ultimately want to do.
Which habit would you like to change or implement? Let me know! If you are looking for a system of academic habit change – have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has good reviews. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!
Are you in between?
At work, but not working?
At home, but not relaxing?
In bed, but not sleeping?
Drifting off into worry about whether your chapter, or paper, or outline will be finished in time, while the clock ticks and your cursor blinks?
Drifting off into ‘will this ever be good enough’ and ‘what am I doing’?
Drifting off into randomness, into plans and to-do’s, and overwhelm?
Drifting off into conversations in your mind?
Do you procrastinate?
Do you wonder where the day went, and why you didn’t get done what you wanted to do?
Feel guilty about it?
The art of focus is an art you’ll need to master if you want to break the loop. If you want to break out of being torn and overwhelmed and distracted and not getting anything done. The answer is as simple as it is difficult to do at times: pay attention. Pay attention to what you are doing and see whether it is indeed what you would like to be doing. If not? Now is the moment to get back into the groove, and back on track. Yes. Now. Break out of the loop.
This, in a nut-shell, is the ‘secret’ of being effective at anything really, including being a prolific academic: paying attention.
A tool that helps immensely in doing this, in creating more mental control, as well as control over what you actually do in a day, is meditation. It is brain training. Or mind training. You practice your paying attention muscles and it does pay off. It will become increasingly effortless to stay on track: the track you choose. You gain control. So worth the investment, so worth the effort.
I started meditating by taking an 8-week mindfulness based stress-reduction course, a system based on the work of Jon Kabat – Zinn. That was back in 2008, quite some time ago! I was excited to start, until I found out it was actually quite hard: it was so much about unlearning to overthink. And think, and think, and think is what my mind so loves to do! Thinking about meditation, dreaming of its wonderful effects came a lot easier to me than actually sitting on the pillow and paying attention – which is all meditation really is – without adding all the layers of thought. Thought was entertainment. Stories, fantasies, worries, you name it I am addicted! And now I had to learn to drop it.
And it is all the mental buzz we need to drop. I know now, for a fact, that solutions to anything – from intellectual puzzles to personal problems – do not come from thought, as in actively thinking or ‘obsessing’. They often arise from a different space – one where I feel calm and grounded and content. That space, where peace and joy arise, where you find a different perspective, a perspective that is so much kinder and so much more fun, instead of the continuous reaching and pushing for answers, that space can be accessed through meditation. Yet we need to sit with our chaos for long enough to allow the dust to settle, and the cobwebs to untangle themselves.
In the mindfulness course I took, they used the metaphor of a lake with muddy water. By simply sitting and being, the mud would sink and settle, the water would clear. Overthinking muddles the lake, while paying attention and letting go of the storylines in our head allows it to calm and beautify.
This has been very much my experience. About six weeks into the course – six weeks of chaos on my meditation pillow – I noticed that when a particularly distressing thought came up during the day (was dealing with freaky scary health/ money stuff) I could just let it be. Didn’t cause me to panic, didn’t cause me distress. Not as much distress anyway: the thought came up and I noticed myself thinking: “I am not going to entertain this particular train of thought today. I just can’t be bothered to think all those stressful thoughts. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, now please let me sit with the sun on my face with a cup of tea, unworried, thank you!” And instead of shaking me, the stressful thought just came and went. The lake was clear.
Did it stay like that? No! The mind is a muddy lake, at least mine is, and I expect yours to be too. But we can learn how to move out of chaos quicker. That is my experience. You still get into it, but you have tools to get yourself out of it. To calm the waters.
I still meditate, though a little more free-flowing than in the early years. I have become quite proficient at moving into calmer, and more loving, states of being, on the meditation pillow. It really does turn the joy up, and the worry down. Applying the same techniques in daily life is an ongoing practice.
What about you? Do you meditate? Would love to hear what it does for you. If you’d like to learn how to meditate: creating a meditation practice is an important part of the HappyPhD Course. It has meditations by Bodhipaksa, as well as my own. The HappyPhD meditations I designed specifically for the PhD life of us Overthinkers Anonymous. They help you switch off, after a day of thinking (no more obsessing about the PhD!), as well as shift towards a more joyful, sparkly way of being, when you are worried). As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!
Are you there yet?
Is the paper you want to write finished, are your deadlines met?
Your data crunched, your analyses lucid, your argument convincing?
Are you on top of things?
What about your publication record? How many top publications can we count?
Oh – is it too early to think about publications?
It is never too early to think about publications.
You need publications.
What about the rest of your cv? Are you ticking the boxes, doing enough?
Are you. Doing. Enough?
Academia, at its worst, is a machine that runs on numbers. In an attempt to quantify the unquantifyable, academic performance is reduced to publications and citations, to deadlines met and funding secured. And you’re supposed to tag along. That is, if you want to keep your position, keep moving forward and upwards. If not: out.
It becomes a state of mind: the pushing, the reaching, the grasping, the scrambling.
We have to Get There
‘There’ is a fiction. It’s always just past the horizon. We know so, of course. We know that when this paper or chapter is done there will be a next one to write. One deadline down, many more to go. It’s a merry-go-round, we know! Yet maybe we will feel more secure, even a little, with the next milestone reached… Life will be better, easier, less stressful with the deadline behind us, the achievement achieved.
That is how we think. That is how we work.
With our eyes on the prize – the next one. Always the next one.
Going a little crazy in the process.
It always surprises me how short the moments of triumph, of satisfaction, are. Even the grand prizes, the actual publications (which you will get, somewhere down the road), the promotions, and the grants awarded. They satisfy…for about five minutes. Then once more our eyes are on the future, hurtling forwards, feeling like we have not yet done enough.
As I write this, students in Amsterdam are occupying the Maagdenhuis to protest against what they call the neoliberalisation of higher education, their main focus on democratisation and ‘de-financialisation’. One of their demands is a shift from a quantitative, output-based financial model towards qualitative forms of evaluation. It is a rebellion against the status quo. Against the bureaucratic machine. Against all the counting.
I say we couple the rebellion against the system, with an internal rebellion. A rebellion against the mind-set of ‘never-there-never-good-enough’. The ‘never-enough’ mind-set the machine cultivates. The mind-set we believe in. Does it do us any good, the kicking ourselves ahead? Does it really make us productive, or does it simply make us stressed and unhappy? Would anything change if we stopped engaging with these thoughts that bring us down, that convince us we should be better than we are? What if we stopped entertaining them every chance we get?
I am not discounting the challenges of academic life. Unfortunately, some of the pressures are real. But it’s precisely because they are real that we need to use our energy towards doing our work, and living our lives. It is too easy to get caught up in worries, to let it sap all the joy. No more, I say. No more.
What if we challenge the assumption that the prize will be delivered…tomorrow…once we’ve worked hard enough…once we are deserving?
What if the prize has been delivered already…what if our work is exactly where it should be…and what if we are already there?
Because we are.
Set your goals, but then –
Trust in an unfolding.
Where you are, right now, is far enough.
It is the only place to be.
You are going to meet the deadline.
You are going to publish, and publish well.
Your PhD/ chapter/ paper will be finished and written and published and read. It will.
Dwell in that space, of being already there.
How wonderful it is, without the stress.
How wonderful to enjoy the process.
All you have to do is your work for today.
The one next step. It’s the only and most important step there is.
It is enough.
I try to actively cultivate an attitude of being ‘already there’, of taking the more desperate edge off. In fact it’s a whole different way of seeing things, of being. Being much more open to what is already there – it is sweet. (And it may even make you excited about the work you are doing.) Can you relate? Do you take the time to enjoy what is already there? Let me know! If you’d like to cultivate such a mind-set, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help you become more present, more content. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share. I appreciate it!
Many of the struggles of PhD life pertain to invisible, imaginary pianos that might fall from the sky: feeling like you’re behind, writing struggles, fear of criticism, of not meeting a deadline…the list goes on. Most pianos don’t fall. And if they do, you find out they are quite innocent cute little pianos you are well equipped to handle, after all.
Sometimes we are not so lucky, and a real whopping big piano drops right on top of us. (That’s some of us. Count your lucky stars if you cannot relate!) These type of pianos tend to drop so fast there’s no fear involved. That’s the irony, or it seems to be. The truly awful stuff: it just happens. And then you have to deal and cope, whether you like it or not.
A while ago a PhD candidate got in touch with me. He had to suddenly deal with a disability: an illness for which he was effectively treated, but the treatment had had side-effects. Side-effects that directly, and likely permanently affect his mental energy, sometimes his mental clarity. On the outside no-one seems to notice. He looks the same. But he can no longer perform the way he did before. What to do now? How to finish his PhD? How to communicate about his situation?
The tragedy of dealing with massive pianos, especially if they are invisible ones, is the loneliness. You drop out of the mainstream, your experience no longer shared. There are no guidelines, there is no handbook. It’s just you and the piano. And the question of how to get it to shift an inch, so you can get it to hurt a bit less, and work with it or around it, and somehow get on with your life.
Universities often offer little support. You may have to deal with additional complications: sometimes systems are so rigid they do not allow for pianos at all! Great. Just what you need.
So, how to cope? How to deal? Can it be done elegantly?
I have quite a bit of experience with massive pianos and how to deal – if you’ve been reading for a while you know I finished my PhD while struggling with an illness that left me with very little energy and more worries and issues than I want to even think about!! In the process I learned quite a bit about being effective despite circumstances.
A tip of the iceberg:
1. Love your boundaries
If I could say only one thing, it would be this: love and respect your boundaries as much as you can. A piano, whether an illness or something else, will force you to re-examine what you can and cannot do. It is incredibly hard to come to terms with the constraints imposed. You did not choose this, you do not want it, yet it is there. Acknowledge the piano. Dare look at the reality of the situation. Dare find out what the new situation means. I say dare, because it takes courage. If you are clear half the battle is won. Boundaries keep you safe, and provide possibility. They show you what is possible, right here, right now. Find out what might be possible, find out how you could work within your new boundaries. Don’t fight them, even though it’s tempting, I know.
2. With courage comes heart
Appreciate yourself for all that you are, do, and deal with. It’s pretty incredible! And it is enough, even if you can’t do what you used to do, for now. A sense of self-appreciation is your most valuable ally in the midst of your world falling apart (hopefully not completely!). Not only will it help you muster the strength to go on with your life, in pieces or not, it will significantly affect how others treat you. If you respect yourself, others are more likely to respect you and your circumstances (and if they don’t, it’s not as much of a problem). You set the tone by how you approach yourself. I suggest you do so with fierce appreciation.
3. Communicate your needs
Asking for help is the most difficult thing in the world! If you are anything like me you want to be independent, self-reliant and eh…capable, without extra provisions or extra care. No special treatment please! Yet asking for help, asking for support becomes vital once you have serious life-changing stuff going on.
Work-wise: if your situation is preventing you from working at a pace you were used to and is expected of you, temporarily or permanently, let your supervisor/ anyone else involved know. You don’t have to go into great detail about your circumstances, but you must, MUST, communicate about your new situation as it pertains to what you can and can no longer do. You may have the tendency to underplay the huge changes in your life. You may want to deny the piano. In fact, you may succeed for a while, as most pianos are invisible to other people, including supervisors! That is until they can no longer be denied, which at that point will be certain to cause you a great deal of extra stress and grief. Not good.
It’s a much better idea to be as pragmatic as you can in dealing with your situation. Stick up for yourself. It’s important. Depending on your circumstances make strategic decisions as to how much information to share at work, and whether/ who/ how to ask for help. Some environments are friendlier than others, and some people have people skills while others do not! But regardless, and I want to emphasize this: let others help if they can. People (supervisors are people) are often more than willing to do so. They may even help bend some rules. Ask yourself what you need first. Be specific. Then ask. You deserve all the help you can get.
From my personal experience: when I was finishing my PhD I had to do so in a PhD environment where there were NO arrangements for disability (Ouch, how I hate that word!). The only option was to take unpaid sick leave, and they didn’t seem to be too generous with that either. Yet I needed time, and lots of it. Every six months, for the three years that I did not work at all, I applied for an extension, and I ended up being the person with the longest sick leave in the history of the Institute! This wasn’t without stress, and to be honest in the end I thought they would drop me. They didn’t. Now I know my supervisor did quite a bit of lobbying on my behalf behind the scenes, even though he too was getting impatient. I believe he/ they would have given up on me if I had not communicated about my circumstances, as painful as it was. These situations can make you feel as if you’re battling a machine. I am glad I kept making my case, best as I could, and kept asking for what I needed (more time) without being apologetic about it. It paid off.
4. Don’t underestimate yourself
There is a silver lining to massive pianos: the imaginary pianos start to matter less. These aren’t words of comfort really: I am sure we would all rather deal with imaginary pianos than real ones! But it’s true: crisis can create momentum. There is no time to obsess over writer’s block etc. when you have real problems going on. The sky has already fallen, so no need to obsess about it happening! Might as well skip writer’s block altogether and get to work! When fear starts to matter less, when the PhD becomes less important in the scheme of things: that is when the pace picks up. In addition, constraints can force us to become more effective in the way we work. It is quite remarkable what we are capable of when we have to, when we are forced to do more with less energy/ less time at our disposal. If we used to specialize in making life difficult for ourselves, we no longer do. There is a real piano to deal with now – it is enough.
If you are dealing with a piano right now – an illness, a disability, death in the family maybe – just know I am rooting for you. May the tide turn soon, may you feel better, may all be easier for you in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, hang tight. You can do this. You will get through it. You will find a way. You will.
If you have questions for me about this topic, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Talk to me. Leave a comment below, or send me a message or tweet. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share it. I appreciate it!
I have been practicing yoga for many years, for about fifteen to be precise. I got into yoga when a friend bought a series of power yoga DVDs on TellSell. (I know. Always take the classy route.) I would go over to her house weekly and we would practice together, and lounge about on her sofa, chatting and drinking tea in post-yoga bliss afterwards.
For me, bliss it is. Yoga really does bring me back to my center, my core. It makes me feel strong and clear, and soft and surrendered at the same time.
When I started my practice I had a repetitive stress injury, which was bad. Bad as in it felt like my arm, shoulder and hand were about to drop off. Bad, as in I couldn’t open a carton of milk any more because it hurt too much. Bad, as in I couldn’t work for a couple of months because I could no longer type! Physiotherapy (eight months of it) made it worse. In the end, a combination of acupuncture and yoga made it better. I even took the DVD to the physiotherapist’s office: “Look, this cured me!” And it did.
Since then I have practiced about a million different styles of yoga: power yoga, hatha yoga, yin yoga, kundalini yoga. When I studied in Leiden and was writing my Master’s thesis I would roll out my mat for 50 minutes of power yoga with Bryan Kest on DVD at the end of the day, every day. It saved my shoulder and my wrist. When I studied in London I joined the Yoga Club and we practised our headstands in seminar rooms and the LSE basement. It saved my sanity. (LSE yogis are competitive! My teachers would be showing off their poses and moves wherever they could. Trying to outdo each other in backbends and arm balances and crazy ridiculous postures. And have arguments about what constituted yoga – East vs. West. Indian teachers versus American). In Italy, I again reverted to my home practice, as I couldn’t find a studio or teacher I liked. Unfortunately so. But when I returned to Amsterdam I found a lovely yoga studio with classes that were mellow and friendly. When I was very poorly, it was my saving grace. And now, I do Bikram yoga.
If you haven’t heard of Bikram yoga: it is about the most intense type of yoga there is. You do 26 postures in a heated room. Heated as in hot! 40 degrees. You pour with sweat, for 90 minutes, while twisting and stretching and strengthening, with mirrors reflecting your inelegant attempts at yoga back at you. If this doesn’t sound appealing: it isn’t particularly appealing! But it’s addictive and it’s fantastic. I feel rubbish most of the time (OK, all of the time, in honesty) because of my Lyme disease, but when I walk out of Bikram class, no matter how difficult it was, I feel clearer, brighter, more grounded and energised. Even if I still feel horrible, I feel better.
This academic year, my boyfriend decided to join me with an experiment of his own: going to Bikram class for four to five days a week. Before work. If you know him, you know this is a bit of a revolution. In the almost-decade we have been together I have not known him to go to bed before 1 or 2 or 3 a.m. or get up before 10 a.m. Ever. Unless he had to catch a flight, or if the university administration had been particularly evil and assigned him to teach a morning course. Now he is in the hot room at 6.30 a.m. Every day. The difference it has made has been astonishing. The man is on fire (in the best possible way imaginable). More focused, more clear-headed, more grounded. (There is more, but I have to stop there, because I know he wouldn’t want me to discuss the private details of his life. He leaves all the spilling the beans to me.)
I realise this all sounds like a bad commercial and perhaps a confirmation that the Bikram aficionados truly have a few screws loose, which I am not going to deny. But the truth is the difference has been incredible. The bottom line: the yoga experiment has been more than successful. It reinforces the ideas I teach in my seminars and in the HappyPhD online course: that the cure for feeling swamped at work isn’t working longer hours in an attempt to get more done. It is making sure you have structures in place that help you stay calm, clear and focused. The physiological component is an important one: exercise in general, and yoga in particular will help you create mental space, as well as mental strength. Which is never a bad idea.
PS – The Bryan Kest series I practiced for years (Energize, Tone & Sweat) is also on Youtube. I particularly like the Tone practice. The videos are beyond cheesy, which I think must be the defining characteristic of my taste in yoga!
Do you practice yoga? What do you like about it? Tell me. Also, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? As always, much appreciated.
Before I presented my first HappyPhD seminar I booked a coaching session with a public speaking coach. We talked story-telling technique, commanding the energy in a room, and we brainstormed about some aspects of my workshop. The conversation meandered and we ended up talking about creativity, and how to bring your work into being. At this point in the conversation she drew me a stick figure:
She told me there are basically two ways to get stuck when you are creating something (and in life. It was that kind of conversation). You may have no ideas, or no inspiration. You feel limp. You have lost your sense of wonder. Life is a drag. That’s when the vertical arrow gets blocked. Or, you may have problems implementing those ideas: translating them into reality and communicating them with other people. That’s when the horizontal arrow gets blocked. Releasing these blocks means momentum is restored.
(If you hadn’t noticed yet – this is a bit of a ‘spiritual’ post. No academic references here. Think metaphor, think model. Don’t take it literally.)
Translated to academia it presents a rather fabulous model for building and sustaining momentum.
We need the muse: the being enthralled, the giddiness of ideas and the excitement and thrill when inspiration strikes.
But we can’t stop there.
We need to capture those thoughts and ideas, order them, structure them, put them onto paper, fine-tune, fine-tune more, and present them to the world.
Moving ideas into form (and publication).
I believe the vertical arrow to be responsible for the spark, in our work, in our eyes, in our life. It ensures quality and originality. We cultivate it through feeling and noticing: we need to notice what uplifts us.
At work, we need to notice which ideas speak to us, which words need to be written, which argument needs to be explored. Even if the (desired) outcome is intellectual, the process is one of tuning into our feelings, navigating on inspiration.
More broadly, we need to notice what makes us come alive.
Where does excitement live?
These aren’t fixed entities: what is it you need right now?
For sparks to show up on a regular basis you need to pay attention.
You need find out where they like to hang out;
they are not that visible to the untrained eye,
and if you get too caught up in the stresses of things (the deadline, the difficulties, the expectations, everything that doesn’t seem to go your way) they fade.
Or we think they do.
We fail to notice them, even if they are still there.
I believe the horizontal arrow to be the motor behind ‘success’. It is the ‘showing up and getting things done’. For academia:
It is the sitting down to do research or write when you do not feel like it.
It is ignoring the inner critic.
It is setting yourself a challenge. It is meeting that challenge.
It is thinking strategically about your work and how you want to position yourself in your field, and in the academic community.
It is being professional and engaged in your work relationships.
It is stretching beyond what you think you are capable of, beyond what you think you are ready for, beyond…
It is being courageous and bold.
It is joining the academic community by participating.
It is, as my mentor Gordon Smith would call it: ‘getting on with it’.
It is coming out of your shell and showing up.
Show up. Show initiative. DO something.
I believe there is great value in learning to tune into what we need: do we need to show up and get things done (horizontal arrow), or do we need to let go, surrender and allow things to happen (vertical arrow)? Do we need to put ourselves out there (horizontal arrow), or do we need to soften and pay attention to inner needs (vertical arrow)?
In my own life I find there are often subtle shifts I can make to restore momentum. When I am being too controlling, when I am too invested in an outcome, I remind myself to let things happen in their own time (vertical arrow). I step back. At least I try. At the same time, I work at those things that require my energy. I determine what my priorities are and I take action if I can (horizontal arrow).
These days I am pretty in tune, in the sense that I at least recognise when I am ‘in the flow’ and when I am firmly out of it. The two feel completely different, and I am highly sensitive to the difference. If I push too hard, for too long (and I tend to, still) everything comes to a halt very fast. So I reconnect, and figure out what I need to allow things to happen more effortlessly.
The vertical connection comes relatively easily to me – I seem to always have ideas and a little sparkle going on somewhere. That said, when I am being too goal-oriented, or if fear gets in the way, my inspiration gets cut off and I am absolutely gutted. I feel hollow and drained. I NEED the muse by my side to feel like myself. And I need to be in tune to work and create. I cannot do the go-getter thing. When I trust I don’t have to, my best work shows up. Opportunities show up. (And, distinctions and good reviews show up). The horizontal connection for me means doing my work (whatever that may mean in the moment), and putting it out into the world (who knows, someone may enjoy it!). I have become a huge fan of simple routines to ensure I indeed do so, no matter the circumstances.
Establishing momentum in this inside-out manner has been key to finishing my PhD, and I imagine it will be key in anything I do from here. Why it works, is because it isn’t imposed. It is not about forcing myself to do things. It is more about alignment, than effort.
All of this makes a lot of sense to me, but I have no idea whether it makes sense to anyone else? Can you relate? How do you deal with horizontal and vertical challenges? Would love to know. If these ideas do make sense to you: could you share this post? As always, it is much appreciated!
The vertical arrow is about spark and inspiration, for which we need to be open, curious and playful. It is about being connected to our inner world and working from there.
The horizontal arrow is about achievement (in an effortless way), for which we need to be committed, grounded and courageous. It is about our connection to others and our contribution in the world.
If you are vertically challenged right now, start creating space for sparks to show up.
- Brainstorm creative ideas for the chapter or paper you are currently working on – pay special attention to how each option makes you feel. Use your intuition to make work decisions. (Scary. Exhilarating. Powerful.)
- Read your favourite scholars (or novelists), and let yourself be inspired.
- Take time off to do nothing.
- Take time to consciously stop achieving. Being is enough. You are enough.
- Start a meditation or yoga practice (resets the brain for creativity, contentment and joy).
- Notice what you want to do instead of what you ought to do. Do what you want to do.
- Ask yourself: what do I need right now? Listen. Act on it.
- Allow things to happen.
Loosen up, lighten up, relax.
Be still and listen.
- Pay attention to the small pleasures. And the big ones.
- Let yourself off the hook:
You don’t have to do anything right now.
You don’t have to get anywhere.
There is nowhere to go! You are already there.
- Read, dance, eat, go to the cinema or theatre, see friends etc.: do anything that uplifts you.
Whether at work or outside work, the key to more spark is listening in, instead of pushing forward. It is about noticing joy, and following its path. Effortlessly.
If you are horizontally challenged, take action.
- Set up work and writing routines and stick to them (I recommend working in intervals)
- Set yourself a work challenge that stretches you, and go for it. Maybe it is getting your paper written, maybe it is getting your paper published. Maybe it is trying something new, like leading a workshop or organising a panel at a conference. Maybe it is speaking up more in seminars, or presenting your work. Get excited about it and do it.
- Think strategically about where you want to go next, work-wise. Plan for it. Act on it. Become the person who can do, and simply does those things.
- Forget about failure. Failure is inevitable and it doesn’t matter. Just keep trying.
- Ignore the inner critic. Ignore the inner censor. Be fearless.
- Put yourself and your work out there.
- Be open to criticism, instead of being defensive. Connect.
- Take charge. Take a stand. Become visible.
- Ask yourself how you could contribute. If you were one step ‘ahead’ of where you are now, what would you be doing? Do it now. Don’t wait until you are ready.
- Set up self-care routines for exercise, diet etc. Don’t do so because you feel you ‘should’. Only make those changes that feel empowering.
Whether at work or outside work, the key to overcoming horizontal challenges is action and engagement. Show up. Your contribution is welcome and needed.
Sometimes we are challenged in all directions. In that case start anywhere. These approaches beautifully complement each other. Inspiration will help lift yourself above your fears and worries and into action. Action, engagement and movement will help you out of any slump and reignite your spark.
One of my HappyPhD clients wrote me to ask whether I had any special advice for people who work part- or fulltime and consequently don’t have the whole day to work on their PhD. She wrote that she felt she always had to ‘squeeze the PhD in somehow’ and felt overwhelmed with the stress of it all.
When you’re juggling a job and a PhD we’re talking about an extra constraint you’re dealing with: time. It’s a hard constraint, a boundary, a limit, which creates extra pressure and stress.
None of us like boundaries and constraints.
We prefer to be free, and to have all the time in the world!
But do we, really, if we stop to think about it? Would it do us any good?
I have come to believe that constraints, in general, are essential.
Even when they severely limit our options and are unwelcome.
Even if they force us to into narrow uncomfortable places.
Constraints can be beautiful,
if you utilise them,
if you see the promise they hold.
If you are writing your PhD part-time, please don’t buy into the myth of the blissful, fulltime, uninterrupted PhD.
No such thing exists.
(The exception that proves the rule: I have one PhD friend who describes his time in a full-time, mostly unstructured PhD programme as heaven uninterrupted. Lucky man.)
The fantasy of having unlimited time is overrated. Unlimited time kills productivity.
PhD students with too much time on their hands are often equally stressed, simply differently.
They may lose themselves in procrastination and self-doubt.
There is too much time to think.
Too much time to become paralysed.
Too much time to become stuck.
They have the opposite problem compared to the busy people: not enough boundaries, not enough structure, not enough momentum.
Interestingly, the solution in either situation lies in the structures you build into your life, how you use the constraints imposed on you, and how to maximise their inherent potential.
Let’s see how that could work for a time-pressured, working PhD candidate:
1. Time limits gently (or not so gently) nudge you to prioritise your research
Thank time limits for giving you an incentive to create focused time for your research. In most fields, you don’t need that much time to write a PhD. What you do need is focused time. Time in which you can give your full, undivided attention to your thesis. It’s not quantity but quality that matters. If you are writing a PhD with a job on the side, your situation is not unlike that of most academics further up the academic ladder who have to juggle teaching, managing courses, administration, supervision and research. Busy but prolific academics prioritise their research. They carve out time in their day for research only. It is incredible what you can get done in an hour or two a day. If you are struggling to juggle many tasks and demands, that would be where I suggest you start – by asking: which time in the day or week could I set aside for research only? Preferably early in the day as that is, for most of us, when our concentration is at its best. Make it a priority. That is all that is required.
2. Time limits help you get your work done
I have written a lot about how working in intervals can help you get your work done in far less time (see for example: How to write Your PhD speedily and (almost) painlessly: Strategy 3. Work in intervals). Take advantage of the time stress and pressure a job imposes by working in bursts. It’s better to work on the thesis for 2 x 45 minutes, than to attempt to work for eight hours straight. I received an email from one of the course participants (she took the HappyPhD course a year ago) with an update, and she told me that her work finally gained momentum when she started to shorten her workday, and let go of the idea that she had to work a full day to be productive. Instead she started working in 45-minute bursts, sometimes only one. That helped. Another course participant emailed me to say that the idea of working in intervals truly ‘clicked’ for him, when he realized that stress is important and useful. You need stress to perform at your best. If you already have stress because you are working part- or fulltime, so much the better! Use it to improve your thesis. Take the sprint mentality to heart. The trick to making working in intervals work, is to go full-out and dive straight into your work. Work like your life depends on it for the length of time you have decided upon. Then STOP. Don’t feel guilty for stopping after 45 minutes, or two times 45 minutes. It’s enough. Let me repeat that, because it’s important:
It is enough.
Embracing that idea will greatly reduce any guilt you may have about ‘not working enough’.
3. Time limits allow you to simplify your life
There is beauty in clean lines and clean surfaces, and clean, simple routines. You are probably yearning for some of that if you are overwhelmed with it all: the thesis, the job, the children maybe, the social calendar, all the daily tasks and responsibilities. If you have a busy schedule you cannot do everything. I learned how to simplify the hard way. Due to my health circumstances I have learned to say no to nearly everything. It hurts, because I have to disappoint people, and because I miss out on activities I would otherwise enjoy, but I have simultaneously found it to be liberating. It is great to be able to set your own priorities, and if you do it with full conviction it is very powerful. The word ‘No’ is a liberating word. Use it often. You choose how to spend your time, and you can drop things you don’t want to do. Free yourself from the drudgery of the hamster wheel. You are not a hamster and you don’t have to live like one! Experiment with saying no. Maybe you have social ‘obligations’ that are less than fulfilling. Say no. Don’t go. Maybe you burden yourself with trying to be everything to everybody. Is that really such a good idea? Find out where true value lies, and do those things. Drop the rest. Try saying no to everything and everyone (within limits, of course. Don’t get yourself fired because you took my advice! Although the upside of that situation is you’ll have loads of time to work on your PhD.) You don’t have to do it all. Liberate yourself.
4. Time limits and stress invite you to take better care of yourself
Time stress and having a million responsibilities, AND writing a PhD on top of it all can cause you to feel depleted and run down. Take it as a cue to open up to more self-care and compassion. Be compassionate, and know that you don’t have to do it all (even if it feels that way) and you don’t have to be perfect. Writing a PhD is not an easy task, and combining a PhD and work is a challenge. It’s okay to not do it perfectly. And it’s okay if other things in your life are not done perfectly either. If you have worked on your PhD for an hour, even if you wanted to do more – celebrate! Appreciate your small achievements. Every step, no matter how small, matters. That you showed up matters. It’s so tempting to forget to take the time to actually feel that feeling of appreciation. Connecting with those feelings that are so easily rushed past is the most important thing you can do when you are feeling swamped. Be kind to yourself in how you approach yourself and your work. Give the PhD your all when you are working on it, sure, but it is equally important to nourish yourself, and cherish yourself. Don’t expect yourself to do the impossible. Remind yourself you are already doing a pretty good job. Because you are. Take a minute to see that, to feel it, and to appreciate yourself for all that you do.
What are your strategies for juggling work and the PhD? Let me know!
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