‘How to write a PhD’ with Roanne van Voorst

Today I talk to Roanne van Voorst about how to build an academic career on your own terms. Roanne is an anthropologist specialized in humanitarian aid, and postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam. I met Roanne a few years ago, when she took my HappyPhD course with coaching (I am currently in the midst of editing and re-designing the course, it will re-launch in the new year!). One of the topics that came up when we talked was how to use the freedom we have in our academic lives instead of conforming to set norms. Often these discussions stay confined to how to design your workday or workweek, and how to deal with competitive pressures without turning into a professional workaholic.

Roanne takes the concept to the next level. After obtaining her PhD with honours, she decided she would try to create an academic life…differently. Instead of focussing solely on her academic career, she now works part-time as an academic, while running an online business on how to live a courageous and productive life on the side. She has written books about her time living in the slums of Jakarta, multiculturalism, conquering your fears, and her latest, about soldiers returning to civilian life. She gets a few things right, if you ask me!

Today we catch up. I thought it would be interesting to hear Roanne’s perspective on freedom in academia and the choices we have and make, on productivity, on fear, and living a full life.

Roanne’s top tips:

  1. Don’t settle for what is ‘normal’. You can create your own academic career path and create your own rules. You don’t have to conform to what everybody else is doing
  2. You don’t have to work an 80-hour workweek to be successful. It will drain your energy and inspiration
  3. Balance output, input, and rest, for creativity and productivity
  4. Take time to think and reflect, and write from the heart
  5. In the academic world receiving harsh criticism doesn’t mean you aren’t doing well. It means you are exactly where you should be. It’s the job of your supervisor and colleagues to criticize you. It’s your job to practice self-care and reflection, so you can deal with the criticism.
  6. Take your PhD one step at a time. Keep your eye on the next step – don’t look to the end goal, this will cause overwhelm.

I’ve always admired your independence, the choices you make. Can you tell me a little about the process over the past couple of years? When did you know you didn’t want the classic academic career, and how did you carve out a way that combines the best of all worlds? Did you have many doubts?

Thanks for your kind words – likewise, you’ve been an inspiration to me!

I was initially trained as a journalist and worked as a foreign correspondent for several years. I loved the excitement of that job, but missed depth in the news items I made. For this reason I decided to go back to uni and obtain a PhD in anthropology. During and after my PhD I’ve done in-depth fieldwork in Inuit communities, slums; among refugees and humanitarian aid workers and soldiers – and each and every time, I was fascinated with what I learned and enjoyed emerging myself into a complete new world.

However, there were also things about my new academic job that I didn’t like. One of them was the culture of overwork in which working endless hours was regarded not only normal, but as something positive and necessary. For several years, I went along with it. I worked very hard and felt exhausted, but it was never enough. When I’d leave the office at eight in the evening, most of the lights in other offices were still lit. I felt like a faker, a fraud, as if I wasn’t a proper or ‘real’ academic, as the others seemed to be. After some years of trying to make this culture my own, I noticed two things: not only was I so tired of work that I lacked energy for other aspects of my life, I also felt that I was becoming less creative and inspired. My life felt too narrow, as if I could only develop part of my identity.

For a long time, I was in doubt whether I should get back into journalism, but at some point I decided to give it one more chance: I’d experiment to see whether I could be an academic – on my own terms. And although it’s an extremely unconventional way of working, it works well for me.

What does that look like, specifically?

I decided to take a part-time position, I don’t work from 9-5, and I refuse to work 80 hours a week. I also make sure I take the time to talk with my PhD supervisees at length and often, it’s important to me to be an inspiring supervisor and colleague. And I skip unnecessary meetings, the ones mostly spent scrolling on your phone – don’t tell anybody! But seriously: I prioritize other tasks, like thinking, studying and writing.

That must have taken some courage. How were your choices to opt out of the academic rat race received in the academic world?

With scepticism, in the beginning. But honestly, my way of working works well for me, and my colleagues notice. As long as my work is of high quality and I publish it is not a problem. And I know I am energized, happy and inspired, exactly because I stick to my own rules. We tend to forget that no pre-determined rules exist. Who determines what an academic job should look like, or how an academic should behave?

Many academics are addicted to their work and have little to no time for a social life, or other interests. Well, I don’t want that life. I love my academic work, but I also love time off to explore my other interests. Yes, I’m an academic, but I am also a writer, a woman, a rock climber, a wife, a daughter, a public speaker, and a friend. Those identities are important too.

You are also a writer. That’s another way your work deviates from the academic norm. Do you experience a conflict between pursuing academic impact and general impact?

I’ve always seen my writing skills as a strength. After my fieldwork on poverty and slum life, it felt extremely important to me to share what I had learned with as many people as I possibly could. I felt it was my job, in a way, to tell the stories of the people I’d met in the field – people who would remain voiceless, otherwise. So I wrote an academic monograph in which I developed a social theory on poverty and risk behaviour, but I also wrote a popular non-fiction book, and several articles on why it is often so difficult for people to escape poverty.

When I’d spent years of research studying people who lived or worked in risky circumstances, including extreme athletes, humanitarian aid workers and soldiers, I did something similar: I wrote academic articles for colleagues in my field, but I also wrote a non-fiction book in which I shared the main lessons on fear management I’d learned from my interviewees. As a spin-off I developed on-and offline training programmes to help people overcome common fears like stage fright, a fear of failure, fear of driving a car or flying.

This may be an unconventional path in academia, and I’m sure some of my colleagues will think my approach is too popular, or not complex enough to deserve the academic label. But I firmly disagree. Why do social research, if hardly anyone can learn about the findings? Aren’t we supposed to do stuff that is relevant and not only to an elite group of highly-educated, jargon speaking colleagues? If I, as an academic, am capable of communicating my research in a way that people are eventually helped by the research– then it is my responsibility (and joy) to do so.

Let’s get down to the nuts and bolt of how you do all this. How do you get your writing done?

I use a number of strategies that help me be productive. I have a rule of thumb of four hours of output a day – that’s the actual, complex work that I do, like writing an academic article -, and four hours of input – that’s finding inspiration, learning new things and refuelling my creativity, and four hours of rest, recharging and relaxation. I never start my day checking my Email – that only distracts me from my long-term goals. Instead, I start my day with journaling to set clear intentions for the day, and reading non-fiction books that I find inspiring. Then I move on to my ‘productive’ phase of four hours. I start with my most important task. The afternoons are for reading, listening to podcasts, learning new things that interest me or following webinars or online trainings. Currently, I’m inspired by themes such as minimalism, the warrior mind and high productivity, and empathic activism. I also like to go climbing in the afternoon, or walk with my dog. Exercise, to me, is not a luxury. It’s part of my job: I need to be able to think clearly in order to be a good academic, and physical exercise is a great way to do so.

When it comes to writing I always start with a pen and paper, a good cup of coffee and a quiet mind, to think about what my main message is. One useful tactic I use is to ask: if a ghost writer would do this job for me, then what would I tell her to write? How would I explain to her what my puzzle is, what I found, or what fascinates me? How would I explain it to a student? The trick is to write down the answers; then stop for the day – continue the next.

It’s most effective to do this kind of creative work in short bursts rather than forcing yourself to think for an hour or longer. Our brains prefer short peaks of maximum activity, followed by a break of several hours. During this break I try to find distraction. I do easy, practical work, or read something that inspires me. I’ve planted the seed of the question, now I give it time to ripen – the answer will come after several hours or days.

Taking time to reflect and think also helps avoid a common trap: writing (low-quality) articles solely for the sake of getting published. Yes, such articles count towards your publication record, but they do not develop your thinking or add to your body of work in a substantive way. They won’t make you sigh with pride after you’ve written them; at most, you’ll sigh because you’re relieved they’re done and over with! That’s not the way I like to work, and I know for many early career academics, it’s not the way they would prefer to work either – only they may know no other way. Above all I propose we write with a sense of urgency and longing. Personally, I want to feel joy in the creative process that writing essentially is – even academic writing!

Are there any specific PhD writing tips you’d like to share?

What is specific about a PhD, is that it is a long process – a marathon, rather than a sprint. This means PhD students need to look after themselves. They have to keep their energy and creativity high for months and years in a row, despite the on-going criticism they will inevitably receive, the uncertainty of not knowing whether they are doing a ‘real’ job, the stress that sometimes comes with supervision, etcetera. Taking your own needs seriously is crucial for such a marathon job. For most, it means making sure to take plenty of breaks from work, live healthy, work out, and find support in peers or others who can make you feel less lonely.

It is also important to factor in what I call ‘buffer time’. Everything always takes longer than you’d like – especially getting published – and even when you think you’re done, you are most likely not yet done. You need to anticipate that you will have to edit and amend more than you’d hoped for – it’s a normal part of the process. It takes a while to get used to these very long timelines, and to make sure you have the resources for the long haul.

You have studied fear, and how to overcome it. I am sure this is relevant in academia. The mountains PhDs climb are not the physical kind, like the ones you climb in your free time, but that doesn’t mean fear doesn’t strike! What to do when fear of writing gets the better of you?

Generally, PhD students have high standards and grand ambitions. They are also insecure. That’s only natural – essentially, it’s the job of their supervisors and their committee to constantly criticize the work they hand in, and so a PhD student is faced with a lot of harsh words. It’s the job of the PhD student to remind herself that this criticism does not mean she is not doing well. It simply means she is exactly where she needs to be. She needs to keep herself mentally fit, practice self-care, make sure she has a supportive circle around her, rest, and continue her work.

I work with people who struggle with a fear of failure a lot, and I myself have struggled with it throughout my career. One good piece of advice, which suits the mountain metaphor you came up with may be useful here. I learned it when I was studying mountaineers and other extreme athletes, to learn about their risk-taking behaviour and their fear management strategies. When mountaineers climb, they don’t look at the top. It would seem too far away, they would be overwhelmed with a fear of not being able to ever get there. Instead, they only look at their feet – and the first metre ahead. As long as they keep their heads down, literally, hour after hour, they will get closer to the top, and they will be reminded of their progress and hence stay confident. I think this is an amazingly apt metaphor for the writing life.

You are soon starting with a year-long programme that helps people be more productive and successful. I will be participating in the programme myself, and I am so looking forward to it. Can you tell us a little about the programme and how it came about?

I’d been given lectures and workshops about what I call ‘stress-free productivity’ for some years now, and recently decided to turn it into an online training programme to make it accessible and affordable for more people. The programme will run from 1 January 2018 onwards – but before that participants will already receive planners and other tools to help them set their goals. People who join me will not only learn the most effective time management skills, but we will also implement them as we work together on our personal projects. We’re in this together. Me from my computer; you, from yours. Each week, 12 months, for 52 weeks, myself and the other participants are there to advise you when you get stuck, help you overcome self-doubt, and get you in touch with exactly the right people, networks and tools to get you where you want to be. It is be the most complete training programme I have ever developed, and I can’t wait to get started!

Alright, let’s all sign up. If you are interested in joining Roanne’s ‘One Year of Focus and Success’ programme, you can get all the details here. Choose the affiliate option at check out, and you will get a €100 discount. Be quick! Offer expires Tuesday December 12th. (Small print: I don’t receive any money from Roanne when you sign up through me. Academics need more support and I believe her programme contributes to that cause.) As always, if you found this article useful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Less is More: Why Working Shorter Hours Is a Better Idea

I have just finished ‘The Slow Professor’ by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. It reflects on time pressure and stress in academia, and on how academic life has sped up to such a degree that quality of research, teaching and life suffers. (It was a present from prof. Hein de Haas – do check out our ‘How to Write a PhD’ interview with his tips on productivity and self-care). At one point in the book my jaw dropped: it is the chapter on time management, where a number of books and approaches to the academic schedule are discussed. This part would be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

They note that most academic time management literature will not leave you reassured and comforted, but rather leave you ‘feel like you’re not working hard enough’. Ten-hour days are considered ‘more than adequate’, 55-hour work weeks the norm to strive for, working for 12 hours on Sundays ‘realistic’, multitasking smart, and getting up at 4 in the morning to write before the rest of the world wakes up a strategic way to avoid stress and increase your productivity. ‘With some trepidation,’ Berg and Seeber write, ‘we confess that these models of time management and productivity strike us as unrealistic and simply not sustainable over the long haul for most people.’ Alright, so that made me laugh.

I have issues with the counting hours approach in academia. A much better way to approach productivity is to work with your mental energy, and align your day according to how it waxes and wanes. It is depth and quality we are seeking. And if you use your best hours well (doing research/ writing) all the rest becomes doable and less overwhelming. It will take less time, too… Time isn’t linear, because energy and attention aren’t linear. Instead of focusing on how we might expand the number of hours we work so we can fit everything that needs to be done in, might we not be better of asking how we might increase focus and attention, so we can reduce that number of hours? What if we can let go of the counting altogether?

I went for a coffee with a HappyPhD course participant of several years back who finished her PhD cum laude (she has become a friend – she is doing really interesting work on how to live fearlessly), and she mentioned that ‘less is more’ was the insight that had helped her most during the time she was finishing her PhD. It is unfortunate that academic culture leans the other way!

Circumstances, work loads, energy levels, habits, preferences, and personalities differ, but I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach is useful regardless. It is practical and it is realistic. And it is a more intelligent way of working with your resources than maximising hours and ‘managing’ every minute of your day. (Which kind of feels like the walls closing in on you!)

A few points on how and why strategically working fewer hours leads to increased productivity:

Mental Energy – Not All Hours Are Equal

Your brain cannot do challenging mental work in a focused way for more than so many hours a day. One of the books quoted by Berg and Seeber state that an ‘approximately 10-hour day is more than adequate especially since we really can work for most of this time.’ (As opposed to the general workforce which according to this author ‘waste a tremendous amount of time chit-chatting at the water cooler and lunching for a full hour.’)… Errr, no. You cannot focus for ten hours a day. And you cannot conceive of your day as a monolithic ten-hour block. It isn’t efficient, and it sets you up for mental exhaustion. It’s much better to distinguish between the hours you realistically can and want to focus intensely (say 2-3 hours, in approximately 45 minute segments), and reserve them exclusively for your intellectually most challenging work. The rest of your workday (3-4 hours in similar or longer segments) can be spent on less demanding tasks. In really busy times you may add extra work sessions, but you will realise that they are only suitable for certain types of low-intensity work (answering email etc.). Focus matters, not time. Match your mental energy and focus to the demands of the task at hand. An occasional ten-hour day may be warranted, but as a model of productivity it is ridiculous. (Strong feelings!)

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Short Run

Mental energy is your currency. How to keep it high? How to keep your mind sharp and present? In this context you have to think about intensity and recovery. Working in shorter, more intense segments, with recovery breaks, allows you to focus as well as recover from that intense work every hour, or more often, thereby keeping your mental energy high. You will be less likely to find yourself staring at the blank screen for hours, feeling bad because you ‘should be more productive’, while actually you are just tired. Shorter work sessions, regular short breaks, and not working past your natural limits will take care of that. Self-care isn’t at odds with productivity; they are mutually reinforcing. It is finding that right balance, which means being honest about the intensity of mental energy you can muster. Taking more breaks and stopping when we are tired (before is even better) may be uncomfortable, but it is more efficient than plodding along, putting the hours in past the point of diminishing returns. For me, when I started applying this model, it meant cutting my work days back from 8-ish hours to 4-5 hours a day. Much better idea.

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Long Run

Feeling stressed? Academia is a high-risk environment when it comes to stress-related physical and mental health problems. In my opinion the culture of overwork contributes to these problems. And guess what stress-related health problems do: they diminish your ability to focus. They diminish your capacity for doing demanding intellectual work. They diminish your capacity to think. Cue even longer days, more guilt, and so the self-destructive cycle continues. A focus on recovery is essential to sustain a positive self-reinforcing cycle, in which focus, productivity and wellbeing coexist. From this perspective, advocating for ten-hour days is simply harmful. A few lucky individuals may have the energy to work endless days with no negative repercussions, but for most of us it is unrealistic… In fact, I witness even ‘limitless energy’ academics hit a wall at some point, though this is not much openly discussed. Instead, a focus on working more intensely some of the time; while appreciating the necessity of recovery and renewal, is a better way of approaching your workday and week. Being exhausted/ frazzled is a sign this balance is off.

Mental Creativity – Better Ideas

A relaxed mental space is essential for creativity. It is how new ideas form and pop up, unlike the process of analysis which is strictly logical. You need both: the focused attention of analytical thought, and the mind-wandering that is conducive to creativity and aha-moments. To foster innovative ideas time away from the intellectual problem you’re working on is essential. In other words: down-time is an essential part of your workday. It is the non-active, non-doing part of work. It is when you allow ideas to come to you. Cultivating this space is an investment in your quality of thought. (Feels good too.)

Think about this: what if intensity and depth can only be achieved with high mental energy, which makes taking care of yourself a priority? What if focus is only realised within limits and boundaries? What if relaxation is a requirement to make intellectual achievement (and emotional balance) sustainable over time? And what if mental relaxation is intrinsically valuable? What if you are not a machine??

We need to flip the script and start saying no to the story that tells us we should be ‘working always, everywhere’.

The HappyPhD course will show you exactly how to create an optimal (for you) and sustainable work schedule, combining intense work with recovery. I am currently updating the course: the updated course will be out some time this autumn. The price will go up, so now is a good time to sign up! You will get access to the old school course (ah, I am already feeling nostalgic!), and you will automatically be upgraded to the new course when it is launched! Best of both worlds, and a good way to start the academic year.

How Many Top Publications Do You Have? or The Curse of Performance Metrics

“I don’t really believe in citations myself. I don’t really count citations. I don’t value anybody’s work by the number of citations they have. I think it’s a mistake.”

A quote by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, uttered at an unusual panel at the 2017 American Economic Association meeting. It was titled ‘Publishing and promotion in Economics: The curse of the top five’, a reference to the top five journals dominating the Economics field. One of the anecdotes told was about graduate students endlessly deferring their ‘entry to the job market’ until they were sure of a top five publication. Waiting, waiting, waiting, then shooting for the stars, for better or worse. It is up or out. Jump though the elusive hoop to have a shot at a life in the academy.

The rigid (sometimes crazy) ways academics’ performances are assessed has negative consequences for science itself, that was the main message of the panel. It negatively affects the quality of knowledge generated and published, it causes rivalries between camps and tunnel vision within disciplines, and it leads to a culture of counting, over content. Oh, and it is really bad for young researchers, who are increasingly ‘writing to the test’, aiming at achieving within the system, no matter the costs.

Heckman showed a graph of how much more difficult it has become to land a publication in a top journal. The field has grown, submissions have increased, and acceptance rates have plunged. The golden tip of the academic pyramid is increasingly out of reach. Yet entering it, even only once, is increasingly seen as as necessary for building a reputation and a career.

Screenshot 2017-04-05 12.26.33

All of this made me scratch my head. Why is it no surprise that life in academia feels like a rat race? (Because it is!!) Why is it no surprise that so many researchers are stressed to the limit? In Economics it is the top five, but it seems every field has its own version. Always running to meet that next measure of performance. We’re never there. There’s always a new metric looming around the corner.

There are no immediate solutions for this conundrum, if there were I am sure the Nobel prize winner and co would have come up with something! Seems academia is stuck with systems that are not necessarily good for science, or academics, for now. At a personal level I feel it asks for a certain resolve to live and work (and ‘perform’) well no matter the rules set by the system. Rules that are often unfair, arbitrary, and rigged against you. Lots of fun!

Some thoughts:

Know the ‘rules’

It’s important to understand the pressures you are subject to. Study them, so you know where they start and end, and to avoid becoming trapped by them. Whatever the performance metrics are in your field and situation, whether it is the deadline for the first draft of your thesis, or getting that top publication to get tenure, get to know how the system works. Look at the structure of it. How exactly is ‘performance’ measured? What counts and what doesn’t? What is expected of people? How realistic are these expectations? Be aware of the rules of the game, seeing it for what it is: a system, a set of concepts, nothing that can ultimately validate or invalidate you. It will allow you to play the academic game with your eyes wide open. (Personally, I wish I’d been more savvy about this in my PhD years. I wish I’d asked my supervisor for more help in figuring out what the written and unwritten rules of the game were.)

Don’t internalise the rules

This is the difficult part. It is all right for professor Heckman to say he doesn’t believe in citations, but what if your evaluations, and whether you have a job at all, depend on it? I really believe that a rebel mindset is the only thing that can save us! (The alternative: internalising the system, but in that case if you lose, what are you going to do? Consider yourself a failure until the end of days? Hm.) Playing along with the rules to the degree you feel you have to is important, but so is remaining fiercely aware it is an impersonal, often arbitrary system. It’s vital to not let it near the way you value yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you lies about how competition or metrics create the best science or researchers. (Maybe refer them to Heckman’s talk!) Resist the oversimplifications. Resist the tendency to measure yourself by your institution’s yardstick. (This often happens without you noticing. All of a sudden you care too much about that dreaded deadline!!!)

Your own terms of success

I read a Camus quote the other day: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I liked it. You don’t want your mind loops to start mirroring those of your institution. Nope. Not allowing that to happen. What would be the alternative? What are your own terms of success? What is your own value and reward system? Make sure it is kinder than that of your university. How would you live if you didn’t care about citations or deadlines? (So free!!! This is the part I like.)

Intrinsic motivation

Remind yourself of why you do the work you do. What makes you light up? What is the story you need to tell? What are the data you need to present? Why do you care? What paper is yours to write? What’s your argument? Where does the excitement live? Nurture it. Keep it alive. One of the participants in the EASA panel noted: ‘We don’t want to shrink our world. This I think is shrinking our world.’ Once you get lost in the meta-world of races and achievement, you lose what is so powerful: content, intrinsic value, and intrinsic motivation. Don’t let the system shrink your world. (Here you get to live your ‘romance’ with your work. This is it.)

Focus on habits, not goals

If goals are increasingly arbitrary, increasingly elusive, but meeting these goals increasingly important, how to handle the pressure? One way is to shift from focusing on goals, to focusing on the habits you have in place to achieve those goals. You have no control over whether your paper will be published or where, but you do have control over how you write that paper (more control, at least). Focusing on your small achievements every day really helps. (I have written lots about working in waves, and other ways to enhance your productivity before, see the productivity tag)

The good life

What, in or outside of work, gives you joy, pleasure, fulfilment? It is impossible to not get dragged down by the pressure, the measuring and the rejections, from time to time. You need copious antidotes in your life. A shield of them! Small pleasures, and bigger ones. What makes you come alive? What are you grateful for? What makes you forget about the stresses of work for a bit? Who are your friends outside of academic life? Do those things. Notice those things. Be with these people. Wellbeing is a skill (to a degree). If you are attuned to the good in your life, the negative holds less power. (Very true. Small shift in perception makes for a very different life.)

What are your experiences with performance metrics? Do you have a way of working with the system without losing yourself? For more support: The HappyPhD Course will help you create a productivity system in which you set the rules, not your university. It will help you bounce back faster, and stay on track, also when you’re faced with deadlines, pressure, and inevitable rejection along the way. If you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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How Are You Unwilling to Support Yourself? (And a story about Trump)

How are you unwilling to support yourself?

Answering this question (and changing my habits accordingly) was fundamental in getting my PhD process (and much else) to a better place. The question popped up in one of my feeds: it was a timely reminder. Sometimes I feel academics wear their unwillingness to support themselves as a badge of honour: how much we endure, the long hours we work, how stressed we are, seems to somehow reinforce the idea of how ‘tough’ academia is, and how ‘tough’ we are if we can ‘handle it’. It is a little like the starving artist myth. Suffering (though the vulnerable part of it must stay strictly private) gives us an edge, an indication we are doing it ‘right’. It is supposed to be hard. And we are supposed to do it all by ourselves.

I could skip straight to some ways you might be able to better support yourself, but I thought I’d tell a tale first. Stay with me. It is related. It is about Trump voters. (If you are sick of Trump, I am sorry!!)

I read a book, and since I read it I understand Trump voters.
True.
You should read it.

It is: ‘Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right’ by Arlie Hochschild. She spent five years (!) living in Louisiana, making friends with Tea Party enthusiasts, and trying her very best to get past the empathy wall, as she calls it. It is such a good read. (A concerning read also.) Hochschild’s fascination are the paradoxes, the way people applaud policies that may harm them directly or indirectly. The specific paradox she had in mind when she came to Louisiana was why people in poor, severely polluted industrial areas approve of a repeal of even a minimum of environmental and protective regulations.

Many of the folks she got to know much appreciated outdoor life: they fish, they hunt, they spend time in nature. How to understand why people actively support the poisoning of their waters, their fish, their land? How to understand why people actively support policies that allow themselves, their neighbours, their children, to get sick and even die from toxin-induced illnesses directly related to the industry on their doorstep? The stories in the book are shocking, yet people stand by their convictions. Regulation is bad. Protection is bad. We want less of it not more.

Why so reckless?
How to square this circle?

According to Hochschild, a sociologist, emotional self-interest, as opposed to rational or economic self-interest, is an important part of the answer. People care about how life feels to them, and how it makes them feel about themselves, above all else. She tells us we all have a subjective, internalised narrative that fuels how we see the world. She calls this our ‘deep story’. It is a narrative to make sense of it all. And we tend to reject facts incompatible with these narratives. (Well, that explains 2016.)

Hochschild tells one story of a safety inspector at one of the industrial plants in charge of installing air quality monitors. “To set up the monitors” he recalls, “I wore a respirator. Some of the guys started to taunt me, the corporate sissy who couldn’t tough it out like they did. But when they laughed at me, I could see their teeth were visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist.”

Not shying away from danger is a source of honour for these guys, it is considered bravery. Not wearing protective gear says: “I’m strong, I can take it.” It doesn’t really matter whether or not their health is severely affected, whether it makes them sick. Copping to that would make them appear weak.

In her book Hochschild names this archetype The Cowboy. It relates to stoicism.

When I read the passage I felt myself retreating further and further to the liberal side of the empathy wall. How can people be so stupid?! Sure, let all your teeth fall out and in time die an entirely preventable premature death in the name of honour, why don’t you?

Yet ten minutes later I realised there are so many ways we do this in our own lives. It may be less extreme and less blatantly obvious, also because we are blind to our own emotion-based narratives.

In the big picture one way academics do this, I realised, is though the culture of overwork and over-identification with work. Rationally it makes very little sense, but don’t tell anybody! It is important to us!

On a smaller, personal, scale we may be toughing things out in true Cowboy-style, when help and (self-)protection are available.

When I was at the EUI I never used the (free) counselling service, as I thought that was for when you had ‘real’ problems. I also didn’t take the mindfulness course on offer as I didn’t really see how that related to my PhD. The academic culture was one where help was there, but only on the periphery. And you didn’t (want to) identify as being out there, I suppose. The university certainly didn’t help. Looking after yourself and performing well at work certainly weren’t overtly linked in a positive way.

What a difference compared to some of the corporate workplaces I know of where getting help and lifestyle are at the heart of what they call: high performance. Think Google. A friend of mine who works at one of the large consulting firms lent me a book from a two-day workshop they collectively attended: Sink, Float or Swim: Sustainable High Performance Doesn’t Happen by Chance — It Happens by Choice. It was all about looking after yourself, eating right, rest, mindset etc. Self-care! How un-Cowboy. (Though the narrative that it is the individual who ‘chooses’ success, is pretty Cowboy in its own right).

What is the real indicator of strength and bravery: being able to tough it out, not needing any protective gear or strategies, not needing anyone else’s advice or guidance, doing it all relying on your own strength and stamina? Or taking precautions, protecting yourself from unnecessary risk, going against the norm, being ‘smart’ about it? Which stories do we tell ourselves?

I thought it an interesting question.

How might you better support yourself, and be a little less Cowboy? Any programmes or help your university offers you might benefit from? The HappyPhD course may be exactly what you’re looking for. As always, if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it.

Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go.

When I was writing my PhD I never thought I’d fail, but I did always worry about whether my work was ‘good enough’. And I did fear the scenario that perhaps one of the committee members would request a million modifications that would go against my ideas, or would be diametrically opposed to comments of the other professors. As is so often the case when you have a number of academics commenting on your work, especially when you are trying to tame a multi-disciplinary project. Yet failed PhDs (not counting the cases in which people actively quit) are extremely rare.

What I have learnt about PhDs going off the rails:

Universities do not want you to fail your PhD. Supervisors don’t want you to fail your PhD. Committee members don’t want you to fail your PhD.

It isn’t about you. It is about them. (Of course!) It reflects badly on them. It reflects badly on the university. It reflects badly on everyone involved. (Though naturally, they will put most of the burden for failing, if the project does need more work, on you if they can. So very classy!)

Also, it is a hell of a lot of work to prove the thesis isn’t where it should be, and committee members are hesitant to take this route… They have other priorities: their own research, most notably.

Take this to heart. It is not in their interest to make you fail.

“Don’t worry too much about your PhD. If you stick around long enough at one point they’ll give it to you.”

This is something a professor said to me, only half-jokingly, when I was in my second year and still very much wrestling with my subject, trying to wrangle it into submission. I was pretty shocked (I’m a perfectionist!), as well as amused, but over the years I have started to appreciate the truth of what he was saying.

When I returned to Florence for my PhD defence a professor complained to me about the people who received a PhD who absolutely definitely shouldn’t have passed. Yet these theses do tend to pass.

This may be a comforting idea: you will get your title. Your PhD will pass. Even if it isn’t absolutely electrifyingly brilliant from the first right through to the last paragraph. Even if there are obvious flaws (which there will be, there always are, and that is perfectly OK. But that’s a different blog post). Getting into the PhD programme is the bigger hurdle compared to finishing the thesis. You’ve already done the most difficult bit.

The disconcerting message though: your PhD may not be that much of a priority for other people. It may feel like your life work; to them, it is something they may simply want off their desk. Within deadlines, preferably. Without too much work or hassle.

Red flags everywhere!

Even if you are in a state where you just don’t care anymore and just want to finish, don’t sell yourself short. Supervisors should be invested in your work, at least to a degree! You need the dialogue, you need the feedback, you need the input, you need the debate. If you have absent supervisors who are not contributing as a mentor, and you are doing it all alone, you need to find others who will help you.

In one way my situation was similar to the one outlined above is I had no-one actively involved, due to circumstances (one of which was that one of my supervisors passed away, the other that I was finishing my PhD long-distance), and it was entirely disorienting. I didn’t know whether my work met certain standards. It did, but it would’ve been nice if someone would have been there to tell me! When I got appointed a new supervisor for the thesis defence specifically, it all turned around. I loved his comments (I really do believe love is the right word here. I was a bit intellectual-love-starved at the time) questions, and criticism, and although he wasn’t an expert in my field, the discussion helped me so much.

It also made me realise how much I had been missing out. If you don’t have much support and interaction, it has to change. Find your people. The people who will challenge and support you. They are out there. They want to hear from you. Go and find them, or let others help you find them.

The part you are responsible for, of course, is to engage with their criticism and work with their suggestions as appropriate. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this process, defining my own choices. Creating and defending my work. It’s the part you have to do, the intellectual part, and it is (hopefully) the satisfying part. (Especially once it’s done!!)

If you skip this, because you are lazy, fed up or out of time or money, and you have supervisors who are also lazy and busy, and don’t care so much, you may end up in a situation where the external examiner gives the thumbs down. That is if you are lucky/ unlucky enough (strike through as appropriate) for them to care enough to do so.

Do you have absent supervisors, and no idea where you stand? The HappyPhD course tackles the problem of how to re-engage, once you’re in a negative spiral of avoidance and neglect. It can be done! As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over?
How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism?
How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises?
How do we make it though a rough patch?
How do we allow more joy and curiosity in?

In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings attached to those thoughts. Not at all linked to solving academic problems, but everything to do with the person who is trying to do so.

I have sometimes wondered what the academic world would look like if these aspects got more attention. Would levels of depression and anxiety be lower? Would drop-out rates in PhD programmes be lower? Would years spent on completing a PhD be lower? Would the number of publications be higher?

My guess is yes – I think it would make a real difference.

As you know my own PhD experience was not exactly completed in ideal circumstances…it was really, really hard. And the one thing I credit for allowing me to finish the thesis, apart from truly wanting to complete the project, was this: new mind skills. This involved learning how to relate to my thoughts differently, no longer completely identifying with thought all of the time, especially when facing difficulties. And also, something I have been rediscovering recently: knowing when to use the rational problem-focused mind to solve problems, and when to try something different.

Something that has helped me was starting to be more aware of thoughts and beliefs, and the emotions they trigger. I like the way Eckhart Tolle approaches it: he calls the conditioned beliefs ‘ego’, and the emotional/ physical component pain-body. (Tolle was a PhD at Cambridge when he had these insights, and decided to go down the spiritual instead of the academic path…in case you’re contemplating a career change!)

Say we’re talking about academic envy: a colleague gets published, yet your paper is rejected. This may set off a cascade of negative thoughts and feelings: academia is a status system, and if we feel we’re losing (ego) we get scared (pain-body) and resentful (pain-body). Especially so if you think your colleague who is ‘winning’ doesn’t especially deserve it!!

Something similar happened when a ‘friend’ of mine got a paper published, using the exact same title as my thesis working title. Despite being close colleagues he had managed to not mention he was working on the exact same topic as I was working on!! That coupled with my own frustration about my work being so slow and absolutely unpublished due to circumstances, and I nearly lost it! (This did end up as an interesting confrontation at a thesis defence where I bumped into him. I lost my Zen that day.)

Academia as a system is stressful – it is up or out. Publish or exit. Get funded or lose out. It is also often unpredictable and unfair. Being good at what you do is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition to do well. The uncertainty, the randomness, the stories we tell ourselves about meritocracy, the ways we rationalise our disappointments: it can take its toll.

To deal with the more stressful aspects of academia, meditation can be extremely helpful.

It helps us observe the thoughts we have and take them less personally:

“Ah – apparently I have so much fear about things not working out for me/ about being ‘not good enough’ (hello imposter syndrome!) / etc. Ah, maybe those are just thoughts, just beliefs. Maybe they aren’t true! Maybe I can just let them be, not pay them as much attention, not buy into the drama of it fully. Maybe there is another way to look at it… A more skillful way, a kinder way. A way in which I don’t put myself down. In which I don’t slip into feeling ‘less than’. A way that doesn’t turn any excitement I may feel about my work into fear. Yes…how about tuning back into curiosity instead.”

This isn’t a conscious process, somthing we can impose by will, it is more of an unfolding. A creating space for this to happen by sitting still, and allowing our mind to settle (or not).

And it helps us work through and ‘metabolise’ the intense emotions that come with these thoughts. It helps calm the pain-body. By sitting with it, by feeling the fear, the disappointment, the resentment, whatever it is, it eventually dissolves. And when it dissolves it stops feeding into the negative thought loop. Which means we are no longer stuck. We can move on.

Sometimes it is difficult to access that place by sitting still: we keep going over the same thoughts in our heads, and can’t seem to access the emotions directly. I have found exercise, yoga especially, very helpful in shifting out of negative states. Yoga seems to rearrange things so they make sense again, so you feel more integrated again. It is an active meditation.

Have you tried meditating? I highly recommend the meditations by Bodhipaksa (two of his meditations are part of the HappyPhD Course, the acceptance meditation is my favourite. Though some participants have noted they preferred the mediations I recorded myself), and the short ‘getting present’ and ’metabolising energy’ meditations by Michael Vladeck. I work with these quite a bit. They are really good in terms of getting out of the mind and into the feeling aspect of our life.

If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it. Also: if you missed the first edition of ‘The Nudge’ on shortening your workday, it is now available as a free mini course. Sign up for it below to be treated to five days of encouragement to help shorten your workday but getting as much or more done!

Subscribe to the Nudge 5-day course




‘Not everyone should get a PhD’ and other academic productivity fallacies

A few weeks ago I taught a workshop on academic productivity, and how self-care and perhaps counter-intuitive strategies such as shortening your workday may help. The audience were economists: PhD students, as well as a few faculty. Let’s just say it was an interesting experience! The dynamics were completely different compared to the other workshops I have taught, where the atmosphere tends to be relatively open, laid-back and sort of intimate. This time, however, that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a more challenging atmosphere, with more critical questions asked. By the supervisors, not the PhDs, I must add.

The resistance to some of what I was saying made me think: they may have gotten the impression that I was falsely portraying and underestimating what it takes to be a prolific academic in a competitive field. Maybe even worse, that I was pointing people in the wrong direction: that I would be encouraging them to be ‘too soft’ which just doesn’t cut it. The supervisors probably truly believe in the linear model of performance: that working longer hours is better, that pushing yourself is the answer to most productivity questions, that if you’re not tough enough to survive in the competitive world of academia (economics is a tough field indeed) it is too bad and simply means you are not cut out to be an academic, and that ‘self-care’ is too soft to be taken remotely seriously.

The point I was trying to make was the opposite: the ’soft stuff’ is what makes you better able to handle the pressures of academic life. It is what gives you the cutting edge. It is what allows you to perform better. It is in economist’s terms output-maximising. And wellbeing-maximising too. There is no trade-off, which is the beauty of it.

The issue: how to convince hard-nosed ‘more-is-better-you-should-be-tougher-and-push-yourself-harder-relaxation-is-for-weaklings’ economists of the value of such an approach. I don’t know whether I did or can, but I am willing to try as I really feel the paradigm needs to change for academia to become an environment that is less destructive, both in terms of the wellbeing, and in terms of academic productivity lost because people aren’t doing as well as they might, with a little different approach.

So, in a nut-shell what I propose is that the relationship between stress/ pressure/ competition and academic performance isn’t linear. If anything, it follows a concave curve, and at present academics are often situated well beyond the maximum (too much stress, sub-optimal perfromance). Empirical studies support the view that academia is a high-stress (potentially burnout-prone, low-performance) environment (See for example this study where academia is ranked the 6th most stressful profession). From a brain perspective a worsening of academic performance in these circumstances makes sense: chronic stress is just about the brain’s worst enemy, it has a real impact. And sadly the statistics support this analysis: academics suffer disproportionately with mental health problems, an indicator of a highly stressed and sub-optimal performing brain. In this scenario lowering stress levels so your brain has some space to think and actually perform is the best thing you could do for your academic career.

Unfortunately though there is still a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in universities, which considers anything to do with stress relief, especially admitting that it may be beneficial or ‘needed’ a sign of weakness. Push harder is the device, and if you can’t ‘handle it’: tough, academia is not for you. This is Neanderthal reasoning, sorry! It is true that at present the hardier ‘marathon-type’ academics are often the last ones standing, but that’s a result of the current set-up, not how it could be. And it isn’t in any way an optimal situation, either individually or collectively.

These were the main questions/ remarks/ arguments put to me by the supervisors during my talk. I’d thought I’d walk you through them:

1. “Competition is good for academic performance!” (Challenging the idea I put forward that high competition/ high stress results in a worsening of academic performance).

It depends. I’m not really worried about the intellectual challenge of pursuing a PhD contributing to chronic stress and underperformance, it is more about what I tend to refer to as ‘the rest of it’. It is important to understand: (chronic) stress which negatively impacts performance arises primarily not due to high demands or workload, but because those high demands lack matching reward structures. And academia is terrible in this regard. It doesn’t think in terms of process or support or reward, only in terms of output, often defined in a strictly linear way. And this is getting worse. There are many fears and insecurities inherent to the academic process and capability and effort do not necessarily neatly translate into ‘output’ (if only). Getting published sometimes takes years not months. The process can be messy and unpredictable and rife with uncertainty. Nothing new, but this uncertainty, specifically, is a major stressor. A culture in which destructive criticism may be the norm, instead of constructive criticism and support and mentoring and collaboration, as is often the case in more competitive departments, exacerbates the problem.

The point: You don’t want chronic stress to start interfering with people’s ability to work! This is often framed as an individual weakness, and private problem, but I disagree. It’s a collective problem, caused by structural features of academia, and should not be contributed to individual ‘failure’ or ‘weakness’. I’d argue that in the present situation where surveys show that around 37% of PhD students might be considered clinically depressed (44% for economics PhDs!), the vast majority of PhDs are suffering from the detrimental effects of chronic stress. From an academic performance perspective this is a worst case scenario! From a departmental perspective striving for ‘excellence’ it is too! The remedy of pushing people harder in this situation is counterproductive.

2. “Competition in this field will only get more intense, not less intense.” (So you’d better get used to it!)

True. The question is how to adapt and thrive in a competitive environment, and that isn’t necessarily by pushing harder longer. The best analogy I have found here is with the world of professional sports, and the role recovery plays in improving your performance. At some point you cannot train more hours a day, or you will overtrain, and your performance will be worse. Interestingly though, when you focus on improving the rate at which you recover, you can also increase the intensity of the training sessions, and your performance improves. Efficient recovery means performance gains. The exact same applies to research: in a competitive environment you have to couple intense work with intense relaxation. This means having recovery practices in place. Working in intervals, similar to athletes doing interval training, is one way of doing that and will absolutely allow you to shorten your workday with productivity gains. Sounds a bit scary, doing ‘less’, but it works. If you are performing well, it will allow you to find your competitive edge. If you are feeling ‘overtrained’, it will allow you to gradually increase your effective working hours, and allow your brain to recover and perform better.

3. “I don’t believe in this. You should just handle stress when it comes up. Making exercise, meditation, self-care part of your work day just creates more stress.”

May I roll my eyes at this one? If this is your private opinion, fine, but supervisors should hold their tongue. Stress isn’t something that ‘suddenly happens’ (academia is a chronic stress environment, not an acute stress environment) and discouraging people from looking after themselves is simply wrong. I can see why time pressure may make taking time for self-care difficult, especially when you’re stuck in a panicked mind-spin about work, or if you have an overloaded schedule already. But doing so will make a difference. Don’t take my word for it, try it. Work isn’t just about work. It is about creating the right circumstances to perform well, and that deserves some of your time and attention.

And finally my favourite:

4. “Not everyone should get a PhD” (Repeatedly.)

I have no words… I feel I should have spoken up more when a supervisor said this to the researchers during the workshop. Academia is a pressure cooker, and the supervisor says if you can’t stand the heat get out of the pot! How about we acknowledge the fact we are collectively being boiled and find strategies to deal with it, other than letting people figure it out for themselves and struggle in private. People are underperforming, not because they are not capable, but because they are not taught and mentored on how to perform well in a hyper-competitive environment. They are supposed to figure it out on their own, or else. If they feel vulnerable, they should just shut up and go away and push harder and do better. In my opinion this is a foolish stance. It doesn’t create better academics. It creates academics who are afraid they ‘aren’t good enough’ no matter how brilliant and talented they are. It creates a culture of fear and depression. It creates and sustains underperformance. Stress is a constant feature of academia, yet many of the stresses and struggles of academia remain hidden. People keep it to themselves because they are afraid of being seen as weak. Case in point: I heard after the workshop that some PhDs refrained from asking questions because of the supervisors’ presence and critical stance. That is the problem, people. It is to do with not being allowed to be seen as ‘weak’. Nothing to do with intelligence, talent or capability. Or output…

Reminds me of some of the dialogue in PhD the Movie

PhD: Sir, I’ve been meaning to tell you: I’ve been having some problems…
Supervisor: Problems? In academia we don’t use the word ‘problems’. It’s considered a sign of weakness. Call them challenges, issues if you must.
PhD: I have…issues.
Supervisor: Not my problem!

Note: If you’re someone dealing with a supervisor like this, the HappyPhD course does have a module on how to handle difficult supervisors. May come in handy…

I am creating a week of email ‘nudges’ to help shorten your workday and be more productive. Let’s try and implement some of these productivity ideas. (Not quite sure yet when: I said late July before, but I’ve had some delays… New date to be announced.) Do join us! It is free and you can sign up for it here.

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Getting Unstuck, Without the Struggle

I was invited to dinner with an old professor last week. When I introduced myself and said I worked with PhD students he said: ‘Ah, how useful! Every PhD student gets stuck, that’s what I have always told my students. It’s normal. A PhD is an endeavor where you will get stuck, and there is no one who will be able to solve your problem. You know more about your subject matter than anyone else. You have to do it yourself, it is a test of character. Dead ends, and walking into walls are part of the process.’

dinnerHe’s right: Struggle is part of the process, it’s part of the deal.

I’m always trying to figure out ways of lessening the struggle though (and if your supervisor is worth his/ her salt they will do the same). Because intellectual struggle is one thing, and truly necessary and inevitable when you’re in this trade, but you don’t want the struggle to start spilling over into how you feel about yourself and your work in a perpetual self-reinforcing negative cycle, ending up truly, properly stuck.

I have found that to allow the stuckness to lessen its grip, we need to change our relationship with it.
We need to stop staring at the problem endlessly, exhausting ourselves in the process.
To untangle the tangle, we have to do some active untangling as well as allowing the untangling to happen.
We need to do some things differently, to break the loop.

This tends to be what happens: We are having a few difficult days which turn into difficult weeks, maybe even difficult months. Research is slow, and slowing, our mood slowly dropping, and we get more emotional about even small setbacks. Now, at one point we properly enter the zone of maladaptive coping strategies and we start seriously worrying, or procrastinating, or pushing ourselves to stay on even longer at work because maybe that way we will get things done.  It’s not happening, and even if we do have a good day we leave worrying because we need to ‘catch up’ for work hours lost in the past weeks or months, and in view of deadlines rapidly approaching. At this point we are scaring ourselves into performing, we feel we need to push harder, somehow get our adrenalin going to cope, maybe we feel we need an absolute miracle to get us out of the pit.

The interesting bit about this scenario is that our energy is now for the most part spent worrying and obsessing about our work instead of on the act of research itself. I have used a pie chart in my HappyPhD workshop named the work/worry ratio. I can confidently say that for the early stretches of my PhD for me the work/worry ratio was 20/80. Not good.

There are practical steps that can take you from worrying and feeling stuck, to getting back into a more pleasant work groove, and one key element is to allow the untangling to happen. We need to take a step back, re-assess what is working and what isn’t, do what we can and chill out about the rest. That last part is important.

Some ways to get started in undoing the I’m stuck-panic loop:

1. Time (and momentum)

Once I knew what exactly my PhD was about, once my question and methods section became more defined, everything became easier, and sped up. I realise this is probably not very helpful if you’re in the beginning stages of the PhD, but it does get better when you gain clarity. You need a direction to be able to move forward (truth!), and especially in the beginning the work is finding that direction. It can be difficult and demoralising, and slow. If this is the case for you, the trick is, as our professor mentioned to not worry too much about it. It’s normal. Part of the game and the process. Shrug your shoulders. I would add to that: it’s important to find tools to keep momentum. One way may be to shorten your work sessions, and ask yourself at the beginning of each session what you want to work on and what you want to accomplish during that particular session. When you lack direction that’s one way of reintroducing it. Bit by bit, one work session at a time.

2. Change the worry habit

When I fell ill, I had no more energy for worrying. We all know worry is futile, but I realised then, that worry is worse. It is harmful, and seriously drains our energy. We can get away with it, that’s why we do it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful all the same. Why was I so invested in worrying? I concluded that it’s one of the stategies that allows us to feel safe. A bit silly, and a bit twisted, and absolutely counter-productive, but at least we’re thinking about work, that must count for something? Errr… Changing this habit means being aware of our worrying, and choosing to shift our attention away from it by either doing something constructive about what we’re worried about (work), or by doing something enjoyable utterly unrelated to our worries (not work – not implying though that work can’t be enjoyable), or by doing absolutely nothing at all (yes, that’s allowed). That’s all. Oh yes, and not be a perfectionist about the ‘not worrying’ bit either – give ourselves a bit of a break!

3. A basic work routine

Set up a work routine, and do LESS than you think you should be aiming for. The more stuck you are, the more you feel you need to speed up, SLOW DOWN instead. Ignore what fear is telling you and break the panicked ‘I need to work 12 hours a day and it’s not happening’ loop. Schedule one focused work session a day, or two, then be pleased with yourself once you are done, and give yourself the rest of the day off (also from worrying!).  The doing the work and the not worrying part are equally important here. Now, when that goes well for a couple of days, add an extra work session, see how it goes. Keep your focus equally on working and relaxing. Over the course of a couple of weeks, you should be able to build a sustainable work schedule. One metaphor might be that of being stuck in the mud. It’s unwise to go into high gear to try to get out: you will only dig yourself in further in the process. You need to have the courage (and sense) to go right back to first gear and get yourself out of there slooooowly. It’s the fastest way.

4. Keep it light

Often, what we need is momentum, and momentum is quick. Flashes of insight are quick too. What if work could be ‘quick’ and playful instead of heavy and problematic and looming over us? Can we allow ourselves to ‘play’ a bit more, to have some fun with what we’re doing? This light and playful energy gets us out of the pit. Yet we often don’t allow ourselves to enjoy what we’re doing, because we’re too focused on all the ways we’re not doing enough, it is going wrong, all the ways we are stuck, and the situation is impossible. We take our problems and our work very seriously. Forget it. Drop it. Just for one work session at a time, can we forget about how stuck we are? Can we keep it light?

5. Trust the process

It’s supposed to feel slow, difficult and frustrating! Can you become okay with that? What if you don’t have to worry about being behind, what if you don’t have to worry it’s all so slow? What if you do what you can do, whatever that is that day and be content with the messiness of the process? I used to have a yoga teacher who always repeated: “learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation: that’s yoga.” If that’s the definition of yoga, academia is a yogic pursuit! Find comfort in the discomfort. Keep going, one day at a time, and trust it will pay off in the end. When I realised, deeply, that I didn’t have to do anything, except what I was doing, it was a massive relief. Let go. It’s going to be OK. (And the more we let go, the less energy we put into the negative loops, the smoother the process is going to be).

Entertain these thoughts:

Maybe the hole you feel you’re in isn’t that deep… Maybe you aren’t that stuck…Maybe all you need is the courage to do less, in a structured way, with as much playfulness as you can muster. Forget worry and obsession. Let’s do it differently. Focus on your work only when you choose to. Have a life outside work. Worry less. Allow the knots to untangle.

Do you worry about your PhD? Let me know what helps you when you’re feeling stuck… If you’d like a structured way out of worry and stuckness: take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will walk you through the process step by step. As always, if you enjoyed this post could you like or share it? I appreciate it!

Back to Basics: Relax to Achieve

Relaxation may be the missing link when it comes to your academic performance. I’m interested in this phenomenon: how we sometimes work against ourselves by trying too hard, pushing too much. By internalising a work culture that says working endless hours is the key to success. When everyone is working all the time, or at the very least seems to be working all the time, how to not worry you aren’t keeping up? We lean towards overwork to compensate and somehow make things better.

But does it work? (Answer: no)

Then how to undo this? What’s the alternative?

Sometimes the answers are simple. Excruciatingly simple, like making sure you work doing ‘work hours’ and do not work outside that designated time frame. I was reminded of the ‘simple’ way of fixing the overwhelm and feeling of not-ever-achieving-enough or doing-enough by an email from one of the course participants (quoted with permission). Apparently I teach this!

“I am still exercising, meditating and taking some time off to relax. I really think these three things are crucial. While I did already exercise and meditate before I did the HappyPhD course, I think I really learned the relaxation part. I can say that after the course, for the first time (in my life?) I really took “working hours” seriously and allowed myself to also do other things with joy. The result is: I work less than ever (still quite a lot though, it’s not necessary to go into extremes I figured) but I also achieve much more (more then ever when it comes to my PhD for sure). So thank you for the insight.”

Fascinating how such a simple change of schedule (and mindset: that can be the more challenging part) can have such positive results.

So, breaking it down. Bear with me for stating the obvious:

Work hours: they are the hours you get still and do your work. For most people this would be around 3-5 hours of concentrated work a day. This is enough to achieve a LOT. Maybe add a few hours later on in the day for less demanding work.

Relaxation: these are hours you do not work. I recommend more than you currently manage. Maybe hours a day more! This may sound tempting or terrifying depending on your disposition, but it will likely require a leap of faith if you’re used to working long, long hours.

Also pay attention to how you might help yourself switch from a focus on work, with your brain in a focused analytical mode, into a more free-flowing unworried relaxation state. It can be a challenge with academic work: the mind loves to go on and on, thinking about work, or worrying about it!

Meditation and Exercise: these are sublime tools in helping you transition from work to relaxation. Both help you regulate your physiology (brain) to help you disengage from work when you choose to do so. With exercise the switch is a direct, physical one, with stress hormones and neurotransmitters involved; with meditation you do the same in a subtler way by working with the mind, your thoughts, the breath and your intention. Both are brain training in their own right, and improve your mental faculties and stamina.

The outcome:

Better focus during work hours: you will certainly get more done. Your ideas are likely to be better also: the brain comes up with new insights in a relaxed state, that is, when you are not focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve. It is one of those neat little paradoxes. Best way to solve a problem? Think about it. Then NOT think about it.

Somehow committing to doing less and letting go can be more daunting a prospect than that of doing more, keeping pushing and achieving. The pushing for many of us protects us from feelings of not doing or being enough. It protects us from guilt. Yet it is exactly this mindset we need to overcome in order to get more done. Oh yes, and to feel better! Nearly forgot about that one! Let go a little. Take your eye off the ball for a bit, regularly. Truly helpful. Give it a try.

Are you pushing too hard? Working too much? Does the idea of working less scare you (though it secretly appeals?) Why not devise a very simple structure of work and non-work, and add in a little exercise and a little meditation every (other) day? (With the course to guide you if that appeals) So simple. As always, if you found this post useful could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Lonely Academic

“Engagement predicts wellbeing above and beyond anything else.” A quote from one of Emma Seppälä’s recent articles on work cultures and wellbeing. She is the science director of the Stanford Compassion Center, and if you’re interested in the science of happiness I highly suggest you follow her.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least and it supports what I have experienced myself, and what I now observe in others’ situations. Academia tends to be awfully bad when it comes to engagement. Truly, awfully bad. And I have come to the conclusion it’s one of the worst stressors for researchers, far worse than workload. Most of our problems are not about content, but about connection and feeling valued. And it collectively makes us feel proper miserable.

I thought I’d tell a personal tale to illustrate.

When I fell ill, in 2007, and had to temporarily drop out of the PhD programme (only took me 3,5 years of sick leave!) the experience was quite literally that: of dropping far and hard. And basically no one even taking notice. The fall itself is one thing to come to terms with, and it was hard. But the no one caring was the absolute hardest bit of all.

The Fall

The fall has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning was getting out of the programme. It was settled in a number of emails with my supervisor, the head of department and the grant organisation, and can be summed up as ‘formal’. There were no real problems (unless you count losing your only source of income as a problem), although the grant organisation was a bit fussy about the last month or two I hadn’t been able to work to that date: they wrote me I was ‘lucky I wouldn’t have to pay those two months of grant money back.’ Right. My supervisor and head of department approved my unpaid sick leave, and that was it. I had explained via email about my serious mystery illness. I was no longer in the same country, and even if I had been I was in no way in a position to meet anyone in person to discuss my situation. And that’s the way it stayed… Silent. There was an ‘all my best’ in an email, but that was about it. There were no ‘get well soons’ and there were no inquiries as to how I was doing a few weeks or months down the road. I realise sending cards or flowers is a bit much to ask from academics, but there certainly were none. There was nothing. Oh, yes, the only thing that did happen was that I had to cancel my attendance at a conference, and the panel chair got very cross with me for cancelling. Being sick was not a valid reason to cancel, obviously.

The middle years saw me applying for an extension of my sick leave every six months. They were granted and I was grateful for that. Nobody, including myself, still had any idea why I was so ill. What I found the most difficult to come to terms with, though, was that beyond those few formal emails apparently hardly anyone seemed to have even noticed my absence. I heard from no one. This wasn’t entirely unexpected as I was nearing the fourth year of my PhD programme, a time where people tended to flock to their home country to finish writing their PhD. So the colleagues who were still there probably assumed I had left like so many others, and the colleagues who had indeed already left, were not there to miss me! Maybe no one indeed even noticed at all, because it was a coming and going of people all the time anyway – the flighty life of international academia, and everyone was too focused on their own life, problems, research, career and next steps to register that I had gone missing. I did exchange one or two emails and phone calls with a few academic friends at the beginning, but these communications soon went silent, too. In formal terms the university still supported me. But that was all. Perhaps it is all you can expect, I reasoned. People are busy. And universities are not into hand-holding.

After three and a half years I decided that illness or no illness, I wanted to try and finish my PhD, even if I only had an hour a day to work on it because I was so unwell. I am not exaggerating, I wish I was. Communication with my supervisors had become strained, and I felt more than guilty for my underperformance, even though I knew that seen my circumstances what I was trying to do was rather a superhero pursuit. But I was doing it alone, and no one even had the faintest idea of my situation. Explaining did not seem to help either, it was just too far out to understand I suppose. Or maybe people were too busy to register. My main supervisor was getting impatient, and sent me some curt emails. I was lucky in the sense that my other supervisor, who was no longer at the university, thankfully stepped in to help me. She texted me to say she didn’t know what was going on [behind the scenes], but that those emails were not okay. She sorted it out with him, and I was on my way back into the PhD programme…

Fast forward to the moment I actually managed to finish my chapters. The end game. I sent my newest, latest work to my supervisor, and …crickets… Nothing. It took him more than three months, and a number of reminder emails, to read it and get back to me. He probably thought that if I was taking my time, he might as well do the same! Again that sinking feeling of not mattering, of being air. When I flew to Florence months later to discuss my work, he again had not read my new material. Too busy.  Plus some communication errors on my part which didn’t help. He did get back to me with comments after that though. He finally read my new stuff, though he was surprised to learn of my progress. He thought I had lots more work to do, until he actually took the time to look at what I had done. He was shocked to learn my PhD was nearly finished!Then, that summer, he died. A heart attack. It was a tragedy, though to be honest it didn’t even register as a huge shock, as I had become quite accustomed to worst case scenarios materialising into even worse! It felt like this was what life had become: bad, worse, worst! Can’t really expect anything to turn out well now, can you?!

My co-supervisor was in charge from then on, though she too did not quite manage. When I travelled to meet her in Brussels to discuss my final draft I could not help but get the impression that she had not read it. Skimmed over it, yes. Flicked through it, sure. Read it, properly? I doubt it. She had no comments. She said it was fine and ready for defence. I suspect that when I sent my manuscript to the jury no one had ever read my work in full. It felt like a shot in the dark. When one of the jury members then actually engaged with my work, sent me questions and comments, and had intelligent things to say I cried. He had taken the time to read it. He had taken the time to acknowledge I existed. It still near makes me tear up thinking of it. Someone had made an effort. Someone, somewhere, had noticed me, had read my work! Maybe I still mattered in some small way. Maybe I still belonged.

Along the way a few former colleagues showed up. Facebook friend requests or messages mostly. They too, brought me close to tears. From a perspective in which you have never experienced true and prolonged isolation this may sound excessive. But if you’ve been there you will know: it is easy to be forgotten when you can no longer participate. Out of sight, out of mind. And it is hard. It is so hard.

Reflections

I can’t help but get emotional recalling all this. My experience is rather at the extreme end of the spectrum. It shows how difficult long-distance PhD-writing is, especially when you are dealing with health or other obstacles. But more than a simple and singular tale of woe, I believe my experience shows how academia, at its worst, works. It is all based on loose networks, and much independence. This has its advantages, but it has costs associated with it that largely go unrecognised. I believe the highest cost is that of loneliness, the feeling of ‘being on your own’ and having to fend for yourself. For me it was in putting superhuman efforts in, seen my situation, and not having those efforts acknowledged (though later, much later, when I was in Florence for my defence, the secretary confided that my supervisor had always been very positive about me: “She is very smart, and I am sure she will finish!” He had always stuck up for me in meetings. Oh, if only I had know about even a fraction of that!). To be honest it was an absolute horror the way I was treated, and I wasn’t in a position to defend myself.

But in more subtle ways waiting and disappointment and plugging away by yourself, while not having your effort acknowledged is everywhere in academia. It is there by design, and by circumstance. It is in putting all the lonely hours in. And how many of them there are! It is in the wait when you have submitted an article, and then the rejection. It is in the negative review that shows the reviewer has not made the beginning of an effort to engage with your argument. It is in rejection itself and the feeling of not-mattering period. It is in all the bureaucratic rules and regulations. It is in the arbitrary counting of publications that goes along with getting tenure. It is in the unacknowledged email, because people are too overwhelmed by email to respond. It is in the self-absorption and busyness and absentmindedness of everybody. It is in the juggling a thousand things and projects at once when you are further on in your career. It is in the having to disappoint and being disappointed. It is in disconnection. I have come to believe this is a far greater stressor than deadlines or workload per se. It drains the spirit. Academia is built on criticism and delayed gratification, and for good reasons. But somehow the human architecture, the architecture that says we are social beings with social needs tends to be overlooked. Benign neglect may be benign, but it is still neglect. Some departments are better than others. I can say mine was about the worst.

Remedies

In terms of remedies, Seppälä’s work on positive work cultures gives important insights. She mentions caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends. She mentions providing support for one another. She mentions avoiding blame games. She mentions inspiring others, and emphasising the meaningfulness of work that is being done. She mentions treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

Your department may not be quite there yet. But there are things you can do yourself: invest in your colleagues and your peer-network. Engagement matters, and that definitely includes going for cups of coffee. Build relationships. Meet up for lunches or seminars. Co-author. Get in touch and stay in touch. (Maybe even shoot that colleague who is on sick leave an email!) Show you care. I know, very uncynical, but do it. It matters. It also means to keep a keen eye on communication if you are in a long-distance situation. It’s imperative. Skype calls may work. People seeing your face is important. More in general, in the PhD phase: invest in communication with your supervisors on a regular basis. Connect, connect, connect, even if it is against the norm, or feels uncomfortable (no need to become a stalker, but hey, they are allowed to be reminded of your existence!) I wish I had done so more, instead of coping by myself because I didn’t want to impose or be a burden. If you are an early career researcher: invest in your network. Collaborate. Show up for others. If you supervise PhD students, or others: make communication a priority, even if your time is scarce. You get the idea. A little love goes a long way.

If you are feeling really lonely and isolated right now please realise you are not really alone, even if it feels that way. You never are. People do think of you. They do. And in more positive terms than you will likely assume. (Though sometimes they are temporarily being too busy/ too much of a jerk to realise. And if this is structurally the case you may want to think about leaving…) This too is a lesson I have learnt. You matter. You are special and you are worthy. It has nothing to do with outside appearances. And it certainly has nothing to do with how well you are performing or not-performing. When it comes down to it we are never really alone. There is lots of love, always. Sometimes unexpressed, and beneath the surface, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Tap into it. There is a pool of love beyond the hurried email, beyond the rules and the requirements, beyond the surface of things, if we dare to believe in it. It is a very unacademic thing to do, but I highly recommend it.

How do you deal with the loneliness of academia? Any tips? Let me know! If you are in less that great dynamics with your supervisors, as I was, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has an entire week on supervision. There are tools that can help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!