On being down (and not quite being ready to get back up)

There are different ways to be down during a PhD, Masters, or postdoctoral fellowship. You can be down in terms of writing time, just struggling to get words onto a page; you can be down in terms of your mood, feeling low and tired and unable to carry on. You can also be down on your luck, if data gets lost, supervisors change institutions, or funding applications fall through.

Pinterest.com

Pinterest.com

I am currently down. I have two blog posts half-written that I cannot seem to finish. I have two papers that have come back from reviewers with mainly positive comments, and suggestions for fairly minor and quite manageable revisions. I have odds and ends that need doing. But even though all of this is actually quite manageable in size and scope, I just cannot seem to do anything. All I really want to do is lie on the couch and watch back-to-back episodes of ‘Bones’, and maybe check my email from time to time and send a response or two.

I am worried about this down-turn in my desire to be productive and energetic about my research. Because, while I have all these little manageable things to do, there are much bigger things waiting: a book that needs to now be written, an edited to book to finish putting together and finalising, a mountain (no I exaggerate not) of raw data that needs to be catalogued, organised, coded and fed back to research participants before year-end. I am worried that if I keep lying on the couch, I will not only lose the will to do the small things, but the bigger things will stall as well.

I remember feeling like this during my PhD, especially towards the end of each of the three years, as I took time off over Christmas and then struggled to get going again in the new year. I am trying, now, to remember how I got myself up then, because I am battling with feeling unable to really get up now, and also wondering if I want to get up. The work waiting is SO much. I am not finding it easy to take my own advice, and just get up and going again.

What do you do when you have lost your work mojo? I tell myself: just do it. Just sit down and do the revisions. Just sit down and finish the blog posts. Just sit down and work. But then I open my email, and fritter away my mornings sans children with silly things that are not getting my work done. Interestingly, I don’t feel as ashamed of this down-turn and what can only be described as laziness as I have in the past. Perhaps I am finally getting better at being kind to myself? Maybe. Perhaps I really am just tired, and my body and brain are recognising that I do need a rest, and they’re taking it. Either way, the mojo is on hold, and while I am not terribly shamed by my non-productivity of late, I am still worried that if I don’t un-funk myself soon, I will get stuck for longer than I can afford to get stuck.

I am sure I will now, as I have in the past, get up. Downs are certainly part of the journey – any journey – as we seldom travel along flat and easy paths only. A PhD, a paper, a book – these are definitely full of highs and lows and everything in-between. I don’t have any good advice for myself today. I just have kindness, a mental hug, and a commitment to at least open one of the the papers that has to be revised, and make a list of things I have to do to finish it. And hope, hope, hope that the mojo will kick in on Monday.

The PhD and illness

I have been umming and aahing about writing this post because it may come across as a whinge of some kind but it really isn’t meant to be. I think it’s about an issue that needs to be talked about; one related to the kinds of physical stress that come with working for several years on a PhD. We talk a great deal about mental stress, and even the emotional toll that a PhD process can take on students, but I have not yet seen very much written about the physical toll except in a couple of main areas. Perhaps I am not reading widely enough, but most of what seems to be written about in this regard is by and about people working on their PhDs while managing a mental or chronic illness that already demands a lot of their physical, mental and emotional energy. I would imagine that this must be incredibly difficult. But I want to add to these conversations here  by reflecting on the more run-of-the-mill physical illnesses like flu, colds and similar that may become more common for you during your PhD and may not immediately be associated with the stress of undertaking PhD research.

I have been ill quite a bit more than usual for the past two years, and I am not a person who gets colds and flu much at all. I tend to use my sick days for my kids’ illnesses rather than my own. But in the last two years I have had to take sick leave and actually stay at home, on the couch, and not just go to work and solider on. I have felt physically run down – just generally tired and worn out, and I have to say it has taken me a long time to associate much of this with the stress attached to my PhD. I am not offering empirical proof here, but I think many PhD students could probably understand this. I have had several sinus infections. I have allergies, but I have hardly ever had these turn into actual sinus and chest infections that have really had me down and out. I have been thinking it’s just because I’m really bad at remembering to take my vitamins, or because I eat the wrong things, or because of changes in the weather. But since the beginning of this year, and last year finishing my thesis, I have felt really worn out most of the time, and today I went to the doctor for the 6th time since January. This is not normal, and definitely not for me. At the moment I have no voice at all, mild vertigo and sinusitis and I finished my corrections on my thesis the day before yesterday.

I’m starting to think there’s a real connection here. I have been very anxious waiting for my reports from my examiners. It has weighed on me, the waiting and wondering. After the high of getting my reports back I felt really down again, and found doing the corrections mentally tough (more on this next week). I had a couple of really bad sinus days trying to work on them. I handed in my thesis at the end of last year but really battled to unwind and relax for the three and half weeks I had between handing in and starting work again because I was wondering about the examination process and how it would go. It was handed in, but the thesis was not finished and so I could not just shake it off and forget about it. I worried and wondered and the stress stayed with me. And so, it seems, did the fatigue and the illness. I don’t think I am alone in finding myself more physically run down during and just after a PhD, but struggling to make obvious connections between the PhD process and my feelings of fatigue, and not really feeling completely well (and sometimes being quite sick too).

Apart from multivitamins and having people around who are instructed to force you to take mini-breaks, and even take you away when it all gets too much, I think it is important for PhD students to try and get enough rest and eat well, although this can be hard on the bad days when you want to mainline sugar and chocolate, and on the many nights when you lie awake between 3 and 5 am rewriting your theory chapter in your head, eventually getting up to write down your ideas because you know you won’t remember them in the morning. It’s especially hard if you are a student and working and a parent, and you cannot remember the last time you were at the top of your own list of priorities. As a mum, having an inability to put myself and my needs first feels like something that comes with the job.

But I think what I have learned, am still learning, is that you have to say NO to the things that really don’t matter so much, and say YES to focusing on what you need to do your best work in every area of your life, like what you need to get through your PhD in as healthy and sane a state as possible. I am not fully sure that this is possible, though. When I told my supervisor, coming off 6 months of suspended studies to finally work on my proposal, that I wanted to try and be a  mum and do well at work and write a great PhD and stay sane, her response was that I could certainly do that but that I might have to let go of the sanity. I think, if you also include great physical well-being, that she was probably spot-on. But as always, I (we) can solider on and get better all the time, hopefully, at focusing more on what matters to me (us), and not always so much on what matters to everyone else.