Coping Mechanisms

When you’re thinking about doing a PhD, the people you talk to and the books you read about it often say that it’s a lonely and difficult process. They’re right. But no one really mentions all the ways you can make it easier for yourself, the ways you can cope with the difficulties and feeling lonely. Also, often PhD blogs tend to mostly be about when things go wrong, often because that’s when we want to write blogs, to express annoyance or to try and find solutions. When it’s going well, we don’t tend to write about it, we get on with the work. But there are lots of things that can help make the process easier, so I wanted to mention some of them as I know a few of the people who read this are considering PhDs. So here are my favourite coping mechanisms for PhD stresses.

1)      Student Groups

There is a writing group that meets in my University’s library once a month, and they’re brilliant. We meet up, discuss an aspect of our writing and try to help each other improve. It wouldn’t really matter if it was about writing though, or research methods, or philosophical standpoints or whatever. It’s really nice to have a group of people who are in the same (or similar) situation as yourself, be able to meet with them regularly, chat about what you’re doing, moan about what’s going wrong, sympathise with, eat cake with and generally have as a support network. Often people outside academia don’t quite get what a PhD entails, or what it’s like, so it’s really nice to be able to say, “I’ve worked out how to set up a coding framework!” and have someone not only get what you’re saying but be excited for you. So try and find one near you, or set one up, you definitely won’t be alone in wanting some support.

2)      Personal Analogies

During your PhD you’ll have to do something or read something that doesn’t make any sense. Or that you’ve never done before and is so different to everything you know that it doesn’t make sense. I’ve had this with political philosophy. I had never read any of these books or considered these ideas before and they confused me very much. So I had to give them some kind of analogy to my life for them to make sense. For me that was comics. I love reading comics and graphic novels, particularly about superheroes. So, by looking at political philosophy that way, it made it more interesting and understandable. I wasn’t trying to figure out Kant and Bentham anymore, I was wondering if Judge Dredd is punishing people simply because their actions are immoral, or because he’s attempting to serve the greater good. It helped a lot, it also meant I got to write about these things in an academic context, which is really nice. So if you’re stuck with something, consider it in terms of one of your interests, is grounded theory like whittling, or is statistical analysis like magic tricks? Even if it doesn’t work, you’ll be thinking about the issue in a new way.

3)      Constructive Breaks

A lot of people I know say that they can’t switch off, and feel guilty if they have a break from their work. This really isn’t great, as you’ll end up burned out and more stressed if you don’t take breaks, which won’t help you do quality work. So instead of always having breaks where you do nothing but feel guilty, set yourself a small task that isn’t work. Do the washing up, or cook something. Baking is an excellent break. A batch of scones or biscuits takes 15 minutes to make, and you can do some more work while they’re in the oven, then when they’re done, it’s time for another break where you can have a cup of tea and eat the fruits of your labour! (For scone recipes, I recommend Delia.)

4)      Being honest

A big part of making such a long and personal task like a PhD bearable, is knowing when to stop. Yes, knowing when it’s finished, or when it’s “good enough”, but also, knowing when to stop for the day and say, “I’m done”. Realising that you’re laughing hysterically at Wilkes Lambda, picking up the phone and saying to a friend, “I need to get out of the house for a bit, fancy meeting up?” Preferably this’ll happen before you’re laughing hysterically at stats. But knowing your limits is really useful. Think of your capacity for work like a stick, put too much pressure on it, or for too long, and it will snap. So don’t expect too much from yourself and set realistic targets. You’re not winning the Nobel prize, you’re getting a degree. It only has to be good enough.

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About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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