When we are at the frontier of research, the foray into the unknown can be exciting. What will we discover? What contributions can we make to our field? What unique perspective can we bring? This thirst for knowledge can, however, come at a cost. Approximately 1 in 2 researchers embarking on their PhD will experience mental health concerns during their PhD, with pre-existing issues often compounded, as well as people experiencing mental health difficulties for the first time. The causes of this rise in mental health issues are varied, from impostor syndrome, to lack of support, through to abuse of power and discrimination. Unfortunately, the mental health toll does not stop there, with precarity of postdoc contracts, the competitive nature of academic positions, institutional racism, and ‘work overload’ as researchers progress up the academic ladder. In order to ‘make it’ in academia, individuals have to overcome a complex set of hurdles, and many will never be able to make the jump.
Now, there is undoubtedly a distinct need for culture change in academia, but unfortunately change takes time (that is probably a whole separate blog post on its own). In the meantime, we need to ensure people are able to survive and thrive in academia as we know it. ‘Resilience’ is often a term thrown about, with our institutions telling us we must increase our personal resilience to cope with the pressures of academia. So what does it mean? The dictionary definition is “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” I like it described as an “ability.” It implies that resilience is a skill we can learn, and something that can be improved upon, and for the most part I believe this to be true. For me, I find resilience best described using an analogy. Resilience is a shelter we can build to protect ourselves from a harsh storm (or in this case our mental health taking a hit due to the unique pressures in academia). The quality of the building – whether it is a ramshackle shed with no lighting, or an elaborate mansion with a fire roaring inside, warming us when we get in from the cold – depends on our experiences. Have we had opportunity to build the specific tools we need to make that house? Did we have the time and privilege to do it? Have we even been shown the blueprints of what we are trying to build? With a team of friends, a strong support network and learning how to mortar, that ‘house’ is going to get built much, much quicker.
Whether or not you’ve been actively aware of doing it or not, over the course of your life you’ve been building you resilience, brick by brick.
So how can you build your resilience?
Clearly, resilience, much like mental health, is personal, and what works for one person may not work for another. Below, I explore ways to bolster your resilience, drawing from my own experience during my PhD and postdoc position. Several of these have also helped me transition into the industrial job I have today. Many of these examples are not easy, simple fixes. It takes time to work on them as well as trial and error.
Establish your boundaries – Work-life balance looks different for everyone. So often the narrative is that to be passionate, we must be living and breathing our academic pursuits 24/7. In reality, we can be passionate without sacrificing everything to our work. Power dynamics with PIs can be tough here. If possible, setting boundaries with what you are willing to do, when you are willing to work, and defining expectations that are placed upon you, can be helpful.
Learn to accept constructive criticism – It can be incredibly difficult to have someone critique the draft you have been tirelessly working over until it was perfect, to find that it is… well… not perfect at all. I’ve found it useful to consider the motivations behind comments I receive. It is very rarely about ability; it is about making the work more rigorous based on years of experience that I do not have yet. The other thing is to sleep on any comments that get us rattled. It’s likely that that comment written in capitals is not a reflection on us, but the overworked and stressed PI that wrote it. This in no way excuses that sort of behaviour, but if we can get into the headspace of the people we are working with, we can understand why they act in certain ways, good or bad. It’s also important for us to understand what constitutes bullying. Are the comments professional? If you feel as though you are unfairly criticised continually and the behaviour seems to be deliberate, you should seek assistance.
Accept failure – Being at the forefront of new research means that the future and our discoveries are uncertain. In fact, the chances are our research is not going to go in the direction we planned. It might never work. Being able to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity is important. The ability to be flexible and redefine what success looks like is needed. Turning failure on its head, realising each one is also a learning opportunity, allows you to refine your methods and getting you closer to your end goal.
Create a list of your achievements – For battling feelings of impostor syndrome, it can be beneficial to write down a list of all the successes you’ve had up until this point, and I don’t just mean academic. When you start to doubt whether or not you belong, you can refer to the list, and see in black and white that you deserve to be where you are – because you do.
Build a support network – No-one is going to know more about the particular issues that you are facing than the peers around you. If you can, reach out and talk to them. By supporting them (and vice versa), they will likely be some of your best allies through your PhD. Sometimes though, unfortunately, the competitive environment makes this impossible. There are other people – friends, family, partners, medical professionals you can reach out to for support.
Celebrate the little wins – One of the things I found particularly useful during my PhD was to celebrate the little victories that I did have. I’m not talking getting a paper or winning a talk prize at a conference. More the getting out of bed each day or repeating an experiment twice. The other thing is learning to find joy in other peoples’ wins. PhD research has so many ups and downs that hopefully by sharing, when you are at your lowest there will be someone else who can lift you up.
Look after your physical health – It’s well known that mental health and physical health are linked. With the pressures of working long hours, exercise is often the first thing that gets neglected when we are under pressure. Scheduling in time for sport and making sure to stick to it not only helps your physical health but will help you be more productive further down the line.
Learn to say no – When struggling, being overburdened can mean we hit a “wall” where we have no capacity to do any more. One of the things we can do is learn when to say no. This can be really difficult – it can lead to concerns about missed opportunities. I’ve always had to justify it to myself that I probably would not have done a good job if I had said yes and overstretched myself, as I would have been burned out.
So, what happens when resilience is not enough?
There is a darker side to resilience. We cannot simply see someone suffering and say they need to be more resilient. Fundamentally, there are certain things that a person should not have to tolerate. No amount of resilience should be needed to deal with systemic racism, discrimination or ableism for example. In this case, building a ‘resilience shelter’ is impossible as the institution or university are not providing the tools to do so. Privilege also plays massively into our ability to spend time on our own resilience and self-care. Referring back to the analogy I presented earlier, for those of us with privilege (and I 100% include myself in this), we inherit part of that house to shelter us from the storm. Some of our colleagues have to work from the ground up, and there may not be enough time or resources to do so. For this reason, we need to work on cultural change within academia. Further, if jobs become more challenging and the strains get worse, at some point no reasonable person can be expected to thrive in that scenario. This is all too often the case in academia, where the boundaries of what we are willing to do are pushed because we are ‘passionate’ and jobs are few and far between. This is ultimately a ‘race to the bottom‘. At some point it becomes untenable for a vast number of individuals and talent is lost. It is important for us to realise that although we all have the responsibility to build our own resilience, it is not the only thing we need to thrive. You have not failed – the system has.
While you continue to build your resilience, it is important to be kind to yourself and realise resilience is not binary. You don’t either have resilience, or not. It is a learning process. We have to build that shelter brick by brick and it takes time. Further, we can still end up with a leaky roof, even after years of building. We then have to pluck up the courage to climb up to the roof and fix it, or choose to put a bucket underneath it and catch the drips, as that is often all we have the capacity to do at the time. It is by reaching out to our support network during these times, that I can really see the strength in having help, because at least that way you can have someone hold the ladder as you climb.
Zoë is both an analytical scientist and a mental health advocate, working improving mental health awareness in academia. Her work is on both reducing the stigma around mental health as well as working with universities to improve support available. Zoë is the author of a series of mental health posters – find out more at www.zjayres.com. Outside of work Zoë enjoys gardening, travelling and archery, and likes going for cocktails with friends.