TW: Descriptions of self-harm and scars
COVID-19 hitting the UK coincided with my contract ending in a job I loved in the Space Industry. Of course, this was not renewed and I found myself unemployed, and looking for work in the midst of a pandemic. I had worked in the Space Industry as a Thermal Spacecraft Engineer for the past six years, it’s a pretty niche job and there was not much demand for this skill in April 2020. After getting over the shock of my unemployment, and being reassured by my partner’s furlough, I decided to take some time to think about what I really wanted out of my next role. Looking back at the jobs I have had, I realised I loved the research side, the designing something new, and the ability to explore my academic curiosity. This is what convinced me it was time to make that a full-time role – so I applied for a PhD in Energy Storage and started at The University of Southampton in October 2020. It has been the best decision I ever made.
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TW: Suicidal ideation, eating disorder
In 2017 I started my Undergraduate course in BA Geography. Going into it, I had my own perceptions of what a ‘perfect’ student, researcher and scientist looked like. I thought to be successful you needed to have an empowered, independent, and busy personality. The ‘hustle’ movement of glamorising all-nighters and drinking as many energy drinks as you can to give you the anxiety buzz needed for staying awake. I thought my diary needed to be full of study days, extra sessions, and experience in the field. I struggled with all of these because as a recovering anorexic with bipolar disorder and a long history of perfectionism I found it hard to meet both the expectations I put on myself and the reality of university life.
It took a lot of courage for me to be able to talk to my supervisors, my tutors and my institution about the mental health issues I was facing, and it took an admission to the mental health crisis team to finally take that step of saying, “Hey—I am not okay and I need support.” For the remaining two years of my degree, I constantly battled between wanting to be the best I could be and do the best I could do, but also struggling with being a student with a mental illness. In my third year, March 2020, I hit a rock bottom with that struggle and it nearly ended my life. I was underweight, severely depressed and I had little energy to function without thinking about dissertations, research, and lectures.
Fast forward to present day: I am a Post Graduate Researcher in Law and Criminology working on research that I believe has changed my perceptions of not only academia but also life in recovery. My aim with this blog is to share some of my coping strategies I have learned along the way with you.
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Reflecting back, I think that overall I had an “easy” PhD, though it didn’t always feel that way! I completed it by the end of 2019, and the more time passes, and the more I separate my self-worth from my studies, the “easier” I think my PhD was. Except that it was not. A year before I submitted my thesis I was suffering. I thought that I would not finish, and that I was not good enough. Not only were my results bad, but I could not make sense of my data, let alone put a publication together. I used to cry a lot from what I thought were the weirdest causes. I used to compare myself to others, I used to think I was worthless. Except that I was not. And if you have the same feelings, join the club, you are not alone!
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Prologue – February 2020: Pre-pandemic in the UK
I’ve spent the morning traversing half the length of Britain. The chill of winter hides in every shady corner but is powerfully countered by direct sunlight, resulting in a day of constantly putting on, then taking off, then putting back on my coat. Maybe I’m just restless because I’m on my way to a PhD interview. At King’s Cross I take a smaller, more tightly packed, less ventilated tube along the Victoria line. In the five-minute walk between Victoria station and the location of my PhD interview I bump shoulders with more people than I’ll see in the next ten months of the year.
When I’m ushered into the interview room, I’m informed that the panel of ageing academics will not be shaking anyone’s hands today – just to be safe. I’d like to think that despite my many insecurities, I am capable of admitting when I’m wrong, so I won’t make out like I was some sort of Nostradamus. The amount of people I’ve been in contact with throughout my journey seems normal, not skin-crawling and so the lack of handshaking strikes me as more rude than cautious, I think it’s a little overkill for ‘just some flu in China’. The UK had yet to officially register any coronavirus related deaths, but there had been a few confirmed cases. Two of which had been international students at the University of York – where I’d spent the day interviewing for a different PhD funding scheme just a few days prior.
“Don’t get COVID!” my family joked to me the day before I left for York. And it was a joke.
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