Learning the Importance of Self-Care During Your PhD by Eleni Routoula

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!

Suffering Through

The PhD journey is a tough one. There are so many external factors that can go wrong and are outside our control (supervisor, funding, science, duration), but also many internal factors that can contribute negatively (physical health, mental health, relationships, dietary habits, etc). Given the fact that we can only control our reactions and ourselves, focusing on “eliminating” the possible internal issues sounds like the way to go. But it took me a long time to learn this; it took me two and a half years to realise what was wrong and how to improve my “PhD life”. I realised I was devoting so much time and effort to my PhD that I forgot to take care of me, the most important person for the success of my project! My eating habits were deteriorating, my exercise habits were getting limited to walking to and from the office, I was not very good at sharing my feelings with people and I was thinking about my PhD far more often than I want to admit. My mental health took a hit. I was constantly at the verge of crying, my positive, smiley attitude had taken a plunge, I was quick to help others see the bright side of their problems but I was failing to see the bright side in mine. On top of that, many days I had a heavy feeling when I woke up, wishing for all of it to be over soon, but not so soon that I wouldn’t have time to make it work and prove that I was a worthy PhD candidate.    

When starting a PhD, our mind is usually solely focused on research, and getting ‘good’ at it. It can be relentless: reading anything and everything available in the area of interest; expanding our research horizon to fit and accommodate more ideas;  forming a hypotheses, working on proving or disproving the, writing our experimental or theoretical adventures in a thesis; and all the while hope we somehow contribute towards saving the world. All of that while myriads of other expectations are imposed on us from left, right and centre and we are trying to satisfy them in parallel. Expectations such as producing numerous publications, attending conferences, pursuing collaborations, networking, taking on side projects our supervisor is “encouraging” us to do and so on. 

If that sounds like a lot, it is because it is a lot. Succeeding at all of that would mean giving up at caring for ourselves, because there will be no time left to do so. We are not superhumans, so we absolutely cannot do it all. In this article, I gathered my thoughts and experiences on what I wish someone told me before starting a PhD about how to take a step back from the research and care for myself. This advice is part of my personal experience, and I am sure that different people have different experiences to share and add to these lists. Ultimately, looking after me has made me a better researcher.

What is Self-Care, anyway?

In my view, self-care refers to how we can take care of ourselves physically and mentally, how to maintain our sanity and stay on top of our game despite the pressure from various directions. Having said that, I wish I knew the following:

1. Make time for yourself.

In the fast-paced academic environment where many researchers are working on similar problems trying to surpass each other, it is very easy to embrace and get sucked into an over-working culture. It is common for PhD students to work double-digit hours per day and think of it as normal. I jumped on this rollercoaster during my first year, having super high expectations of myself, trying to make my supervisor happy, trying to forget I used to have a life before engaging in a PhD. That was so wrong. Although there is no rule or contract indicating how many hours researchers “need” to work, we need to maintain a balance! Make time for ourselves to relax, be away from the lab or computer, see our friends and family, gain perspective and treat our human side, not only our scientific side. Making time for myself definitely helped me be more efficient and helped me maintain my motivation. Of course, there were the occasional days where I worked double-digit hours, but they were the exception, not the rule. 

2. Avoid comparing yourself with other researchers.

Although comparison is needed to keep us aware of our performance and maintain high efficiency compared to our previous “records”, in academia it is very easy to start comparing our performance to the achievements of other researchers, ignoring a huge and usually forgotten culprit. Every researcher is a different person, every project is different and the conditions in each case are different. Compared to other colleagues who were lucky to work on more fruitful or cutting-edge projects, made the right turns in their research, had support from collaborations and were able to publish a few papers, I was the ultimate nothing. I will not lie: during my second and third year it hit me hard. I felt worthless and thought I was a bad researcher, not deserving of my place, just lucky to be where I am. And then I took a moment to realise the aforementioned: that different people, different projects, different circumstances and motivations, lead to different results. There is no point to compare, everyone works at their own speed and abilities and surely everyone has their own little achievements to be proud of. Unfortunately, success in academia is measured by publications and the ability of academics to overpower each other, so “bad” comparison is almost inevitable. Trying to keep a positive headspace and stay focused on ourselves and our needs can be very useful. At least it was for me towards the end of my PhD! 

3. Eat and sleep properly.

Similarly to making time for ourselves, eating and sleeping properly is of paramount importance for our functions and performance, especially in such pressing environments. Personally, I always prioritised my sleep and did not discount it (at least not massively) during my PhD, but many researchers face disturbance of their sleeping pattern. My nutrition was put on hold due to my research schedule and my effort to balance my “other” life, and I noticed that my habits became worse over the course of the PhD, relying on snacks and fast food, that eventually had an impact on my weight and made me feel sluggish and craving for more. Although there is nothing wrong with having snacks, after engaging more with cooking, meal prepping, learning a bit about balanced nutrition and checking the levels of nutrients in my body in direct and indirect ways, I started feeling better. A PhD, research, and academia are not worth putting your health at risk. 

4. Reflect and talk about how you feel with others.

It took me such a long time to start discussing about how certain behaviours, events and situations made me feel and I felt so much better after actually discussing about them! While opening up, I realised that many other colleagues were experiencing similar feelings. Not talking about how we feel only makes things worse. We end up feeling bad all the time, and this might have an impact on our performance and lead to poor mental health long-term.

Having people around me who were able to listen and understand what I was talking about made me feel “normal” and not unreasonable for what I was thinking. There are several publications showing that PhD researchers can develop issues related to poor mental health during their studies, indicating that there is definitely a problem. So instead of swallowing your feelings, consider talking about them to people you trust. Trust me, you will definitely feel better after, and you might get some good advice to improve or even resolve your situation. Also, it is usually through reflection and thought “dumping” that we understand what we have learnt or gained from a difficult situation.  

5. Realise your value and hold on it.

It was around my second year, where after having a “successful” first year, I started realising that my project would not be one of the “academically successful” ones. This was a major hit to my self-esteem, as I had tied my abilities and self-worth to the success of my project. I was thinking that if things do not work, it is because I failed, I did something wrong, or had not studied the system enough to predict and understand responses, or I was ignorant of basic principles, or I was just stupid. Well, research does not always work in our favour and most of the time, not achieving a positive/expected/successful result has nothing to do with our abilities! In my experience as a scientist, it is often due to unexpected and unmapped scientific details. It is important to remember that we develop a whole host of other skills during our PhD that also bring value. I did put in effort to develop myself personally and professionally, learn about my topic, learn new techniques, develop new skills and broaden my horizons on many different aspects. And nothing and no one cannot take that added value away.

Overall, if there is a single line of advice about self-care I can give you it is: Put yourself first and care for you inside and out. You are who you start with and who you will end up with after the PhD. If you do not take care of you, no one else will. 

Eleni Routoula

Eleni trained as a chemical engineer and did her PhD in chemical and biological engineering before realising her true passion. She discovered her interest about researchers’ development, employability, science communication, and other “para-academic” activities through extra-curricular activities during her PhD. She then paved her way into a sector different than originally intended, pursuing further experience and employment in the areas where her passion lied. She is currently a Training Coordinator supervising the training of PhD candidates. Other than her professional interests, she loves exploring countries, coffee shops, food, and style. If she was not human, she would be a cat.