Trigger warnings: Depression, Anxiety, COVID-19, cancer
Doing a PhD was the best thing I’ve done, but also the scariest, most emotional, and most challenging thing I’ve done. I’m going to tell you my story: how my PhD broke me, how the culture of academia means that we often struggle to meet some of our basic human needs, and how training to be a life coach has improved my mental health.
In my second year of my PhD, I found myself on anti-depressants due to a combination of imposter syndrome, inability to grasp concepts, realising I hated reading journal articles, and loneliness. One of the activities that got me through was being part of the PGR student society and being a student rep, working with the student union and the researcher development team to help improve student experiences, run activities and push the university on policy improvements.
I didn’t finish within my funding period, in part because I had missed months due to my depression, hiding from my supervisor/everyone, not getting out of bed, and not getting any work done. My research group received additional funding to keep me on as a Research Assistant to work on follow-up projects based on my PhD, and I entered the world of short, fixed-term contracts as a researcher while trying to finish my PhD. After a 6-month contract, I got a 3-month contract, then they were able to offer me 6 weeks: how familiar is that to you, dear reader?! Of course, because I still hadn’t finished my PhD, I wasn’t eligible to submit my own funding applications to keep my job.
Towards the time I was being offered the last tiny contract extension, the person in the Researcher Developer role at my university was going on secondment and suggested I apply to cover their post for 12 months. Well, 6 weeks vs 12 months was no competition whatsoever, and I got my application in! I was offered the secondment role, albeit at a lower grade than advertised, because I hadn’t completed the PhD (although it was submitted the day of my interview!). With this long contract (it felt long!), a grade above my researcher salary, part of professional services, part of a big department at the central hub of the university, so began what felt to me like my “proper” work in academia… where I fit, where I could make a difference to my fellow research students and try to ensure they would never feel like I felt.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
At this point, let me talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You may be familiar with it already, but when I came across it something clicked for me. American psychologist Abraham Maslow first proposed the theory in 1943 that there are five hierarchical tiers of human need, where the needs lower down the pyramid must be met before people can meet the needs higher up (Figure 1). There are more modern takes on it, and there are some who suggest that it works better for those in Western society, but it really stuck with me (perhaps because I’m in Western society). I want to use it to talk you through why I (used to) struggle so much with my mental health while working in academia using this model. Later on, I will introduce my side hustle and explain how it is lifting me up and improving my well-being.
Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow theorised that the most basic need is Physiological— those things we require to survive, such as food, water, air, shelter and sleep. Without these needs being met, we cannot hope to achieve the next levels. In a job where I felt overworked and underpaid, my sleep suffered. Sure, I had food, water, air and shelter, but I found sleep harder to get, and when I get tired, I find my emotions overwhelm me. Yet my needs were met overall, despite occasional insomnia, so I could move to the next level.
The next level is Safety. This is where humans have a basic need for security, order, predictability and control. This is the level where I think academia really fails us, and it’s so low on the hierarchy that it’s literally defined as basic! Short-term contracts provide no financial security, no predictability, and control over the career and lives of researchers is down in no small part to others. My open-ended Researcher Development role offered security and order, but I often felt out of control, replaceable, and at the mercy of others. Towards the end of the secondment cover I was once again job hunting but I was offered an open-ended contract which I accepted. This increased my sense of safety.
Love and Belonging refers to our relationships. This includes how we connect to others, what groups we are part of, friendships, romantic relationships, and considers intimacy, trust and love. At this point in my life, I was in a relationship, we had moved in together, and got a pet tortoise together (hello commitment!), but this also meant recognising a more permanent move from my friends and family 400 miles away. I was struggling to meet my “love and belonging” needs because I was being pulled in a few different directions. I’d come off anti-depressants after finishing my PhD but within a few months was on anti-anxiety meds instead and seeing a counsellor, with the primary focus my relationships. While my love and belonging was all over the place, how could I move to the next level?
The next level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Esteem: both esteem for oneself and the desire for reputation or respect from others. Surely until my love and belonging needs were met, I couldn’t feel esteem for myself, or expect it from others? My anxiety was high, and I was suffering weekly or more frequent migraines and fatigue. In late 2017 to protect my health I went part-time, changing jobs and organisations. I was still supporting PGR students, but this time I was working in a multi-institution graduate school. I found it hard to settle into part-time work; just as I was getting into each week it was over, and I’d have to start again the next week. The turning point came when I was given extra hours to cover my job share leaving. For five months I worked four days a week. I still had an extra day at the weekend which reduced my anxiety and fatigue, but I had time to really get into the role, deeply learn how to do things, not just skim the surface to get things done as quickly as possible. When a new job-share arrived, I returned to working 50%, and I felt like my esteem needs were met. I had helped my new colleague settle in, I could answer their questions, I felt like I knew what I was doing, and I felt that my colleagues had faith in me.
Broadly speaking, academia is a sector where people are constantly striving for greater success in a highly competitive environment. This culture means that we are constantly required to measure our performance in terms of papers published, grants won, invited talks, committee positions, etc. But just like Maslow’s Hierarchy, it seems like you can’t get Esteem (success) until you’ve got Safety (open-ended contract, control), and how much Love and Belonging (friendships, relationships) do you have to sacrifice to get there? If you sacrifice too much, Maslow suggests you can’t progress to the next level.
The final tier is Self-actualisation. While the previous tiers are all about needing something that we lack, this tier is about reaching our full potential as a person. Those who reach this tier have realised their potential; they are self-fulfilled yet seeking personal growth and ever greater experiences. My specific role in professional services has very limited upward scope, there is incredibly limited potential for growth and development, and while I love what I do, there’s also really limited potential for ‘ever greater experiences’. Personally, I have realised that I can never reach self-actualisation in the academic role I’m in.
Along came 2020
You can maybe imagine that as someone predisposed to anxiety and depression, I wouldn’t do well with a global pandemic, and you’d be right on the money! My fear of COVID-19 was debilitating at times. A family member caught it very badly very early on (and is still suffering, it’s not just flu!), which scared me further as there were early suggestions of familial links to severity. I’d never felt so far away from family. Then in October 2020 I was diagnosed with a rare form of chronic blood cancer and had a whole new scary thing to deal with. Essential Thrombocythemia puts me at greater risk of blood clots and comes with a risk of transforming into other blood cancers down the line, including leukaemia.
Many have said that the pandemic helped us to slow down, to reconsider our lives, our impact and contribution to the world, and add to that a cancer diagnosis and I found myself doing a lot of reflecting! I reflected on what I enjoyed about my job, what I didn’t, and my impact on friends, family, the PhD students I work with, and my colleagues. I didn’t want to waste my life. “You only get one life, live it” became a common phrase in my head. I wanted to find my calling.
Finding My Calling: Becoming a Coach
I knew that I wanted to do something purposeful with my life that would have a greater positive impact on people than I am able to have on PhD students, a role that would bring me greater peace, clarity and control than academia can currently offer.
After much research, soul-searching, and financial conversations, I started to study for a Diploma in Transformational Coaching in June 2021. It has opened my eyes to what I’m capable of and the difference I can make to a person. I’m still in the process of qualifying and setting up a business, but the difference it has made to my life has been astounding, and I can sum it up using three questions:
Am I good at it? Yes! According to my practice clients and fellow coaches that I coach.
Do I make people’s lives better? Yes! They come to me with problems, I help them find their own solution from their own inner resource. They solve their problem and gain faith in themselves.
Do I feel appreciated? Yes! Humans need “strokes”: those words, looks and reactions of others towards us. When they say thanks, or you see the lightbulb ‘ping!’ in their mind as they make a connection or have an idea, or they leave a coaching session smiling with a lighter air than they came in with, it all makes me feel appreciated.
How has my coaching side hustle brought back my happiness in my academic role? Firstly, there are little things I’ve been coached on in my own life along the way, as part of my qualification is receiving coaching yourself. Tiny things that had been eroding my sense of self-worth and enabling the nagging voice in my head that I’m not enough are now gone. Secondly, I’m content. Finding something that I’m good at and makes a difference to others and I feel appreciated for, has brought me a feeling of contentment I longed for but had assumed I would never have. When I’m content, I get what I call “happy energy”, which makes me productive not just in coaching but in my home life and the day job. Thirdly, I’m confident. I’m doing something in which I am receiving regular positive feedback.
To return to Maslow’s Hierarchy, combining the coaching side hustle and the academic day job allows me to meet all of the needs in question. My Physiological needs are still met, even if sometimes the happy energy makes it tricky to get to sleep! My Safety comes from having the security and predictability of an open-ended academic contract (funding dependent), while having control over my coaching. How many clients I take on, what steps I take towards making it a steady income, how fast I grow—these are all up to me. Going through the coaching qualification in a small cohort has also led me to a new group of friends, and the wider community of coaches that is full of kind, open, warm, helpful souls increases my sense of Love & Belonging. I still feel guilt for moving far away from family for academia, but I’m so much more content with other areas of my life that it’s no longer debilitating. My Esteem in my day job is the same as it was before, possibly more as I have become more confident, but now I get esteem in my coaching too! I have confidence in what I do and others think I’m ok at it too. So can I Self-actualise? Not in academia, no, for the reasons above. But in coaching? Absolutely! I can help more people, I can train in more specialisms, I can look for new projects to take on. There’s something to look forward to, always.
Ultimately, where academia is sometimes deficient in meeting my needs, my side hustle is topping them up, so I feel more of a whole person than I’ve ever felt before. I now have confidence in what I’m good at and feel my colleagues have that too, so I look forward to my day. I have a plan for my future that involves the financial security and esteem within academia but also the control, belonging, appreciation and potential for growth within coaching.
I didn’t come to coaching blind, I have had coaching over the years, and after the positive impact it had on me, I knew I wanted to give that to others. If you’re considering a side hustle, look at what life experiences you’ve had that you’ve enjoyed. Consider what you’re good at. Consider if you would make people’s lives better, if that’s what important to you and whether it would help you feel appreciated. Ideally, consider if it can give you pay! We all have a diverse set of numerous skills, there are many possibilities just around the corner.
Vicky has been a Graduate School Coordinator for the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance since 2017, supporting over 600 PhD students in physics across Scotland with researcher development, education, careers support and funding opportunities. She has a particular interest in diversity in STEM, and is always open about her health to help reduce the stigma around mental ill health. You can find her on Twitter @vickyingram