I am a third-year PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Throughout school, university and postgraduate studies I have often been my own harshest critic when it comes to defining academic success.
Completing my PhD during a global pandemic made me step back and try be more realistic in my goal-setting, and more adaptable to managing change. I wrote this blog in the hope of reminding myself, and others, that productivity is fluid and highly impacted by factors outside of our control. A reminder for self-compassion and accepting that whilst social comparison is often inevitable, remember every destination has many routes.
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When you feel death getting closer, you inevitably reminisce about your life: your best experiences; your worst moments; the things you said you were going to do but, in the end, didn’t; the things you did not expect to happen, but did. And if you contemplate on these things a bit, you will likely come to the same conclusion I reach: our life is ruled by the values we hold, which help to determine our priorities and the choices we make. For example, going to that concert instead of studying for a math test, attending that family gathering or staying home, and even bigger things like moving abroad alone or staying in your country of origin with your romantic partner. Priorities dictate our experiences, and if you don’t have much time left, you will most likely think of those hours you wasted on allegedly important (but truly irrelevant) matters.
In this blog, I will discuss my experience as an undergraduate student suffering from anxiety and how the current educational system’s flaws affect many students’ mental health and self-worth. Additionally, I will stress the importance and impact of having – and being part of – a supportive, non-stigmatizing environment, as well as share my ongoing recovery journey and what has been helpful during it.
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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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Content warning: Alienation, trauma, suicidal ideation
Every visitor’s or expat’s culture shock is different. For me, once a graduate student from Russia, now an American permanent resident and immigrant, it’s the dreaded and inevitable question: “Where are you from?” Such unintentional, seemingly benign, casual, yet annoying moments can, and do, provoke a deep feeling of alienation. followed by a fearful thought that I will always be an alien here, no matter the circumstances..
The truth is, I cannot in good conscience answer that question. In my experience, the intention behind it is small talk, pseudo-connection, a shortcut to shared experiences and therefore relatability. Putting aside the fact that (in my experience) it is invasive, too personal, and most of the times completely unwarranted, it is also highly triggering and utterly empty.
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“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
In this blog, I want to share my experience using various drugs, namely alcohol and different prescription medications, throughout my academic career. I also want to acknowledge that people use drugs—both legal and illegal—for many different reasons, often at the same time. Sometimes they just want to enjoy themselves. Sometimes they want to relax. Sometimes they do those around them are engaging in drug use. And sometimes, drugs are used as a coping mechanism in the context of mental illness, which is my experience. Looking back, I believe that my substance use was appropriate during some periods, and clearly problematic during others. I believe that problematic substance use is a hidden and largely taboo topic in academia, and that we need to acknowledge that it exists.
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TW: Sexual violence, assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, genocide
I am a genocide, international criminal law and human rights scholar. My passion for this field of study started way back in high school, when I studied the highest levels of modern and ancient history, and then went through to university to study history and law. Learning about the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, the Vietnam War and Communist China led me to ask the age-old question of ‘how can people do that to other people?’. Learning about all this injustice and atrocity led me to develop a strong sense of social justice. I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I love history; the natural combination of these two fields is international criminal law, which prosecutes perpetrators of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, requiring an understanding of history. Within all this, as I learnt more about gender inequality, I became more focused on women’s rights and sexual and gender-based violence against women, seeking to focus my research in this way with the aim of hopefully somehow making a change to the world that prioritises men in so many ways. I furthered my study of human rights and international law to specialise in the field, studying a Masters in Sweden and my PhD in England. Internships and clerkships at the UN and the International Criminal Court heightened my passion for working in this area. I ended up slipping into academia after my PhD, cementing my love of research, although I took some time out to work as a volunteer Human Rights Legal Officer in Samoa. Thinking back to those studies that motivated me towards this field, I have since gone on, as an academic, to write on Communist China, and the Holocaust, and on war crimes cases out of World War II and the Vietnam War.
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It didn’t begin here, but here is an environment that provokes my deep-seated feeling of never being good enough. There was a particularly tough day early on when I was considering the direction of my PhD and reviewing the literature where I wanted to crawl under my desk, wrap my arms around my knees and sob. I remember being the last to leave and running home, turning a four-mile journey into ten, part wanting to get something from the day, part punishment. I just left myself exhausted. I remember feeling isolated, alone. I can feel the tears prickle as I write. And all this wasn’t because I didn’t get what I was doing (and that is tough to own, as a voice sneaks in ‘big headed’), but because that voice, in the midst of others, was snarling ‘you are getting it wrong, you are behind, failing’, leaving a sense of just not being good enough and not belonging.
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