Managing the Journey - Tip #2 Manage Your Mental Wellbeing as a Research Student

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Research students face a range of challenges that can affect their mental wellbeing. There is the pressure to produce work of a sufficiently high standard and meet deadlines; the need to develop their identity and profile as a researcher; the difficulties of balancing their degree against employment and other commitments; dealing with times when things do not go to plan; the demands that undertaking a research degree places on personal relationships and finances; and the practical difficulties if they need to move to Leicester and find a new place to live - particularly if they are new to the UK and also adjusting to life in a new country.

It is not surprising then that many research students experience mental wellbeing difficulties at some point in their degree. However, there are steps that you can take to look after your mental wellbeing and to help you make sure that any difficulties do not become too serious and start to have an adverse effect on you or your degree.

Five Steps to Improving Your Mental Wellbeing

Looking after and improving your mental wellbeing should not be something you think about only at times when there is a problem. Just as with your physical wellbeing, your mental wellbeing needs regular attention to stay in the best of shape. There are straightforward steps that you can take every day to give your mental wellbeing a workout and to keep you "feeling good and functioning well".

Earlier in this guide there was a reference to the UK Government's report Mental Capital and Wellbeing (2008). The research conducted for that report was used to identify five practical steps that people can take to improve their mental wellbeing:

Connecting

Your relationships with other people are important for your mental wellbeing. Making time for those relationships and enjoying that time together will help you feel happier and more secure. Read the advice in the NHS Moodzone or learn more about research student support networks.

Being Active

Sport and exercise are a great way both to stay healthy and to take your mind off your work when you need a break. Regular exercise can help improve your mood and maintain your motivation. Read the advice in the NHS Moodzone or learn more about University sport and leisure facilities.

Learning

Many research students take the opportunity to learn new skills alongside their degree. Learning a new language, or how to cook, or how to play a musical instrument, are all enjoyable ways to boost your confidence and classes can be a place to make new friends. Read the advice in the NHS Moodzone.

Giving

There are lots of ways you can help others alongside your research degree - charitable giving, volunteer work, becoming a blood donor, etc. Helping others can help you too by giving you a sense of belonging and providing opportunities to make new friends. Read the advice in the NHS Moodzone or learn more about University volunteering opportunities.

Noticing

Finally, taking time to notice and enjoy the present moment - rather than fixating on the past or the future - can positively change how you see yourself and how you manage problems. This approach is sometimes known as "mindfulness". Read the advice in the NHS Moodzone.

Learn more about each of the five steps to mental wellbeing by watching the Video NHS Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing Video.

Mental Wellbeing and Research Students

Survival Video
Image from the PhD/MPhil Survival Video
The five steps above are practical measures that anyone, including research students, can take to look after their mental wellbeing. There are also strategies that research students can adopt to help manage some of the issues that can arise specifically in the context of undertaking a research degree.

If you want to better understand some of the mental wellbeing issues that can affect research students, why not watch the Video PhD/MPhil Survival Video (University IT account required). This film is based on specially scripted drama scenarios and interviews with experienced student welfare officers and research students.

Identity and Perfectionism

Adapting to life as a research student can challenge your sense of identity and this can affect your mental wellbeing. On a personal level, starting a research degree may mean moving home and leaving behind family and friends as well as disrupting your established routines. On an intellectual level you may find yourself doubting your ability - feeling that you have gone from being a big fish in a small pond, to being a small fish in a big pond - and even questioning whether you will be able to complete your research degree. This insecurity about your identity is sometimes referred to as "imposter syndrome" - a feeling that you do not belong and sooner or later will be found out.

In most cases this type of insecurity will go away of its own accord as you settle down to your work, become more familiar with your new life, and grow in confidence. It is important though to maintain close contact with your supervisors, particularly in the early stages of your degree, as their feedback will not only provide reassurance but also help you improve your work further.

For more advice on "imposter syndrome", you may want to read this article by Andrea Zellner on Banishing Imposter Syndrome while the Explorations of Style blog by Rachael Cayley has a post with guidance on Imposter Syndrome and Academic Writing. Other useful articles include one by Kate Bahn which looks at specifically at Imposter Syndrome and Women.

Similarly, your sense of identity as a researcher should not be bound up in the idea that you cannot make mistakes. Every research student has times during their degree when things do not go to plan; when they do, the worst things that you can do are pretend the problem does not exist and hope that it will go away if you ignore it or blow things out of proportion, see the problem as representing some bigger personal failing, and start to question your ability to finish your degree. Instead, you should approach problems positively:

  • acknowledge the problem and its real significance
  • identify what you need to do to overcome the problem
  • report the problem and your proposed solution to your supervisor and be open to any feedback they may have on this
  • put into action the solution agreed with your supervisor, try to catch up on any time lost, and learn from the experience so that you can avoid similar problems in future

Of course, this is to make things look much neater than they may be in reality. However, the essential principles should remain the same in all cases - openly acknowledging the problem to yourself and your supervisor and taking the initiative in overcoming the problem.

Related to these types of problems is perfectionism. Perfectionism is an extreme unrealistic perception that anything less than perfection is unacceptable; for research students it is most commonly a problem when producing written work, especially the thesis. You must not let yourself fall into this way of thinking. Perfect is not achievable - professional is. As a research student all of the work you produce should be of a professional standard - work that is:

  • carefully thought out
  • appropriately conducted
  • accurately recorded
  • clearly and concisely presented

Occasionally though research students have unrealistic expectations and the inevitable failure to meet those expectations then has a negative effect on their mental wellbeing. Research students must therefore keep a sense of perspective and what it is realistic for them to achieve. For a doctoral qualification you need to make an original contribution to knowledge - but that does not mean something that completely changes your field. It is likely to be something relatively minor; so long as it adds to knowledge in your field, it should meet the requirement for originality. The same is true of your thesis. This should be clearly and accurately written; but as someone at the start of their research career, no one is expecting you to produce the standard of academic writing that only comes from years of work and practice.

If you do start having doubts about the quality of your work, the best thing to do is to ask your supervisors. It can also be helpful to seek feedback from fellow research students or to look at past theses submitted in your School/Department. This will help give you a sense of perspective as to what is expected from you and your work.

For more advice on perfectionism, you may want to take a look at this article by Robert Leahy - Seven Steps to Overcome Perfectionism. Or - taking a slightly different approach - are these two blog posts by James Hayton, Positive Thesis Perfectionism and Why Some Perfectionism is a Good Thing.

Direction and Time Management

Difficulties such as losing your sense of direction and poor time management are experienced by most research students at some point in their degree. These difficulties can affect your sense of self-confidence and harm your mental wellbeing. They are perhaps most common in the middle stages of a research degree programme - after the initial enthusiasm has worn off and you are past the more structured induction and training at the start of the degree, but before you are far enough along to have a definite sense of progress and of getting closer to the end. It is therefore important that early on you adopt strategies to help you maintain your focus.

The best way to do this is by taking a structured approach to planning and managing your work and your development as a researcher:

  • at the start of your degree set clear objectives that define the individual activities and tasks you will need to complete; to make these as useable as possible, your objectives should follow the SMART model

Specific - Exactly what is it you want to achieve?

Measurable - How will you know you have achieved it?

Agreed - Do your supervisors agree with your objectives?

Realistic - Can your objectives be achieved given the time and resource available to you?

Timed - When do you expect to have met each objective?

  • put your objectives together into a work plan that shows you what you should be doing and when and discuss and agree this with your supervisors; refer to your plan regularly to make sure you are staying on track and to help you make sure your efforts are directed to achieving your objectives
  • at least annually review and update your objectives and work plan to ensure they remain appropriate and continue to provide you with a clear plan for completing your degree; as you do this, take time to note the objectives you have achieved over the past year as this will give you a sense of progress and accomplishment and will also help you maintain your motivation

However, even with clear objectives and a work plan for achieving these, there are likely to be times when your time management slips. Poor time management can give rise to problems such as procrastination (where you keep putting off a task because you do not want to do it or because you know it will be challenging) or precrastination (where you keep putting off a task by believing that you must first complete several other tasks - usually things that are of much less importance). These types of behaviours can lead to feelings of guilt or stress and so can be harmful for your mental wellbeing.

If you find that your time management has slipped, you need to take action as soon as possible so you do not fall too far behind in your work plan:

Do...

... prioritise individual tasks and activities and make sure low priority tasks do not keep you from meeting the deadlines which you have set for yourself

... give your degree the time that it needs - as a general rule full-time PhD/MPhil students should approach their degree as a Monday to Friday nine-to-five job (i.e., taking up around 35 hours each week)

... allow some space in your work plan in case something goes wrong; it is important not to just pad your schedules for no good reason, but there should be a little slack in case something does not go to plan

Don't...

... over commit - look to make use of the opportunities open to you, but your priority must remain your research degree so be realistic when deciding whether taking on something extra will affect your work or progress

... waste time figuring out how to track down things in the Library - there are lots of tools you can use to improve your information management; for more advice speak with the University Library Research Services Team

... waste time trying to work with a poor filing system or replacing work that is lost because you never created a back-up copy; IT Services can provide advice on managing electronic files effectively and safely

The NHS Moodzone has some more easy time management tips. You can also find practical advice in Vitae's Adobe Acrobat (PDF) The Balanced Researcher: Strategies for Busy Researchers*.

* To access Vitae resources, you must create a user account; you can create a user account for FREE using your University of Leicester email address.

Isolation and Belonging

There is no doubt that undertaking a research degree can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. On a taught degree you are one of several people on the same course with a shared experience of completing the same assignments and, in some cases, working collaboratively; in contrast, on a research degree you are working independently on a highly specific project. You may well be the only person working in your particular area and the nature of the work means that much of it will be completed by you working quite separately from anyone else. In lab-based subjects you are likely to be one of several people using the same lab space and facilities and this will give some relief from the potential loneliness; but in non lab-based subjects you may not have even that and, on a day-to-day basis, you may spend a considerable part of your time alone.

The next section of this guide looks at research student support networks and their importance for your mental wellbeing. In addition, the increasingly structured nature of research degree programmes provides research students with opportunities to get together with other research students from their School/Department and the wider University. It is important to make use of these opportunities. Events such as seminars, lectures, and conferences all provide opportunities to meet up with other researchers in your field. The Doctoral College also supports events such as Cafe Research and Thesis Forum which provide opportunities to make friends with fellow research students from across the University. And of course there are social events such as meeting up with friends outside of the University, attending evening classes, or joining a sports or fitness club.

Try to make time alongside your degree for these types of activities to help avoid feelings of isolation, boost your sense of belonging, and improve your mental wellbeing.

Importance of General Health and Wellbeing

There is a close connection between your mental and physical wellbeing. Problems with one can lead to problems with the other. To look after your mental wellbeing it is therefore important that you also think about how you can look after your physical wellbeing. Completing a research degree is hugely demanding and, unless you are careful, you can find yourself so busy that you forget basic rules for healthy living such as taking regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep.

If you do experience problems it is important that you do not ignore them. If you are finding it difficult to live healthily or are experiencing health problems, there is lots of advice available online from NHS Choices* - including:

NHS Choices Logo

* NHS Choices is intended for use only by those living in England.

Any health problems that are affecting your academic progress should be discussed with a medical professional. All new research students are strongly encouraged to register with a local doctor. Research students living near to the University may wish to register with the Victoria Park Health Centre which is located adjacent to the main campus.

For more advice on accessing health care services, consult the University Healthy Living Service's leaflet Adobe Acrobat (PDF) Your Health - How to Get Help and Advice.

Sport and Fitness

Sports and exercise are a great way both to stay healthy and to take your mind off your work when you need a break. Regular exercise can help improve your mood and maintain your motivation.

The University has excellent sports and leisure facilities at the Danielle Brown Sports Centre and the Roger Bettles Sports Centre. These include swimming pools, gyms, saunas and steam rooms, tennis courts, badminton courts, squash courts, and outdoor pitches for football and rugby.

Get the Right Balance

To keep up with your work plan you will need to make sure that you are giving sufficient time to working on your research degree each week. However, your research degree is not a 24/7 job and it is important to take regular breaks and to make time to get away from your degree altogether.

Regular short breaks during the day will help you stay focused and give you a chance to refresh yourself and stretch your legs - short breaks like this are particularly important if you are working at a computer as getting away from the screen will help avoid eye strain. You also need to make time for regular meal breaks to ensure that you are eating healthily.

In addition to taking breaks during the day, try to keep your evenings and weekends free from work and remember as well that research students can take longer breaks using their annual leave entitlement.

Managing the Journey - Mental Wellbeing for PhD/MPhil Students

The Doctoral College's Top Four Tips for Mental Wellbeing in Your Research Degree:

  1. Understand what mental wellbeing is and why it matters
  2. Manage your mental wellbeing as a research student
  3. Develop and use personal and professional support networks
  4. Don't ignore problems and use the help that is available

Mental Wellbeing Links and Contacts

 

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