May is Mental Health Month here at Pubs & Publications and as part of that, I want to talk about something I don’t hear discussed very much in academic circles – resetting after a difficult time. There are a lot of times where you’ll have to “reset” during the PhD. It might be after a major failure or rejection, after a break from academic work, after a spell of bad mental health or after an incredibly busy sprint. Inevitably, you will find yourself at the bottom of a valley, facing an academic mountain, asking yourself “how will I ever get back up there?” Here are my tips for helping yourself reset when you’ve had a setback:
Make a big to-do list:
Sometimes this can be the most intimidating part, but just listing out all the things you have to do in one place can be a huge relief. Set yourself a timer for 15 minutes and just write out all the tasks you need to finish in the next week or month. Then, assess. What can be moved? Is there anything that can be dropped? Can you reach out for an extension? I remember reading a metaphor about academic work that said something along the lines of “when you’re juggling too many balls, it’s important to find our which are glass, and which are rubber.” Essentially, the most important part of resetting after a difficult time is figuring out what will bounce back if you drop it and what will break.
Send your apologies:
Sometimes, a bad spell means we let someone down. If you put off sending an email or delayed sending someone some work that was past due, send an honest apology by email, explaining your situation if you feel comfortable doing and set out a plan for the future. This will feel uncomfortable, but it’s not an unheard-of part of academic life. Many of us are overworked and we wear many hats, so sometimes things fall through the cracks. Importantly, after you send a genuine apology, let go of the guilt of disappointing someone. There’s nothing you can do to change the past now, so you should move forward and learn from your mistakes. Trust me, people will be understanding!
Clean or change your space (physical and virtual!):
I know that personally, when life gets challenging, my environment quickly becomes messy – coffee cups on my desk, books stacked erratically, general chaos reigning. My virtual space succumbs to this too. Suddenly, I’ll realise that I have approximately 500 tabs open on my computer, all of which are relics of ideas that never went anywhere. Take an hour and give your physical and virtual space a deep clean.
Don’t punish yourself:
If you’ve just gone through a rough time, it can be tempting to punish yourself with work to compensate. You might have the sense that you wasted time, so you should work longer and harder to make up for it. I think this is almost always counterproductive. Instead, return to the routine you have when you’re feeling your best and embrace that. Embrace all the self-care aspects that make you feel good, even if they take away time from your work. By doing things like taking weekends or evenings off, meditating, exercising, cooking, and participating in your hobbies, you’re setting yourself up for longer-term success. Being tough on yourself after going through a challenging period is just a recipe for another difficult time sooner.
Ultimately, failure and challenges will always be a part of life. This is true whether you’re doing a PhD or not, but the self-directed and fast-paced nature of doctoral research can make a difficult spell feel insurmountable. I am here to reassure you that it’s not insurmountable and that these few tasks, while they will likely be challenging, will put you back on track for a healthier doctoral journey.
Vesna Curlic is a PhD researcher in History at the University of Edinburgh and the Topical Editor at Pubs & Publications. Her project considers migration to Britain in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, with a focus on the medicalisation of the immigration system, as well as the healthcare experiences of migrants and refugees. She splits her time between Edinburgh and her hometown of Toronto, Canada. You can find her talking about her life and research on Twitter at @vesnacurlic.