It’s okay to be a glowstick. Sometimes we have to break before we shine.
In my previous VoR post, I spoke about my new direction with my project in Archaeology/Mathematics. The decision to change projects and forge a new path for myself took a lot of courage, and has led me on a path that truly demonstrates the ups and downs of PhD research, mentally speaking. Although the overall trajectory has been extremely positive and I am ultimately glad of my decision, there were a few hurdles that I had to overcome as a result of restarting my PhD. This blog post will reflect upon my experiences in the past year, discuss mental health in the context of academia, and why it’s sometimes necessary to break down before starting fresh.
Lesson #1: Seek empowerment
When I decided to re-start my PhD and create my own research project, I was not in a good state of mind. The preceding events which prompted me to do so left me fatigued, stressed, anxious, and depressed, and it was out of desperation to forge a better path for myself that I decided that I needed this change. It was a way to empower myself after a period of feeling like I had no agency in my academic life. Although I never could have done it without the support of my peers, friends, and family, I learned that empowerment begins with oneself. When I finally allowed myself to acknowledge what I had gone through and what needed to change, I was able to find the courage to tackle the complicated process of restarting my PhD and accepting the consequences that came with that decision.
Many researchers find themselves tangled up in the political landscape that sadly but inevitably ensnares academia (just do a Google search and you’ll find countless articles from various countries). The artificial and somewhat arbitrary bureaucracy imposed upon academics can be restrictive and limiting. Although these impositions exist for a reason, sometimes these reasons are not good ones. Academics get frustrated and may even feel bullied or unfairly punished if they stand up for themselves, especially since institutions tend to ignore or hush up any wrongdoings, misconduct, or injustices (see Adam Ruben’s article in Science Magazine – it’s satirical and amusing, but sadly uses a true story to exemplify this point). To these frustrated academics, my advice is to seek empowerment by finding an environment that is right for you, even if that means taking a risk or facing difficulties during this transition. It may be hard, but ultimately you will be happier by taking control of where and what you want to be doing in your life.
Lesson #2: Letting go of things that no longer serve a purpose
This process took quite a while for me, and after a year I’m still not completely convinced that I’ve managed to do this. At the beginning of my new PhD project, I was carrying a lot of the old worries and anxieties from my previous project. It took me a while to let go of them, although sometimes they crop up from time to time. Rather than ignoring them, it was important to remember that they served a purpose – those worries were valid once upon a time, but they aren’t now. Instead, recognizing these worries as an artefact of previous circumstances helped me to put the present circumstances into perspective. And, since the present circumstances involve me working on a project idea I’ve had for years, I’d say that my current perspective is pretty positive.
From my own circle of friends and colleagues, I find that scientists generally hold true to the stereotype of overthinking:
This means that we are very prone to anxiety, since it’s hard to control thoughts that are overwhelming or stressful. Being able to let go of thoughts and emotions takes a lot of practice, and it must be done intentionally. Meditation has been found to be an excellent way of achieving this intentional practice, with numerous contemporary studies finding that a regular meditative practice is effective at treating anxiety, depression, and even physical pain.
Lesson #3: Acknowledging accomplishments
Despite fighting with numerous bouts of mental fatigue, anxiety, and depression for the past year and a half, I have accomplished more than I ever thought I would, especially in the past year after making my switch. Making lists of accomplishments helps to put negative thoughts or feelings into perspective, so here are mine:
1) I have finally passed my probation review! This was actually a really pleasant experience, and passing it means that I am now a Real PhD Student.
2) I have been involved with numerous teaching opportunities, with the most recent and exciting endeavour being that I created an online module in Forensic Anthropology for Post-Conflict Capacity Building. This meant deciding what lecture topics needed to be covered, creating Powerpoint lectures, and then recording the lectures so that the online course can be taken by practitioners in different countries.
3) Since the start of my new PhD project, I have visited 6 different countries on 3 continents for research purposes. I’m planning on travelling even more this upcoming year for research dissemination and data collection (and also for personal reasons – vacations are a necessary component of any job)!
4) I have scanned more than 300 skulls for my data collection. That’s over 200 hours of sitting in a lab, tackling issues with machines and computers, and handling bones.
5) I have learned how to program…in C++. For those who know how to program, I see your sympathetic nods. Thank you.
6) My academic journey has been published in a book to inspire young girls. #womeninscience
7) I have won two awards regarding the portrayal of my PhD project. It was a great confidence boost to see that people were just as excited about my project as I am! (Plus, bones are cool.)
8) I have published my first academic paper. Although this paper was based on one of my Master’s projects, it didn’t come through until this past year.
All of these things would either not have happened or would have happened very differently if I hadn’t decided to change the trajectory of my PhD into a more positive experience. In recognition of that, I am glad that I went through what has been the hardest part of my life to date. If I hadn’t been pushed to my breaking point, I wouldn’t have realized just how much I needed things to change, and I never would have went on to find the right path for me. Of course, I am grateful for all the positive experiences I’ve had and for the people who have been there to support me along the way. But I am also grateful to everyone and everything that has impacted me negatively. If I hadn’t had those hurdles to begin with, I never would have known how high I could jump.