PhD: Day #1

It’s the first day of my PhD program I feel like I did on my first day of kindergarten, except for this time I don’t have my mommy’s leg to cling to like a lifesaver. I am on my own.

The day started with a visit to the Psychology department. Louise, the secretary, shows me around the building, pointing out where the all-important coffee stash was as well as where my office is. My office, which I share with 2 postdoctoral students and 1 other new PhD student, is located on the 3rd floor. It looks strangely empty…there are 2 temporary desks for me and the other PhD student but the computers have yet to be installed.

Since I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing on the first day of my PhD and I won’t be able to meet with my supervisor until tomorrow, I decide to take care of those boring but necessary administrative tasks – such as completing registration and collecting my student ID. Basically that means I’ve been spending a lot of time standing in queues (1 hour for registration and another 30 minutes for student ID collection).

Back at home, I am completely shattered. I’m not sure why. Upon reflection, I really didn’t do much today. I guess that change is stressful though…even when it’s good change.

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Maintaining mental health at university

University life can be challenging, even for the most mentally fit person. For those of us with pre-existing mental health conditions, it can be an even bigger challenge. However, there are small things we can do to maintain and even improve our mental health while meeting the demands of university life.

  1. Be aware of what your triggers are and know how to handle them if and when they arise. It may even be helpful to keep a list of ‘tools’ that you can turn to in a triggering situation. I keep one on my phone and my list includes things like mindful breathing, going for a walk, and various cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises. There are also some great apps out there that are designed to help you move through difficult situations. Some of my favourites are DBT Diary Card for general mental health and Recovery Record for eating disorders. However, there are TONS of apps out there so I encourage you do some research and find what works best for you.
  1. Know what you need and don’t be afraid to ask. It’s okay to say ‘I need to step out a minute’ or ask for some personal time. Most supervisors will understand or have dealt with similar situations before, and if they don’t…
  1. Have someone you can talk to. It can be a psychotherapist, family member, close friend, etc. Doesn’t matter so long as you have someone to call upon when things get rough. That’s something everyone needs. In some cases, it may also be helpful to have an advocate at your university…a GP or university counsellor who you can go to if your health starts to decline and affect your work.
  1. Schedule time for self-care. Self-care doesn’t come naturally to all of us so it can be helpful to plan it into your day. For example, I do best when I schedule myself 2-3 mini breaks throughout the day during which I can eat a proper lunch, go for a walk, grab a coffee with friends, or maybe just have some quiet time to myself.
  1. Know when to ask for help. Set up contingencies in advance and make them specific. For example, “if I start having X thoughts, then I will reach out to X person and ask for help” or “if I start engaging in X maladaptive behaviour, then I will go to X support group.” I know first-hand how incredibly difficult it can be to ask for help, but there is no shame in it. Asking for help is probably one of the most courageous yet humble things many of us will ever do.
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On Holiday

I’ve had a minor case of writer’s block this week but I guess that’s alright because I’m on holiday! Okay so I am only spending a week in a small Kentish town full of mostly retired folk, but that still counts as holiday…right?

In the past I’ve been notorious for smuggling textbooks and journal articles with me on holiday, but since I only have a few weeks until I start my PhD I set a strict “No-Working” policy. It is probably a bit sad that I have to forcibly remove myself from my work even when term has not started yet, but I am pretty sure that I am not the only one.

This holiday I have been doing well though. The only books I’ve read are novels and the only writing I’ve done has been for my blog. I’ve also experimented with new recipes (with various levels of success), visited the Tower of London, gone for beautiful walks in the countryside, and crocheted to my heart’s desire. But most importantly, I’ve been spending time with my boyfriend.

As I prepare to start my PhD, my boyfriend is preparing to start a new job working for one of the councils in London. Needless to say, we are both a bit anxious and it’s all too easy to let the days pass by with each of us on our separate computers or in front of the television…together, but only in the most superficial sense. Therefore, we’ve had to make a conscientious effort to really be present with one another… especially when it’s not easy. So although it’s not the most relaxing holiday, it’s probably an important one.

From the top left: halfway decent broccoli and potato frittata, Tower of London, Chapel Down vineyards, crochet hat and cowl, beefeater (also at the Tower of London)

From the top left: halfway decent broccoli and potato frittata, Tower of London, Chapel Down vineyards, crochet hat and cowl, beefeater (also at the Tower of London)

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Impostor Syndrome

“So…are you excited to start your PhD?”

I must get this question at least once a week from family, friends, and, in one instance, a very chatty woman on the train. Usually I’ll respond with an enthusiastic “of course!” or, depending on with whom I’m speaking, I may admit to being “a little nervous.” However, that’s not the truth…or at least not the whole truth.

While I am very excited about starting my PhD, I am also slightly terrified. I fear that my university has made a huge mistake by accepting me into their program and offering me funding. I fear that I have accidentally misled the university into thinking I’m someone better than I am. I fear that once I start my PhD, my supervisor and everyone else will see that I’m not what they thought I was and be disappointed. In short, I fear that I am not good enough and that soon everyone will find that out.

My friend Lucy calls it “impostor syndrome” and apparently it’s a thing (just ask Google). While not considered a psychological disorder, impostor syndrome seems to describe an experience many people have. But whatever it’s called, the key is to realise that those fears are not based in reality and to change the narrative. I’m sure that’s much easier said than done, but I’ll give it a go. 

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Dealing with Death of a Loved One While Abroad

I lost two of my grandparents this year. My grandfather’s death was expected. He had long been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease so when I said ‘goodbye’ to him last summer, I knew I would not be seeing him again. My grandmother’s death was more sudden. It came not long after my grandfather’s death and I still don’t always know what to make of it. I think she was just done.

Since I was close with both my grandparents, but particularly my grandmother, their deaths were very hard on me. My grief was further complicated by the fact that I was studying abroad 5,000+ miles away. Unable to fly out for the funeral, I was left to grieve on my own. It wasn’t easy. There were times when I was ready to down a bottle or two of wine to numb the pain, but I never did. Instead I found ways to move through the grief, though not always gracefully.

Taking Time to Grieve

When my grandmother died, I was at a highly stressful point in my Master’s course. For the first day and a half, I poured myself into my work, hoping to distract myself from the grief. That failed. Next I tried to schedule time into grieve. In my diary I wrote, “4:00pm – 5:00pm – Grieve” I kid you not. Unfortunately that didn’t work either. Finally, I gave up trying to control my grief. I told my supervisor that I would need some time off and he graciously told me to take all the time I needed.

Talking to Someone

When I’m sad, all I want to do is be alone. And sometimes that’s okay. But for me it’s also really important to talk to someone so that I don’t become consumed by my grief. Thanks to Skype, Gmail, and Whatsapp, I was able to keep in contact with my family in the wake of my grandparents’ deaths. My boyfriend also helped by listening to me when I needed to talk and holding me when I needed to cry.

Finding Closure

One of the most difficult things for me about dealing with my grandparents’ death while abroad was finding a sense of closure. Since I was not home, it was hard to feel their absence. And since I was not able to attend the funeral for either of them, I was not able to participate in that symbolic gesture of saying goodbye. Therefore, I decided to create my own symbolic gesture. For a while, I struggled to figure out what that might be. If you type “symbolic gestures for funerals” online, you can find all sorts of different suggestions such as making a wish, naming a star, releasing butterflies, etc. but none of that felt right to me. Finally I settled on writing a letter. My grandfather was a writer so what better way to honour him than by writing? I still have the letter entitled “Dear Granddad” saved on my computer. I haven’t been able to write one for my grandmother yet even though it’s been nearly 5 months since she died. One day I will, but when I’m ready.

This is how I have dealt and am continuing to deal with the death of my grandparents. However, each person grieves in their own way and in their own time so please don’t think that I am trying to create a list of “tips” for dealing with the death of a loved one while abroad. I only share my story because it helps me and I guess I kind of hope it might help someone else too.

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Starting Over

To date I’ve created and deleted 4 blogs. It’s not that I haven’t liked what I write. I haven’t liked how I write. I read over old posts and they just don’t sound like me. They sound fake…and, if I’m honest, they are.

Now I don’t want to drag all my old skeletons out of the closet but suffice it so say that I’ve had my battles. Although it’s been a long time since those days, I still feel this constant need to prove that I have changed – that I am well. But in trying to do so, I’ve not been myself. I’ve been detached, impersonal, and (in my opinion) rather dull out of fear of people seeing me.

I know that this all sounds incredibly cheesy. I am fully willing to admit that. But I feel it important to say because my blog is about to change. I’ll still write about my experience preparing for and undertaking my PhD – about my fears and insecurities as well as my hopes and dreams. Additionally I’ll explore some of the bigger issues that I’ve been grappling with such as maintaining relationships and mental health while in graduate school. I can’t promise that every post will be well written or interesting to everyone but it will be an honest reflection of my journey.



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