I have learnt my lesson. I know that I can work myself to the point way beyond exhaustion and still keep going. I have such a hard time switching off that I hardly ever do. And that, my friends, is not a recipe for a long and productive life.
It’s certainly not good for a writing life, which needs space to breathe and think and weave and imagine.
And it’s not good for the academic journey, either. You need to know how to make yourself rest and look after your health if you are going to get to the end of your doctorate – and beyond.
I know what burnout is and so do the legion of other doctoral graduates who have come before me. Is it any wonder we all collapse into the post PhD blues after the ‘birth’ of our projects?
In some ways, it is pointless for me to tell you that you need to allocate some time to your health and mental wellbeing when you are a doctoral student. Pointless because I know it isn’t going to happen. Like doctoral students who have come before, you are probably going to work yourself so hard at the end you too will get sick and wonder why you feel so awful when you have achieved so much. Welcome to the world post doctorate.
Why is this so? Because the doctoral journey demands absolute focus and determination. It’s not about a balanced life. Only a few, even in the crowded world of higher education, really come through compared to the rest of the population, so why be surprised that it exacts such a huge toll? You will, like I did, probably ruin your health getting there. If you had the luxury of taking it at an even pace, chances are you had an easy run in other aspects of your life. That’s not my world, or that of my friends.
This is a true story:
Doctoral intensity demands that you are at your desk, during a ferocious thunderstorm, and when the power blacks out and a loud explosion is heard, you grab a torch and keep writing that journal article by back up battery power. Only to find the next day your car has been struck by lightening.
That happened to a friend of mine who is currently recovering from a bad bout of flu that has seen her in bed for three weeks. Three weeks, she somewhat cheerfully told me, she can use at the end of her scholarship to extend the submission time next year. Only a doctoral student can see such light in illness.
I spent so much time at my desk in the final six weeks to submission that I would sleep only a few hours before staggering back to the computer and sitting there for 15 hour stints. I worked my body harder than a machine – I know, as I was outraged when the people who ran the university photocopy centre refused to run their machines as I demanded, at the rate I wanted, saying it would ‘kill them’.
“But I demand as much from myself!” I yelled at the person in charge.
“Maybe you should rethink your attitude,” came the curt reply.
This was actually rather prescient – no doubt born out of having seen burn out before. The last person anyone should be around is a doctoral student about to submit.
And indeed, it came to pass that I handed in, got my doctorate, and my body broke down. In every possible way. I was gripped with searing hip pain so bad it felt like a chainsaw being through over my body and I am a woman who has had two children. I am well acquainted with that horrific pain. “No core strength,” muttered my physiotherapist. “What have you been doing? Sitting down for years without moving?”
Well, hello – welcome to the world of the doctorate.
“I HAVE moved,” I protested. “Some of the books I needed on the stacks require me to bend – and stretch!”
While we are on the subject of core strength, it’s probably not worth remarking on the fact that sugar is what keeps many a doctoral student going towards the end of the stretch. All good intentions are out the window as the bran screams for something to keep it going. And- think about it – where does that sugar go if not being worked off via exercise because you are desk bound? Exactly. Who hasn’t emerged from such intense effort looking like they did post childbirth?
It’s one thing to say ‘whatever gets you through the night’. It’s quite another to get your body back into shape after submission.
For me, this involved a year long program of diet and exercise and twice weekly sessions of clinical pilates. I was in really, really bad shape and could hardly move. In fact, so wretched was I in the last year before submission that a friend overseas who saw me a few months after I had submitted the doctorate commented “well, you are certainly looking a lot – fitter!” Indeed.
Once I got my health – and body back – my particular passion became a combination of dance and pilates, slogged out at the barre twice a week, and my body thanks me for it, as I stretch out the parts of my body only too happy to collapse in front of the computer.
Let’s face it – my muscle memory is nothing more than sitting in front of the keyboard.
And so, I diligently walk every day, and if I don’t make the commitment, I suffer – my old friend sciatica snakes its tingling, searing pain down my leg in glee at having been woken again.
Yet I realise my commitment to exercise is only half of the battle. There is a mental health aspect to pushing myself to the limit that I find hard to shake. And that’s a habit as dangerous as sugar, inertia and excess coffee.
Having read transmedia writer Natacha Guyot’s excellent blog post Be Kind To Yourself I was reminded of how unkind I am to myself, and how I should be nicer. I am a real bitch and slave driver when it comes to myself – as no doubt are many similarly ambitious, driven, focused, Type A’s out there who have taken on the academic challenge and writing as well. Natacha’s post resonated with me!
My second worst habit is going without sleep to fit everything in. My worst habit is my determination to constantly have it all. I don’t want to give anything up and refuse to make compromises with myself; I want the children, career, creative life, intellectual life, and (after rediscovering it again post doc) the social life.
Okay – so the social life tends to fall off first and I drop off the radar when I have a deadline, and then it is sleep that I let slip – I am always reminded that former British Prime Minister the late Margaret Thatcher ran the country on four hours sleep a night – an impressive woman who also had two children, she got a lot done and had high standards of herself and others regardless of what you think of her politics.
The thing is, physically and mentally, what drives us as writers and academics and what is our strength is also our weakness – our ability to focus and concentrate at the exclusion of all else.
It’s no secret that universities are breeding grounds for stimulant abuse, and it’s not partying that’s the reason. It starts with coffee, caffeinated beverages, caffeine tablets and esculates to whatever can be purchased legally or illegally over the counter or over the Internet. I am not condoning the practice – just stating the reality that is well documented on the internet. Perhaps we could even call it the dirty little secret of academic study.
So – post doctorate, how do you come down off the adhrenalin high? Well, for a start, your body just gives up. You get sick. You are in pain. Your body does it for you. That’s the post doc blues. Most people say they look older. Haggard.
And so you rebuild. Slowly. You don’t get away with flogging your body and life mercilessly without pay back. Folks – it’s going to take some time to put Humpy Dumpty back together again. You really do have to submit and then find time to smell the roses. Daydream again. refuel the mind, body and spirit.
I can safely say that after 18 months, I am in recovery. I exercise, go to dance class, I am not in pain, I have lost weight, see my friends, cook for my children, read for pleasure and factor pleasure into my life – and fun. Which is probably why people are starting to comment that it must be time I had a book or two published, isn’t it? After all, what on earth am I doing with my time now I have finished and passed my doctorate?
Yet doctoral study habits are hard to break, and I think that a warped sense of what we should be achieving could be a lasting legacy of higher academic study. I am pretty sure it is yet another thing that sets those with a PhD apart from everyone else.
Stop. Be kind to yourself. Look after your body and your mind, and take a break! You have to make sure that you can last the distance or you won’t be fit to write. Anything.