Resilience When Doing a PhD

I’m roughly half way through my second year of my PhD and I have been reading a lot about ‘resilience’ in relation to the factors which can impact the processes of desisting from crime for my doctoral research. Now, without going into a very discipline specific discussion on factors which both support and hinder the processes of desistance, I’ve found that more often than not criminal justice initiatives to support individual’s resilience to avoid reoffending are almost exclusively underpinned with rather responsibilising and individualistic assumptions of how best to offer support. Yet, a wide range of disciplines have now extensively evidenced that structural factors play a momentous role in an individual’s ability to be resilient – whether that’s in relation to my research area, desisting from crime, or quite literally any other challenging circumstance or experience.

It was while reading (and getting increasingly frustrated about) this individualistic construction of how to support desistance from crime that I began to recognise this frustration was not only applicable to my very niche area of study but used in almost all work on resilience and self-care. In fact, very quickly I recognised the parallels between the lack of structural explanations in my research and the majority of training sessions I’ve attended throughout this first year of being a PGR on how to overcome imposter syndrome in academia – or “survive” the PhD as a number of sessions were worryingly called (**cue image of me preparing for war in a rather fetching cargo get up**).

That being said, I don’t want to dismiss or undermine genuine avenues of self-managed care which could help each of us to ‘do’ a PhD and at the very least make it a more manageable and enjoyable journey – in terms of resources for self-care in academia I would recommending reading O’Dwyer (2018). As the daughter of a mindfulness teacher I do genuinely see the value in finding individual ways to help yourself; especially so you know what works best for you for those darker moments when you seriously question if academia is right for you … or in some other way you hit your own figurative ‘wall’. For me, I now know maintaining social connections and genuinely leaning on the amazing network of support I have around me in the form of my colleagues, friends and family has been my absolute life line during this first year of doing the PhD – and even more so during my Masters. In fact, this army of support (** cut to another image of me still in cargo preparing for war **) I have found through the network of PhD peers both within and outside of my own university is something I honestly don’t think is acknowledged or accredited enough in terms of academic resilience!

However, to echo Ungar’s position I think it’s really problematic to conceptualise resilience as this DIY project as most of these, albeit well intentioned, training sessions continually do. Like Ungar (2019, n.p.) argued:

“self-help fixes are like empty calories: The effects are fleeting and often detrimental in the long term. Worse, they promote victim blaming. The notion that your resilience is your problem alone is ideology, not science”

I can promise you, least from my perspective, no amount of yoga or walks in nature will by themselves resolve how overwhelmed we can all feel under the many demands academia often has on our finances, time and emotional energy. And quite frankly I really wish more sessions regarding wellbeing during a PhD acknowledged these structural barriers towards resilience more transparently than they currently do. But even more so, I would really like some suggestions of how we can all – both top down and bottom up –begin to resist these neoliberal cultural pressures which makes resilience in academia so difficult.

Therefore, in the spirit of Maggie Breeze’s (2018) fantastically refreshing work on acknowledging the structural context of imposture syndrome in academia (which I urge you to read if you haven’t yet) I thought it could be useful to create a list of tips and suggestions of how we could all support our collective resilience whilst doing a PhD in purposefully anti-individualistic ways. A list which could go some way to conceptualise this struggle as a public issue rather than a private individual problem … Although if I had enough ideas to create such a list, I probably wouldn’t be writing this particular blogpost on resilience in academia! So instead, I am asking if you can get involved by tweeting me your suggestions using #ResiliencePhDWomen or emailing me for those who don’t have Twitter at j.e.cleary1@stir.ac.uk, so together we can collectively coproduce such a list (which I will compile and share in due course with you all). A list which could, I hope, at least begin to challenge and resist some of this misplaced ‘imposter’ rhetoric with honest conversations about expectations and pressures on those within academia.

I thought I’d start:

  • I would love it if institutionally it was encouraged top down to put a ‘my working hours are 9-5 Monday to Friday and so will reply during these times’ style out of office on our work email accounts #ResiliencePhDWomen

Now over to you …


References:

Breeze, M. (2018) Imposter syndrome as a public feeling. In Taylor, Y. and Lahad, K. Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp. 191-219.

O’Dwyer, S. Pinto, S. and McDonough, S. (2018) Self-care for academics: a poetic invitation to reflect and resist, Reflective Practice, 19 (2), pp. 243-249.

Ungar, M. (2019) Put down the self-help books. Resilience is not a DIY endeavour. The Globe and Mail. Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-put-down-the-self-help-books-resilience-is-not-a-diy-endeavour/?utm_source=facebook.com&fbclid=IwAR0Iwozr0Ehiczi_muGuQCg9nFnkW12g5al07Vmorux9ruLNQ9CTzOzsbNM [Accessed 14th June 2019].


* This is an updated version of the originally post which featured as a guest post on PhD Women Scotland’s blog on June 21 2019

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