By Suzie Shapiro, PGR Mental Health Adviser
Undertaking research work is an exciting and fulfilling opportunity; however, it is also likely to be intense and demanding. Often a solitary role, where self-motivation is critical and the supervisor relationship is highly impactful on your experience, life as a researcher can bring context-specific wellbeing and mental health challenges.
Embarking on postgraduate research opens the door to a long-term period of uncertainty, which can be stressful and challenging to navigate, and is often a largely autonomous role requiring a high degree of self-motivation and self-sufficiency, which can intensify difficulties such as perfectionism and procrastination.
When we think about mental health, we often think about particular difficulties such as these, but like our physical health our mental health is on a spectrum. Some days we will feel great, and others less so. Being actively aware of our own wellbeing and mental health and checking in with ourselves often is important, as there are many things that we can proactively do to ensure we keep feeling good and functioning well.
Building our mental health literacy and personal toolkit of skills and strategies can support us to effectively look after our mental and physical health and wellbeing. While it may sound simplistic, putting our mental and physical health first is vital – they are irreplaceable, and, importantly, give us the solid base we need to successfully manage life and work. Taking a proactive approach to our wellbeing can help us to not only to function better on the whole, but also to raise our self-awareness so we can more swiftly notice when things aren’t quite right – for example if we’re becoming more stressed or struggling with anxiety – which then lets us take action quickly to address any difficulties before they worsen.
While we all understand the importance of looking after our physical health, when life becomes more challenging it is often these basics that are pushed to one side to accommodate other demands. Ensuring we keep a focus on the basic building blocks of physical health – hydration, nutrition, rest and movement – will help us maintain our ability to respond to and overcome the challenges of doctoral study.
When the pace picks up and we experience stress, many of us get caught in a cycle of trying to do more and more in an effort to deal with the source of the stress; we can be so busy that we aren’t taking the space and time to check-in with ourselves to see how we are doing. As this escalates it diminishes our reserves further, leaving us still stressed, and now also exhausted.
Given the lack of structure that comes with postgraduate research, it can be easy to start off working at an unsustainable pace with no room to scale up or down – however, we can proactively design routines and ways of working which are sustainable across the longer term. Setting boundaries on working times, managing the expectations of our peers and supervisors (for example when we will and won’t respond to emails) and ensuring we build in rest breaks to replenish and recharge (check out #takebreaksmakebreakthroughs for inspiration!) all help us to create a framework to balance managing our work demands and our own wellbeing.
Building our support network and fostering connections with other researchers can also help to enhance our wellbeing by bringing different perspectives, and it offers opportunities for us to share our own experiences, and help and support others, which we know brings positive wellbeing benefits for both parties. The UofG PGR Twitter feed is a great source of events, from induction activities to walking groups and de-stress sessions. The UofG PGR blog also reminds us that we aren’t alone.
Alongside taking steps to manage our general wellbeing, the particular context of undertaking research can amplify a range of difficulties, which work as barriers to progress, for example feelings of imposterism, perfectionist tendencies or procrastination. Setting realistic expectations for yourself is particularly important in managing your wellbeing; as a researcher, it’s likely you will have high expectations for yourself and you feel these expectations from others, such as your supervisor, peers or family, too.
At the University of Glasgow, we have developed PGR-specific workshops on Overcoming Perfectionism and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, which are designed to offer tools and build participants strategies to manage these challenges; there are also many excellent resources available to help us build the skills we need (see below for some links to resources) to overcome our perfectionism. If this is something you’re struggling with, some initial tips and things to consider are below:
Improve your awareness of your perfectionist tendencies
Getting to know ourselves better is the first step towards making any positive change and taking time to reflect on our perfectionist thoughts and behaviours is crucial. You might try keeping a short diary, noting down when you experience different perfectionist thoughts and how this affects your actions; this will provide a really useful base to allow you to begin altering your ‘self-talk’ and choosing more helpful behaviours.
Set more reasonable standards
As perfectionists, we tend to set extremely high – often unachievable – standards for ourselves; in tackling our perfectionism, we should be mindful of actively setting goals which are more balanced and realistic. The more we develop this ability, the more we lessen the pressure on ourselves; a useful tool here is to picture a sliding scale of quality and consider where you’d place the task at hand – does it require absolute perfection, or would shifting it down the scale to ‘good’ be good enough? Setting ‘success parameters’ before embarking on a task can also be helpful – perhaps talking over with a trusted peer – this can help us know when to let go, and accept a task is complete.
Focus on meaning over perfection
As perfectionists, we tend to focus our attention on the (perceived) quality of our outputs; however, we can aim to shift our focus on to the purpose and meaning of our activities instead; essentially, focussing on the ‘why’ of a task, rather than the perceived quality, helps us adopt a more balanced and fulfilling perspective.
Create space for mistakes
We are all human and mistakes are simply inevitable. Adopting a growth mindset (rather than the more fixed mindset we tend to operate under as perfectionists) will help us to learn and develop, viewing mistakes as opportunities to reflect constructively on our experience and identify opportunities to develop and improve our skillsets and outputs. We can develop our ability to do this in a more comfortable space (rather than work) through taking up a new hobby, and focussing on the experience of developing our skills, rather than aiming for perfection. You might also be mindful on how others deal with mistakes, to see if you can learn from their approach.
Focus on the positives
Striving for continual perfection often means we have a cognitive bias, with our attention naturally shifting towards the issues, mistakes and challenges we encounter, and, ultimately, overlooking the many positives in our life and work. By being conscious of this attention skew we can re-balance our focus of attention through consciously identifying three positives each time we encounter something we’re not quite satisfied with.
If you are finding perfectionism is greatly affecting your ability to feel good and function well, it might be worth considering seeking to learn through therapy. Working with a therapist can help you explore the causes of your perfectionism and develop strategies and tools to help you overcome the difficulties it causes for you.
Although there are many steps we can take to support our mental health and wellbeing, sometimes we might be doing everything we can but still find our ability to function well has become impaired, and we would benefit from some external help. It can feel challenging to reach out for support; we might feel vulnerable or find it tricky to articulate what’s going on for us. There are a wide range of mental health and wellbeing support options available depending on your needs; this support can provide the comfort of a shared experience, help you manage practical challenges affecting your wellbeing or to further build your self-management strategies.
If you are finding any aspect of your research experience challenging, please do reach out – there is a wealth of support available to you to help you any difficulties you are encountering and help you successfully undertake your research role.
- The Wellbeing Thesis
- NHS Mental Health Services
- Centre for Clinical Interventions – Looking After Yourself ‘Overcoming Perfectionism’ resources
- Overcoming Perfectionism by Dr Roz Shafran
- The Imposter Cure by Dr Jessamy Hibberd
- Overcoming Anxiety by Helen Kennerley
- The Worry Cure by Dr Robert Leahy
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Sources of Confidential Support:
If you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing, do make an appointment with your GP (general medical practitioner) to explore support options.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can access urgent support and advice in a arrange of different ways. For immediate support, you can call the following helpline numbers:
- The Samaritans 116 123
- Breathing Space Helpline 0800 83 85 87
If you are unable to keep yourself safe, attend your local Accident and Emergency Department or call 999.
Developing our self-awareness, noticing when things change for our wellbeing and mental health and then taking early action can make a big difference, and stop things from escalating. Your health is worth your attention and effort, so please look out for yourself.