Thursday, 30 April 2020

Making peace with uncertainty… and getting your PhD done, too (Laena D'Alton)

Photo by Toa Heftiba | unsplash.com


I have a chronic illness, so I always knew that my PhD journey would be difficult.

I commenced my candidature four years ago and, since then, there have also been heartbreaking bereavements and other medical issues. I’ll be honest. My PhD has been the easiest part of my PhD journey.

And now there’s COVID-19.

We are all living in a new world of limitations, with a loss of freedom, lack of control, and bucket-loads of uncertainty. We are all concerned about the present. How do we survive physically, emotionally and financially? How do we support others?

At the same time, we fear for the future. What will it look like? Will we be able to graduate or get a job?

The burden of all these unknowns is exhausting. But, as a chronically ill person, I am very well acquainted with feelings of limitation and uncertainty. I have lived with them for years.

Many chronically ill people take things a day, an hour, or a minute at a time. Sometimes, simply being is enough to manage, and that’s ok.

Here are some tips that have helped me throughout my PhD journey and my journey with chronic illness. Perhaps they might help you too.

Acknowledge it’s hard

Accepting that times are tough is the first step toward making peace with the new reality. Acceptance doesn’t happen overnight. It can be a long journey marked by days where it feels easier, and others where it feels impossible. Sometimes, the best we manage doesn’t feel enough, and it’s easy to get discouraged. It is OK to feel whatever you are feeling.

Build self-awareness

Self-awareness pays dividends. There are many ways to build awareness, including chats with friends, letting your thoughts wander and practising mindfulness. Awareness helps us to identify what is causing us stress and why we feel that way. We can then start to think about things differently, to reframe the disappointments as opportunities for growth, to consider what self-care strategies might be appropriate, and to identify where we need help.

Get support

Don’t go through this alone. Family, friends, colleagues or professionals will be there to support you. Whether it’s practical help, emotional support, or advice, it’s OK to ask for help. Take full advantage of the many resources provided by La Trobe, including counselling, careers advice, and planning with supervisors and the GRS. If there are hard decisions to make, it’s important not to face them alone.

Revise expectations

COVID-19 has brought a heightened level of ‘background’ stress that erodes our energy and brain-space. Consider this when you place expectations on yourself about productivity and PhD (or indeed any research) progress.

Keep expectations sustainable, flexible and kind. Goals, for example, are useful but may need to be revised due to factors that are out of our control. It can be beneficial to think about them as guidelines and not must-have destinations. In the words of Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

Practise self-care

All the standard self-care tips help. Exercise, good food, spending time with people (however that looks at the moment), fun, laughter and so on. Self-care may need some tweaking to make it COVID compliant, and it will look different for every individual. Sometimes, when you’re overwhelmed, your normal self-care routine might feel temporarily ineffective. Regardless, it’s important to keep practising it because, eventually, you will feel the effects.

Perhaps the most important thing of all is to rest, and in greater quantities than might usually be needed. Rest helps us to recharge physically, emotionally and mentally, and face life’s difficulties. That doesn’t mean that every day is a brilliant day, but it can make bearing the difficult days a little easier.

Reflect

Life-changing events have a way of forcing us to think about what really matters to us. Perhaps set aside some time to think about your priorities in this changed world. Consider what you can control (your behaviour, attitudes, actions, ideas, fun and how you invest your time), and what you can’t (how long this will last, the impact, and the actions of others).

It can be beneficial to practise gratitude, too. This can help us to build a growth mindset, which helps us to grow into more rather than retreat into less.

Find encouragement

Remember that you have strengths, and you are learning and growing, especially during these difficult times. It’s easy to feel discouraged, but it helps to remember that a lot of life’s lessons are learnt in little steps taken each day, not big events. Try listing some of the ways that you have grown and be encouraged by your growth.

You are not the same person as when you started your PhD journey. The same will be said for COVID-19. You’ll grow as a person.

Just as your research is unique, so is your journey. And if you take it a small step at a time, that’s OK. As the saying goes, “Little by little, one travels far.”

Resources

Other posts by Laena on RED Alert


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Laena D’Alton is a PhD researcher in Chemistry in La Trobe's Institute for Molecular Sciences (LIMS).

Her project is on developing low-cost disease diagnostics. She is also a communications assistant to Dr Giselle Roberts. 

Laena loves all things creative (and chocolate).

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