Managing stress and creating community (Wen Cotter)

From L-R: Aylwen Cotter (President ABSS). Rachel Davis (Vice President ABSS), Kellie Maybery-Reupert (Secretary ABSS) and Laura Steel (Treasurer ABSS)

For many graduate researchers, doing a Masters or PhD is a rollercoaster ride of emotions, wins and losses, sleep deprivation and aiming to be fantastic at time management. However, under the confident surface of most faces is self-doubt, stress and the feeling of being an imposter.

The organising committee for the Agribio Student Society (ABSS) are all very familiar with this and started using their connection to each other as a method of sharing these experiences. I remember asking one of the other committee members ‘how do you know you are doing enough for your PhD?’. I was really stressed that I wasn’t where I should be, or doing all that I should be. She suggested creating a diary - not one to look at week to week as a guide of progress but to look back on over a month. I did this and the diary has helped me with so many other issues such as planning experiments, listing upcoming tasks to ensure I don’t forget them and also as tool to see just how far I have come.

Realising that our committee can’t be the only ones feeling like this, and with the funding support of the Intellectual Climate Fund (ICF), we convened a stress management workshop for our community of researchers.

The goals of the stress management workshop were to create awareness that mental health is very important and provide helpful self-care strategies. We also wanted to provide an opportunity to develop a supportive network of like-minded people who understood these issues, one that was open to anyone and everyone.

Being from an agricultural science background, the ABSS asked for the help of the Strategy Prevention and Education Team here at La Trobe for some guidance on the most relevant information for students for mental health and wellbeing. They provided us with two wonderful speakers, Kellie Muir and Rose Wimbush, whose breadth of knowledge guided us towards areas we could relate to. They were easy to approach for questions, too!

The event was divided into two sections. The first being the workshop and the second being a networking meet-and-greet. The second part was catered by Caffeine, a café in the Agora at La Trobe. The organising committee were blown away by the positive feedback from attendees as they circulated the room, introducing themselves and starting to create that supportive local network of fellow researchers. Many were comfortable talking about their experience, mental health and challenges they have faced. It was refreshing. The ABSS Treasurer, Laura Steel, gave a quick talk about her experiences during her PhD to conclude the event. Laura’s talk helped open up the discussion and made things more relatable to the participants, connecting with the topics discussed by the guest speakers.

Event participants left with a small token from the day in the form of a stress ball or bracelet. These served as reminders that, as researchers, we’re not alone. There is a community of like-minded people out there and we can reach out if we need it. Kellie and Rose sent us links about the support networks available to everyone here at La Trobe University, in case you’d like to know more.

As President of ABSS, it was great to be part of this project. It provided our graduate researchers with a learning and community-building opportunity. As someone who’s doing my PhD and as prone to stress as anyone else, this event really made me see that I need to tailor my PhD to my needs if I’m to get the most out of it. I don’t need to push through all the time. It’s good to take the time to evaluate and decide what will work best for me to get the job done - and that might not be a 9-5 work day!

La Trobe University links from the Stress Management Workshop:

Links to a couple of techniques outlined by the speakers during the workshop:

Understanding how feelings and emotions like anxiety can create more anxiety


Aylwen (Wen) Cotter is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University in the Animal, Plants and Soil Sciences department. Her research focusses on early detection of fungal pathogens for agricultural crops.

She is currently the President of the Agribio Student Society (ABSS) and dog crazy. 

You can find Wen on LinkedIn here