Staying Yourself: How Not to Lose Sight of Who You Are Beyond Your PhD

Research is a time- and mind-consuming activity, and it is easy to lose sight of things that matter to you, and that are not related to the PhD. Maria shares her tips for staying yourself and maintaining your wellbeing as a PhD student…

PhDs can be a lonely, alienating affair. Anyone who’s ever embarked onto such a thing can surely agree that at one point or another on their PhD journey they felt alone and rather isolated, just them and their research, trapped in a world of deadlines and impostor syndrome. Unfortunately, research degrees are like that: you work and work, usually on your own, stuck at home, in the library, or in your office, until you start worrying about how terrible your performance is, then you keep on worrying and worrying about this and that until you can’t work anymore, yet you still try to push yourself to do your research. Trapped in a context like this, it’s easy to lose sight of yourself as a person independent from your academic work. Your PhD starts to define you and, sure enough, your academic work is legitimate part and parcel of who you are now. The catch, however, is that, when you hit upon difficult times in your PhD – and this will almost inevitably happen to everyone – your work will have taken over your entire sense of self, so you’ll no longer have much to fall back on, a safety net of non-academic interests to cushion you and help you relax and recover. Fear not, though! There are ways of keeping in touch with who you are beyond your academic persona, and I’m going to share with you some of the ones that have worked for me throughout my PhD journey. Without further ado, here are my top three things to do to stay human:


1) Keep a journal. This might be something you haven’t done since your embarrassing teenage days, but, trust me, it will help. For one, it’s a place where you can vent all your anger and frustration safely and freely. More importantly, however, it forces you to reflect on how each day has gone, and so helps you to identify all the small, but meaningful or surprising things that happen in your life all the time, things that otherwise you would gloss over and forget. Also, if you’re someone like me, who revels in synaesthesia, then writing in a journal will help you relax in a physical way, too: smelling the pages, feeling the texture of the cover, writing with different kinds of ink, or maybe even doodling randomly can help you destress and stay focused.

2. At the beginning of each academic term schedule some non-academic activities that you enjoy, write them down in your diary, and stick to them for the following months. This is a practice that I find particularly important. We all write down the dates of our scheduled supervisions, of the conferences and skills workshops we want to attend, but we don’t necessarily commit to non-academic activities in the same rigorous way, which is a mistake. If, say, you enjoy singing and have found a choir that you’d like to join, it’s not enough to just file it away in your memory and say you’ll attend the choir’s meetings ‘if you can spare the time’. You must make the time, or else it might never happen, and you’ll end up forgetting you ever even enjoyed singing. To avoid that, first decide on two or three hobbies that you’d like to prioritise. Then, do a little research and see if there are any regular events or activities on campus or in the area where you live that match your interests. If there aren’t any, organize some. Write down all the relevant dates in your diary, and stick to them. Trust me, not only will this ensure that you keep your human side, and get better at doing what you like, but you’ll also make loads of new friends, which is great, because we all need a casual support network outside of our work environment.


3. Look after a small living thing, be it a pet or a plant, or both. That helps take your mind off your worries, if even for a little while, yet keeps you responsible, and gives a lot of satisfaction in the long run. Pets aren’t allowed on campus, and a lot of landlords will not allow them, either, but nobody can tell you not to keep a houseplant. And if that plant is a garden herb, even better! Pots of herbs are cheap to buy, and you’ll always have a fresh supply of basil/rosemary/thyme/parsley etc. on hand! (Pro tip: buy the discounted pots from Tesco: they’re discounted because they’ve reached their ‘sell by’ date and have been left to wilt, but all they need is a little bit of water, and they’ll regain their vigour in no time!)

Do you have any particular strategy for not losing sight of your non-academic identity? Please do share it, I would love to hear what other PhDs do outside of their research!

Text and image credits: Maria Cohut

Maria Cohut is currently completing her PhD on nineteenth-century literature and visual art, and is based in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. Aside from her academic work, she runs a creative writing group for PhDs and early career people. Her hobbies include learning new languages, collecting old photographs, and taxidermy. You can tweet her at @mariascohut. 

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