PhD survival guide: resilience, resilience, resilience.

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Guest blog by Helen Packer, PhD student

“Success is the ability of going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm”

Winston Churchill

As I entered the new year, and the last few months of my PhD while also facing the challenges that have come with the COVID-19 crisis, I reflected back on the experience to see what I had learned about myself and my ability to deal with difficult times.

When I first decided to do a PhD I was nervous. I was not quite sure why I was doing it and how I would face the obstacles along the way. What I quickly realized was that completing a PhD is not about how smart you are, it is about how resilient you are. Resilience is the ability to get back on your feet after things don’t work the way you wanted or had anticipated. Resilience is a strength that is rooted in your curiosity about the world around you, your passion to make things a little better, the people you surround yourself with and support you and, your ability to slow down, step back and maintain the perspective on the bigger picture. Here are 8 ways I have found help me strengthened and build resilience.

  1. Find and remember your “why”

First and foremost, finding “your why”. That is: your passion. In my case, what I do is guided by my instinctive curiosity for understanding the world around me, my motivation (and optimism!) to make it better, and my concern about people living more harmoniously with each other and the natural environment. While everyone is guided by their own unique motivations, ultimately remembering “your why” as you face setbacks is an immense source of resilience.

  1. Turn failures and criticisms in opportunities to improve and grow

Sometimes it’s hard to stay optimistic both about the world and your ability to do anything about it. Many things will get in your way – the constant bombarding of negative news and sometimes criticisms of your work and approach. Criticisms and a sense of failure can be turned around if you change your perspective and see them as challenges for which you can seek solutions. Focus on how critics make you better about what you do. Remember that (most times) constructive criticisms are not there to stop you, but rather to challenge you and help you improve.

  1. Realize that you are worthy of belonging, no matter your failures

Resilience comes from realizing that you belong, no matter your failures. Unfortunately, we are not always best prepared to face failures and criticisms (which happens sometimes because we are not perfect), because they make us feel like don’t conform to expectations and therefore that we are not good enough to belong to a certain group. This feeling touches the deepest part of our being because feeling like we belong is part of our evolution as a gregarious species. So, when we fail or a criticized, we can develop feelings of low self-worth, insecurity, anxiety and depression.

This is where it’s important to remember that failing is normal and that the standards we are trying to meet (such as those set by academia) should not define whether we are worthy of belonging. We are worthy of belonging simply because we belong to this world and at the end of the day, we are all the same: figuring stuff out and struggling sometimes – what connects us are the challenges and fears we all have as human beings.

  1. Accept your imperfections

Resilience also comes from accepting yourself as imperfect. Especially as we take risks and set ourselves challenges (like a PhD), we are bound to fail along the way. We cannot know or predict everything. We must learn to love and forgive ourselves with all our imperfections. Treat yourself like you treat your friends: with compassion and understanding. And remember the things you are good at, your strengths and qualities like your reliability as a friend, your great cooking skills, your sense of humour etc.

  1. Stay connected with yourself and others

Related to the point above about accepting imperfection, resilience also relies on the ability to be your own best friend by taking time to connect with and care for myself. By that I mean take some time to check-in with yourself and realize how you feel and reflect on why that is. All too often, we fill our lives with busy-ness because it gives us a sense of importance and makes us feel useful. It boosts our ego. But it can mean we don’t take time out to reconnect with ourselves and we ignore how we feel because maybe it’s too painful. But leaving our emotions undealt with will not make them go away but only make it worse, and sometimes results in burnout. So, to reconnect with myself, I like to spend time alone and with family and friends. Find people who listen and who you can talk to about how you feel in a meaningful way. I find that sharing about my struggles can really lighten the load because you realize someone else is probably going or has gone through something, similar which makes you (and them!) feel less alone.

  1. Don’t be afraid to seek advice and help

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you feel stuck in your work. Isolation is the worst and can make you feed lonely. I am not saying one should ask for help every time there’s a little bump in the road – of course you should first try to figure it out by yourself but if you find yourself really stuck – then it’s important to be OK with asking for help. You are still learning and that’s what you are here for – learn from others around you. Sharing and discussing ideas can more often than not help overcome roadblocks. Don’t be afraid to share imperfect work with your mentors, your PhD friends, your supervisor and your committee. Feedback, even if it can feel like criticism, is usually helpful. So, accept that whatever you produce, it will not be perfect! It never is!

  1. Practice mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness (which you can train through meditation) have come in handy for me in building resilience because it helps me calm down and put things in perspective. Meditation is about mindful breathing which means that your sole focus becomes the act of breathing and the sensation of your inbreath and outbreath.

First, meditation brings you back to the present moment and helps you connect with the now, with your body and the wonder of being alive (we don’t even know if that “miracle” could have happened elsewhere!). Second, by focusing on your breath you momentarily stop thinking. In other words, you become free from the incessant thinking, judging and worrying. And in this moment where your thoughts are now longer taking all the space in your mind, you feel calm. Third, meditation also helps practice concentration. It helps cultivate that focus that brings you into the what they call the flow: this feeling that you are completely absorbed by what you are doing now and not thinking about anything else.

  1. Organize yourself!

Find the best way to organize yourself that helps you keep track of the big picture and break it down. For me, this is about setting monthly goals and then weekly and daily tasks. For example, I make lists, prioritize, mark important deadlines in my calendar, keep a notebook to write down my ideas as they arise, etc. Everyone has a different way of organizing themselves, so you have to figure the best way for yourself. I keep a sheet with my yearly goals which I break down in three-month goals. And every week I look at them and make a plan for the week which is sort of my compass for that week. I also keep a daily journal of all the little tasks I need to do and what I’ve done that day which helps me with keeping track of what I need to do and allows me to look back and remind myself I can get stuff done!

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Helen interacting with fishermen in Indonesia

Overall, the PhD is probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do but that’s exactly why it has taught me so much about myself and how to become more resilient. Remember why you are doing it and never stop being kind to yourself.

“No Mud, No Lotus.”

Thich Nhat Hanh


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