Falling sick during a Ph.D. is one of the most frustrating things. Unavoidable and completely out of our control, but the fact is sometimes the body just gets tired. Short term loss of sleep and short periods of heavy mental work can lead to fatigue. Chronic fatigue symptoms are similar to the flu and can last for up to six months More Here
When you have article deadlines, teaching duties and data analysis to conduct, falling sick is the last thing you need. Usually, the remedy required is bed rest and lots of relaxation time. How does one cope with this?
Get rid of the guilt. I know the pressure to want to work will be great, but you are probably falling sick because of overworking and stress. Learning to let go has been the biggest challenge for me. I was feeling guilty because my to-do-list was getting longer every day I was cooped up in bed. I just had to tell myself that the work will not go anywhere, it will be there when I get back. My health is more important.
Run your own race. You will be tempted to think that you are going to lag behind all your colleagues just because you took a week off work to recuperate. I had to remind myself that I am not running a race. The work I am doing is my own and if I fall behind, it is behind my own schedule. Try to control the need to compare yourself with others. It just adds more stress when what you need to be doing is getting better.
It happens to everyone. You are not the first or the last to fall sick. This happens to all of us, as long as we are human. Sometimes we exert too much pressure on our bodies and we get sick as a result. I have learned to take better care of myself, knowing that I am responsible for my health. When my body needs rest, I comply with it instead of pushing it beyond its limits.
Rest is needed for productivity. Killing yourself with work is not smart. Yes, the schedule is full and there are lots of expectations on your time. But, learning to rest in between will actually boost your productivity. Working for long hours without a break is only going to make you lose focus. I learned to do the pomodoro technique when I am reading More Here. It has helped me to work smarter, not harder.
It has been a while since I came on this blog to write about my life trials, successes, inspirations, and reflections. It has been a crazy few months owing to the mental task I put on myself, that is pursuing a Ph.D. My life has been far from normal and at times, clearing my head long enough to write my thoughts down has been a draining task on its own. I just couldn’t do it.
Today, my mental state has once again brought me back to these pages. I remember when I started this blog in 2012, I was seeking an escape from my emotionally draining social work job. Six years later, I find myself needing a mental escape from my draining Ph.D. journey. Life does seem to go round in circles and I find myself in the same place I started.
A Ph.D. is the most isolating, mentally draining, intellectually challenging endeavor I have ever done. Granted, when you think of adding those three letters after my name (Getrude Gwenzi, Ph.D.) it sounds exciting and when the end is near you can smell the success and feel you made an achievement. But the mental strain that comes hand in hand with this process is something I have had to contend with. No one told me any of this before I started. I am in no way trying to discourage others from attempting a Ph.D. This is why I am going to turn this seemingly pessimistic post into some advice for those who wish to pursue a Ph.D.
This advice is based on the lessons I have learned myself and things I really wish someone had told me before I started. I am embarking on the 3rd and final year of mine so the following advice comes from 2 years of experience as a Ph.D. student (however, do take it with a pinch of salt, my experiences might be different from yours) :
Lesson 1: The environment you decide to do your Ph.D.in is very important
Friends, I cannot emphasize this enough! When making the selection of which university you want to pursue your research degree, it is very very important to consider the local environment in which that university is located. I came to Hong Kong which is a culturally very different environment. This made my adjustment relatively less smoother compared to if I had moved to an environment in which I was already used to the culture. Going through a culture shock can be tough for your academic process because the language, your ability to integrate with the locals as well as your social life all depend on this cultural environment. When doing a Ph.D., the last thing you need to be worrying about is the way people around you are reacting to your presence or how they are treating you. This adds unnecessary strain. So, please do a bit of research on the culture, ask yourself if you are open-minded enough to live with different people; research the chances of you having a social life (friends, significant others, dating if you are single) because all this becomes important when dealing with the extremely difficult task of doing a Ph.D. I am also far away from all my family and friends, so I have had to make new friends and find alternative “families”. If you are spiritual, find out if there is a church you can go to. Will you be free to practice your religion? Will you find a community to fellowship with? Again, this is relative, but it may be important for your adjustment and ultimately your ability to focus and thrive on your work.
Lesson 2: If you have unresolved mental health issues, it might be best to seek counseling for them before attempting a Ph.D.
As I said above, doing a Ph.D. is in itself a mentally challenging thing. You constantly have to second guess yourself and the #impostersyndrome Definition is always there to remind you that you are not as good as you once thought you were. If you have a supportive advisor, you may be satisfied with your progress, but this is not always the case. So, when things get tough, you don’t want to be having multiple mental issues at the same time. See below for an accurate description of the Ph.D. journey:
I recently learned that past mental issues may resurface if not dealt with because I am pressed and stretched to the limit, anything can make me cry at this point. Your mental health becomes one of the most important things in life. If you are already struggling with depression and low self-esteem, for example, this becomes extremely difficult so please do seek help. A friend of mine recently told me this and I think it is really valuable.
Lesson 3: A support system is not only key but may be the difference between sailing through and quitting.
If you are like me, you would be the type of person who is stubborn and likes to do it on their own; the type that never asks for help or rely on people. However, this Ph.D. journey will humble you in a way that you realize you cannot be on your own. The whole experience is already isolating enough with the fact that there are not many people doing what you are doing, which makes it hard to find people who can relate to you. It is still crucial to find a small group or even one person you can talk to and really be honest about your feelings with. Most PhDs find it difficult to relate to non-academic people, which makes it difficult to find this circle. My advice is that most research students are just as lonely and will probably appreciate the chance to have someone they can talk to or do non-research stuff with. Also, find a research network near you for support (I will write more on this in a later post).
For now, I will end with these three lessons which in my opinion are the most important. Of course, there are other issues such as financial and academic support, which will all differ according to the kind of offer you get at the university. I am still dealing with my own mental state 2 years into my Ph.D. and it does not get any easier. These three lessons have really opened my eyes to what is really important when doing a Ph.D. and I thought I should share.
Please share with someone who might be thinking of doing a Ph.D. and save a life :).
I am sitting in the airport lounge, fighting back tears. I hate goodbyes…
Still can’t believe six months went by so fast. I am now convinced that it is better to stay away from home than to go home and have to leave again. And this is coming from a self-confessed unsentimental (antonym of sentimental) person.
For a bit of background for the new readers (Welcome btw👋): I traveled from Hong Kong to my motherland, Zimbabwe in July 2017 and stayed there for the past six months. The purpose of my trip home was to carry out fieldwork for the Ph.D. project I have been working on since 2016. So, after spending months at home with my mother, making new friends and spending time with old ones; I had to leave all of that behind and come back to Hong Kong.
Highlights of my time at home:
a) This might be surprising but I love my home country Zimbabwe so much. It was such an exciting time to be home when Robert Mugabe finally resigned from being President after 37 years in office. I am the least political person you will ever meet, but the month of November 2017 was a great time in Zimbabwean politics.
b) My sister came to visit me from Cape Town. My sister is my best friend, so you can just imagine how that week when she visited made me feel. I had last seen her in 2014 when I left Cape Town so this was a lovely reunion.
c) I spent Christmas at home with my mother and it was an unforgettable time. Anyone who knows me knows that this woman is my rock, my everything. Since the passing of my dad last year, I cherish every moment I spend with her even more. She is more than a parent, she is a friend, a confidant… I run out of words to express how I feel.
d) I also celebrated the start of the new year 2018 at home. New Year’s day is special because it also happens to be the day I was born, so spending it at home was something I will always cherish. I am a year older, hopefully, wiser.
As I reflect back to my time in Zimbabwe, I feel that there will be no place like home. I can travel to many countries but home will always have a special place in my heart.
It has a different feel to it, full of childhood and teenage memories; full of hope and laughter. It makes me sad to know that I will not be going back until this Ph.D. is over…and that, my friends, is a long time from now. I hold on to the beautiful memories of the time spent at home. P.S: I have too many pictures from my time at home, they would need ten other blog posts. So, please don’t feel bad if I took a picture with you and it is not in this post.
I was greeted by warm weather when I arrived in Hong Kong, but it’s cold again because it’s winter here in Hong Kong. Winter in Hong Kong is between December-February with average temperatures of between 16 ° and 20 ° Celsius. This is mild compared to other winters I have experienced. I am currently having trouble sleeping because my body still needs to adjust to the time difference.
On a positive note, I have lots to catch up on with my Hong Kong family of friends, lots of things to look forward to and lots of opportunities for new beginnings.
Let’s see how this year goes. I will surely update you guys 😉
This post is dedicated to my most recent escape to the Namibian desert.:) I decided to take a quick break from my stressful fieldwork and travel to Namibia for a week. I am grateful for the chance to go where I want to go when the mood strikes. I will be the first to say my life hasn’t always been this flexible and I do not take it for granted.
My plan was to go camel-riding and quad-biking in Swakopmund, and I got to do just that. The experience was surreal. I still haven’t found the right words to describe how I felt riding atop the majestic animal known as the camel. I was scared at times, thinking at any moment, the animal could just take off running with me. Thank God, they are well-trained and did not take off running.
The quad-biking was just pure adrenaline. As we went up and down the sand dunes, it felt like I was flying. Nothing I have experienced so far can compare to that (trust me, I have been bungy-jumping and it still doesn’t compare).
I also got to spend some priceless moments with old friends and some new friends I met in Namibia during my trip.
I went there drained, close to research burn-out, and I came back rejuvenated. The most important moments for me were the moments of quiet, where I was alone with my thoughts and facing the beauty of God’s work. The sea and the expanse of the desert, stretching to God-knows-where, did wonders for my soul. You just need to experience it for yourself, because words will not suffice.
My life has been amazing so far. I have experienced exhilarating pleasure in different places and I know there will be more after this. I am the kind of person that lives for moments like these. My life is far from perfect, but give me a new destination and some free time, and I am ALIVE. What traveling to a new destination does for me can only be compared to the feeling of a child opening a new toy. I don’t even need people to validate my experience or be with me in that moment. Leave me on an island, or desert (after this experience) and I am all good.
Do travel when you get the chance. It’s amazing.
I am back to reality now, in Zimbabwe continuing work on my project. But, I came back with a new energy and it is because I dared to take a few days off. And trust me when I say everything else can wait. Your mental and spiritual health is important.
If you want to know more about the places I visited in Namibia (restaurants and the like), drop me a message. It is a lovely place to visit and the people are so friendly. Transport is easily available and the locals try to converse in English with visitors. You will not feel lost in Namibia.
Some of you may know that I am in the data collection phase of my doctoral project. I am working on children living in institutional care and care leavers, in particular, how they construct the meaning of family in the context of family separation. Before I began my fieldwork, I was positive I would get the research participants I needed and I followed all the necessary procedures of gaining access. I anticipated some challenges since research is never a straight-forward process, neither is anything where you have to deal with human participants. However, some challenges are more difficult to deal with than others and I will detail these below:
Dealing with gatekeepers
My research project involves minors (children) who are also vulnerable. They live in institutions where they are wardens of the state, which means they fall under state protection. Dealing with government departments is not the easiest thing to do because of bureaucratic procedures. It took longer than I anticipated to gain the access that I needed into the children’s homes, and even then, the access came with strict conditions that are affecting my data collection process. In the end, I am doubting my decision to include this group. The care leavers, who are over 18 can give their own consent, which is less of a headache, although they are a hard to track group.
Research is a process that has a time limit. Everything has a deadline, depending on funds and project requirements. When everyone takes their time to respond to requests for appointments and meetings, they do not take heed of this fact. It is so frustrating, but unavoidable. You have to meet people at their convenience and some people are not nice enough to bother rescheduling when they have missed an appointment. It is up to me to make the 100th follow-up (the exaggeration is necessary, trust me).
Explaining my failures to my supervisors
This is by far the hardest thing for me to do. I struggle with admitting where I have tried something and it has failed. I take it as a complete failure on my part, which is hard to swallow. As a self-confessed perfectionist, I am really struggling to detail my failures during my fieldwork. I know I must learn to do this because they are part of the process. But, I hate failing so much I wish I could document win after win, and not a single failure.
Coming home to my family after an exhausting day
I am living with my mother and nephew at the moment during this fieldwork. I miss the days when I can lock myself up in my room after a bad day because I don’t have to explain to anyone how I am feeling. Now that I am home, I have to discuss my day and discuss other people’s days as well. I have to be sensitive to the needs of those around me, even though I may not feel like it sometimes. The other day, I loved having the support system of my family and friends after a particularly tough day in the field. So, it does have its merits. But sometimes, I am not up to socializing at all and this is hard to explain to loved ones.
All in all, this process has its rough days. I am soldering on nonetheless and this moment of reflection helps me to keep things in perspective. I am aware that my mental health is of utmost importance during this Ph.D. but I am not always able to deal with the challenges I am facing. Writing about it sure does help…
It is one thing to be dedicated to your tasks and making sure you put in the hours, and it’s another thing to not know when those tasks have become too much. I recently had to ask myself hard questions about my “work ethic”. Do I know when to stop? Do I know when to say no to some projects?
I almost cried tears of frustration after realizing iv been doing too much with little results. I quickly realized that I have been working hard, but not working smart. I really got to understand what the term “rat race” actually means:
The sad thing is I work from home and that means I created my own rat race. I have been working against the clock trying to get academic papers published, do fieldwork for my Ph.D. project, build up my consultancy and, and, and. It is a lot, I finally admit.
Here are some signs that you are taking on too much (from my own experience)
you are always exhausted
you dread waking up to start the same routine
you become dependent on some sort of mood-altering substance (caffeine, alcohol) under the guise of “coping” or “getting through the day”
when people ask you what you have been up to, you always say “working”
I thought the more tasks I have, the more productive I am being. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had to admit that feeling tired, frustrated and almost always overwhelmed is not making my work any lighter or my life any easier. Risking my mental and physical health in the name of work is also not anything I want to do. This realization was a turning point for me last week. I decided to take a break for the whole weekend and take stock of what is important. Yes, I am still going to be busy this week, but I am pacing myself. Work is good, but it must not kill me in the process.
For those who are new to the blog, let me start with a little introduction…I am a Ph.D. student, about to begin my second year. I study Sociology and Social Policy with a focus on childhoods and families. I am currently at home, in Zimbabwe, for my field work (data collection).
Being back home means adjusting to a new schedule. When I was back on campus in Hong Kong, I set my own time and I really thought I was managing quite well (if my 1st-year annual evaluation is anything to go by). But, since I came home to begin the practical part of my work, I feel so overwhelmed with the amount of work that is facing me daily.
I chose to live with my mum for the duration of my field visit. Now all my Zimbabweans know how a Zimbabwean mother’s household is run. There is no excuse for not waking up at first light to clean the house and run some errands, before anything else. I am a bit of a nocturnal animal, in that, I work better at night. This means I struggle to wake up early, my mornings usually start around 10 am, and I still need lots of caffeine to be fully functional. So when I realized I was waking up exhausted most mornings, I started negotiating with the matriarch of the house to cut me some slack in the mornings so I can focus on the Ph.D. What a laugh!!! She told me point blank that I just need to wake up much earlier and I will be able to manage everything. In her words,
mukadzi anomuka makuseni, basa remumba first, then you can do whatever you want during the day” which translates to “A woman wakes up in the morning, house chores first then you can do whatever you want during the day”.
I had almost forgotten that to my mum I am always a wife in training (sigh). So, you see my predicament? I have academic work piling up and I have to balance it with all my other responsibilities as a daughter. I never thought I would say this, but I am realizing how hard that is. In my own world (which seems a bit selfish now), it was all about me, me, me. Now I have to stretch myself to make this work, which is a challenge at the moment.
Guess the lesson here is that I have to find balance, in all things. I am not sure how, but I have to. If you have any tips, please drop them below…