What makes postgraduate mental health fragile and what can we do about it?

Sometimes a topic deserves more than 500 words.  Following Mental Health Awareness Week last week, Bianca Diaconu, a PGR in Psychology, reviews the stressors which make PGRs vulnerable to poor mental health, and looks at ways to address these, in the first of our “in depth” posts.

March 2019 marked the beginning of a strenuous period for the entire world. Everyone was urged to adapt to an extremely disruptive way of working and for the PGR community, this disruption brought even more pressure. Considerable evidence showed that PhD researchers are 3 times more likely to experience mental health problems compared to the general population, with 48% considering leaving and 60% suspending their doctoral studies (Evans et al., 2018). Needless to say, the pandemic has only accentuated this tendency, making it imperative that the matter is no longer overlooked.

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Spotlight on the RDF: “Teaching”

In one of our occasional series of “Spotlight on…” posts, we take a closer look at a specific descriptor from the RDF. Each one of the sixty-three descriptors in Vitae‘s Researcher Development Framework (RDF) is a characteristic of an excellent researcher, and we’ll be looking at how UoB PGRs can develop these characteristics.

From talking to PGRs, it’s clear that many view teaching as an important supplement to research activity. The extra money is always useful, and teaching is also about developing skills for the future, both specific (teaching in higher education) and transferable (organisation, communication, leadership, problem-solving, and more). However, in UK higher education, and particularly in a research-led institution like the University of Birmingham, research and teaching are inextricably linked, with each feeding off the other to the benefit of both. Whether you have the time or the inclination to accept a postgraduate teaching assistant position or not, it’s worth reflecting on the role of teaching within your research activity.

Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com
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3 lessons we can all take from 3MT

It’s nearly my favourite time of year! The University of Birmingham 3 Minute Thesis competition is coming up, and I really, really love it. It’s the point in the year where some of UoB’s brilliant PGRs share their research and their enthusiasm for it in three-minute presentations, and it always gets me how interesting and impactful all the research is and how engaging our PGRs are.

The UoB 3MT 2021 winner

If you want to participate in this year’s 3MT competition, there’s still time to sign up – the deadline for expressions of interest is Sunday 10 April. However, there are three key lessons I think all researchers can learn from 3MT, whether or not they participate.

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Step away from the screen

I have a friend who routinely gives up social media for her Lenten sacrifice. While I would find it a bit extreme to give up all social media (either temporarily or permanently), I do find myself admiring her ability to switch it all off a little wistfully. Some days it feels like I spend the whole time simply switching from one screen (laptop) to another (phone) to another (TV) before sleep, only to start again with another screen first thing the next morning. And when there’s so much distressing news coming through all online channels, we can all be prone to a bit of doomscrolling, even though we know it’s not helping (us or anyone else).

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So maybe this is a good time to think about changing our habits to get away from the glare of the screen and/or the distractions which come with being always connected. No doubt both our eyes and wellbeing will thank us! Here are some actions I have found particularly useful for this.

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Academia & Entrepreneurship: what it’s like to run a business while doing your PhD

Frankie Lewns, a PGR in the School of Dentistry, and Paris Lalousis, a PGR in the School of Psychology, have started a business alongside their research programme. In this post, they share the secrets of their success! For more from Frankie and Paris, register for the next UGS Talks: Postgrads Being Enterprising.

It all started with the opportunity to solve a real-life challenge for a client through the University of Birmingham Virtual Consultancy Challenge, an online training programme and competition for Postgraduate Researchers. Our client was the Centre for Mental Health, and our challenge was to find a policy or practice to help small businesses support and improve their employee’s mental wellbeing. Upon winning the challenge, we decided to further develop the idea and cue the birth of Bloomwise! We help businesses create a space where their workers’ mental health can flourish, and our mission is to instil a fundamental cultural change for mental health in communities. We do this by providing a Mental Health Plan™ for businesses and workshops for both businesses and communities. The Mental Health Plan™ can be thought of like a business plan, but instead of business objectives, aims and goals – it’s all things mental health. We want to address the stigma around poor mental health at work, encouraging open and honest conversations about mental health in the workplace.

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Anything but daunting (once the viva started)

Diana Oliveira, a PGR from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, passed her viva before Christmas, and shares her experience and advice with us here. Congratulations to Diana!

Throughout my PhD, I have always been intrigued about the viva experience. Questions such as “Will I be able to remember all the details of my thesis to answer the examiners’ questions? What if what I have done is not to the examiners’ satisfaction?” did linger in my head, especially during the months prior to the viva. Regardless, the day where you finally defend your research is something to look forward, and such an experience stays with you forever.

Diana is pictured sitting at a table in a restaurant with a glass of sparkling wine and a cake which says "Parabens Dr Diana".
Diana celebrating her viva success with her family.

My viva happened during the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, in December 2021. The prospect of doing it online had never occurred to me before, but after almost two years of this pandemic, remote working and virtual meetings were the “new normal”. During my thesis submission, I was not sure if an online viva would be better or worse than an in-person experience; in fact, I had heard pros and cons of doing an online viva, so I was determined to not let myself be biased and approach it with an open mindset.

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Do you really have imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon as it was called when it was first identified, is described as an experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities. It seems like everyone is talking about it in academia these days, and perhaps because of this, the term is becoming diluted and in many ways, no longer meaningful.

Photo credit: wolfgangfoto

I have heard imposter syndrome used to describe emotions from perfectly normal nerves before an important presentation, to recurring panic attacks and sleeplessness, and everything in between. Every PGR experiences nerves, uncertainty and doubt. This is completely normal, and in many ways, to be encouraged – postgraduate research is all about getting out of your comfort zone, trying new things, and exploring new ideas. It’s not easy, and if you’re sailing through without feeling challenged, you’re probably doing it wrong. We should absolutely be talking about the difficulties and doubts associated with a postgraduate research programme, but we should stop calling it “imposter syndrome”. It’s normal.

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Celebrating the Lunar New Year, connecting with the PGR Community

This 1st February will be the Lunar New Year’s Day, a major festival that will be celebrated in most East Asian countries. In this post, Buxi Duan, an international PGR in the Department of English Literature and a Westmere Scholar, shares his recollections and expectations.

Speaking of the upcoming Lunar New Year/Chinese New Year, most of my friends are planning to celebrate it by having a good dinner and FaceTiming with their parents. Similar to Christmas, Lunar New Year also means family reunion. However, I’ve never thought that this would be my fourth Lunar New Year in the UK.

Lunar New Year decorations at the Arcadian Centre in Birmingham.
Photo credit: Tony Hisgett
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Well, hello 2022

Happy New Year! And here we are in 2022, the third calendar year in which we are experiencing a global pandemic. The Omicron variant has moved the goalposts yet again, but excellent research has given us effective testing and vaccines to help us navigate our way through as best we might.

Happy New Year 2022

As usual at this time of year, the media is full of resolutions, diets, and gym memberships. Despite everything that’s going on, it seems we are expected to embark on a (short?) period of stringent self-improvement. If that works for you, then great – good luck! Personally, I find that January, with still only around 8 hours of daylight in Birmingham and the house full of left-over Christmas chocolate, is a terrible time to consider that type of thing. Instead, I prefer to focus on identifying some milestones (personal and professional) that I hope to achieve during the year.

A milestone is a major progress point on a route to success. It’s usually relatively substantial – it might take a decent amount of time or energy – and represents a step worth celebrating towards your overall goal. In a research context, a milestone might be completing a literature review, collecting the last of your data, or getting a thesis chapter signed off by your supervisor. In an ideal world, we might set out a project plan and timescale to achieve these milestones but to my mind, the start of January is for reflecting, choosing the most valuable milestones and laying the groundwork. Detailed project planning is best achieved at the time it’s most appropriate in the context of your project (at the start, when you’ve achieved a milestone, when things start to slip, and so on) rather than at a rather arbitrary change of the calendar.

Wishing you a healthy, productive and successful year in 2022.

A novel way to spend Christmas

With a lot of talk at the moment about the Omicron variant, reduced socialising, and potential lockdowns, it may be tempting to consider continuing with research work over the 2021 Christmas vacation and University Closed Period.

In this video, Professor Vikki Burns recalls advice given to her by her PhD supervisor in the first year of her PhD:

So wherever you are this Christmas period, and whoever you do manage to see, make sure you are taking time away from your research, tell yourself you should not be working at this time, and find something completely different to do. If you want to take Vikki’s supervisor’s advice literally, there are novels available to borrow from the Main Librarytry some from this list.

Remember, #takebreaksmakebreakthroughs. Prioritise coming back to your work in January refreshed and revitalised, and ready to take on 2022.

Helen Kara

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