When the Pomodoro technique doesn’t work …

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I soon have to submit some chapters for my first year upgrade review. In fact, they are due this week, so this may be a shorter post than usual! This week, precipitated by this looming deadline and my accompanying feelings of inadequacy, I want to write about PhD anxiety and imposter syndrome. We’ve all read blog articles about these issues, and thanks to social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, acknowledgement of these feelings and peer support are both readily accessible.

But I’ve noticed a funny thing. This week, I’ve been struggling (I mean really struggling!) to write the methodology section of my upgrade chapters. My PhD explores heritage tourism using social science methods and theories, but my academic background is in History. This means that I’ve never written a methodology section before – cue Imposter Syndrome! What I noticed this week is that even though I’ve done plenty of reading, completed ethics forms and even carried out fieldwork over the past year, translating this knowledge into practice and onto the page in the form of an academic methodology is proving very difficult.

It struck me that the same applies to everything I know about looking after my mental health during my PhD. When a big deadline looms, or when we really struggle with something, how many of us find ourselves unable to put what we know into practice? How many of us ignore all of the advice we’ve read, and fall back on the tried and trusted technique we developed during our Undergraduate and Masters degrees – simply trying to power through for however long it takes? Well, that’s what I did anyway.

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Dealing with PhD-related anxiety involves so much caffeine & so much sugar …

Thinking about it, here are some of the strategies which did help when I was feeling overwhelmed. In the midst of such feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, it felt at the time like their effects were limited. That said, my ‘wobble’ lasted about a week, and if I hadn’t done these things I’d probably still be struggling.

  • I spoke to friends and other PhD students about the trouble I was having. Skyping with some other ‘remote’ PhD students on Friday was so reassuring. They shared their own experiences and it was great to have that support and just talk it through with other PhD students who had navigated similar feelings and issues.
  • I used the Pomodoro technique to break down the writing into small, more manageable chunks. This was somewhat useful in helping me to concentrate without getting distracted by all the Fear.
  • I told my supervisor how I was feeling. In response to one of his emails I mentioned that I was struggling to write the methodology section. His response was everything you’d hope for from a supervisor – he responded quickly and offered both reassurance and practical advice. Here’s the thing about imposter syndrome though – even when people tell you that you are a student, that it’s a first draft and that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it can still be hard to shake the feeling that it’s not even decent.
  • I ran. Readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of running as a way to cope with the stresses of PhD life. Last week, I did try to exercise when I was feeling terrible about my PhD work, and it definitely helped. But on days when I was trying desperately to achieve minimum productivity, it was the most difficult thing in the world to step away and do something else, even when I knew it was what I needed.
  • I wrote a list of the things I’ve enjoyed about my PhD over the past year, and reminded myself why I love my research topic.
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This card and motivational pen arrived in the post on a particularly difficult day, sent by another PhD student. I feel lucky to have such a supportive cohort!

These strategies did help, and after working through a PhD weekend and countless pomodoros I now have a draft which, although far from perfect, at least indicates that I’ve made progress over the past year. The experience has shaken me though, as I remember how stressful academic writing is, and how frustrating it can be to spend day after day at my desk without coming any closer to representing my thoughts on paper.

It’s made me realise too, how isolating it is to really feel imposter syndrome and all of the anxiety that comes with it. I definitely don’t feel like I’m in a position to give out lots of advice to others on this topic, but if I was to suggest anything, it would be to talk. Talk to your supervisor and talk to your peers, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s helping at the time. I don’t have all the answers, just a recognition that as PhD students we are all learning to put ideas into practice, and it can be really tough.

If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at joanna.rodgers@uhi.ac.uk, or connect with the blog on Twitter

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