Navigating Hyphenation and Mental Health

In this final blog post for Mental Health Awareness Month, Alix Gallagher writes about compartmentalisation of the many, varied roles we often find ourselves engaged in while we’re conducting PhD research. She looks at some practical ways in which she has been able to divide those roles and prioritise, especially during a part-time PhD.

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Being a part-time, dual-employment, late-stage, early-career, long-distance, peri-menopausal cross-disciplinary PhD researcher is a lot of hyphenated categories to navigate!

Breaking them down into manageable chunks is essential for managing workload and positive mental health. Learning to better compartmentalise has been the most helpful skill since I started in October 2020 (along with work with archives, the road to better argumentation and mastering the lockers in the McClure building!). Compartmentalising is great. Simply put, there are times in the week when I need to be immersed in one job, and other days when my headspace is at another job. I avoid mixing the two. I think in the language of boundaries to firmly delineate, ring fence and prise the two apart in my mind.

Learning to compartmentalise the hard way

At first, I tried joining PhD related seminars and meetings online during the lunchbreak of my other job. It sounds logistically straightforward – but it failed. The timing was seldom right but more so, neither was the mind-set. I am a researcher in job one and operational in job two. The energies required for each do not match. One requires immersion in nineteenth-century theatre, and the other responding to whatever unpredictable drama gets thrown my way on the day. When both worlds collided, I would appear on screen harassed, unable to concentrate, wishing the speaker would speed up, needing to finish an urgent safeguarding email, unable to come off mute due to surrounding voices and noises or to switch the camera on due to constantly waving away unexpected people. Since then, I have learnt that to minimise that kind of stress means to afford more respect to the necessary skills required, and their application, in the different roles I adopt in our lives; that the switch between them requires more careful handling.

Practical ways to divide different roles.

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Compartmentalising for me included investing in a laptop that I only use for PhD work. It seemed an unnecessary expense at the start due to already having excellent technology from my other job. But a couple of weeks of flicking between folders, seeing notifications for one role popping up when trying to fill out the training needs framework for the other soon put paid for that. The simple psychology of putting one laptop away and picking it back up again helps me prevent being overwhelmed by thinking about all my ‘work’ in one place.

Lots of small things work for me. Putting an out of office message or an email signatory tag with working days or simply ‘part-time’ helps manage the expectations of others. Communicating with Supervisors how much work is realistic (mine are very supportive) is important for good mental health. PhD time and chronological time frames are not the same for a part-time student, so calculating that a deadline in two months to, for example, write a literature review or finish a chapter draft, involves one month’s work for a 0.5 student.

In year one, I got as much exposure to university, SGSAH and AHRC life as possible, taking advantage of online portals in my distance-learning location. Year two has seen me very ruthless about what I agree to join and participate in, stripping it back mostly to reading and writing in my field and my time-period only. My aim next year is to collaborate for public engagement. And so, I am learning to think in these longer time frames, and positive shifts are taking place as I take on more responsibility for the direction of the project.

I would love to hear others’ tips on how to ramp back up to my three days’ PhD work more efficiently and swiftly after the four days doing other work. To switch headspaces and energy levels, to move from being operationally reactive to more receptive to slow, deep thinking. Sometimes I think about doing a little meditation on the way home from job one to help transition to job two – and sometimes I even do it! Also, I aim to read emails the night before, and set a simple achievable goal for the first hour of work using the pomodoro technique, with regular breaks and exercise to counterbalance intrusive thoughts and procrastination. But despite this, I still felt scattered this morning and still had too many late nights to meet my last writing deadline.

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Everyone’s life is more than work

Like many others, I have additional responsibilities which have the potential to significantly affect mental health at times. My partner helps his ageing parents which takes his time and sometimes he stays away to help. We run a household which entails managing pets, finances, housekeeping, washing and house repairs on a Victorian home.

Across both my job roles hovers a permanent rainbow of parent identity. More boundaries and a wider net of good mental health focus – this time to encompass children, their friendships, school connections and the balance of examinations and extra-curricular activities.

Being a parent trumps all else in its permanency and sense of importance to me. A teenage shriek of pain and I am immediately sucked from Buchan’s Domestic Medicine discussion of the impact of ‘the Quinsey’ on lung health and back to 2022 and the immediate need to treat a minor burn or perceived slight. I give myself permission to put family life first in the hierarchy of importance (not measured in hours but in units of vital life energy), with the other two jobs of equal importance on their respective days. This rigid pecking order releases me from the overwhelming guilt of competing priorities. Is it perfect? No! Do I worry that I am not doing enough reading and writing on my PhD – yes. Do I have moments of deflated resignation that I have been optimistic about time- again? Yes. Do I succumb to occasional doubts about whether part-time will be enough to experience a ‘proper’ fulfilling PhD? Occasionally but the support for part-time, dual-employment, late-stage, early-career, long-distance, cross-disciplinary PhDs helps keep them at bay.

This blog was about how I think I stay mostly mentally healthy with my mixed portfolio of stuff going on and share some ways how. I say mostly. I do worry that I ignore the signs of ill health, that in ten years’ time I will look back and bemoan not doing more load-bearing exercise for better bone density; also, whether I should have delayed starting my PhD by another decade until the children had finished high school education thus freeing up more mental bandwidth, available to family issues, during their teenage years.   

One of my supervisor’s comments is to remind myself I am doing this part-time. This could reflect alignment in our temporal realism, but equally, it could suggest that I am trying to do much. I have made a mental note to ask. Hope it gets mentally filed in the correct work hemisphere.

Alix is in the early stages of a part-time PhD in the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow. Her AHRC funded inter-disciplinary project combines approaches in English literature and Medical Humanities. It examines literary and performative respiration in plays written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the start of the nineteenth century, and where it overlaps with the history of pneumatic medicine and science. She is interested in different atmospheres of breathing connected with the plays’ illness narratives and how we might apply this to our current experiences of problematic breathing. She works with 11-18 years students in a North London secondary school and contributes resources for the Cognita Schools Global ‘Be Well’ programme for pupils, parents and educators. She co-runs the International PGR/ECR Medical Humanities Network. 

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