The PhD: A Physical Endurance Test?
Today's post is written by our guest blogger Carly who is a second year PhD student in Celtic and Gaelic, focusing on early medieval Irish and Scottish History. They are an international student, originally hailing from Texas in the USA. They also work as a GTA in the Celtic and Gaelic department.
When I first started researching PhD programmes and what it’s like to be a PhD student, I saw a lot of blog posts and social media entries talking about academic rigor, the difficulties of maintaining social and romantic relationships, and even topics on emotional stress. What I didn’t expect, and didn’t really see discussed, is the physical toll that doing a PhD can leave on the body.
As a first example: within two months of starting my PhD programme I found myself sat in my GP’s office talking about the possible reasons why my vision could have suddenly become so blurry that I couldn’t focus on the license plate on a car. Armed with a pair of glasses to help avoid eye strain, I soldiered on. Shouldered on, really. I found myself with severe shoulder pain a few months after that and ended up having to go to physiotherapy. My physiotherapist was shocked, appalled, and dismayed by the horrible treatment I’ve been giving my body in the pursuit of my PhD.
Writing a thesis means many hours hunched over reading books and articles, more time hunched over a computer, trudging back and forth between the library, the office, and home with heavy stacks of books, and for students in the sciences, add to that hours spent standing in the lab or hunched over more equipment. In short: we are putting our bodies through amazing physical strain – and this is not a short-term issue. As our PhDs take 3-4 years, we are in it for the long haul.
There are some things you can do to help prevent and even combat the physical strain we put our bodies under. A few suggestions my physiotherapist made were to use a backpack with a waist belt that could help take strain off my shoulder and to use a document holder next to my computer so I can sit up straighter while working at the keyboard. I know these seem like obvious and simplistic suggestions, but they really help. Additionally, trying to make your desk as ergonomic as possible, can help prevent strains. This means trying to get your chair at the right height, and use wrist supports for both your keyboard and your mouse.
The value of avoiding sedentary behaviour has been more fully developed in recent years, with research showing that taking a break from sitting every 30 minutes gives the greatest benefit. Taking time to stretch your back, shoulders, neck, and legs can help avoid strain that leads you to the GP and physiotherapy. You can find some recommended exercises for people who sit at a desk all day. Standing for extended periods of time can cause pain and strain as well. The Mayo Clinic has recommendations for stretches specifically for those of us who stand for long periods.
If you’re looking for something a bit more extensive, you could participate in the PGR lunchtime walking groups run by Elizabeth Adams on both the Gilmorehill (Tuesdays at 12.30pm – leaving from the door of the Gilchrist PG Club) and Garscube (Fridays at 12.30pm – leaving from the door of the McCall building) campuses that serve a dual purpose of giving you an excuse to get away from your lab or desk to encourage your physical health and also provide an opportunity to socialize with other PGRs.
It’s possible to get active in the gym or even university societies that focus on sports, but you don’t have to give a big time commitment to physical activity to achieve benefits for your health and help avoid injuries from your daily activities. Even small things that you do in your office or in the lab are valuable.
It may sound silly or overkill to talk about the physical strain of studying, but maintaining good physical health is just as important as our mental and emotional health while working on a PhD is important. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way. What are things you’ve been doing to help avoid physical strain and keep active?