Remembering There is Life Outside the Lab
We’ve written a lot about wellbeing over the past year and found that doing sports helps many of you to remain balanced in the face of PGR challenges. But have you ever realised that training for sports is a lot like training for a PhD? In this guest blog, Grace McGregor draws parallels between running the 2017 London Marathon and her PhD research.
As someone who constantly seeks perfection and who has prioritised her relationship with her biology textbook over actual biological life, I know how delicate it is to figure out this “work-life balance” thing. As my PhD progresses, I’ve found that I’m no longer able to switch off at times and failures in research can start to feel personal. But I believe there are things we can do to manage our struggles and not lose sight of why we signed up for a PhD in the first place.
Sweat it out!
We all need an outlet and I cannot recommend exercise enough! Academic demands can feel overwhelming, but running keeps me sane. When my lab members see me getting stressed, they just tell me to go for a run, and it works! If I have a lot of data to analyse or my head is spinning after reading too many papers, I go running. Running gives my head time to process. It works on things in the background and I’ll usually have a solution or new idea by the time I return home. The best thing about running is that anyone can do it, at any time, so it can fit into your busy research schedule. Given the lack of flexibility with organised sports, running or making use of the classes and gyms available at the Stevenson and Garscube sports centres can be an easy alternative.
Running the London Marathon
This year I ran the London Marathon for my PhD sponsors Cancer Research UK. Somehow I fitted in over 650 miles of training from January to April, blogged my progress, and raised money for charity, all whilst pushing myself in my PhD research. At the start, I was overwhelmed with trying to fit in the ambitious training plan I’d created for myself. Second year PhD was testing my resilience with failure after failure after machine malfunction after machine malfunction! I put my social life on hold to prioritise running and research. I knew I was going to have to make sacrifices, and I didn’t mind, but at some point I realised that I was pushing myself from too many angles. Equally to planning my research, I had to figure out a way to make everything work in parallel. I began commuting to work on my legs, come rain, hail, snow or ice. I made my long weekend run route via the lab and ensured that my experiments fitted into my running schedule. The colleagues in my lab were my rocks during those months and running helped bond us all; we’re now going to do the Great Scottish Half in September! A strong support network is vital to keep you motivated in research and help you if you need it. Whether it’s running or research: if you want to achieve something, with willpower, you can.
Running on the Isle of Barra (picture supplied by Grace)
Like running a marathon, in research you have to push yourself
No one is going to run experiments for you, tell you what papers to read, or hold your hand through dark tunnels. The fact that we’re doing a PhD in the first place shows that we can handle the expectation to be independent and determined enough to push ourselves and our projects. But equally, it’s important to realise that we are responsible for our own mental health too. If you’re lucky, you will get to work with inspiring and motivating people that care about you and will notice when you begin to deviate from your normal self. However, it’s up to us to make changes when needed, re-evaluate and re-shuffle our agendas, and critically: seek help if needed. There’s no shame in saying you’re overwhelmed, speaking up to your supervisor (even if it’s by e-mail), or using the support services provided by the university.
Research is about discovery, and we are in an environment where boundaries are being pushed by people far senior than us. This can lead to the horrible feeling of inadequacy, but we need to remember we are in a training period. The best bit of advice I’ve had was to “be your own person”. We cannot compare ourselves to other students, who are doing totally different projects, working very different hours, and have their own way of working. Especially during Annual Progress Review season it seems like we are being compared to each other, but these systems are simply in place to make sure we’re all ticking along nicely. It’s futile to bring ourselves down by comparing ourselves to our peers – who ultimately we should be supporting.
It’s easier said than done to “take time out”, but it is so important in maintaining perspective. There’s no excuse to not escape Glasgow when the highlands are so close! Equally, I have found that getting involved with public engagement reminds me of the implications my research has for wider society, which motivates me. Everyone needs life outside their PhD, but it’s up to the individual to be in control of making sure they give themselves time to breathe. I chose to run a marathon for several reasons, but one of them was because I wanted to achieve something for myself, by myself. We’re allowed to fit in things that feel selfish – even if you can’t leave your research totally at work, you’ll ultimately be more productive if you’re happy.
Runners should never out-run their joy of running, and PhD students should not out-work their enthusiasm for their subject!
The obligatory post-London marathon selfie!
Wanna read more by Grace? She documented her journey towards the London marathon on her own blog.