After taking two months out of my PhD to reflect, heal and recharge, I have come back with a new focus. A new approach. A much more positive mental attitude. Here is what happened.
My purpose for taking on a PhD has maybe not always been the ‘right’ one. I applied because I was interested in pursuing research on my topic, which is woefully under-researched, particularly with regards to education in divided societies like Northern Ireland, where I come from. Awesome – tick! But, if I’m honest, another BIG push behind me starting a PhD was my fear that I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher, which was my original plan and education.
This fear came off the back of a comment made by another teacher during my first training placement – “maybe you should just think about lecturing adults”. The comment devastated me. Teaching has been the one job I ever really wanted to do. And, no matter the fact that I received an abundance of positive feedback on my teaching style (no one ever doubted my suitability for teaching at secondary level), this stuck with me.
Therefore, I entered into my PhD as a three (more than likely four) year trial that would test my intellect, will-power, endurance, and of course, my mental health.
Impostor syndrome takes its place in the backseat
From my low self-esteem, I adopted a blasé attitude to my work. I always met deadlines, I always did what needed to be done, but I treated my PhD like it was just a stop gap. I didn’t appreciate the position I was in. When I started to think about whether I wanted to do a PhD or not, I felt a deep-seated guilt for wasting the time of my supervisor, my colleagues… even for taking a place with funding that could have gone to someone more deserving.
My issue wasn’t that I didn’t want to do the PhD or that I wasn’t interested in my research. The issue was that I didn’t feel good enough. That I got here by a fluke. My reaction to that was to treat this like something that didn’t really matter or that I didn’t really care about. I had unwittingly been dealing with imposter syndrome.
I worked from home for the majority of my first and second year of research. I lived an hour away from campus and it was quite expensive to travel in every day. However, isolating myself only served to push my self-doubt further. I didn’t appreciate that I had an office full of supportive and encouraging colleagues, who, had I been more present, would have been the best motivation I could have asked for.
My turning point
Then came March 2019, when my world truly felt like it was crumbling around me.
On Sunday 24th, I received a call from my mum to tell me that my best friend had committed suicide.
The term ‘best friend’ can be thrown about and may, at times, not really reflect the true depth of a friendship. This friend, my best friend, was my first friend. She was the sister I never had. I had never imagined a life without her. She knew everything there was to know about me. When I found out she was gone… I felt totally and completely lost. Incomplete. And for a time, I felt like there was no point to anything.
My supervisor’s reaction
During this time, my supervisor was a godsend. She was one of the first people I contacted when I heard the news. She was kind, empathetic and helped me through reorganising data collection commitments.
Once the dust had settled, she encouraged me to “stop the clock” and take time out of the PhD, so that I could grieve. Instead, I attempted to throw myself back into it.
Ignoring the pain takes its toll
I began preparing for my Annual Progress Review the week after my best friend’s funeral and scheduled in interviews and focus groups.
At the time, I felt like the quality of my data was deteriorating. I wasn’t able to engage as well as I should have with my participants during interviews. They became much more structured and closed – because my own mental health was severely declining.
In qualitative research, you MUST be able to engage with your participants. You must actively listen and ask pertinent, open questions while observing your use of language. When you feel as if you are limply grasping on to the edge of a cliff, this, unsurprisingly, can be difficult to do effectively.
Figuring out what is wrong
I didn’t really understand the influence my mental health was having on my work. Instead, I saw this episode as total incompetence on my side. On reflection, I didn’t fail during that time. The data I collected is not worthless, but, again, my self-doubt drove me to feeling I needed a way out of my PhD.
First, I sought counselling through my university. This was provided by an external organisation. Unfortunately, the counselling provided only allows for four sessions. While my counsellor was incredible, my grief and other issues could not adequately be addressed in such a short space of time. So, while I could give myself a pat on the back for trying, I hadn’t really sought out the level of help I truly needed.
Trying to run away from the problem
One important piece of advice: Do not make rash life-changing decisions while you are experiencing grief or mental health issues. Rather than trying to face my problems, I thought it best to run away.
My form of running away was to apply for a teaching position in my dream school. BIG mistake. During a period of all-time low self-esteem, inability to pick myself up and, in the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “shake it off”, I decided to throw sense to the wind. I was desperate to feel capable of something, to feel worthy. However, in my state at the time, I just opened myself to further disappointment. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I’m pretty sure I almost burst into tears during the interview. I had finally hit rock-bottom.
Upon receiving my rejection letter, I emailed my supervisor to ask for the period of temporary withdrawal that she had encouraged me to take long before then. She immediately got the ball rolling and I felt a little more free.
Taking time out of my PhD
My time off didn’t result in the honing of my painting skills, turn me into a guitar player or gain me a second-language. For the most part, I watched A LOT of Netflix and walked my dog around pretty places.
How you use your time really is up to you. I think now of all the things I could have done but I’m here, I feel stronger. Something worked. With my time, I did reflect on what I wanted to do with my life, why I was doing a PhD and what I could do to help myself.
What about quitting?
I flirted with the idea of quitting. My partner (the most patient man in the world) whole-heartedly supported me in whatever decision I wanted to make. However, it was only when I began opening up to friends about how I felt, that I finally started to get a bit of push back: “You only have a year left, why would you even think about leaving?”, “Are you mad?”, “That would be such a waste!” etc.
Initially, I was angry at them for not understanding how bad I felt, how demoralised I was and asking “why the hell weren’t they just patting me on the head and saying ‘there, there, pumpkin’”? I realised I had gotten used to being felt sorry for and it was only enabling my self-doubt and self-pity.
I’ve never told those friends how much they changed me that night but they really did. I decided I was going back to the PhD. I would give it another go. If I didn’t like it when I went back, well, at least I tried.
Being back after taking a break from my PhD
I did make some changes in the run up to starting back. I began to use a bullet journal. This gave me a little bit of a creative outlet while also encouraging me to set tasks and feel like I was able to achieve something, however small, every day.
I created a second Instagram account, removed from my friends or family, so that I could post whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I use it to post photos taken on those pretty dog walks and to be reflective regarding my journey through grief. I started exercising more regularly, walking, running, even a little yoga. I tried to adopt a more positive attitude.
I returned at the end of September 2019 and I’m still here.
I’ve recruited my last research site and participants – so I’m on my way to finishing data collection. I’ve attended a HEAP of training and workshops for postgraduates, including one on developing emotional intelligence and resilience – this one was amazing! I’ve started meeting up more with friends and fellow PhD students.
Where I arrived at
I’m trying to keep the positive attitude going and I am, genuinely, enjoying it. I’m in the office at least 4 days a week and I go to the gym regularly. I still have an immense source of support in my supervisor, who I try to be more honest with in terms of what I’m up to work-wise and any doubts I may be having.
I won’t say that my time off fixed everything, but it allowed me the space to grieve without feeling guilty about work. It allowed time to reflect on myself, on who I am and what I want. It gave me a fresh start at this whole PhD thing – at least, in terms of my own approach. I still have off days, but I don’t beat myself up about them or allow myself too much time to wallow.
Take time out of your PhD when you need it
My experience won’t be the same as yours, but maybe there are parts that resonate with you. My advice: Take time out of your PhD when you need it. Share your worries with people who will challenge you when you need to be challenged. Know that there is no shame in seeking professional help. Quitting is always an option but it’s not an easy way out. And, probably a little cliché but still – find a hobby that you actually enjoy.
About the author
Megan is entering her third year of PhD study in Northern Ireland, within the field of education. She is Belfast born and bred and began her PhD straight after completing a teaching qualification in secondary education. Megan feels like she made some mistakes in the early days of her PhD, as we all do and wants to share her story about the time when she took time out of her PhD to help others who feel stuck.
What about you? Did you ever take time out of your PhD? Did it help you? Do you know someone who recovered through a PhD break? Share your thoughts in the comments section!