The Comfort Pursuit

Self-care in Academia: How to keep sane and healthy while travelling and shifting countries

Here is my perspective and recent experiences regarding self-care in academia. This article was originally published on Eva Lantsoght’s PhDTalk on 12 May 2015. 

Last year was a big one. In six months (July to December), I submitted my PhD thesis, spent six months in Europe as a visiting researcher, and coronated it all getting married in Brazil early this year. It was amazing, but also challenging.

My PhD was handed in 3rd of July and I naively believed the hard bit was behind me. During the doctorate I developed consistent habits of writing every day, using the Pomodoro Technique to improve focus and make sure I achieve at leat my minimum daily goal. Exercising has also always been a priority, I used Sleep Cycle to assess the quality and amount of sleep, and had a good work space both at the university and at home. With all that in place I managed to submit the thesis in three years.

One week after the submission I was on my way to Europe. Living in New Zealand almost anything becomes ‘on the way’ to Europe, and then I stopped in Brazil for a week to see my family, friends and make some wedding decisions.

By the 22nd July I was in Europe about to start work. I allowed one week between arriving and starting work. I wanted to have time to open a bank account, and find my way around the city. But the differences in time zone (15 hours between Brazil and New Zealand, and four between Germany and Brazil), language (I don’t speak German), food and climate had its toll.

In the midst of the excitement, I didn’t realise the impact it all was having on me. I failed to fully assess my state of tiredness. I had intentions of joining the gym and having a routine, but before I knew I ended up at a physician’s clinic. I felt strange, with chest pressure and a fainty feeling. The diagnosis was ‘stress’, and recommendation was to ‘relax’ and exercise. Easy. Well… Sort of.

It was all very exciting and that first month was just the outcome of a lot of things I had had dreamed about and worked for, and all the accumulated anxiety and passion seemed to have found a way out of my system through a ‘crisis’. I did slow down, but never had a ‘normal routine’ in those six months, much less one that fitted a gym hour a few times a week. When I thought all was back on track other symptoms related to stress of immunity started to show up. The reality is that I never managed to live life to the fullest during those six months.

From now on life is probably not going to change much as the changes will be constant, and this is one of the many aspects I like about academia. I do want to keep improving my research skills and hope to have more oportunities to have academic overseas experience. But after this episode I’ve learned a few lessons about how to keep healthy in the midst of changes:

Planning, planning, planning

It is particularly difficult to achieve a ‘normal’ routine when you have a lot of work to do and only a few months in a new place, which is generally the situation for visiting researcher experiences. Commiting to a daily life that includes all your normal activities might mean you won’t have time to make the most of the new environment. How do you envisage your new routine? What are the things you want to fit into your day? Are you travelling in the weekends? Put it on paper and work on it, even if it changes later. Make sure you allow enough time – and a little more – for yourself to get used to the new environment, and to put your life and stuff in order before starting the formal work. When you are more settled, revise the plan, find a way of practicing your favourite physical activities, get enough rest, and find something that helps you to relax.

Never accept ‘being tired’ as a norm
No matter what the situation is, if you have been travelling or working long hours in the same place, and even if you consider blaming the jetlag, being exhausted is not an option. Make sure you have enough hours of sleep, and if after sleeping you still feel tired, it might be time to find some extra relaxing activities such as meditating, yoga, exercising, or anything else that works for you.

Add physical activities to all budgets
Especially to the time and financial budgets. In my experience, exercising helps me keep the levels of motivation up. In my case this means having a gym membership, as I don’t like exercising in the rain or cold weather, and these are always excuses to avoid it. If the weather is good, that can always be a plan B for variation. But I always make sure in all conditions I will get it done.

Take the PhD as a learning process for life
Yes you will be an expert in your area of research, but more than that it is a great opportunity to learn about yourself. Take the chance to learn what times of the day you work better, how many hours of sleep your body needs, what types of time management and planning techniques work for you, and to find physical activities that you love. Life after the PhD is more dynamic but not necessarily easier. You will still have a lot of publications to manage, co-authors to report to, papers to review, classes to teach, and so forth. So take the chance now to make the PhD the best preparation for what lies ahead.

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