- Practice Self- Care
One of my committee members is a professor in the School of Social Work at Carleton named Susan. She calls the university an “insecurity factory.” Last summer, post proposal defence, when I was at my most stressed and frustrated point in the program, she urged me to “re-align my head and my heart.” She encouraged me to focus on self-care and to cultivate daily practices, which would help me live better as a scholar. Some of these practices she recommended including journaling, practicing yoga, cultivating strong friendships, writing poetry, playing music, etc. She told me that the only way to do good work with others was to care for myself.
This lesson is not often shared in grad school, especially not in first year when coursework, proposals, applying for scholarships, and getting adjusted to a new department/school/supervisor is often the major concern. But Susan was right. She gave me examples of seminal scholars in my field and how they coped with the pressures of academia. One top scholar had a dog that was her companion species and she would take everywhere. Another one would play music. And Susan advocated for journaling.
Academics have a high rate of mental health disorders. Long hours, isolating work environments, and increasing job insecurity rack havoc on the already over-productive mind. There is also a “culture of acceptance” around mental health disorders at university campuses. Taking care of yourself as a first year PhD student means both a) being responsible for your own happiness and health (as neoliberal discourse-ish as that sounds), and b) holding others accountable for investing in your well-being and success as both a PhD student and well-rounded human.
One way I would like to see self-care implemented into first year PhD programs is to start an open discussion about “the insecurity factory” in academia. By talking about unhappiness, stress, and depression and addressing it within the course of the program, we can help students to develop strong rituals of self-care, cultivate mutually- supportive relationships, and ground their work in heartfull and healthy places.
Ultimately, when we teach and practice self-care we are pulling back the veil of academia and showing the hard struggles that come with this career path. Through this unveiling, we create a forum to discuss ways to make academia more humane. Most importantly: practicing self- care is not just about the ‘self’ but about how care ripples through the work that is produced, as it is grounded deeper and deeper into better ways of communicating, caring, and understanding others. This is revolutionary work stretching our accountability to others and ourselves even as this neoliberal mentality pervasive on our world today tells us we are individual and alone in our journeys.
2. Find your mentors
My second piece of advice is to find your mentors. Don’t assume that your supervisor or committee members, or coursework instructors will be the mentors you need. My supervisor seemed amazing on paper, but after switching universities to work with her, I realized that we are not compatible as mentors/ mentees. We can still work together well, but I needed more support to bring my ambitious doctoral project forward.
This is why I urge first year students to attend conferences, seminars, and courses at other institutions. Go out into the wide work of academia and look for your mentors. Mentors are those people who, a) care about you and your work and b) are willing to put in the emotional and intellectual work to help you realize your potential and become the academic you need to be. For me, I met one mentor through my Master’s supervisor (my first academic mentor). Her name is Gerti and she is an Austrian academic. Gerti has consistently been an encouraging force as I shape my doctoral project. She has extensive experience studying labour migration in the Canadian Arctic, her methods are incredibly unique and inspiring, and her warmth and joy echo throughout any space she occupies. Regularly communicating with Gerti is really helpful to discuss my results, methodology, and future work. My third mentor I met at a PhD course in Arctic Finland. He is top Arctic anthropologist working in Greenland. We have become pen pals, and these regular communications keep my love for working in Pan- Arctic regions alive through the hard and often boring daily struggles of the PhD program.
Ultimately, I urge first-year PhD students to explore the wide world of academia and to look for mentors away from your home institution. Always be looking for the next person who could help shape your life and work and don’t worry too much if this isn’t your supervisor. In Mindy Kaling’s book “Why not me?” her mentor Greg Daniels writes,
“You take your mentoring where you can find it, even if it is not being offered to you. Have you ever used your neighbor’s WiFi when it wasn’t on a password? If you have the opportunity to observe someone at work, you are getting mentoring out of them even if they are unaware or resistant. Make a list of people you think would make the greatest mentors and try to get close enough to steal their Wi-Fi” (Kaling 2015, 89).
So, get out of town and find those mentors. You find them through sharing your ideas widely and moving through the various communities of scholarship available to you.
3. Exude confidence and be kind
The university as a place is filled with brilliant people who question their brilliance everyday. This is called impostor syndrome—basically, the inability for brilliant people to internalize their own accomplishments. As a PhD student, I think the most necessary thing you need is to be confident: in yourself, your work, your purpose, and your needs. Being confident links up to the first and second lessons (practice self care + find your mentors). When you are confident you can ask people to be your mentor, protest unfair grades, apply for major scholarships, present your work at international forums, TA a class of students who are only a few years younger than you, etc. This confidence and belief in yourself and your own abilities is what will help you to move forward as an academic.
The difficult thing I find is that, as a PhD student, your supervisor and committee expect that you will already have the confidence to speak up to them about what you need. Your committee sees you as a peer and holds you accountable to be at their level. Yet, no one really teaches PhD students the importance of being confident (not cocky) and asking for support and guidance as they grow into academics.
So to take motivation from Mindy Kaling my favourite comic: “People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That's a mistake…I don't understand how you could have self-confidence if you don't do the work…Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.” Put in the time to learn your topic. Study for your comps like your very life depends on it. Know your field site in and out. Dress professionally, always be on time, volunteer for departmental committees, and take notes at departmental seminars. Show that you are a confident force, and ask like a colleague. Kick that impostor syndrome in the face and push down that voice that says you are too young/ stupid/ unprepared to be an academic.
Once you have mastered your confidence, remember this advice Professor F. J. Foakes Jackson (a Cambridge academic) gave to a new arrival at the University in the early 1900s, “It’s no use trying to be clever—we are all clever here; just try to be kind—a little kind.” Academia is a largely impersonal and competitive discipline and being kind to people goes a long way in showing your worth as a scholar and your potential for collaboration and friendship.
Those are my three biggest lessons thus far: Practice self-care, find your mentors, and exude confidence and be kind. Good luck on the journey ahead.