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self-care: the secret to a PhD (or how to do a PhD abroad as an Indigenous woman)

I don’t write too much about my PhD on here. I generally try to keep my school work separate from this blog, if only to keep this as a place to deposit the things that don’t ‘fit’ into my research or my dissertation.

However, today I want to write a little bit about the ‘behind’ the scenes of doing a PhD. It’s probably no surprise that doing one is hard. But it’s also true that if you are good at the whole ‘marathon not a sprint’ thing, then you’ve probably got what it takes to do one. My inspirations for my PhD are intensely personal: my Mom who is a brilliant journalist, has definitely inspired me to keep going and to ask deep questions about the world. My Dad, an artist, has taught me to approach things with creativity and passion. And my broader family continues to inspire and support me.

One of the things that keeps me going in my program is the fact that I am the first person on either side of my family to reach this level of grad school. I have really accomplished, intelligent, kick-ass family members, so I feel the drive in my bones to live up to the examples they have set. I also feel continually motivated and nurtured by the example that other Indigenous women have set in academia and advocacy. Maria Campbell is someone I continuously come back to and re-read in order to remind myself of the strength of the women who stepped into these shoes before us, and who continue to push boundaries. I also feel a duty to my ancestors: they made huge sacrifices so our generation could flourish. When I want to give up, I just remember the hardships they went through and I feel the motivation to keep going. So, in a sense, this is not only a personal journey, it’s a multi-generational triumph.

I’m also incredibly grateful to the Trudeau Foundation for providing me with a strong, intelligent and compassionate mentor in Jessica McDonald. She teaches me over and over again about the value of listening and paying attention to both what I am hearing but also what I feel in my heart. These lessons have been invaluable.

I feel remiss if I don’t also mention that I am very blessed to have a strong, supportive and brilliant supervisory team (committee), and without their guidance I wouldn’t be doing a PhD. And I certainly would not have stuck at it for this long.

I have also met so many amazing, thoughtful, hard-working and smart people throughout my program, I can hardly name them all. But I do think it’s safe to say that there are some truly grounded, inspiring people doing work in northern Canada and indeed throughout the circumpolar world.

So, I suppose the first step is to surround yourself with strong, supportive and empathetic people who will push you to become the best and most inquisitive version of yourself, but who will also be there to listen and help you when you hit speed bumps.

The second step is to take care of yourself.

This is not something I have always been good at. Like many millennials, I pushed myself to do a lot in my twenties. And my CV thanks me for this. However, once I started the PhD I quickly realised that you have to adapt to, and adopt, a whole other set of skills in order to stay on track. Whereas before I would gladly work two jobs, carry a full course load, volunteer on boards and generally burn the candle at both ends, I have had to learn to cut back on these commitments. Work smarter not harder. As they say: “the best dissertation is a finished one”.

So, for a generation that sometimes feels pressured to do EVERYTHING, I propose some rules for how to do ONLY A FEW THINGS (but strive to do them well) in order to survive the PhD grind. I learned these lessons from my great mentors, as well as through some trial and error. Since so many people do not have access to the secrets of academia, I generally feel like it’s good to share this knowledge more broadly to make it possible for other young people like me to pursue graduate/post-graduate work. I smile at the thought of schools being flooded with more Indigenous scholars.

Some key rules and strategies I’ve developed:

  • does what you are doing (ie: volunteer work, TA or RA work, positions on boards, etc…) support your research? Yes? Will it help you complete your dissertation within the timelines of your program/funding/visa? If so, great! If not, reconsider it and potentially revisit it once you are finished (or at least until after you have submitted).
  • are you making enough time to read around your topic? You’ve probably heard this a million times, but in order to write, you need to read. For North American PhD students this isn’t really a problem, since comps ensure you’ve read everything. But if you’re doing a PhD in the UK, you need to develop your own ‘unofficial comps’ reading list to make sure you are on top of the relevant works in your field. Ask your supervisors and other students for tips on books you should make sure you’re at least familiar with. Read them. Read some more. Then write. (I’m not always very good at this, so it bears repeating).

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  • develop a good time management system. I truly like the “Now Habit” philosophy. Remember that it takes a balance of hard work and rest to keep going when you are managing a project. Remember that your PhD is a project, and as silly as it may sound, logistical and time management skills that are popular in the self-help and business/management world are absolutely relevant to research and dissertation writing.
  • be assertive. This comes naturally to some, but for people like me it’s a lot harder to apply this. Be assertive about your work, be assertive about your needs. Being assertive does not mean ‘trample all over everyone around you’, it just means that only you know your needs and thus you are responsible for vocalising them and making sure they are met. It’s also important to be assertive with things in your personal life if they are not serving your needs or are preventing you from progressing in your PhD. Of course, sometimes it’s not enough to just be assertive, sometimes you need to remove yourself from situations that are not honouring your highest purpose or that are harming you: cut out toxic people and/or situations, nurture positive networks. Pay it forward.
  • pay attention to your body, mind and spirit. Go to the doctor if you are not feeling well. Get counselling if you are struggling with mental health issues. Seek out support from friends and family if you are feeling lonely or disconnected. Check in with other people if they seem to be struggling.

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  • Take time off. This sounds counter-intuitive. But  time management pundits generally argue that you need rest time to improve your efficiency when you work. So take time to let your brain mull over thoughts. A friend swears by going for walks, another has her best ideas in the shower. I like to stop and play the guitar from time to time — this tends to be when my best ideas come about. Whatever works for you, just remember that ideas tend to be non-linear, so it’s good to move into different environments to give your brain a break and stimulate different ways of thinking. What’s the point in sitting at a desk for eight hours if you’re only getting two hours of real work done?

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  • move your body. You don’t need to run marathons or power-lift. But exercise is proven to be effective in elevating mood, reducing anxiety and helping neurocognition. So go for a walk. Dance around your living room. And as my favourite exercise mentor, GoKaleo, recommends: try to incorporate two strength/resistance training days a week.
  • practice self-love. This sounds trite and feel-good. But it’s important. You need to be in a good space mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically to finish your program strong and be able to keep it all together. So, take time to focus on yourself. Be proactive about it, rather than let life ‘happen’ to you. Trust me. You’ll be glad you tackled things as they arose rather than letting them accumulate and then watch everything start to go pear-shaped. The worst position to be in is with your personal life falling apart and a half-written PhD languishing on your laptop. Again, if this requires counselling then go for it. If you need help with being comfortable with public speaking, join a toastmaster’s club or another group to help you. Have trouble writing? Seek out an editor or a writing workshop. Generally, this is probably the most time you’ll ever have in your life to devote entirely to something you care about. So why not tackle your own growth and development at the same time?

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  • and my favourite rule: be audacious. You’re studying something for years and years. Have fun with it. Ask questions nobody else is asking. Play the devil’s advocate sometimes, just to see where the weaknesses are in your own work. Engage in conversations with people you don’t agree with. Draw mind maps. Write songs to your dissertation. Do whatever you have to do to push yourself to your intellectual peak. You worked really hard to get to this point, so don’t settle for mediocrity. Really challenge yourself to see things in a new light. I can honestly say that I am not the same person I was when I walked through the doors of my University four years ago, and I think that’s a good thing. The whole experience of conducting research and passionately pursuing ideas has changed me in infinite ways. And because I am surrounded by creative, thoughtful and hard-working people, I honestly feel like every week I’m exposed to something thought-provoking and challenging. Isn’t that what this should be about? Intellectual creativity, pushing boundaries, changing the rules. A lot of people will tell you to ‘play it safe’ so that you can get a comfortable job somewhere. That’s fine. But if you want to be brave, join me over here in the moss. We’re digging up new ideas, being a bit trickster-y, and generally having a blast. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. 

So, those are just some initial thoughts. I’m not finished my PhD yet, so take these thoughts under advisement. Also, I don’t have children, so my advice may not be entirely applicable to people balancing family life while writing! But I certainly hope to see more Indigenous people joining me over here in Europe, quietly pushing boundaries and following in the footsteps of the amazing thinkers and leaders who came before us.

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