Dealing with isolation and perfectionism as a PhD student

Amy explains how studying for a PhD during the pandemic was even more isolating than she had expected, and she shares how she found connection online and in nature. She also shares how important it is to separate herself from her degree, to take time off, and to balance her research with her other interests.

Amy shares her experience of studying for a PhD during the pandemic, including feelings of isolation and perfectionism, and balancing her PhD with her other interests.

Video transcript

Hi I’m Amy, a second year PhD student at the University of East Anglia. I’m going to talk a little bit about my experience of doing a PhD during the pandemic, things that have been difficult, and things I have found supported my mental health and wellbeing during this time.

Isolation during my PHD

So doing a PhD has previously been understood to potentially be quite an isolating experience. Often you are working independently, on a topic that you are becoming a specialist in, moving away from support networks, family or friends to undertake your doctorate. I think the pandemic increased isolation for a lot of people. I personally found it very isolating. I had just moved to a new city, away from familiar places and people. Tying to build friendships and rapport with other PhD students, whilst managing the start of my own PhD was very difficult. I also felt very isolated as my partner worked in a care home, so he was out of the flat for 14 hours a day, so I was often alone. It didn’t help that a lot of the guidance from the government and those making the decisions within the university seemed to forget that PhD students existed. The support and rules for undergraduates often did not reflect the reality of PhD study.

One thing I found to be helpful was finding that there was a lot of support through online platforms – especially twitter. There’s loads of PhD students online and a number of very supportive communities such as PhDBalance, SMaRteN (The Student Mental Health Research Network) and various facebook, twitter and whatsapp groups that you can build real connections within.

I also made a real effort to not allow myself to become isolated from nature. I lived in a tiny studio flat without a garden or proper natural light, and this very quickly had an impact on my mental health, and I knew that being around nature and observing the growth and change of it was a positive influence on my wellbeing. I made sure to try and go for a walk everyday, where I could fit it into my schedule.

Perfectionism & taking a break

Something a lot of PhD students can struggle with is perfectionism and imposter syndrome – the idea that you’re not really good enough to be where you are, and somehow people will find this out and everything will come tumbling down! Doing a PhD means you’re highly motivated and you can work at a high level. So it’s no surprise that many of us feel immense pressure to do the best work and push ourselves very, very hard. It can be difficult to know where the line between doing your best and pushing yourself past the limit lies. During the pandemic this only increased for me – there were suddenly seminars and conferences online that I wouldn’t have been able to attend if they were in person, there were new initiatives starting to help support the pandemic response efforts. I wanted to do everything and be everything to everyone, and that really wasn’t healthy for my mental wellbeing.

I learnt that it's important to remember that you are DOING a PhD, but you are NOT your PhD! The amount of hours that you work in a day, the feedback that you get on drafts, rejections from journals etc, none of this says anything about who you are as a person! If you think about the people you love most in life, it’s not because they can work 12 hour days, or because they can meet word count for an article first try, or because they can publish in high impact journals – its because they are kind, or funny, or caring, none of which can be summed up in a PhD thesis. The PhD can feel like an all consuming monster, but it isn’t, its your current job. Its okay to take time off, use your annual leave if you have it. Take your weekends off if you can. You cant be the best researcher you could be if you’re burnt out and demotivated,. It’s okay to rest.

Outside interests

I found during the pandemic that my PhD became all that I did. It became easy for me to forget the things I enjoyed, and that stopped me from being able to de-stress. Before the pandemic, I’d often spend my free time doing embroidery, which is my outlet for stress and something I find very creatively fulfilling. My partner picked up on the fact that I hadn’t been stitching, and so I made a real effort to schedule in time for embroidery as my hobby.

It can be easy to push hobbies and relaxation time to the side when things get stressful, but I found the stressful times are when I needed my creative interests the most. For me, making something with my hands and having complete creative freedom allowed me to relax, and also allowed my brain to focus on something that wasn’t my PhD. I found once I’d gotten past feeling guilty for taking time to do things I enjoyed, I would finish an embroidery piece more motivated and often with a new perspective on my PhD work. I work well with structure and deadlines, so I specifically schedule in time for my hobbies now, otherwise I just wouldn’t engage with them

I think my experience of doing a PhD during the pandemic has taught me a lot about what I need to do to keep myself well. Doing a PhD can be difficult, stressful, and it can feel like it’s taking over your life. But it’s the little things, like going to feed the ducks, taking the afternoon off if work isn’t going well and doing something creative instead. It’s these small things that I’ve built into my schedule that have got me through the pandemic, and made my PhD a lot less isolating, and also made me a lot mentally healthier.