Leah’s PhD: An Update, and How I Am Staying Sane

I know, I know. I suck at regular blogging. I used to be so good at it. I used to blog regularly once, twice, or even thrice a week. What happened?

My PhD happened.

Let me tell you, folks – it’s been an absolutely ridiculous past few months, and I have been feeling completely bogged under by all things PhD and not-PhD.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The thesis is still coming along, and I should still finish it on time (or slightly early, if I’m lucky). Plus, I’m enjoying everything that I’m doing. I’ve been helping to make some meaningful change at the University as the Doctoral Researcher President; I’ve continued to work at the University halls of residence; I’ve dabbled in some more casual work at the University’s Arts office… None of this is bad. It’s just a lot. And it’s become a bit more difficult to balance everything now that I’ve reached my final year of #phdlife and I have to get serious about writing and gettin’ a job and all that fun stuff.

So, more for my future self than for anyone else, I’ve decided to take a few minutes out of my evening to write a list of things that keep me sane when life gets a bit too much. Future Leah: remember what this Leah has written for you. You might be feeling breakable right now, but this Leah is writing from a good place. She knows best.

Here you go. Three things I do to stay mentally well:


Exercise

I go to the gym every weekday, unless I’m travelling or face some other extenuating circumstances (e.g. a horrible teaching schedule or a day full of meetings). I treat my daily hour-or-so at the gym as a vital part of my routine, and try my best to make sure that there is always time to fit in at least a quick jog on the treadmill.

I re-started going to the gym after a few years away from it, during a time when I felt mentally quite run-down. Immediately, I noticed an improvement in my mood. I had an outlet for my stress, I could tire myself out to sleep better, and my body confidence drastically improved. The gym has been an incredibly important part of my year, and I feel both physically and mentally more capable of taking on any challenge that might be thrown my way.

Don’t like the gym? Sports, swimming, walking (especially with dogs), and so many other options are available for exercise.

Learn Languages

To be honest, I’m not actually very good at languages that aren’t English. Try as I may, I cannot seem to nail those irregular verbs. I struggle with pronunciation. Heck, I can’t even pronounce most English words, if you ask the British. That said, I love learning languages, and I stick with it because of that love. Duolingo is by far my most frequently used mobile app.

While I think I like learning languages because I just like talking in general, a part of me also likes learning languages because it’s a way of still feeling productive while doing a ‘fun’ activity. My Spanish was super handy when we found ourselves in remote areas of Spain last year. My French has been put into practice when I’ve been recommended reading that hasn’t yet been translated – I just needed Google Translate to help me a bit with specialist artificial intelligence words. My Dutch prompted a delightful conversation with some elderly women who ran Utrecht’s grocery shop museum (yes – it exists) when I was there last. Now I’m trying my hand at German and Polish. The latter is really, really not going well, but I keep trying because I am stubborn.

Learning languages has permitted me entry into other worldviews that may have otherwise been inaccessible had I just stuck with English. It’s encouraged me to think about the ways different people put sentences together, and it’s instilled in me a deeper appreciation of language as a tool for interpersonal understanding.

Plus, I want to keep beating my friends’ Duolingo point scores.

Write Creatively

This academic term, a friend and I joined a creative writing class on campus. Initially, I was sceptical, uncertain of what to expect from the class. I had written some songs here and there but, outside of my twelfth-grade Writer’s Craft class, I’ve never really explored the world of fiction writing. My friend really wanted to take the class, though, so I signed up because I was trying to be supportive and that’s what friends do.

It turns out that I’m really not so great at writing fiction, and that’s okay. We’ve been having a great time in this class, and I’ve become so much more confident in my ability to convey a narrative using fluffy language and different genre structures. I’ve also noticed that a lot of what I’ve learned in my writing class can be applied to nonfiction writing as well, and I’ve started enjoying writing about my research much more recently now that I am equipped with more ways to play with language.

Really, the exposure to something new – writing fiction – has shaken me up a bit, making an activity that can seem so mundane (writing) fun again. Plus, it’s been lovely to get to know the other people in the class, and it’s nice to have something to look forward to every week.

Fellow PhD students, I would highly encourage you to take creative writing classes. They may benefit your theses in ways you never could have anticipated.


Those are just three things I do to keep myself afloat when the world feels like it’s determined to drown me. I do keep needing to remind myself that breaks are necessary, but as I practice making these kinds of activities part of my daily/weekly routine those reminders are becoming much less necessary.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my PhD how important breaks are. Not just every once in a while. Every day. Every single day, just to get a rest from PhD work.

Now, it’s time for me to go practice some Polish.

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