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Advice from students, for students

Images courtesy of Durham University


Welcome to this Postgraduate Wellbeing Handbook, a collaborative effort between St John’s College and Ustinov College. A lot of postgraduates want to break the silence around postgraduate wellbeing, and share both their struggles and their advice. But often they didn’t have the outlet to do that. This is one, small outlet. Being a postgraduate student brings with it challenges for our personal wellbeing and our mental health. This handbook responds to some of those challenges, not only with signposts to sources of help, but also with real advice from postgraduate peers: people who have been there, and who have found ways of protecting and nurturing their own wellbeing while they study. The entries were collected from students at St John’s and Ustinov, and have had only very minimal editing. We hope this handbook will be useful to individual postgraduates, whether brand new to postgraduate education, or already a way into that chapter. These are real tips from real people, not generic advice from Dr Google – so some ideas might resonate with you more than others. Perhaps you’ll find just the practical tip you’ve been hunting for to improve your work/life balance. Perhaps it will help you realise you’re not the only one who finds something difficult. Or perhaps you’ll think something glaringly obvious is missing (in which case, get in touch – there’s no reason this little book can’t grow!) Don’t use it in isolation: if you are worried about your wellbeing, use the signposting we’ve included. We also hope this initiative will stimulate further conversation about postgraduate wellbeing, promoting a culture of proactivity and openness, from the level of the individual, right up to university level and beyond.

Jennie Riley St John’s College MCR Vice President and Welfare Officer 2018-2019

Michael Priestley St John’s College MCR Mental Health Rep, 2018-2018

POSTGRADUATE WELLBEING Advice from students, for students

Get the basics right! Prioritise sleeping, eating, exercising, socialising and resting well. You’ll not only be taking care of yourself – if you’re healthy, your work will benefit from it too. A virtuous circle! PhD, Second year, Arts and Humanities

The most important thing I do is try to stick to a regular working schedule (9am – 6pm ish) and then make sure I take a day off every week, or a day and a half if/when I can. I look forward to the time off, but it also gives me a chance to energise myself so I’m fresh when I get back into work. And I make sure I plan how to use at least some of my time off constructively/socially, so I’m not just sitting around feeling my free time drip away. PhD, Second year, Arts and Humanities

I’ve gradually found things I love to do with my evenings which stop me from working late into the night, and which need all of my concentration so I can’t slip into multitasking them and work/emails/reading/worrying. I particularly love cooking (would not have anticipated that when I left for uni – I was awful!) because you get something at the end of it, and because it’s great to share with others. PhD, FT, Arts and Humanities

I try to keep in contact with people who aren’t students or academics as much as possible. It gives me a sense of perspective, and reminds me that while my PhD is important, it’s not the only thing that defines me, and there’s more to life. PhD, Second year, Arts and Humanities

Create a schedule for your work that includes short breaks, and guilt-free time for recreation; exercise regularly; do something for or with others that is unrelated to your research/program; find God (or the big picture that helps keep everything in perspective). PhD Student, Arts and Humanities

For various reasons, I find intensive physical exercise very difficult (and not good for my wellbeing if I end up with sprained muscles, severe fatigue, etc.) So I really value the walk to my office – it’s enough exercise to keep me healthy but not exhausted, and it also means I have a good psychological break between my workplace and home, where I can relax and not let my work be my priority. During my masters I had to work from home the whole time, and for me that wasn’t healthy – I was lonely, but my flat also started to feel claustrophobic. So I would end my ‘work day’ with a walk outside whenever I could, to give my brain a bit of space. PhD, Arts and Humanities

It’s easy to feel like work is never-ending, so I try to plan specific, regular and realistic times and places that I work. I find that it’s helpful to imitate the working week, plan flexible lists and tasks, and only work in the library. All this helps me to relax outside of working hours and places. I also try to exercise regularly to help me switch off at the end of the day. PhD Student, Full Time

Meditation and breathing exercises, something you can do quietly even in the library – just taking 10 minutes’ break from your work can help a lot. Writing a diary can help get your mind clear, and sometimes to get the negative thoughts out. PhD Student, Law

If you have a diagnosed mental health condition, you can be recognised as a disabled student though the disabilities service and have your needs accommodated within your department. If you are combining a preset (either lectures or expected lab/office hours) degree with therapy, you are allowed to take time off not only for the therapy hours themselves, but also for recovery time afterwards. Having to fight your supervisor for access to necessary accommodations is hard, as its puts pressure on your academic relationship. If you are struggling with this, the senior tutors in college can be extremely helpful to help you come up with strategies to confront the issues, and they will fight your corner if necessary. MRes, Sciences

I have found that the key to being productive in your studies and maintaining good levels of wellbeing lies in having a realistic expectation of what you can achieve in any given timeframe. Increasingly, studies are suggesting that we only have around six hours a day when we can produce work of higher quality. This is why some Scandinavian countries have introduced a six hour office day. So what's the point in working for 10 hours a day and feeling like your making little progress? Instead, decide how many hours you want to work on any given day, and then decide what you want to achieve- realistically- within that timeframe. Make sure that you have scheduled in down time- whether that be time with friends, housemates etc, or time by yourself for binge-watching Netflix. Take at least one day off a week and at least half of your evenings each week. This may seem counter-productive, but in reality you'll be happier and therefore more effective in your work. More importantly, you'll have a work-life balance (because studies are not your life- only one aspect of it!) This will make you happier and healthier. Don't forget to take breaks during the working day as well, even if it's just an hour. In that time be outside- even if it's raining. Exercise will give you fresh air and produce those important endorphins, which help make you feel good. Human contact is also important during your breaks and down time. Even if you prefer to be alone to re-energise, make sure you spend some time with others throughout the week and talk about anything other thanor at least in addition to- work. I have found all of these to be really helpful for me. I'm sure they'll be helpful for you too! PhD, Third year, Arts and Humanities

Talking to friends; focusing on the purpose of being at university; and interacting with your supervisor. MBA, Full Time

"If I don't do well on my course, my worth as a human being will be worth less, my supervisors will see that they made a mistake in placing confidence in me and my family and friends will be disappointed. Most severely, I will face the harsh reality that I am not as good as I thought." Though these thoughts might seem extreme -- and they surely are unhealthy in more ways than their impact on your own quality of life -- I believe they are commonplace amongst postgraduates, especially in courses that require a lot of independent work, like a PhD. University courses have a way of magnifying your fears of failure, and the rise in tuition fees and accompanying debt does not help. What made a difference for me, without measure, was taking my mental health seriously and finding my anchors "in real life": investing time in my relationships, staying close to friends who are not at university, or, if I am far away from home, reading fiction that draws me into the life of another. You somehow learn that life goes on, even in the unlikely case that your fears do materialise. Self-help books on mental health or talking to a counsellor go a long way towards finding the anchors that work for you, and I warmly encourage anyone who finds themselves in need to reach out. You are not alone. PhD, Social Science Faculty

Organise some free time for yourself Being in Durham (coming from outside) can be very isolating due how small it is, if you feel overwhelmed plan a quick travel anywhere (UK is tiny you can literally go anywhere in a few hours by train)

PhD, Sciences

Your studies are important, but your well-being should be your first priority. Make time for yourself -- practice yoga, hang out with friends, or take a breather. Being your best you starts with self-care. Postgraduate Student

Keep moving, even if it is just a 5 minute walk, I find that fresh air works wonders. Do not hide away, there are people to help.

Primary PGCE

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Follow a more or less strict schedule (go to sleep early, sleep 8 hours and wake up at a reasonable time). Write down what you need to do that day and try to do it (don't write down too much. Be realistic!). Don't work too much (8-9 hours it's usually enough if you organise yourself well). Of course most of the times it's difficult to be realistic so I adjust it during the day. I set an hour when I need to leave (up to 8-9 hours). Related to that, close the social media apps during work hours, you will see that you focus more on your work and you finish earlier. Dedicate the weekend to do other things than thinking in work (sometimes this is not possible. During busy times try to dedicate at least one whole day for yourself and each day 2 hours). Even if I feel bad because I'm not working, during the weekends I force myself to do something else (usually not at home and away from the computer). I usually plan the weekend during the week so when the weekend comes, I cannot escape from it. If you plan it in the same moment it's more likely that you postpone the activity until you have finished some work. Don't drink alcohol during the week, substitute that time for going for a run or just relax with a hot tea. Talk to people about how you're feeling when you don't feel well with yourself. It's important to have someone who supports you! Family, friends, partner... Try to avoid going late to bed having drunk a couple of pints of beer. Of course, this is fine sometimes but not on a daily basis. You usually don't sleep well and the next day you feel with low mood. Don't buy food at the university, prepare your own food every day and bring more food that you can eat, so if you feel hungry you have some fruit and healthy snacks and you can avoid buying a chocolate bar in the library. Eating healthy and doing sport is fundamental to avoid poor wellbeing, especially for people that tend to be a bit worried about how they look. Following a healthy diet and doing sport avoid me to overthink about my body. MsCRes, Sciences

Sometimes, when time is short or deadlines are due, it's tempting to entirely forgo extracurricular activities such as sports with a view to saving time. In my experience, my mental health and net-productivity were much better when I kept doing the things I enjoyed. It may be 2 fewer hours on one or two days a week during which to work, but overall it makes the work much more bearable and allows for more consistent studying. LLM Student

Food! It's easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of eating, like buying loads of expensive processed stuff that you eat alone. Try finding people in your flat that you can do an online shop with so you all have a cheaply but healthily stocked fridge and cupboard at the beginning of the week. It saves you a trip to town and makes sure you're speaking to people and working with them on something every week. Cooking with friends is also a great way of having a cheap get-together! Everyone can pay you a pound or two for ingredients and help you cook a big meal. No money spent on expensive booze and the meal's a fun, filling one. MA, Arts and Humanities

If you have any issues, just go out and talk. Ask someone, get help; however bad you think your situation is. Don't suffer in silence.

MSc Student

Try to be organized by making myself a schedule for the coming week. Go to bed early and get up early. Being productive by improving the efficiency rather than merely devoting time. I have found some effective means to pull myself out of feeling down, such as getting some sunshine, sleeping, seeing smiles from particular people. Facing the tough work directly instead of evading it. Study is an important source of my happiness, but it is not all: I also give myself time to do sports, play music, communicate with human and non-human, and see the world. MA Visual Arts & Culture

I try to make sure that I get regular exercise, because that really helps me to unwind and feel better at the end of the day. I try to work relatively regular hours and not work too late at night to ensure that I can sleep properly. When I feel myself getting too stressed, I try listening to music and going for a short walk, or phoning a friend and that helps to make things feel more manageable. PhD Education Studies

Sleep, Exercise, the outdoors and Fun... It is super easy to forget the normal things when you are caught up in the academic/library/Durham bubble! MA Archaeology

Sometimes I find it helps to remember that doing a postgraduate degree is meant to be difficult, and so it's normal to have periods when you feel a bit lost or unsure. Durham Uni has a habit of making it look like all your peers know exactly what they're doing, which can make your struggles feel horribly magnified. But if you talk honestly with each other, you usually realise that everyone has their ups and downs. PhD Theology & Religion


Sometimes, I ask myself to care a little more about the people around me, and give a smile to the people I meet every day, even to the strangers. When I have started to do such things, I begin to feel positive to myself and my own life here. MA Visual Arts & Culture

I try to use my voice to make friends and family comfortable to talk openly about mental health and wellbeing. I also try to share advice from my own experiences about how best to cope with the challenging times at uni, and where possible make people aware of the different support that is available. PhD Education Studies

Not being afraid to say that you're not okay. Personally I have found that being open and honest with how you're feeling both to yourself and to others is really helpful and supportive. Talking and expressing how you feel even when it is not that great will both help you and encourage those around you to do the same to you. MA Archaeology

I try and keep an eye out for people that 'drop off the radar' - fellow TAs, the people I used to see in seminars but haven't for a while. I then drop them a message - better to check and discover they're fine and busy than to not check and find out later down the line that they're really struggling! PhD Theology & Religion

SOURCES OF SUPPORT If you are worried about your mental health or wellbeing, you should contact your college’s Student Support officers, and your GP. Both will be able to support you, and to signpost you to further sources of help. For St John’s College, email johns.studentsupport@durham.ac.uk At Ustinov College, email ustinov.studentsupport@durham.ac.uk The below lists several other sources of support by category. Further advice and extensive resources can be found by visiting https://www.dur.ac.uk/counselling.service/ With thanks to Michael Priestley and Students Against Depression for help collating these signposts.

Internal Organisations Durham Students’ Union Advice and Help Service An independent practical advice and support service for students at Durham University. Tel: 0191 334 1777 Email: dsu.advice@durham.ac.uk Durham University Counselling Service Professional counselling and mental health advice services for students at Durham University. Tel: 0191 334 2200 Email: counsel.service@dur.ac.uk

Online Resources Students against Depression A student-led website offering both student experiences, guidance and strategies and clinically based information, advice and self-help resources for students affected by depression and suicidal thinking. Visit: https://www.studentsagainstdepression.org Student Minds Online student advice, information, support resources and signposting for coping with the challenges of student life. Visit: http://www.studentminds.org.uk/resources.html

Support by Phone Nightline A student-led listening service providing confidential emotional peer support for students, available from 21:00 each night during term time. Tel: 0191 334 6328 Samaritans A confidential 24 hour listening service for anyone experiencing emotional distress. Tel: 0191 384 2727 Email: jo@samaritans.org Papyrus HOPELine A HOPELine for people under 35 at risk of suicide. Tel: 0800 068 41 41 www.papyrus-uk.org/ SANEline A helpline offering specific and specialist support, guidance and information to anyone affected by mental illness. Tel: 0300 304 7000

Support by Phone or Email Anxiety UK A helpline providing information and support for people experiencing anxiety. Tel: 08444 775 774 Text: 07537 416 905 Email: support@anxietyuk.org.uk BEAT Eating Disorders Studentline A helpline specifically for students with eating disorders. Tel: 0808 801 0811 Email: studentline@beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Apps MindShift A free app providing information and strategies on anxiety and perfectionism. CalmHarm A free app providing tasks to help resist the urge to self-harm. Headspace A free app providing guided meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Images courtesy of Durham University

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St John's and Ustinov Postgraduate Wellbeing Handbook  

This Postgraduate Wellbeing Handbook is a collaborative effort between St John's and Ustinov College. It contains advice, submitted by stude...

St John's and Ustinov Postgraduate Wellbeing Handbook  

This Postgraduate Wellbeing Handbook is a collaborative effort between St John's and Ustinov College. It contains advice, submitted by stude...