Last Friday I wrote a post about why self-care is important for making it through academia. I’m blown away by all the views and responses I received this week. People shared their experiences of seeking support within their graduate programs, many of them expressing a desire for self-care to be given more consideration in academic institutions. I am encouraged by these conversations because it reflects a broader effort to re-envision what it means to be an academic. For many of us, self-care is something we had to learn by ourselves, for ourselves. There was no guide for how to practice self-care as we pursued our studies. No graduate seminars about how to balance academic work with the rest of our lives. We figured it out as we went along – after we felt our lives were unbalanced, or when we were burnt out and ready to quit.

We shouldn’t have to get to this point before we recognize the importance of taking care of ourselves throughout our academic careers. Realizing the necessity of self-care too late can have damaging consequences. It can result in the inability to complete a graduate degree, with hours of work, tuition money, and financial assistance lost. It can lead to serious mental and physical health issues that impact one’s capacity to get through each day.

When I started my PhD program, I made a promise to myself I was going to do things differently this time around. Unlike my Master’s program, I was going to give my personal needs the same level of priority as academic deadlines and commitments. This goal required me to rethink how I did academic work because it meant I had to stop measuring myself against professors, peers, and other academics. What was the benefit of comparing myself to them, anyways? The only thing this comparison produced was guilt. I’d look at what others were doing and think I wasn’t doing enough to distinguish myself as an academic; for example, not attending enough conferences, or publishing enough papers. This guilt made me doubt my abilities as an academic. I felt like I couldn’t hack it. All this guilt and pressure had to stop.

 

Checking in With Myself

The first step I made in practicing self-care was to check in with myself regularly. This evaluation was not dependent upon whether I was keeping up with other academics. It was based on my own sense of progress, taking into consideration all my needs, not just my academic ones. Four years later, I still maintain this practice to balance my priorities. I ask myself questions such as:

– Have I taken time to cook myself healthy meals in the past week?
– Have I incorporated any physical activity into my day today?
– Have I spent time with my friends and family this month?
– Have I done something small for myself today?
– Have I been a supportive partner, even with the increased academic workload of the past two weeks?
– Am I receiving enough academic support from my advisor right now, or do I need to touch base about my research progress?

These questions keep me grounded and help me to readjust my priorities if needed. They are also a reminder that academia is only one part of my life, just one aspect of my identity. I jot down my answers in a notebook so I can keep track of how I’m doing. I keep note of my accomplishments, like when I make headway in my writing, or when I learn a new hobby. I also write down things that concern me and take extra care to resolve them. Perhaps I notice I haven’t been eating well lately, or maybe I need to make an effort to connect with friends I’ve been out of touch with for a while.

Although there’s no “one size fits all” to self-care, I always find it useful to talk with others and share experiences. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about other practical ways I’ve incorporated self-care into my academic work. The next post will discuss practices I’ve used to stay motivated in my writing, and protect from burn out. My hope is to to add to the current conversations about self-care, and to help push for its importance within academic institutions.

 

Photo by Dingzeyu Li.