Navigating the murkiness of emotional wellbeing in a PhD project on sexual violence

Recently, I spoke about my experiences of conducting doctoral research on sexual violence as someone who has experienced many forms of sexual violence and will likely experience further violence in the future. I spoke about the impact of sexual violence, the stress of doing a PhD, and my history of mental health issues. These three factors have compounded in the time that I have been working towards my PhD and I have had several lapses in mental health in that time. I cannot erase my experiences with mental health and violence but I can find ways to grant myself permission to be kind to myself.

My PhD explores the sexual culture of amateur Australian footballers and involved a component of interviewing women about their sexual experiences with amateur Australian Rules footballers, a significant proportion of whom had experienced sexual violence. I had not adequately considered my emotional wellbeing through this process and this had not been a significant concern of ethics boards or academics who had reviewed my work, many of whom were more concerned with my physical safety when interviewing men. My supervisor had suggested that I have a counsellor on standby, in case any issues arose because of my experiences with sexual violence. However, being involved and embedded in thinking about sexual violence as a survivor and being confronted by others who had experienced this, has been especially difficult to navigate in a loud national and global conversation about sexual violence. I was not prepared for the toll of speaking intimately with women who had experienced sexual violence and the retraumatising effects of having these experiences dismissed by others including colleagues, friends, family, and members of the public.

The strategies that I have developed to keep myself afloat during the PhD process are purposefully broad and suspiciously simple. But these strategies have been helpful for me and are things that I come back to time and time again. These strategies are limited in their simplicity and are very individualised. Developing strategies for navigating emotional wellbeing should be part of a bigger conversation about taking doctoral students’ wellbeing seriously and structuring processes to consider wellbeing in research design, subverting institutional processes that encourage cultures of exploitation and hyper competitiveness, and preserving research culture in an increasingly individualised climate.

In the talks that I gave at Space and Place, TASA and AWGSA, I detailed 5 key strategies that I have developed out of necessity and numerous discussions with a writing and support group that I coordinate for PhD students who research gender, sex and sexuality.

Extract yourself

Take breaks

Claim your expertise

Access support

Embrace change

Extract yourself

There is an overwhelming pressure in academic work, especially as a novice researcher, to have an answer to any and every question you might be asked about your topic. This pressure for me meant that I felt a necessity to continuously consume commentary on sexual violence and during the #MeToo era there was a lot to consume and a lot of people, friends, family, peers, colleagues and supervisors , who wanted to know my thoughts. I also found myself woefully unprepared for the disclosures of experiences with sexual violence that would follow almost any time I would speak about my research. These experiences made me redefine what constituted academic “work”, create boundaries around my working practices, and limit my engagement with sexual violence outside of my academic work. For me, this meant limiting my work time to business hours only, but this may not be useful or practical for others. Other strategies could include finding other ways to keep on top of public commentary, such as subscribing to newsletters or recaps from alliances or associations; setting boundaries with friends, family, and colleagues.

I have also found that I needed to develop habits, hobbies or “capability exercises” outside of the PhD so that my sense of worth is not derived completely from my academic work. This is not always an easy task but is essential for ensuring that you have something that makes you feel capable and worthy when your research endures pitfalls. It is important to remember that your ability to complete a PhD thesis is not the only thing that makes you worthy.

Take breaks

This strategy is about managing time and energy in order to avoid becoming emotionally drained and burning out. It is necessary to acknowledge that constant work is not sustainable and that no one is productive 100% of the time. Breaks do not need to constitute time away from the project or from work altogether. This can mean alternating between tasks depending on your energy levels and the way that you work. There are many different aspects of academic work and many different ways to work. It is necessary to structure breaks into working processes and acknowledge this in research design, especially in regard to fieldwork. For me, this has meant scheduling a debrief following interviews and not committing to any other kind of work on fieldwork days, on the recommendation of my counsellor. Sometimes taking care of you might be necessary on non-fieldwork days that take a toll for other reasons. Some of my strategies are to take the time to do a form of exercise that I enjoy, eat my lunch outside, going for a walk around the Flinders lake, or on particularly hard days I might visit the beach. The important thing is recognising when you need to be kind to yourself, figuring out what you need, and granting yourself permission to take time out.

Claim your expertise

There is a long trend in certain academic disciplines of acknowledging and appreciating personal connections to research topics through methods such as insider research and autoethnography. However, it can be difficult to feel empowered to claim personal experience as expertise in institutions that value positivist research and in non-academic spaces.

The experiences that I have had with people being dismissive of my research has motivated me to assert that PhD students should claim the label of ‘expert’ and their personal experiences as a form of expertise. Although it been important for me to claim my insider status as a sexual violence survivor within my research, it has been especially helpful in combatting dismissive attitudes from others outside of academia. Insisting that my research is based in a mixture of theoretical and practical expertise has helped to minimise some of the more hostile opponents to my research and has reminded less hostile dissenters of the ‘real world’ element of my work. Positioning yourself as an expert also has the benefit of opening up opportunities such as media commentating, if you are advocating for yourself and others on a variety of platforms including informal conversation and in online spaces.

Access support

When I am asked to give advice to new PhD students, my first piece of wisdom is always: find your squad. My experience of doing a PhD completely shifted once I had created a network of people around me who study similar topics, through a writing and support group for gender, sex and sexuality PhDs. For PhD students, your “squad” are unlikely to be academic staff. In the current higher education climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for supervisors to do pastoral care and the complex power relations within a supervision relationship make this process fraught. This means that the best people to discuss issues with supervision, milestones, anxieties, imposter syndrome are usually your PhD colleagues. Your fellow students are your future colleagues and networks that you will call on throughout your PhD and the rest of your career. This is not to say that you should not make connections with academic staff in your field, in fact this is evidence of a strong research culture. You should be prepared to be surprised by who in your network might be the most “useful” to you. This could be other academics in completely unrelated fields, activists, professionals in your field, students or members of the public.

Emotional wellbeing is not often considered as a requirement in ethics procedures but should be considered in the context of researcher safety, including appropriate access to formal support within their institutions. Although formal support is becoming increasingly difficult to access in university settings, the importance of this kind of quality support cannot be understated. In the current higher education climate, when research cultures are weakened in favour of individualised efforts, and mental health and wellbeing outcomes are worsening, it is more important than ever that universities invest in their people and provide access to formal counselling support. With an acknowledgement that services are declining in availability, I would advocate that PhD students develop relationships with on campus counsellors. These professionals do not need to be your main source of support but should be viewed as a service that can be used to document struggles throughout the research journey in order to support you in milestone requirements.

Other sources of formal support are necessary to help to support wellbeing throughout the PhD process and can help you to develop a toolbox to look after your wellbeing when delving into sensitive topics. It is also necessary to have professional support or something similar as an outlet to debrief about sensitive matter that arises in fieldwork.

Embrace change

A PhD is a long commitment and a massive undertaking. Circumstances change, your capacity will change. A PhD will teach you a range of skills related to personal and professional development, especially if you are a researching a topic that you feel personally invested in or if it reflects your personal experiences. One key skill that you will learn is flexibility and adapting your tasks to your capabilities. You will be forced to learn to draw on your strengths and I hope that you learn to embrace them too. Embrace change and see it as a sign of development in a research journey. Change does not mean that anyone has failed. It is a skill to recognise necessity to change and to initiate it in order to move research along and to care for yourself.

If something isn’t working, try something new. Do not be so hard on yourself if you cannot concentrate on writing for 8 hours a day, try something new or take a break. Recognise that very few people can work solidly on something intensive like writing for long stretches at a time. Do not make yourself miserable by sitting in your office from 9–5 if it is not the way that you like to work. Mix up your working environments, tasks, and schedule from time to time to see what fits best with your working style. Keep your supervisors in the loop as things change.

Supervision is one of the primary factors that can make or break a candidature. Despite this, institutions do not seem to adequately communicate with research students about the ease in changing supervisors and the necessity to do so if there is some sort of breakdown in the supervision relationship. Supervisors should also be empowered to step down if their circumstances change, their student is exhibiting toxic behaviour, or they no longer feel that their expertise fits the project. If supervisors feel compelled to supervise projects that they are not comfortable supervising, this represents a significant problem with our current messaging around supervision.

Research projects change over time as ideas develop and hurdles appear. Change is almost a constant part of research. However, I have seen research students agonise over needing to adapt their projects when they have bitten off more than they can chew, a partnership breaks down, or other developments in their field emerge. My project has changed over time but has not differed significantly from my original idea and my passion for my research topic has endured. It is okay to adjust your project due to changing capabilities, in response to new scholarship, commitments of stakeholders, participant feedback, ethics processes, methodological issues, theoretical developments or changes to supervision arrangements among many other reasons. It is normal for research to change over time and become refined. This is a normal process that supervisors can help with.

Change is normal because you represent change. PhDs, other research students, and ECRs represent the future of education institutions and these institutions are changing whether we like it or not. If you feel like an imposter in traditional academic settings, this could be a good thing. Your way of being a scholar is valuable, especially if it does not look like what you think traditional academia is. Higher education is always changing and is made better by its diversity of people. You are here for a reason.

The goal of the PhD journey should not be merely to survive, but to thrive. At the end of the day, the research cannot happen without you. You, as the researcher, and your emotional wellbeing are always of primary importance. The research cannot override your own importance.

Thank you to my former counsellor, Katy Perisic, and my “squad”: Roxana Baratosy, Ashlee Borgivikist, Lizzy Emery, Angelica Harris-Faull, Bridget Jay, Simone Marangon, Lizzie Maughan, Amy Mead, Ashley Orr, Aisha Sultan, Kristy Urry, and all of the other members who pop in and out and offer their love, support, and wisdom