Self-Care and the Ph.D.

How the Ph.D. catapulted me into confronting and loving myself.

Amanda Baughan
4 min readSep 30, 2020

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” — Brené Brown

Research is the most personal field I’ve ever been in. Every decision you make is a reflection of you. Every paper is the culmination of who you are. So it’s important to take care of you.

Frankly, I started this PhD for the wrong reasons, both personally and professionally. I deeply wanted to live up to some perfect, high-achieving, and impressive image of myself. It was really a shock to my system over the first year, where I continuously looked for the guidebook on “how to succeed” in my PhD, and found none. At the time, I was so frustrated, because I spent most of my life observing and optimizing for different systems (high school, college, a corporate job). None of that helps with a PhD, because the PhD process is unique to each person. Now I understand that there is no one way to succeed in a PhD (or in life). My previous ways of living started to crumble.

My first year, I felt like a failure. It felt like every decision I made, and every step I tried to take, was flawed. I often felt like I was letting people down. Until recently, I was pretty entrenched in a battle with myself, trying to prove that I could be “perfect” in a field where I was still a beginner (and not perfect! What does it even mean to be a “perfect” researcher or engineer??) It was rough.

I would love to say I have a fun, easy, quick-fix to break out of this negative cycle, but I don’t. So, I’ll borrow language from Brené Brown and just say 2020 has involved a significant m̶e̶n̶t̶a̶l̶ ̶b̶r̶e̶a̶k̶d̶o̶w̶n̶ spiritual awakening. I’ve been catapulted from one way of being (anxious, defensive, perfectionist) to a completely unfamiliar one, in which I’m still trying to get to know and integrate my insecurities, shadows, and ground myself in self-confidence.

What I’ve learned in 2020 about self-care is this: self-care isn’t something that can be bought or sold, and there’s no one right or wrong way to do it. I do think that I benefit the most from self-care as a consistent habit (rather than a congratulatory “treat” — which is great too!) I approach my self-care as this: building a life that I don’t have to regularly escape from. My self-care involves reading books that increase my sense of well-being, going to therapy, doing healing body work (like massage or acupuncture), being in nature, and joyful movement such as yoga, hiking, and roller skating. While I love some of the more luxurious things that are sometimes considered self-care (fancy food, wine, bubble baths, vacations), I’ve found they’re not actually essential (or sustainable) to build into my every day routine. And as you might expect, by becoming more in touch with myself and my values, I’ve experienced more enthusiasm and focus in my research.

To my fellow PhD’s, I don’t have a step-by-step on self-care, and even if I did, I think it might leave you dissatisfied, because self-care is unique to everyone. So I will leave you with some questions to consider and some resources that I’ve found helpful.

Questions for initiating your self-care routine

  1. What energizes you?
  2. What ordinary moments fill you with gratitude? What do you have to be grateful for today?
  3. Do you need play or rest? How do you play? How do you rest?

If you don’t have answers for those questions, that’s okay! I’m still learning what my answers are. To start figuring these out, I highly recommend seeing a therapist if you have access. A therapist will help you build a sense of self-esteem that’s not based on what you produce, which is always uncertain, but rather who you are, and how to be a safe and loving home to yourself.

If you don’t have access to a therapist, there are many self-help resources out there — I love reading and listening to podcasts. What resonates with you may be different than what resonates for me, but I got a lot out of The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It is a great resource for perfectionists and overachievers (which describes many people in the PhD journey). I recommend it to everyone. It was my gateway self-help book.

And at the very least — if you feel like you’re struggling today, know that you are not alone. And I believe that it will get better.

Image from Flickr