What comes to your mind when you hear the word research? Inquiry, questioning, discovery, evidence-based, hard work, challenging? Indeed, research work can be exciting, mystical, and stimulating but also very challenging and stressful. Afonso (2018) said many scholars at post-secondary institutions are experiencing mental distress, especially some minority researchers, who double-struggle every day with hostility and hindrance. However, even though researchers struggle with anxiety, stress, lack of appetite, sleep deprivation, and conflicts in relationships that affect their lives, it seems they are expected to leave all personal experiences at home whenever they enter academia. This expectation can be made even more difficult when work life and home life occur under the same roof. Ultimately, it’s not often that researchers’ self-care is considered or studied explicitly.
Post by Gwen Nguyen, advisor, Learning + Teaching at BCcampus
My five years (2015–2020) of doing research at an institution without knowing how to stay well in academia is good evidence of how young scholars and new researchers can be unaware of the importance of self-care and uncertain about how to find support when their well-being is affected. In the first Research Fellow Drop-in offering, on September 27, 2022, the BCcampus Learning + Teaching team empowered the featured talk “Promoting Researcher Self-Care” with the hope to support our fellows to stay well, strong and safe during the time they carry out research projects with us.
One of the most-quoted statements on self-care is from Audre Lorde’s discussion on this uncommon topic in academia: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare” (1988, p. 130). Self-care is not luxurious for all, including for researchers. And building support and self-awareness cannot be an optional or add-on activity. Nonetheless, as Boynton (2021) noted, “It is an act of rebellion and resistance. You value yourself, and so you care for yourself” (p. 38). Self-care is a practice and an ongoing journey.
As a scholar, although I still find it hard to juggle research work, teaching or other academic duties alongside family responsibilities, I wish to take this opportunity to share some of my favourite tips for taking care of yourself during research, inspired by Being Well in Academia: Ways to Feel Stronger, Safer and More Connected (Boynton, 2021).
1. Write a love letter to yourself as a researcher.
Have you done this before? Just like we find ways to express our first love, this piece of advice can remind you how clumsy, exciting, and fresh it can be when you try to revisit your hopes and dreams from before you came to your research path. Whether you came here to fulfil your love of learning, explore new things, see the world differently, or secure a better job, writing a love letter is a chance to reflect on the big “why” and what you are grateful for. As with any other path, there are days when you probably feel like you’ve climbed Olympia, and on others, you are on a roller-coaster or racetrack. This reflective activity will help you realize it’s normal to experience the research “blues,” such as uncertainty, anxiety, or unhappiness, and you can be ready to confront what’s next.
2. Create a powerful support network.
It is important to speak out and reach out. This should be one of the very first steps in building resilience and practicing self-care (Boynton, 2017). In the Research Companion blog, Boynton (2022) detailed how we should learn to connect with others as researchers. Your support network ranges from your family and friends to your institutions, research cohorts, or academic social networks. Are you familiar with research repositories (e.g., Zotero.org, ResearchGate, Mendeley.com, Academia.Edu, Orcid, Google Scholar, LinkedIn, Our-research.org) where you can save your work, update current and past projects, and connect with others who are working in the same areas?
Also, please remember you have talents and stories many others would be eager to know about. Perhaps make a list of what you love about yourself in academia and come to those research communities to share as excitedly as little children come to Show and Tell Day. Did you know you can share your research stories through Ask Me Anything posts on Reddit, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube? And if you are on Twitter, consider volunteering on rotating curator accounts such as, @500QueerSci; @IndigenousX, @MinoritySTEM, @IAmSciArt, etc.
3. Love yourself as much as you love your phone.
I laughed when I read the section called “Treat Yourself as You Do Your Phone” (Boynton, 2021, p. 67). Yet just as people often forget the part “as thyself” in the Bible saying, “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” I love this simple and funny reminder. Why not? You usually put a cover on your phone, create a strong password to protect it, and ensure updates are installed. You check in with it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. And importantly, you probably also never let the battery go to zero. Some of my research fellows mention how they lack sleep and are trapped in an unmotivated state while doing research and caring for family members. What if you give yourself the same amount of care per day? What if you try to keep yourself safe and have backup plans if things go wrong? It is important that you give yourself plenty of quality time and never let yourself get exhausted, because this shows how you learn not to let research take over your life.
4. Make a little change every day.
Often researchers think of big changes such as reinventing the wheel. Nevertheless, little things can mean a lot. If you find yourself in a distressing situation, unable to write, try to make a small change every day. It can be very small. If you normally have ice cream, why not try bubble tea? If you usually stay at your desk writing or mooning around YouTube, why not take an alternate walk around your neighbourhood? Get up half an hour earlier or later. Have fruit instead of toast. Take an alternate route to work. Have lunch in the park. Meet up with a friend. Eat your favourite dish.
If you are still there, consider trying a rapid intervention activity called 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two favourite smells, and one kind thing you can tell yourself.
Now take a deep breath and remember that it is okay not to know everything. Research is a journey of learning and becoming together. To that end, please take good care of yourself and stay well!
- BCcampus Research
- BCcampus Mixtape Podcast: The Ritual of Self-Care
- Why Self-Care Isn’t Selfish: Caring for Yourself During COVID-19
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Afonso, A. (2018). How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang. LSE Impact Blog. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/12/11/how-academia-resembles-a-drug-gang/
Boynton, P. (2021). Being well in academia: Ways to feel stronger, safer and more connected. Routledge.
Boynton. (2017). The research companion: A practical guide for those in social sciences, health and development (2nd edition). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315688909
Lorde, A. (1988). A Burst of Light: And Other Essays. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books