Ever talked to your supervisor about self-care? — R Voice

Ever talked to your supervisor about self-care?

Andrea Hayward
Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 315 admin

Lately, I've been seeing a lot of conversations on Twitter in which people have been talking about kind supervisors -- those that encourage them to take breaks, to steer away from overworking themselves, who are sensitive to their mental health difficulties, and who even encourage them to to take time off when they need it and take care of themselves. I was very glad to read about these experiences and am always grateful for kindness and compassion in academia. BUT, one thing didn't quite sit well with me - Many of the folks who were sharing their experiences deemed themselves "lucky" and "very fortunate" to have such great supervisors. The reason this bothered me is because stories like these shouldn't be one-off. They should be the norm and such positive experiences shouldn't be reserved for only the "lucky ones" in academia.

All of this has inspired my question for the day - Has your supervisor (current or past) ever started a conversation with you about the importance of taking breaks when you really need them and/or taking care of yourself?

Has this topic ever featured in your conversations with your supervisor? I'd love to hear your experiences. :)

Comments

  • Soumi Paul
    Soumi Paul Member Posts: 134 ✭✭✭✭

    You are right in saying such talk should be normal. But, the reality is absolutely something different. Those who mentioned themselves as lucky are very right in saying so. At least I can say that Indian researchers are suffering from a lack of opportunities to enroll for a Ph.D., scholarships, project funding, the lab infrastructures, recommendations, motivations, etc. Totally unsure what the future holds for them in terms of a career post-Ph.D. Under this scenario, having a guide to talk about mental help is really a privilege. Those who get it are certainly lucky. Availing good education first get selected by the economic status one belongs, then the luck to find good people, opportunity, etc. It is the reality.

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 199 ✭✭✭✭

    I love (and hate) that point you make in bold @andreadyanne azores@Andrea Hayward about the fact that we talk about being lucky or fortunate to have a supportive supervisor. Love it because it needs to be said, hate it because it is a thing. I am guilty as charged for that. I do believe that I'm very fortunate to have the supervisor I have who is supportive of me as a person and genuinely wants success for her students/post-docs whether that's in her lab or not. I consider myself lucky because I know a few people doing similar and totally different work who have less than supportive supervisors.

    However, I also believe that there is an element of making your own luck. That is not me saying that everyone should know exactly what they're getting into beforehand, but I think we need to normalise that PhD interviews are for prospective students to interview their potential supervisors too. Choosing a PhD is about more than institution prestige and the project. It was something I was hyper-aware of before I applied for PhDs and I went into my interview with all the nerves that I had to perform, but also very conscious that I wanted to click/get good vibes from the person/people who were to supervise me. It is a tough one, I don't know what I would have done if I had had the exact same journey but my supervisor wasn't who they were. I have found talking out loud to my husband before these decisions really helpful. That way when I get excited and have the adrenaline of the interview or whatever, he can pull me back down to earth and remind me of the things I said I wanted objectively.

    Anyway...sorry to answer the question you asked: YES! Very regularly actually. I would say my supervisor is a good "people person" - she has a gauge on each of her PhD students/post-docs. How do we like to work? What are our development areas? When are we burnt out/getting there? My supervisor keeps telling me I need to take a break and "recover" from my PhD before I start my post-doc when I ask if there's anything else for me to do. During my PhD she would check in when she thought necessary but also, despite her super busy calendar, if she sensed there was something wrong she would make the time to fit you in. In the space of 10 mins she would hear you out, offer support and make you feel great. That is a skill I hope one day to have! She has always encouraged me to take breaks when I need them and not to just push through if I'm struggling. For a long time her support actually made me worry more about my productivity - I wasn't sure if she would actually tell me if I was slacking. As I've progressed and seen the different group of people come through her lab I realise that is not the case! Even though rationally, I knew it wasn't in anyone's interests for her not to push when needed, I needed to see it. To me, that's part of the support she gives!

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 315 admin

    @Soumi Paul I agree with you - the tragic, heart-breaking reality is that this is nowhere close to being the norm at the moment. And I honestly hope that starting conversations like these could be the start of a much-needed change. It's a shame that such a system has been normalized in which empathy and understanding is a privilege, but I completely understand where you're coming from. Sigh. 😓

    If you don't mind me asking, what has your own experience been on this front? Have you been in a situation where you could openly talk to your supervisor about taking breaks and/or taking care of yourself?

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 315 admin

    @Shruti Turner thank you for sharing your thoughts on this in such detail. First of, I want to say that your supervisor sounds like a gem of a person! I love that you've highlighted that she genuinely wants success for you. I understand how rare this can be in today's academic setup that is rife with competition, and I'm happy that you have someone like her in your corner. Your description of how she talks to each PhD students makes me feel like she is heavily invested in each of your journeys and that she wants you to be well as much as she wants you to succeed. I'm very happy to see that "recovery" and "taking breaks" feature in your conversations with your supervisor. I'm sure that others would do well to follow her example and learn from her supportive approach. Academia could sure use more kindness and humanity!

    I found the second paragraph of your comment very interesting and I'm still thinking about it. I feel like I've always viewed PhD students to be on the receiving end of PhD interviews. But the points you make are very valid about gauging vibes and consciously evaluating where you click with the person who could potentially supervise you. At the same time, we've spoken so much about privilege and being fortunate that I'm questioning how many PhD students actually have this privilege of choice when it comes to a supervisor and whether the opportunities are so few that they have to go with what's available. I could be wrong of course, but it's interesting to think about.

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 199 ✭✭✭✭

    @Andrea Hayward Yes - I am so grateful to my supervisor and if I ever have the privilege of being a PI, I hope to emulate some of her qualities.

    I feel like I should clarify here as reading back over my response before I didn't highlight the point you make about the privilege of PhD students having the choice - thank you! You're totally right that sometimes given the circumstances there may be very limited (or only one!) choice.

    I guess I feel like everything in life comes with sacrifice or compromise...we can't always get what we want, how we want and when we want. I would have had a very difficult decision to face if I had gone to my interview and not clicked/liked my supervisor. The idea of turning down a prestigious university, for a funding PhD that I cared about would have been heartbreaking. I genuinely don't know what decision I would have made, I like to think that I would have turned down the offer and found something else great in an environment that suited me. But - who knows.

    As I look back at my PhD time with the benefits of hindsight, things that are good for reflection and to share but are also guiding my future journey, there are a few key things I keep in mind:

    • the pros of great supervisor outweigh a less good project/less prestigious institution - they will get you through
    • just because the institution is ranked highly, it doesn't mean that lab/department is right for you (and that's not a bad thing)
    • your research is unlikely to be what you applied for (even without a global pandemic) - my research was on a different course to what I imagined even before the pandemic, when it changed even more. Without the support of my supervisor, I'm not sure I would have got to submission stage.

    It's potentially easy for me to say these things with my good experiences. I am very aware that my next move might not be so positive and I might have the luxury of these choices. My number one priority is looking after my mental health, having been in a fair few dark places I know I don't want to go back to them. So, whilst I have always been ambitious career-wise, I know I won't succeed if I don't look after myself and if that means taking a step back or changing path to put myself in an environment that suits me, I think that's what I need to do. As I weigh up the options I have next these are the things I am keeping in mind. I want to be part of a research team/environment that delivers what I think I need to have at the top of my priority list.

  • Soumi Paul
    Soumi Paul Member Posts: 134 ✭✭✭✭

    Not a chance. My first guide was brutal. She thought research means sacrificing sleep, health, weekends, and everything. My present guide is much better than the previous one, though. But ma'am always talks about finishing Ph.D. as soon as possible, never breaks. Although she motivates me about my work, the idea of the break won't be approved by her.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 315 admin
    edited July 5

    @Shruti Turner this is a beautiful sentiment and I wish more people in academia would try to live by this line of thinking -  I am so grateful to my supervisor and if I ever have the privilege of being a PI, I hope to emulate some of her qualities. ❤️

    Thank you also for addressing the point on privilege and for sharing some great guiding principles that helped you make your own decision. I don't have much to add because I agree with most of what you've said. I found myself nodding along as I read your comment 🙂

    I was very happy to see that your number one priority is looking after your mental health. Speaking from my own efforts and experiences here, this is definitely easier said that done. Guess we'll keep learning and growing as we move along. The fact that we're actively thinking about our mental health and talking about the need to take better care of ourselves is everything!

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 199 ✭✭✭✭

    Thank you, @Andrea Hayward. If I'm honest, I feel this is the sort of sentiment that would be great if it extended into the rest of life. I feel there is so much that people do because they feel like they can get away with it because others do, rather than trying to rise above. that and be better. I feel like this is part of the problem in Academia too...the approach of "well I had it tough so you should too" type thing. I hope with communities like this one we can pave a new path and a new environment.

    I agree definitely that looking after our own mental health is much easier said than done. Even as I sit here on this rainy Monday morning trying to get myself to focus on work, I wonder why it is that I can't take my own advice! Your last couple of sentences in your post have really given me a reminder that the journey is a tough one, but we're doing alright in the grand scheme of things! Thank you :)

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 315 admin

    Oh no @Soumi Paul I'm sorry to hear about the experience with your previous guide. No one should have to feel like they need to prioritize work over basic needs like sleep and health and I'm very sorry you had to go through this. 😔

    I'm glad to learn that the situation with your current guide is much better and I hope it continues improving. Maybe you could try having an honest conversation with your guide about how not having enough breaks is hampering your productivity? Or something to this effect? I really hope that you both can find common ground and that she starts understanding your needs better. You deserve to feel like you can take a break whenever your mind and body needs it. Sending hugs! 🤗

  • Soumi Paul
    Soumi Paul Member Posts: 134 ✭✭✭✭

    Actually, my present guide is not having the kind of physical difficulties I am having. Or, it's more like she has better immunity to cope with physical pains than me. She can not feel what I am feeling. We do not share common ground. So, unfortunately, I know very well that I can not have this discussion of the break with her. Anyways, if anyone takes a break in our country, it is seen as something negative always. So, maybe ma'am is unconsciously following that psychology.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 315 admin

    @Soumi Paul I understand where you're coming from and the fact that you've been so thoughtful and empathetic in sensing and realizing how your guide feels about this, makes me even more sad that you're not getting the same in return. I really hope that talking about it here at least is a slight respite for you 😔

    You make an excellent point about this being a cultural thing and something that is so ingrained in people that they don't even realize they're doing it or that it's out of the ordinary. I've come across people like this as well and agree that it can be mighty frustrating to try and explain your perspective to them (Sigh).

  • Soumi Paul
    Soumi Paul Member Posts: 134 ✭✭✭✭

    It definitely feels better to express my point of view here. We are living in a complex mixture of human psychology. Thus, interaction with every single person is unique. I used to think I can interact with everyone I prefer the same way, and if I find someone uncomfortable to talk with, I shall avoid talking to the person. But now I know that the interaction should happen in a person-specific pattern, irrespective of the closeness or likeliness you share with that person.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 315 admin

    @Soumi Paul interesting point! I agree that in order to communicate effectively, you sometimes have to alter your manner of speaking and interacting such that the intended person will relate and understand you well enough. I thought about this for a while and realized that (like you said), how close you are to the person or even how they feel about you might not matter. A classic example of this for me would me how differently I'd speak to my Dad and Mom, even though I might be talking about the exact same thing. 😅

  • Soumi Paul
    Soumi Paul Member Posts: 134 ✭✭✭✭

    The same happens to me too, while talking with my parents. 😁

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