the hidden costs of doing a phd (and 7 tips for minimising them)

In a single hour the other day, I moaned to a friend three separate times about being broken. First I had a headache, then sore hands, and then my eyes were blurry. Which prompted her to ask me if I read the latest Thesis Whisperer post about the ups and downs of PhD research.

I did read the post, and the first thing I thought was how much the entire thing resonated with me. In particular, I could relate to the idea of becoming a she-devil during analysis (will this phase ever end?!) and the impact on your body. I had a laugh to myself about how hilarious it would be to write a blog post about how much I’ve spent on physio and massage since I’ve been on sabbatical. I thought to myself, ‘Ha ha ha! Let’s share my physio’s joke about this being the most expensive dissertation in the world!’

And then I decided it wouldn’t be hilarious at all. It would just be a bit sad, really.

On reflection, I decided to write the post for realz. The fact is, no one tells you about the impact full time PhDing can have on your body, so I was really glad to see the physical impacts of PhDing come up in the Thesis Whisper post. I kind of expected it to have an impact on my body, but not to the extent it has. I usually work long hours anyway so I didn’t envisage it being a huge problem. But this PhD work is different. It’s more intensive, and involves a lot more typing, lots of mousing as I code transcripts, peering at the screen as I work with spreadsheets, and a lot less variety. I don’t stop for meetings or to make videos (things I do frequently in a ‘normal’ work day), and in this phase, I’m not really stopping to read away from the computer either.

I was already a bit broken before I got into this six month sprint, so I booked in a massage every fortnight and physio in the alternate week from the get go. The reality is I’ve been to all those appointments plus had some additional massages.

And that means that by the time Christmas rolls around, I will have spent almost $2000 on massage and physio in my 6 month sabbatical. (Bill not helped by having used up the majority of my private health coverage for physio.) And that is assuming I don’t have any extra massages between now and Christmas, and given I’ve had a headache for about the last week, that’s probably pretty unlikely.

Granted, if I wasn’t compressing my analysis and write up into this chunk of time and trying to hit a pretty ambitious daily writing target for #acwrimo, I wouldn’t be working as intensively. But I still think this PhD gig would have a big impact on anyone’s body, regardless of how well you pace yourself across your candidacy, or how young, fit or healthy you might be when you start out.

So as well as sharing about my massage and physio spend, I thought I’d also share about the things I do to help minimise the impact (and cap my massage spend!). (Do I need to say I’m not a health professional and this isn’t advice? Probably. I’m not the former, and this isn’t the latter – just sharing what works for me.)

1. Stretch

I use my 15 minute Pomodoro breaks (I do 45/15 Pomodoro sessions instead of the usual 25/5) to get up and stretch. I do hand and arm stretches and neck stretches regularly. These are easy to do because you don’t even have to get up from your desk. You can even buy a poster or cards with these stretches on them – I just ordered a set of the cards to keep on my desk. I also lie on a foam roll (I use a pool noodle but you can get proper stretching rolls) to stretch my back (or you can use a rolled up towel), but if you work in an office, you could do seated back stretches.

2. Free massage

Nothing beats a good massage but there are some tricks I use at home in between. I use a tennis ball for trigger points in my back – just put it between your back and a wall and roll it into place. I also massage the back of my forearm by running my other forearm across it (you can also use a tennis ball). Lastly, I have a Posture Pro (cheapest I’ve seen them is about $35) and it is pretty awesome. It’s a similar idea to the tennis ball but great for getting in just either side of your spine. There are heaps of self-massage tutorials around the web so whatever ails you, odds are you can find a way to help yourself.

3. Variety

Ideally, I try to get some variety in my down time – but I have to confess I’m not great at this. Unfortunately, one of my favourite down time activities is sewing and I have learned this only makes my headaches worse. When I sew, I sit in a similar position as I do when I’m working and I lean in to the machine, so it just makes all those tight neck muscles even tighter. So I either have to not sew or be really conscious about my posture.

4. Check yourself

While I’m talking about being conscious of things, the other thing I try to keep a check on is what I’m doing with my jaw. When I’m thinking I tend to kind of squint my eyes and tense my jaw at the same time. So I try to consciously check my jaw to make sure I’m not clenching it. I don’t grind my teeth but I do clench and it is a really, really hard habit to break.

5. Hydrate

I drink heaps of water. I get a lot of headaches and while I know they come from my neck, they only get worse if I’m dehydrated. I have a huge (and I do mean huge – typically 800mls) green smoothie for breakfast and I keep a 1.5l bottle of water on my desk (I am to drink two bottles a day). I definitely feel better if I drink a lot of water.

6. Break up with codeine

I have learned that my relationship with codeine is built on unrequited love. I love it when it gets rid of my headaches, but it just turns round and repays my love with vagueness and rebound headaches. So I’ve pretty much stopped taking it, which is a big thing for me because codeine has been my friend (crutch?) for a very long time.

7. Prevent problems

Lastly, you’ve got to do all this stuff consistently to avoid issues rather than using them to treat issues when they arise.

Six months ago I would have told you my top tip for managing PhD-induced headaches was codeine washed down with some caffeinated drink (preferably Coke). It’s kind of nice to write a blog post about being proactive with getting to the root of the issue rather than just masking the symptoms with codeine and caffeine. I am just a little bit proud of myself!

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