10 Nov

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!

06 Oct

five nourishing things

I started this last week really, really tired. I was worn out physically after a busy week, lots of driving and several nights of only a few hours sleep, and I was worn out emotionally because last week was pretty tumultuous. I had an early morning chat with a friend who challenged me to do five nourishing things for myself during the day. So I’ve kind of taken this on as a challenge for every day. And I am really finding it helpful.

Here are some of the things I’ve been doing.

Little things

These are the little things that don’t take a lot of effort but have a lot of impact.

Starting the day with a green smoothie

For the last fortnight, I’ve been having a smoothie for breakfast every day (and one for a snack in the afternoon, too). This week I screwed up all my courage and graduated to green smoothies and surprisingly, I am loving them. They are refreshing and filling and satisfying, and (the biggest surprise of all!) delicious. Here’s the recipe for my current favourite.

Breakfast banana blueberry smoothie

  • 200ml almond milk
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla yoghurt
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla protein powder
  • 1/4 cup frozen blueberries
  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1 tablespoon shredded coconut
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • 8-10 pieces of ice

Drinking lots of water

When I work at the office, I drink heaps of water. When I work from home, I don’t. Lately I’ve been making a concerted effort to drink lots of water. This week I switched back to having a bottle of water on my desk so I remember to drink up big.


It’s not actually normal to have aching hands or a bit of a dead feeling in your arm. Who would’ve thought? This week I went looking for some hand stretches and worked through them a couple of times.

Going to bed really early

I went to bed at 8.30pm one night and my light was out by 9pm. Unheard of! Unfortunately I couldn’t back this up with another early night the next night, but I did get a couple of early nights during the week.

Listening to new music

I’m not sure how this is possible, but I didn’t know about Spotify until this week. Well, I knew about it, I just didn’t give it much thought. When I’m having an average day or I need a productivity boost I usually go and buy some new tracks on iTunes. But now I know about Spotify, I can have new music all day long.

Knocking off at normal o’clock

Since I’ve been on sabbatical, I have noticed I can’t work as many hours in a day as I do when I have all my usual work commitments. Working on one concentrated task – particularly when that task is analysis – needs to be confined to a certain amount of hours each day. I have learned that I can put in about six hours on analysis in a day, as long as I use the Pomodoro Technique to break the work up and take regular breaks. So this week I knocked off at 6pm a couple of days – completely, not just from PhD.

Going out. At night. Like a grown up (or even just going out for coffee during the day)

One night last week I went out. At 8.30pm. And had a cocktail. Just one, and I was only out for about an hour. But it was kind of nice. While I was out, my sister called and she wanted me to check if I had something at my house. I had to say ‘I’m out’ three times before she understood and it wasn’t because she wasn’t listening. It’s just that I don’t go out. Which is a bit ridiculous, really. At 8.30pm I’m usually stuffed and staring mindlessly at the TV, or I’ve abandoned my desk in favour of sitting on the lounge with my laptop, or I’m teaching. So I’ve just gotten into the habit of hanging out at home. Normally this isn’t a problem, but at the moment I am climbing the walls at home because I haven’t been into the office for three weeks. Getting out of my PJs (because I was, of course, already in them) and leaving the house was really, really good for my sanity. I also made a point of getting out to get a coffee or pick up some fruit a couple of days this week too.

Whacking on a face mask

Pretty self explanatory! This isn’t a difficult thing – you’ve just got to think of it ten minutes before you have a shower and then you’re all set.

Bigger things

These things take a little bit more effort, time or money, but they make a big difference.

Having an extra massage

I have been having fortnightly massages since I’ve been on sabbatical, but this week I was really sore and pretty stressed, so I had an extra massage. This takes time, effort and money, and since it’s remedial massage, it involves some discomfort. But I always feel so much better the next day.

Cleaning up my online life

I was forced to do some long overdue website maintenance and I turned that into a prompt to clean up all my sites. I spent most of yesterday updating content management systems and plugins and just generally tidying up my sites and my server space. I plan to extend this to tidying up all of my online presences in the next little while – including changing passwords, because this whole project was prompted by a compromised password.

Having a PhD free weekend

There’s a difference between taking a day off purposefully and having one accidentally (that is, as a product of procrastination). The main difference is that the latter never ends up feeling like a proper day off. Yesterday morning I realised I didn’t have any PhD energy in me, so I just did other work and I didn’t let the PhD guilt get a hold. That’s not an easy feat, but I did it. This morning I had to do some errands and when I got home I felt so tired it was distinctly possible that I was already asleep and just didn’t know it. So I didn’t do any PhD work today either. I also didn’t do the other work I should have done because it was also analysis and I just didn’t have it in me. And I think this break from thinky thinking was the very smartest thing I could do, because for the first time in many weeks, I actually *want* to dive back into my analysis and I’m looking forward to getting on with it tomorrow.

Getting my eyes tested

I caught myself leaning right into my monitor when I was working on a spreadsheet and it reminded me that my annual eye test was actually about four years overdue. So I made an appointment and got my eyes tested and ordered new glasses.

Future things

This week I’m going to extend the list and incorporate some new stuff into my five nurturing things. I might even blog them each day… Or at least compile them into a post at the end of the week.

Do you have any suggestions for nurturing things I should try?