Research Student-made Wellbeing

PhDiaries: Managing Opportunity Overwhelm

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One thing I was excited about when starting my PhD was all the opportunities to write, read, research and present.

I love getting stuck into new things but equally find it a challenge to see smaller tasks and projects through to the finish line on a short-term basis. However, as time as progressed, I have realised there are many systems and structures around opportunities that either are very much what I want to take on and those that I really do not.

I have faced many moments of opportunity overwhelm and spoken to many others to gain perspective on managing this overwhelm and manage what I really want to make time for during my project. This blog post shares some of the things I am learning along the way to help centre myself during times of feeling guilty or worried about missing out on opportunities.

Your values

Personal values can be extremely helpful in reminding yourself why you are doing your PhD, and help you prioritise the opportunities you really want to go for or need to do.

Reminding myself of these has helped to decide what I want to do with my time during my PhD; events I really wanted to attend, writing and publishing opportunities I am passionate about, rather tick box exercises. It has helped me to prioritise time for me around my PhD and to not feel pressured all the time to focus on my studies. Focusing on my values has also helped me to seek out opportunities in the places and networks I already work in rather than pushing myself too much to look for newness. This has saved me a lot of energy and gives me more time for hobbies not related to my research.

Your long-term goals

I talk about this with a huge caveat and understanding that long-term thinking can be extremely challenging for many and personally I have had times where I just could not think long-term. And that’s absolutely okay.

However, thinking about what I actually want to progress to can help shape the opportunities I want to choose to take on. For example, thinking what I really want long-term (both in an academic environment and outside of this – including work outside of academia) has helped me to gain so much perspective and to recognise the PhD as a small point in time and to not worry about grabbing every opportunity despite the pressures to do so. Long-term goals inside and outside of your PhD experience may also differ depending on your subject areas. Don’t be afraid to investigate different ways to make things work for you in order to meet those long-term goals. Also, it’s totally fine if your long-term goals change too!

Your health

Attempting and taking on lots of opportunities at once, especially at already busy times has taken a toll on my health. For example, I attempted to write a journal article around the Christmas break and realised it was too much for me because I wanted to prioritise time with friends and family after a challenging first year with my PhD.

It became something I was doing for the sake of it, and it was adding more pressure to me around a time when my body was winding down during winter. I felt like a failure at points for not continuing with this, however I knew the writing would come in helpful at another time. Giving up this opportunity meant I could rest and have fun during the Christmas period after a challenging year yet had a great basis for a conference paper that I managed to write during another stressful time period.

The difference with this was that I wanted to do the conference paper too, whereas the journal article again felt like a tick box exercise the more I continued to write it and felt like I wasn’t meeting the requirements in time.

Overall, I have found that intentionally choosing to commit to opportunities that are important to or of interest to me, my PhD and future is where stretching myself has been beneficial and caused minimal stress. This is different to the continuous stress I have experienced in the past when I felt compelled to go for every opportunity, which resulted in burnout.

I have also found it is important to try things even if I have started something and then stopped. I use the above thought processes to help me either complete a piece of work or decide to stop and wait for another opportunity that works better for me. I feel there can be a lot of shame around having these boundaries, but nothing is ever wasted and can be used at another point.

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