Natsha Kitano, Language and Learning Educator and Kirsten Baird-Bate, PhD candidate
Queensland University of Technology
Reflections of HDR Lounge by facilitator
Mental health and wellbeing have been in the spotlight in the university sector for some years. Higher degree research (HDR) students are at a particular risk of developing depression and mental health problems (Levecque et al., 2017). This post is both a response to the ACGR Good Practice Guidelines for Mental Health and Wellbeing and a look into how QUT is acting to support the wellbeing of HDR students through the reflections of an HDR student at QUT’s HDR Writer’s Well-being Lounge (the HDR Lounge). Providing mental health support to HDR students was one of my motivations for the creation of the HDR Lounge at the start of 2020.
The scheduling of its launch was timely as the impacts felt by COVID and lockdowns were about to further exacerbate the isolation often felt by this cohort of students. As the Language and Learning Educator with QUT’s Graduate Research Education & Development (GRE+D) team, I have developed an understanding of the importance of creating a space where HDR students can connect virtually to do focused writing sprints, reflect on their writing and have the opportunity to safely discuss wellbeing related topics relevant to the HDR cohort, such as imposter syndrome, identity post-PhD, the importance of exercise, burnout prevention, supervisory relationships etc. Below is the reflection from a regular HDR Lounge attendee.
Reflections on wellbeing by HDR student
My PhD focusses on wellbeing; specifically, how primary carers conceptualise wellbeing and the factors which promote/inhibit wellbeing outcomes. In my own research, to better understand wellbeing experiences, I invite primary carers to share their stories with the hope these insights may contribute to the development of more effective policies and support for primary carers, their children, and families.
Similarly, here I share my experience of wellbeing as a PhD candidate in the hope of contributing to the ongoing conversation around supporting mental health and wellbeing of graduate research candidates. Using a socioecological lens and drawing on my understandings of wellbeing as an Educational Researcher, I reflect on how QUT’s HDR Lounge supports my wellbeing.
My experience of wellbeing as a PhD Candidate
Typical of many students undertaking a PhD, my experience of wellbeing is influenced by the heavy candidature load, as well as the financial readjustment of this fulltime endeavour. This commitment rubs against the demands of parenting, my role as a primary carer, and needs to navigate around my partner’s work and travel commitments. Mostly, I am aware that our living in regional Australia drives feelings of disconnection from campus, colleagues, and professional development opportunities and has influenced confidence in my professional identity. My individual sense of wellbeing then is nested within my family system and is also shaped by broader socioecological contexts.
From a socioecological perspective, an individual is inseparable from their surrounding environments (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Take, for example, how COVID is fundamentally changing the way we live – our culture, laws, media reporting; our services and systems; our formal and informal support networks; our ways of working and relating. COVID has shaken the tertiary sector and continues to shift the academic and research landscapes, thus shrouding future career trajectories. But we are not merely “a tabula rasa” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p.21), simply at the effect of our environment. We are active agents in our worlds: we restructure, adapt, and acquire the new skills in which to adapt (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). We continually change and are changed by our environments (Shelton, 2019).
Caption: While daily beach walks support aspects of my wellbeing, it was the minimal connection to campus and colleagues that most influenced my wellbeing as a HDR student. The ACGR Guidelines recommend “focusing on modifiable factors that universities can influence” – and this is what QUT has done.
Locking down vs. opening up
Similar to other universities, QUT’s response to COVID lockdowns has been to shift from on-campus to online ways of working and learning. While for some, this agile or smart way of working has negatively impacted their feelings of wellbeing, including their capacity to learn/produce, and sense of professional identity (Riva et al., 2021), as an external student, I have positively benefited from these shifts. This online migration has made available a suite of HDR workshops that were previously out of my reach. The HDR Lounge has been one of those opportunities.
Connection to people
The most obvious way that the Lounge supports my wellbeing is the opportunity to regularly connect with colleagues. The HDR journey is synonymous with heightened feelings of isolation, (Cantor, 2019; Janta, et al., 2014) yet social connections impact our brain, health, and wellbeing. Positive social relationships are foundational to physical and psychological well-being (Cacioppo, et al., 2000), and social isolation is strongly associated with feelings of ill health (Cacioppo, et al.,2000). More recent studies show it is more our perception of isolation (versus physical, objective isolation) that most influences health outcomes (Cacioppo, et al., 2014). I know my perceived isolation arises from feeling the people around me cannot understand or relate to the concept of a PhD.
Loneliness also impacts cognitive wellbeing, and consequently productivity and academic outcomes. When we feel lonely, sad, or stressed, our pre-frontal cortex works less efficiently (Diamond, 2014). It is our pre-frontal cortex which controls our executive functioning skills, that is, our ability to think, plan, organise, problem solve, comprehend; to think flexibly and creatively; to be self-disciplined. Executive functioning skills are essential on this wild PhD ride! And! can be optimised through social connections.
Connection to place and identity
The Lounge offers more than just an opportunity to support wellbeing through social connections. It also offers a connection to Place. If I am to be honest, though I enjoy connecting with others, as an external student, I struggle more with the minimal contact with the University. I miss the synergy of campus, the discussion of ideas, the cycle of learning, and the interesting opportunities. The Lounge has thrown me a lifeline and enabled me to stay connected to the University in a virtual way.
In the era of COVID, there is some research showing that the migration to online working and learning results in a sense of “placelessness” (Riva, et al., 2021, p. 80), diminishing wellbeing through the loss of professional identity. For me though, the opposite may be true as the Lounge supports my wellbeing though regular connection into a learning space. Some associated Lounge discussions have also provided an opportunity to think about and reflect on my identity as an early career researcher and academic, and this reflective process has stirred a sense of confidence in this regard.
Development of a practice
While the Lounge offers a connection to these broader collective energies, it is also a space for independent writing, and it is this balance that I find beneficial.
I am a mum; I am busy, I am juggling multiple timelines; acting as PA to 3 children; getting meals out, ironing uniforms, dealing with meltdowns; and still needing to hit deadlines. It is not a whinge; it is an indication of how I need to manage my time (and energy) to ensure my wellbeing (my family’s wellbeing) and my milestones are all met. Essential, for me, is the need for quiet, uninterrupted time and to learn tools to help me manage time and contribute to productivity.
The Lounge represents these opportunities. It quarantines time to just write: to turn the phone and inbox off and write! It was Aristotle who said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”. The Lounge offers a weekly opportunity to hone this essential skill – as well as equipping me with the tools I need to scaffold an ongoing independent writing practice. The Pomodoro timer, for example, is incredibly beneficial to use when I have small windows of time which I wish to maximise through a burst of writing. Or, if I am having trouble starting, or need to find that grit to keep going. The timer both motivates me and holds me accountable.
Experiences of wellbeing are complex and individualised and the times we are living in are also complicated and changing. QUT will continue to support HDRs by focussing on the “modifiable factors” (AGCR, 2021, p. 2) and continue to create measures to support student mental health and wellbeing. The HDR Lounge is one ‘place’ for HDRs to connect with their cohort, the University, and the professional learning and development opportunities needed to successfully complete the candidature, and life beyond.
Aristotle, editor. Nicomachean Ethics: Loeb Classical Library. 1926. p. 73version XIX Ethica Nicomachea, 4th century BC)
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