Next week I am submitting my thesis (Woo!). At the start of the research journey, my Honours convenor gave us all a document titled ‘Honours survival guide’. Whilst immensely useful, it didn’t include any information about how to manage writing a thesis when you have a mental illness. So I decided to write my own survival guide for anyone else like me who was terrified of how they would cope with the pressure of writing a thesis whilst balancing their mental health. Here are some of my tips for surviving your thesis.
Study part time
I want to stress to you that it doesn’t make you inferior to others to study part-time. For me, I knew rationally that I needed to study part-time to protect my mental health. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was somehow failing or being weak by choosing to study part time. But at the end of the day, it is the same qualification so why sacrifice your mental health just to get the same result quicker?
Find an understanding research team
Find a supervisor who will work with you to manage your mental health as well as your thesis. I knew my supervisor was right for me when she actually asked me the details about my symptoms, what to look out for, and who to talk to if she was concerned about me. When I explained to her that stress was one of my biggest triggers for mood episodes she helped me put in place a plan to spread my workload and avoid stress as much as possible.
Research something you are passionate about
Writing a thesis is an uphill battle and at times feels impossible. Studying something you love makes a huge difference in tolerating these challenging moments. I personally researched women’s footy (something I love) and the impact of role models (something I’ve always been interested in). This made the hard slog of transcribing all my data and coding the focus groups a lot easier, as I was actually interested in the results.
Have other outlets
It can be really easy when you are writing a thesis to become consumed by it and to make it your entire life and identity. I found having hobbies like writing and playing sport important in terms of keeping me grounded throughout out the process. Seeing my friends was also a priority, even and especially, if I felt too busy.
Skip meetings if you need to
Laboratory meetings are great opportunities to network and get guidance from researchers more advanced than yourself. But sometimes I found myself just not having the mental energy to a) travel into uni, b) act like I had my shit together, and c) even think about research. I would often skip these meetings which lead to guilt and negative self-talk. But I learned that there was no point in me going when I was mentally unwell as I wasn’t going to take anything in.
Be honest (but not too honest) with your supervisor
If you can’t come to a meeting because you are too depressed, anxious, etc, then your supervisor has a right to know. But as much as your supervisor cares about you, it is still a professional relationship. So keep emails brief. Try ‘Hi L. Can we reschedule our meeting to next week? I’m a bit behind because I’ve been depressed the last couple of weeks. And I’d rather see you when I have something to show you. Thanks, Jess’. It can be tempting to overshare but try to avoid it.
Make generous time lines and be willing to change them
Be flexible. Allow yourself plenty of time. Allow for lapses and fluctuations in mental health. I personally aimed to have everything done a month earlier than I needed to so that if I ever got behind I actually had more time than I thought. This strategy saved me more times than I can count.
Getting an extension does not make you a failure. It does not make you weak. It is actually a sign of strength to recognise your own needs and ask others for help. When I had my mental health crisis three months ago I had to apply for extensions on my thesis and all of my course work. At the time I didn’t like admitting that I was struggling. But it was the best decision I ever made.
Let yourself rest
It is okay to do nothing, sometimes. You don’t have to be constantly working on your thesis to prove your worth and dedication. It can be really easy to compare yourself to other students and become convinced that they are doing more. But everyone has different needs and you need to respect your own needs for rest and social support.
Don’t wait until completion to be proud of yourself
It is important to celebrate every small victory. You aren’t suddenly worth-while when you have finished your thesis. You are always worth-while. Give yourself a pat on the back along the way and allow those small moments of success to really sit with you. They will help keep you going.
These are just some of the lessons I learnt from writing my thesis. Ultimately, it comes down to self-care. The most important thing when writing your thesis is to look after yourself; whatever that looks like for you. No piece of paper is worth sacrificing your mental health and wellbeing.