I have been meaning to write something for my blog for weeks. Being consistent with my writing is one of my goals for this year. I think I found my balance and routine after a hectic year. My mental health is kind of stable, although it’s a challenge to stay positive after 2 and a half months of lockdown and 10 months of a global pandemic. I have more time to dedicate to my hobbies and sharing my opinions and views on social media.
The past is beautiful because one never realises one emotion at the time. It expands later and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past. Virginia Wolf
Next week, I will have my first year review at work. I am excited to sit down with my manager and get feedback on how I changed professionally during the pandemic year. Getting constant feedback from senior members has been one of the best parts of moving to an industry job. With so much support, it is literally impossible to fail. Outside professional growth, the pandemic year has also been a journey of self-discovery and personal evolution. Two words have been floating around my head for months: manifestation and identity. Today, I will talk about identity.
During the last year, the major struggle was to find my own identity outside the PhD persona. All I have known for years was being a student and doing school stuff. Although I moved around often and got my degrees in different locations, there’s something that kept being constant while being at university: your path is already made up for you and the constant strive for perfection and success. From day one, you know the list of exams you have to pass to complete your studies and if you have questions you ask people ahead of you. You pass your first year, your second year, then you get your bachelor and master degree. The lectures are already made for you and you buy books to learn things. You most likely live in student or shared accommodations because this is what everyone does, and making friends is the easiest job because everyone is there to have a good time!
Being a student means that you follow a path that is already designed for you! After that you need to create your own.
As soon as you finish school, real life kicks in. I remember getting the letter with the council tax bills as soon as I finish my PhD. I was no longer eligible for 100% student discount. I was unemployed and had to add 160£ to my monthly bill overnight. DISASTER!! That was the first hint that life was about to change and the time as a student and uni life was never going to come back. That chapter of my life was over. GONE
I am not looking back because I’m not heading in that direction.
Fast forward, I found myself having a real job and moving to a different place. I no longer had my friends and familiar places. My habits, routines, places I used to visit, people I used to know where no longer there. All this happened in the pandemic year, in isolation, without seeing my family for more than 1 year. I was completely lost. The struggle made me question every single aspect of myself, of my identity, my decisions, whether following an untraditional path was worth the trouble or was I better off putting less afford in school and professional development and focusing more on having a family. At some point, all I saw around me were people having kids, making plans to marry, moving in together and using the lockdown as a pivotal moment to finally achieve their relationship goals. Instead, all I had was myself in a non-familiar place.
Every struggle provides you with the opportunity to rise!
A lot of things helped in the transition of becoming me, Teresa outside the science, the PhD persona or the social media public profile.
SETTING BOUNDARIES: learning how to say no, protecting my mental space, my energy and enjoying my time off. As women, we are taught to be accomodating, nice and put the need of others before yours. The good news is that you don’t have to do any of this. You are not a nice person if you are a constant people pleaser. You don’t look good if helping others means dying deep inside. How did I achieve this? By stop doing science communication and deleting my Twitter page. Once I got my job as a research scientist and left academia, there was no point in keeping moving in those circles. I didn’t have to prove my knowledge to a bunch of strangers or using my free time to teach people about science. It ended up in being constantly burned out during my PhD and frankly no of the strangers I was “helping” paid for my therapy sessions and meds. It took a lot of mental strength to get rid of the toxic academic mentality that you have to be everything for everyone and work round the clock to prove that you are worth your spot in the system.
Everything that costs your mental health is too expensive and you are not selfish if you decide to set boundaries!
FINDING HOBBIES AND ACTIVITIES THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR JOB OR PROFESSION. Since March, I have been trying to find activities to enjoy my spare time that have nothing to do with science. I do exercise a lot after work, go hiking and yoga. I want to be more consistent with my blogging too because I love it so much. Plus, as soon as restrictions are lifted, I will completely transform my Instagram page in a travelling/lifestyle account. It will help me getting outside the house, exploring and visiting new places, meeting new people and enjoying beautiful Kent, as all I have seen in the last 10 months is #lockdownlife.
NORMALISING SPENDING TIME ALONE WITH YOURSELF AND YOUR OWN FEELING: do you actually enjoy your own company? do you feel comfortable with yourself? I do now, but this has been a long-achievement. I hated spending time with myself, I was constantly looking for people or things to do to avoid being alone. This is also a bit of an outcome of student life when you are constantly surrounded by people. Once you move to a job, you quickly realise that your circle of friends shrinks by a large fraction. Meditation and learning about mindfulness techniques were extremely helpful to refocus my attention on me without constantly seeking the company and validation of people. How many people I hang around with do not define how cool I am, at all. And spending time by myself was extremely helpful to actually realise what I like, what I don’t, the people I want to hang around, those I don’t want to see even from a long-range distance, who I give the gift of my time and friendship and those who I couldn’t care less because they aren’t even worth a minute of my time.
MAKING PLANS FOR THE FUTURE: And I don’t mean writing in a weekly planner or making to-do lists. Although this helps in creating routines and being consistent with your goals, I am mostly talking of vision boards and long-term achievements. Where do you see yourself in 1, 5, 10 years? You tend not to ask yourself these questions in school, because you are too young and immature to plan and prepare for the next 10 years of your life. All you want is to pass the mid-term review, the one year report or kill that presentation. This is something I have been learning: weigh the impact of every decision I make in the short and long term. Learning from the past, I noticed that every aspect of who I am today is the outcome of the decisions I took 5, 3 or 2 years ago. Back then, I was more in the mindset of “let’s do things because it’s cool or because everyone does it”. Little did I know of how a decision made in a split second 5 years ago was about to change everything. One of these was deciding to lose weight for example or starting a blog to document my experience as a PhD student. They literally changed my life!
To conclude, this is by no means a guide on how to live your life. You do you. Since transitioning from school to adulthood is a big transformation and can be a lot more exasperating in lockdown, in the middle of a public health and economic crisis, I wanted to give my perspective on what I did to take control of the things I could to start the next chapter of my life. Yes, because life starts when you finish school and leave academia, not the other way round!