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When Mel went for a wander and came up with a theory

Autum and flowers

It’s March folks, and officially autumn and after such a spectacular summer I have started to notice that it is getting a bit cooler. Recently on a wander home from work the other day I started thinking how the different seasons of the year are similar to different seasons one experiences when undertaking a PhD or Master’s. I wanted to explore this idea further so I caught up with Brian Johnston our Personal Performance Coach to see if there was any truth to a wandering admin staff member’s theory.

Mel Adams, Graduate Research School

Mel: So the reason for this interview was I was wondering if the seasons in the year reflect the different seasons one may experience when doing a PhD or Master’s? Is it the case that there is a summer period when things are going really well, winter season you find it is hard and you are less productive? Do you think there is any truth to this wandering admin staff member’s theory or as an admin staff member I should stick to pushing paper around my desk? <Never! Says Claire>

Brian: I think you should stick to pushing paper around your desk! No, only kidding J. I think there is a lot to be said about your theory but I’ll try and keep it brief. In many ways the season’s parallel the PhD and the Master’s candidates experience. There are periods when the sun shines, it not only rains, but it pours and there’s calm before the storm!

Four seasons of BrianMel: As there is merit to a wandering admin staff member’s theory, how would you describe the different seasons of a PhD? For example what would summer be in the PhD/Master’s journey?

Brian: The summer can be an exciting time. When the sun is shining, we have blue skies and all is calm, we may feel a sense of optimism and all is well with the world. We smile more, feel more energised and more open to others and opportunities. When all’s going well with our postgraduate studies, we can experience a similar sense of optimism and excitement and be open to new learning and new ideas.

Spring can be a time for new beginnings. The doom and gloom of winter is gone and we can emerge into lighter days and nights. We have a “spring in our step” (pun intended), the buds are appearing on the trees and bushes and there’s new growth. This is the time of new born lambs (aw!) and for many a time for change and creativity. Again this mirror’s some postgraduates’ study experience.

There can be “dark” times during the Master’s/PhD experience and it seems there will never be “light at the end of the tunnel”. But then things begin to change and there can be a sense and experiencing of “new growth”. Progress may be slow but a new spring dawn brings lighter days and a feeling of renewal or reconnection with their thesis.

Mel: Do you think it is important to have a ‘winter’ period?

Brian: I don’t know if I think it’s important but I think it is almost inescapable. It has been said that in order to experience the light we need to experience the dark. In order to experience joy, we need to experience despair. I am not sure I agree with that.

In my work with postgraduates we consider the academic rigour and stamina each student needs to run the marathon of the PhD. It cannot be a sprint to the end. To succeed and “cross the finish line” requires perseverance and the ability to push through even when the “path of least resistance” would be to give up. Undertaking postgraduate study challenges many students’ resilience and tests their character strengths. Winter can have a similar affect for many of us. Often it would be easier to stay in bed, conserve our energy and avoid facing the day ahead. It requires effort, energy and determination to motivate ourselves during the cold, harsh Dunedin winters, but remember spring will arrive and we can embrace the day with new energy.

Winter ght

Mel: Do you have advice for students on how to capitalise on each season? For example, should you you acknowledge that you are in a winter period but develop means of making the most of it?

Brian: I’ve probably answered this question in part above. However I would add that I truly believe that the seasons can affect our moods, energy levels and our abilities to work at our optimal best. And yet many employers expect their employees (and that includes postgraduate students) to work to their capacity all year round! My advice is to do the best we can, when we can. Develop a holistic approach to our life ensuring we listen to our body – eat well, sleep well and pace ourselves throughout the year.

Mel: What happens if things are going well personally (summer) but not academically (it’s winter) or vice versa? How do you cope with this? (wear a raincoat with sunnies???)

Brian: This has been a great summer in Dunedin. Lots of days for the sunnies! Oh if only this were the norm! Again I think it’s all about getting the right balance. Hopefully each of us can make the most of our “summers” (believe it or not, some people work best in the winter!), springs, autumns AND winters.

Build up the academic and personal “stamina” needed to run the postgraduate marathon. Keep your eye on the finishing line and visualise the enormous sense of satisfaction and achievement you will feel once you cross the finishing line.

Summer

Mel: How can you deal with worries about winter periods in your PhD/Master’s during summer periods?

Brian: Accept that “worries”, winter and summer days are a natural process of postgraduate study. We all have down days and we all have up days. Hopefully the ‘summer” days well outweigh the winter days. Once again, pay attention to creating a life/study balance. Develop the strategies you need to keep healthy, positive and don’t overdo it. Take regular breaks, eat well, exercise – even in the cold winter days and build up your resilience to “weather all storms”. Seek support from family, friends and fellow students – “A problem shared is a problem halved.

If you are keen to catch up with Brian for a one to one session to help with motivation and your studies you can book an appointment.  Contact details on his webpage.

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