Study on PhD student wellbeing: positive psychology interventions

I look back on my PhD as one of the best periods of my life. It was very demanding but I enjoyed the sense of ownership and progression, and I had a great ‘family’ of other PhD-ers around me. I watched some of my peers really struggle though, with all kinds of things including having family to care for, difficult supervisors and a general lack of motivation. I too found it an overwhelming emotional burden at times. However, I had already acquired certain skills and resilience to manage this. I’ve always been fairly good at self-motivation and I tried to look after myself with regular yoga, meditation and exercise.

At the beginning of 2016 I was employed on a three-month research project on doctoral student wellbeing and access to support. Our findings have recently been published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Immediately after the research post ended I was pleased to be employed with student services at the University of Southampton to work on the implementation of recommendations arising from the project. This included the launch of a ‘5-Ways to Wellbeing’ campaign, new PhD support website, mindfulness classes and a draft of recommendations for supervisors. An earlier draft of our journal paper included an in-depth look at recommendations for supporting student wellbeing. It draws on the positive psychology literature to discuss resilience-building activities. Because it was cut from the paper I thought I publish some of this missing section myself here! But first, some context –

Student mental health is a pressing concern and whilst much of the emphasis has been on undergraduate students, a few studies have turned their attention to postgraduate students. We might expect that, being fully-fledged adults, PhD students are better equipped to deal with academic demands. However, when you consider that a full-time PhD usually lasts at least three years, requires a huge sustained mental effort, involves working alone or at least isolated in your thoughts, and leads to a very precarious job situation at the end, you can see why people struggle. On top of that, you’re at the age where you might have children to look after, want a mortgage and see your friends in well-paid ‘normal’ jobs. Many people now do PhD’s part-time whilst working, eurgh! Many leave their home country/city to do their PhD. And everyone, at some point, feels totally and utterly stupid.

The mental health of Flemish doctoral students was highlighted in a recent academic study (Levecque et al 2017). The data found 51 per cent of students had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health over the course of their research degree, and 40 per cent, three or more symptoms. Work-life balance was the strongest indicator of psychological distress according to Levecque et al’s study, closely followed by job demands (i.e. workload). This same study found that doctoral students were significantly more likely to be affected by poor mental health than the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students in total. Our own study, which you can read about in the paper, found a prevalence of anxiety, stress and depression. 20% of our students said they’d been to their doctor about feelings of mental distress since starting their PhD and more than 10% had attended counselling. We concluded that the university needed a more proactive stance on mental health. Drawing on Positive Psychology was a fruitful approach to develop ideas for building resilience; thoughts outlined below:

Positive psychology reinforces the notion that psychological capital can build on an individuals’ strengths in order to provide the resources needed to form positive outcomes in ones’ relationships, wellbeing, academic and professional success. A focus on wellbeing, and thus psychological capital, has been increasing in the workplace over the last decade. Positive Psychological capital (PsyCap) is defined as:

“an individual’s positive psychological state of development characterized by: (1) having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks; (2) making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future; (3) persevering toward the goals, and when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed; and (4) when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resilience) to attain success” (Luthans, Youssef, et al., 2007, p. 3).

The discipline of positive psychology has three main concerns, understanding positive emotions, understanding positive individual traits and understanding positive institutions. This triad encompasses the holistic, joined up approach we believe is necessary for doctoral student support. As an example, positive emotions have been found to momentarily improve individual performance and broaden thought-action repertoires responsible for building enduring personal resources. With performance seemingly key to researcher wellbeing, it seems reasonable to assume that promoting positive emotions can improve doctoral experiences and thus success.

Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are treatment methods or intentional activities that aim to cultivate positive feelings, behaviours, or cognitions. PPIs can, according to Donaldson et al (2015), be categorised into five key areas; mindfulness and meditation based, coaching interventions, strength-based interventions, affect-based interventions and gratitude interventions. They can be delivered on an individual basis, in groups or online. I will now focus on the first three here, starting with mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness is a popular intervention and its status as a recognised wellbeing technique has increased hugely in recent years. It includes various methods such as yoga meditation, mindfulness based cognitive behavioural therapy and stress-management programmes. Structured mindfulness training delivered as an incremental course has been found to have positive effects on stress management, resilience and subjective wellbeing in a range of groups, including students. Doctoral researchers in our focus groups asked for more opportunities to take part in mindfulness training. The challenge comes in offering this to a wide range of students with limited institutional resources, and in encouraging students to stay for the 8-week course. Such initiatives need to be embedded in cultural change whereby students (and staff) understand the benefits of taking proactive steps to support their mental health.

Another PPI highlighted by Donaldson et al (2015) is coaching interventions. Most of these were rooted in what they call a solution-based cognitive model; identifying areas of ones’ life that could be improved through dedicated steps. In a higher education setting we are more likely to refer to coaching as mentoring, again something raised in the focus groups as a preferred method of dedicated doctoral support. As a PPI, coaching has been found to increase cognitive resilience and hope, increase goal attainment and related feelings of wellbeing and enhance self-motivation and engagement.

The final PPI I wish to focus on is Strength-based intervention. This is about focusing on stengths rather than weaknesses. Proyer et al (2015) shun the term weakness completely, in favour of ‘lesser strengths’. The study found that focusing interventions on character strengths improved happiness and ameliorated feelings of depression. They used a list of 24 character strengths, suggesting that every individual possesses three to seven strengths that characterise them best. Focusing on activities that use these strengths promote excitement, increasing life-satisfaction, self-awareness and long-term wellbeing. This seems particularly interesting to consider in the case of doctoral researchers, who are often plagued with self-doubt and peer comparison. Strength-based interventions could be incorporated organically into postgraduate teacher training, benefiting both the doctoral student and their students.

Personally, I can’t imagine my life without yoga. I also practice general mindfulness and Autogenic Training. I learnt long ago to focus on what I have achieved rather than what I haven’t, and I know that stress is bad for my health and indeed my productivity so I try not to let things get to me!

Donaldson, S.I., Dollwet, M. and Rao, M.A. (2015) Happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning revisited: Examining the peer-reviewed literature linked to positive psychology, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10:3, 185-195

Levecque, K., Ansel, F., Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. and Gisle, L. 2017. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46: 868-879

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. M., and Avolio, B. J. (2007). Psychological capital: Developing the human competitive edge. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press

Proyer, R.T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S. and Ruch, W. (2015) Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 456

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Diverse Economies and Alternative Channels of Consumption

A couple of months ago I went to a fascinating conference/workshop organised by the Geography department at the University of Leicester. It was called ‘Diverse Alternatives: living, working and playing differently in the capitalist mainstream’ and followed the department’s distinguished annual lecture by Professor Katherine Gibson (of J-K Gibson Graham) which was held the previous evening. J.K. Gibson-Graham is a pen name shared by feminist economic geographers – Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham. Their first book ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’ was published in 1996 and I read it last year – much of it over a fieldwork weekend in Newcastle, sat very contently in various coffee shops around the city.

My discovery of J-K Gibson Graham came at the perfect time as I’d be struggling to conceptualise what second-hand shopping (specifically the nearly new sales I study for my PhD) was. Was it an alternative form of consumption? Informal consumption? Inconspicuous consumption? Ordinary consumption? Whilst shopping as an activity and economic action has been studied now extensively by academics, second-hand consumption had been studied only a little. It had been pushed aside, yet it’s so common (isn’t it?). It’s fairly ordinary, yet so complex – perhaps that is what made it difficult to study. J-K Gibson Graham came to the rescue with their map of the diverse economy, the concept of which inspired the workshop I presented at in Leicester.

Gibson-Graham argue that whilst capitalist firms, wage labour, and market-oriented production produce the dominant discourse of the economy, a whole host of hidden labours and systems of exchange construct everyday life. The iceberg economy visualised here makes visible all other economic relations beyond wage labour and economic exchange.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

So much work goes into maintaining the capitalist economy and it often goes unrecognised. The work of Gibson-Graham calls for a new way to look at the economy – everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies. A diverse economy might be a voluntary run community cafe, a car sharing website or clothes swapping parties. Second-hand shopping or the general procuring of used goods is often considered ‘alternative’. How though, I ask, is the daily provisioning of a mother for her family ‘alternative’? And how is people passing on used clothes ‘alternative’ when we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years? If we’re talking about what’s novel historically, going to the shops every Saturday to buy a new dress would have been impossible for most people just a century ago. Shopping should be seen as ‘alternative’. Calling such diverse economies alternative (like second-hand stuff) just means they are alternative to the capitalist system. And capitalism is just that – a system, or an institution. It’s not life, it’s not the only way, it’s just one way. For this reason I really like the term diverse; it’s less loaded than alternative. The nearly new sales I study are a diverse economy.

Renowned geographer David Harvey has published a new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’. In it he says ‘the economic engine of capitalism is plainly in much difficulty.’ I haven’t read it yet but there is a section entitled ‘capitalism as a process or thing?’ and he calls for the need of an open forum ‘a global assembly, as it were — to consider where capital is, where it might be going and what should be done about it.’ Can anything be done about it? I don’t know. I’m not anti-capitalism, I just don’t think it should rule, but where capitalism is no other alternative gets a real look in. We just need to regain control of it as a system, not a way of life.

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Recent Guest Posts

I’ve had a few guest posts published recently –

Giving UK Ethical Fashion the Celebrity Treatment – La Leaf

La Leaf is a Berlin-based ethical fashion site. I was approached by the lovely Sarah, co-founder and editor of the site, to write about an aspect of ethical fashion from my UK-based perspective. Drawing on my recent trip to Zandra’s Rhodes penthouse for the launch of her latest collaborative collection with People Tree, I wrote about the rise of the celebrity in eco-fashion and what we can learn from the food industry.

Crossing Disciplines – From Fashion Undergrad to Geography PhD – PhD2Published

PhD2Published was set up in 2010 by Charlotte Frost as a resource for helping early career researchers to get their first academic book published. It now provides all sorts of advice for PhD students and ECRs. I wrote this blog to share my experiences of moving into social science from a strong background in fashion.

PhD Publishing Strategies – Which Journal? – Geographypostgrads.com

Geographypostgrads.com is the University of Southampton Geography blog for our own postgrads to contribute too and which I edit. I wrote this post to explain my thoughts on academic publishing and the strategy I’m using to help myself move across to sociology.

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Writing About Consumption

“The single main problem with conventional writing about consumption is that it seems to consist largely of authors who wish to claim that they are deep by trying to show how everyone else is shallow.” (Miller 2012, p. 107)

This is my new favourite quote. I don’t want to divulge my key findings, nor do I have time to get into a debate about this now but it’s a nice reminder of subjectivity and the self-importance of researchers, because rightly or wrongly I definitely could have fallen into this trap.

My PhD is all about consumption of material goods. Very early on, I had to make the distinction between consumption and consumerism. Consumption is a crucial element of social life and should be addressed as such. More than simply an act of purchase, consumption is a continuous process of consuming/partaking in/using up a good or service. It is intrinsic to everyday life and a way in which we construct meaning, assert identities and practice acts of love. Consumerism has more negative connotations. It is defined by the ‘desire’ rhetoric rather than ‘need’ and is a fundamental part of the postmodern era I view as distinguished by choice.

I’ve been rewriting my thesis literature review recently and it has been great to go back and see how all of the existing knowledge fits together, and how my studies add to the debates. Without exception humans require some level of consumption in order to survive and to meet basic physiological needs, but consumption over and above this has sparked widespread interest amongst scholars as an avenue for exploring identity construction, socialisation, social class and the relationship between people and material things. I find all of this fascinating, and my approach to the literature review is so different to 2.5 years ago when I started drafting review documents. I can now critique it and discuss it, drawing on historical, sociological and geographical literature to provide a basis for my empirical work.

Consumption and its Consequences by Daniel Miller, 2012

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New Year Reflections 2014

Happy New Year! I hope you had a good Christmas. I certainly did, despite the fact that my parent’s house became a casualty in the storm that hit the South East. This was one end of my road when I was trying to get home on Christmas Eve, and when I did finally make it back I found the lounge under 8 inches of water and no power.
sussex flood
We spent Christmas at a house owned by the charity my mum works for – normally used as offices and a children’s centre – it accommodated us very well for two nights so we were the lucky ones. My thoughts were with all those who had nowhere else to go; the village next to ours were without power for days. Also very appreciative to all the engineers who worked hard over Christmas to get people reconnected.

Anyway, I was just reading back on the post I wrote this time last year. That’s the lovely thing about having a blog, it basically is a diary. You can read it too here. Work wise I’ve had a brilliant year. I’ve finished my fieldwork and had a very rough draft of one results chapter done before Christmas. Last year I wrote that my goal for 2013 was to get a journal paper published or in review and I’ve surpassed myself (if I may say that) by getting one empirical paper published, one commentary paper in press (due Jan/Feb) and being invited to write a book chapter. I travelled more this year than I have in a while – Amsterdam, Paris and Norway, Edinburgh twice, and for fieldwork I’ve travelled more than 4000 miles around the UK. Here is what else I did in 2013:

• In February I presented at the BSA Intimacies, Families and Practices of Consumption Conference in London. This was a lovely day and full of interesting talks. Following this the convenor’s Emma Casey and Yvette Taylor worked hard on developing a proposal for a book – “Intimacies, Critical Consumption & Diverse Economies” and before Christmas we found out this has the go-ahead from Palgrave Sociology so this is what I’ll be contributing a chapter too. I also wrote a commentary piece on “Second-hand consumption among middle-class mothers in the UK: thrift, distinction and risk” for Families, Relationships and Societies journal.
• I went back to Amsterdam in February to supervise the human geography undergrad fieldcourse. Being my second trip I felt a lot more comfortable and confident around the city and helping the students with their research projects.
• I co-organised the Ethical Fashion Futures workshop with fellow PhDer Ellie Tighe. It was a small but really successful event. We had great feedback on the day, giving people from a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds the chance to mingle and share ideas. It opened up more opportunities than I ever imagined, see below.
• After the workshop/conference day, Ellie and I were invited to give a talk on ethical fashion at the University of Southampton Multi-Disciplinary Week in March. This was recorded and is available to watch online (hence, it’s the most effort I’ve put into a presentation for a long time!). We also provided a brief interview and blog post.
• In July I was featured in the Guardian online, for my work on campus in promoting ethical fashion. This was really exciting, and mainly came about through the visibility of my blog and the coverage of the talks and events I’ve been involved with at Uni.
• In August I attended and presented at the Royal Geographical Society conference in South Kensington. I presented in the session “Economic Change and Children, Youth and Families: Current Experiences and Future Frontiers”. The RGS was really inspiring. I used to always call myself a ‘fake geographer’ but the RGS made me proud to say that I’m a geographer – I realised if I keep saying I’m a fake geographer people might start to believe me.
• I had the following peer reviewed paper published “Eco babies: reducing a parent’s ecological footprint with second-hand consumer goods”, International Journal of Green Economics.
• I launched Ethical High Street after months of consideration. Clearly the PhD is my priority for now but I’ll continue to add to EHS and hope that other people find it useful. I also had a bit of a brainwave today but I’ll mull over that for a while. The Christmas lull is good for developing thoughts!

2013 was the year I became surer of myself, academically. I’m never going to be the most intelligent but I’ve realised that within my niche I do know what I’m talking about. I’ve also realised that no academic knows everything within their subject – in fact, everyone is constantly learning and has to bluff their way through on occasions. A couple of months ago I attended a women in science and engineering professional development course. It was quite eye-opening, making me consider my goals, strengths and weaknesses and giving greater consideration to how I’m perceived. I think sometimes for self-preservation sake I play up to the fashion-girl image, I use the fact that I studied fashion for five years pre-PhD as an excuse. But as I’m leaving my department in a few months’ time, how do I want people to remember me? As the girl who sent round emails about tea and cake and wore leopard print jeans to work, or as a capable academic? I think I’d be happy with all of the above but not the former over the latter.

My PhD funding runs out in May! I hope to submit not long after and then move on to pastures new. When I started in 2011 I wasn’t planning for a career in academia but as the end gets nearer I find myself clinging on to that very option more and more. I really love research, I love learning, I love telling people about stuff and I love running my own schedule – where else can I do all that but as an academic? I’ve got a really busy six months coming up – thesis to write, book chapter to write, running seminars for two undergrad. modules (I had no teaching last semester) and I’m going to the Association of American Geographer’s conference in Florida!!

As for where I’ll be this time next year – well I could be sat at this same desk in Southampton or I could be half way around the world. Here’s to a great 2014 x

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Bored of Shopping? Christmas and Stuff

johnlewischristmas

Having now studied shopping for a few years, I think I’m finally well and truly bored of it – the act that is, not the research. It’s something that I’ve particularly noticed this year, as I wander round shops alone or with friends, my thought process is entirely different to how it was pre-PhD.

Although I’ve had an interest in ethical fashion for at least five years, ever since my undergraduate dissertation, it’s only in the last two years that I would say my shopping practices have radically changed. When I first started blogging about ethical fashion, I was still shopping quite a lot, buying the odd bit of fair trade fashion to supplement my normal clothing. It’s only in the last two years where I’ve delved deeper into the theory of consumption, the links to material culture and identity, the reasons behind why we shop, that I’ve been able to step back and look at my consumption decisions more subjectively. And it has taken the fun out of shopping.

I was lucky enough to win some John Lewis vouchers so I did much of my Christmas shopping there. It was a Thursday evening two weeks before Christmas, I had a list and wanted to get in and out pretty quickly. Back home, I put the shopping bags down in my living room, sat on the sofa and literally just stared at them for a while. I was trying to remember the last time I’d bought so much stuff. I’d also bought a couple of things for myself – new shoes and a duvet set from M&S. I felt like I had to make the most of being in a shopping mood and buy myself something whilst I had the chance.

Clothing wise, I don’t think I’ve bought anything more than a couple of t-shirts from ‘normal’ shops for myself this year. Oh, wait, I remember buying a dress from Monsoon! But I like Monsoon. I bought a couple of things online from People Tree, a couple of second-hand pieces on eBay, and a lot from charity shops. I’ve done really well with charity shops. The funny thing is I used to spend hundreds of pounds a year on clothes and this year without even trying, I clearly haven’t. I tried to buy myself a new dress for the Christmas parties but as I wandered the shops I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Everything I liked was £150+ and I’d rather spend that money on doing something fun (or a bread maker – perhaps it’s an age thing!), not on something I’ll only wear a few times if I’m lucky. The cheaper dresses, I just didn’t like them/don’t trust where they came from. All those sequins, how did they get there?

Every time I spot a new skirt I like in the shops, I just remember that in a couple of weeks’ time it will just be another skirt in my wardrobe. And in a couple of years’ time it will be just another skirt in the pile to go to the charity shop. I think about where it’s been made, where my money’s going and what I could spend that money on instead. I think about the branding and whether I want to give that company the satisfaction of buying into their brand. Essentially, I think far too much.

In conflict with this, I think shops are amazing places. So much goes on in the space of a shopping centre. Friendships are solidified or stretched, we learn a lot from our surroundings, we interact with others, we create or break down our desired image and display our identities through where we shop and what we buy. It’s because I know all this that part of the fun is taken away, but it doesn’t mean I’m exempt. Give me the choice of a Cath Kidston tablecloth or a floral one from Sainsbury’s and I’ll take the Kidston. I don’t even mind spending more money on it because whilst there are many clubs I don’t wish to belong to, the middle-class, British homely club is one I’ll happily be part of. So maybe, I’m not some kind of eco-warrior but actually just a snob?? I actually own no more than a keyring by Cath Kidston, but I’m just saying – if I had the choice.

I still like stuff; I just don’t like unnecessary consumption. This year my first port of call for shopping has been second-hand – this goes for anything from an on-trend tartan skirt (wool Aquascutum found in Winchester charity shop) to a glass chopping board (found in Horsham charity shop). It’s a politicised form of shopping, allowing me to meet my material needs without adding to my carbon footprint or to the profits of corporate companies who think they know me. It draws on cultural capital as much as financial capital – it’s alternative consumption, about being ‘in the know’. Christmas has been a good time to reflect on this, I still enjoy being given stuff and I enjoy giving gifts in return. I find material culture fascinating and I think I’ll be studying it for many years to come, although if I can’t quite put my finger on my own motivations I don’t know what hope I have of tracing other people’s.

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