Mental health and wellbeing in the history and heritage PhD community – a new series of guest blogs

An NHS study conducted in 2014 estimates that 1 person in 6 in the UK experienced a mental health problem that year. Among PhD students that is estimated to be 1 in 3. Alongside these statistics, a steady stream of news articles and research studies since at least 2014 have told us that PhD students are facing a mental health “crisis”, while in March 2018 HEFCE announced that funding totalling £1.5million had been awarded to 17 universities in England, to improve support for the mental wellbeing of postgraduate research students as a distinct HE community. In short, mental health in PhD students is a topical issue in current higher education practice.

This short series of three posts has been scheduled over three consecutive weeks, to complement this year’s History UK plenary, ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing’, and arises from a paper I gave at the Heritage Dot conference, University of Lincoln, between 3 and 4 June 2019. I would like to thank Jamie Wood for inviting me to write up my paper for History UK; I can think of no better time to commit my thoughts to the public domain.

My name is Leah Warriner-Wood. I am a PhD student and Associate Lecturer in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. My thesis will characterise the use of historic tapestries in 18th century country house interiors. I also have generalised anxiety and panic disorder, and have had since my teens. It might seem an odd decision to put this ‘out there’ – publicly, indelibly (a subject that I’ll return to in a later post) – but these conditions are a working feature of my life as a student and academic, and I’m no longer ashamed (as I was when first diagnosed nearly twenty-five years ago) to speak their names. I feel strongly about challenging the stigma around ‘invisible’ mental health disabilities and am privileged to be in a situation that affords me a platform to do so.

Social media plays a regular part in my working and personal life, and over time I have become interested in how this intersects with my PhD and my mental wellness. What follows is an autoethnographic synthesis of these three areas of interest. As I’m by no means an expert in either the fields of psychiatry or social media, my approach is very much reflective. Drawing on my personal experiences of my particular spectrum of symptoms (alongside secondary literature) allows me to shed a little light on dynamics that can be difficult, I think, to observe if one hasn’t experienced them first-hand. Of course, a limitation of this approach is that my experiences may not be representative of others’ experiences, so I’d like to make it clear that I don’t intend to speak for others, or to offer answers. Rather, my aim for this series is to open dialogue.

Why talk about mental health?

‘The high prevalence of mental health problems in PhD students is critical in terms of individual suffering, organizational and societal costs. In the long run, however, it will also impact on research itself.’

Why should we care about the mental wellbeing of PhD students? Aside from being decent human beings who care about our peers, Levecque et al (2017), authors of the quotation above, have pointed to a series of organisational and social reasons for talking about and understanding mental health in emerging academics. I’ll paraphrase these for brevity:

  • Mental health problems hinder the quantity and quality of intellectual development in the academy, which arguably makes the academy a poorer place
  • They have a financial impact on the institutions in which doctoral students and early career researchers operate (particularly where they work in teams), and on wider society, in terms of, for example, healthcare costs and lost productivity
  • If PhD completion rates drop, or graduates choose not to remain in academia, mental health problems could threaten the future viability of the research industry as a whole.

As a reflective piece though, my focus will be on highlighting what Levecque refers to as “individual suffering”. Over these three posts I’ll aim to present dialogue on three questions that I think are key to deepening the academy’s appreciation of mental health and inclusivity in the PhD community: What are the relationships between the PhD, mental health, and social media use? What are some of the challenges to inclusivity for PHD students with a mental illness, and how do social media intersect with this? What are some of the benefits of social media, and what are some of the obstacles that we should be aware of? Crucially, by using my own experiences, I’ll focus on mental health as a lived experience, rather than merely a distant and abstract subject. I’ll end by suggesting how I think the academy might, using social media, move towards greater inclusivity for those with mental health disabilities.

In this first post I’ll touch on some of the research around the first of these questions: What are the relationships between PhD students, their mental health, and social media use?

Who uses social media?

Who are these PhD students using social media? How would we recognise them? The truth is that there is very little research presenting demographics for this particular section of either the social media or academic communities. However, we can borrow statistics from the wider academy to answer these questions.

A 2011 study by Ian Rowlands and colleagues at UCL invited 2,400 academics to take part in a survey about their use of social media. In terms of demographics, the study found that neither age nor gender were statistically sound predictors of social media use. In other words, tweeting or uploading videos to YouTube isn’t only the preserve of stereotypical groups of ‘digital natives’.

Academics in the arts and humanities were most likely to avail themselves of social media technologies, with 79.2% of humanities scholars responding that they used social media as part of their research. The most popular platforms were a catalogue of the most popular ‘household names’ for social networking, blogging, and microblogging, including Facebook, WordPress, and Twitter respectively.

Social media and mental health

What about the relationship(s) between social media and mental (un)wellness? What are they? And are they positive, or harmful? The literature synthesising social media and mental health suggests that the strength of correlations between the two remain unclear and complex. It isn’t my intent to delve into the intricacies of this, but rather to present some select highlights.

While one study published earlier this year found that “Adolescents with diagnosed depression who used social media excessively were more like to be affected by social isolation, altered sleep, and low mood”, in a 2014 literature review of papers on this theme Pantic found that there was a lower correlation between social media and mental illness in University than in high school students in the USA – perhaps suggesting that HE students are less likely to find their mental wellbeing negatively affected by social media use. This is tangentially supported by Naslund, whose 2016 study of peer-to-peer support and social media found that adults “with serious mental illness report benefits from interacting with peers online”.

Finally, researchers working within Microsoft have also published results this year which show that social media can be used to “characterise the onset of depression in individuals”, again suggesting that social media – which can be demonised in the popular media (as seen in the recent leak of A-level maths papers via Twitter) – can also be tools for mental wellbeing.

 

Having established that mental illness is a recognised issue within the PhD community, that researchers are actively using social media in their work, and that these media intersect with and influence users’ mental wellbeing, in next week’s post I’ll expand this by looking at how scholars use social media in the research workflow, and my own experiences (good and bad) of using social media as part of my research journey.

Another post on our Academic Job Boot Camp

Amy King, a PhD candidate in the Department of Italian at the University of Bristol/Bath, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and currently working on oral history project @bristoldockers, has written a short post about her (positive!) experience at this year’s boot camp:

Amy King presenting on her research“I was fortunate enough to attend the Academic Job Boot Camp five days before an interview for a university post. Having sent in my CV and cover letter, made my slides for the presentation, and planned for the mock interview, I felt as prepared as I could be for the training day. It’s not often that training allows for one-to-one sessions and advice for each and every attendee, but the Boot Camp gave us just that. No matter how much interview preparation you do at home, nothing beats having the feedback of experienced interviewers on your delivery, the way you sell yourself (and if your CV/cover letter is matching up!) and your approach to answering questions. The presentation session was equally as useful, and a reminder of how important it is to clearly communicate a subject that is all too familiar to us, but perhaps new to our audience. It was also a great opportunity to recognise (and adopt) some of the impressive presentation tricks used by peers! Thank you to all involved for their generosity in the time they gave each of us for personal feedback. I’m absolutely sure this training helped me to get the job!”

Academic Job Boot Camp 2018

Meritxell Simon-Martin is a Marie Curie Fellow at Roehampton University. She is writing a monograph on Barbara Bodichon’s epistolary Bildung in collaboration with the Schools of Education at Roehampton University and at Goethe University (Frankfurt). She is also Research Associate at the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes (ITEM), Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris, where she carries out a critique génétique project on Barbara Bodichon’s feminist publications and a translation of her works from English into French (Classiques Garnier).

The following was originally posted on Meritxell’s own blog.


On 19th May I attended the Academic Job Boot Camp sponsored by History UK and supported by History Lab at the Institute of Historical Research in London. What a great event!!! It shows a genuine willingness from the part of the organisers to make transparent and comprehensible the process of recruiting early career researchers. I truly appreciate the opportunity I had to learn both from the organisers and the other candidates!

Twitter

In order to participate, some weeks before the event I applied for the imaginary lectureship in history that the organisers had created. I sent my CV and cover letter as we would normally do for a real job application. I also prepared a 5-minute presentation on how my research informs my teaching. The day of the workshop we had the opportunity to take the steps real shortlisted candidates go through: the 5-minute presentation on teaching, the face-to-face interview and the interview lunch. The best of this mock application was that we had the opportunity to get tailored useful feedback, not only from organisers but also from peer participants – the latter wrote anonymous comments.

Here’s a summary of some of the tips we were given on the dos and don’ts when applying for a lectureship in history:

Which positions should you apply for?

For any lectureship in history really! Newly awarded PhD candidates are rarely offered permanent lectureships, but a fixed-term position may lead to a permanent one. Also, the job description might focus on a sub-field in history out of your scope of specialization but, believe it or not, sometimes recruitment committees simply end up making up their minds for the best candidate, regardless of her field of expertise. Why don’t give it a try then?

CV

What should your CV look like?

Academic CVs are long. They can have up to 10 or 15 pages. But recruitment committees have piles of CVs to read on their desks. So, a good academic CV is one that provides two readings: skimming and in-depth scrutiny. Panellists will first scan your CV to decide whether to place it on the “maybe shortlisted” pile or to the “definitely no” one (i.e. the bin!). In order to help them take this first decision, a CV should show clear headlines with key words in bold. If they are interested, they will want to know more about the different academic experiences you put forward. The CV should therefore provide short paragraphs explaining these outcomes and skills. Don’t forget to highlight what research you will be submitting for the REF. If you run a blog or are a social media user, make sure you upload an updated version of your CV!

What should your cover letter look like?

Contact the head of the committee only if you have a specific question about the position. Otherwise, write a catchy 2-page cover letter addressing the criteria of the job description. Do some on-line research on the institution, the department in question and its members. The cover letter should look like a presentation of the skills you have and how you can contribute to the department’s curriculum and research output. Be succinct, use an engaging writing style and make sure you proofread the text for spelling, typos and… the right name of the institution! If you have a template cover letter and you adjust it to specific positions, make sure you name the appropriate university! Ask colleagues and friends to read it for feedback. And ask yourself: is this the self-image as an academic I want to convey?

How should you prepare for the presentation and interview?

Reread the job description and the skills they are looking for in the future colleague. These rereading will give you a sense of the possible questions you might be asked. Think of 3 or 4 messages you would like the panel to retain from you: An award-winning-book author? A researcher capable of attracting funding? An international versatile team worker? Then think of at least 2 questions per section (e.g. teaching, research, yourself as a colleague, public engagement) and prepare an answer that includes these messages. The idea is to have a clear view of how you want to project yourself (how you wish the panel perceive you) and transmit this image via the messages you include in your answers, no matter what the question is. Frame your answers in a way you convey these self-presentation messages but don’t forget to fully address the question asked though! You can also prepare a sheet describing a teaching course: with its title, content, objectives, timescale, assessment, pedagogical approach, the module is part of, etc. If you have the opportunity, you can distribute this handout to the panellists when discussing what courses you could contribute to and how they would fit within the department’s curriculum.

Interview

How best to perform in the interview?

Don’t take for granted panellists have read your CV. It is often the case they are given information about the candidates only hours before the interview! Think of the key elements of your CV you want them to retain and mention them during the interview. Don’t focus too much on past achievements. Convey rather an enthusiastic but realistic mid- and long-term statement of ambition. What are your book projects? Be specific about what you will submit to REF and why you think it is going to be 4*. How do you envision strengthening your teaching skills? What are the skills you want your students develop and how are you going to achieve this? Be specific about your teaching approach. How you mean to lead, design, run and assess courses and modules is as important as what you can or intend to teach. Can you prove you are a skilled and inspiring lecturer? Quote from students’ feedback questionnaires! When answering questions, frame your replies positively: show how unique you are and turn any weakness in your CV into an asset if presented from a different angle. Be respectful when referring to former work places and colleagues and be polite to the panellists. Remember they will ultimately be asking themselves: Will she be an easy-going department colleague? Is she a lecturer likely to raise complaints among students? Ultimately, if you are asked if you will take the job, say yes! Make sure you show them you really want to work with them!

What next?

If you are not shortlisted or you were not successful during the interview stage, don’t take rejection personally. Some recruitment committees provide constructive feedback. Use this precious information to think about how you can do better next time! Having said that, each university has different recruitment criteria and often panellists disagree on who the best candidate is. Conclusion: take on board criticism to ameliorate (self-improvement should be a personal motivation throughout our lives anyway!) but be yourself. Sometimes it is simply a question of connecting with people spontaneously, of being in the right place at the right time.

 

I hope you find these tips helpful. If you want to test them live, sign up for next year’s edition of the Academic Job Boot Camp!

Best luck to candidates, including myself! 1f609

Academic Job Boot Camp – Saturday 19th May 2018

We are pleased to be running the Academic Job Boot Camp again this year. It follows the success of recent events. All early career historians are encouraged to apply, with preference being given to those who have already completed their PhDs.

  • Are you starting to think about applying for your first lectureship in history?
  • Submitting applications and never hearing back?

The Academic Job Boot Camp is a free half-day event for early career historians sponsored by History UK and supported by History Lab. It will help you to structure your academic CV, hone your cover letter, rehearse your job presentation and undergo a mock interview, as well as demystifying some of the processes around academic recruitment. The experience, feedback and advice you receive at the event is designed to improve your chances the next time you apply for an academic job.

How will the boot camp work? You will take part in a simulation of all stages of the job application process up to and including being interviewed as a shortlisted candidate. There you will be interviewed by experienced academics drawn from a dozen universities nationwide. You will also deliver job presentations to other early career historians.

You will receive feedback on your interview and presentation. You will have the opportunity to observe how others fare. The event will end with a roundtable, after which there will be drinks and a dinner(*) at a nearby pub and restaurant.

Itinerary (all locations at Institute of Historical Research):

13.00 Welcome (Wolfson II)

13:15-16:00 Mock Interviews (incl. feedback on interview and application, conducted by a pair of academics)

13:150-16:00 Job presentations (Lead by an experienced academic and in front of other early career historians who provide written feedback)

16:00-17:00 Dr. Sara Wolfson to lead a session on ‘Top Ten Tips for Securing an Academic Job’ (Wolfson I)

17.00-19.30 Networking event in a nearby pub and dinner(*)

This event is free and sponsored by History UK, History Lab Plus and the Institute of Historical Research.

* Please note that dinner will need to be covered by participants.

To participate, you will need to apply for an imaginary lectureship in a real history programme. Please read the job advert for the Imaginary Lectureship in History here and the further particulars for the job http://bit.ly/2o696yy, then submit a letter of application and CV to Sue Davison at Sue.Davison@sas.ac.uk.

Questions should be directed to Lucinda Matthews-Jones l.m.matthew-jones@ljmu.ac.uk.

The deadline is noon on Tuesday 1st May and applicants will be contacted by the end of that week to let them know if they have been successful.

My role as HUK’s ECR representative

Dr Simon Peplow is the new ECR representative on the History UK Steering Committee. He is currently Lecturer in History (Education and Scholarship) at the University of Exeter, and tweets as @simpep.
In this blog post, Simon sets out his views on how he sees this role and his plans for the coming year.


 

As another teaching term begins, I return to my busy calendar having actually been able to have some ‘downtime’ over the Christmas break, away from the usual teaching/marking/research pressures – albeit this being enforced downtime, due to developing a particularly nasty cold. Debate has raged (on Twitter, as it often does) over the hours that academics work, and whether you are ‘failing’ at academia if you either work on evenings/weekends or maintain a strict 9–5 working week. However, the point I wish to make here is simply that the ability to take some time off, safe in the knowledge that a job (and salary!) awaits our return, is for many of us not something we are able to enjoy during the summer months.

Having completed my History PhD at the University of Exeter in 2015, I have since remained here on short-term teaching contracts. While I have been, in many ways, fortunate that such opportunities were available, the pressures (both financial and psychological) of fractional temporary contracts and the inability to plan further than the short-term is something with which I have battled. An increasing amount of my time has been spent on job applications, chasing potential funding opportunities, and being unsure what the next academic year will look like until just weeks (or even days) before it begins.

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Prior to commencing my PhD, the one issue that I was repeatedly warned about was that it was a lonely existence; that the duration of my PhD years would be spent alone in empty libraries or dusty archives, only occasionally seeing others when we periodically emerged blinking into the light for a monthly research seminar or supervision meeting. Fortunately for me personally, the PhD experience was far from that, being a generally enjoyable period – with the usual intellectual/other challenges – and I consider many of those whom I met during those years to be among my closest friends.

However, I am aware that my positive PhD experience is not necessarily the case for others. I was reminded of my privileged position in this sense when reading Laura Sefton’s recent excellent comments on mental health and academic structures, demonstrating the often unacknowledged pressures of PhD study and the need for academia to become a more ‘accessible, inclusionary, and caring space’. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of the same pressures exist when transitioning into a more precarious ‘floating’ ECR position, when you might even have lost access to some of the support systems that previously existed.

Working Together Poster Edit

The History UK plenary and AGM in November 2017 focused on collaboration, and that is very much the spirit in which I see this ECR representative role. As I have previously noted in discussion of the ‘Academic Boot Camp’ event, it is all too easy to see academia as a competition against peers in the race to obtain a permanent job, and to consider yourself a ‘failure’ if one is not forthcoming. However, it is of vital importance that PhDs/ECRs/academics of all levels support each other where possible, and it is often through bodies such as History UK that such support can really make a difference. Indeed, in the last year, History UK has organised another instalment of the Academic Boot Camp to help equip PhDs/ECRs for the job market, further New to Teaching events have provided invaluable advice and support for those beginning or developing a university teaching profile, and other events and activities have supported historians at all stages of their careers.

It is in this vein that I hope to use my role to provide helpful advice and support for history PhDs/ECRs in the coming year. This will involve writing blogs and encouraging friends and colleagues to contribute posts and advice on a range of topics, such as balancing teaching and research, finishing the PhD, creating and obtaining a position on postdoc projects, the benefits of engaging with the public through research, and the many options available outside of academia. This is, of course, in addition to acting as a voice for PhDs/ECRs in History UK meetings and discussions – and I please encourage anyone to get in contact with any thoughts or suggestions. Due to a variety of factors, the pressures on academics at all levels are arguably higher than ever before – but, as always, the best way to get through them is with the help of support networks that can be provided by bodies such as this one.