How having a hobby can help with postgrad life

I know what you are thinking – ‘I don’t have time for a hobby!”. And that might be true, which might be exactly the reason why you will benefit from a hobby. I have a few hobbies and I thought I would share why they help me, why they are especially important if you are a postgrad student and some ideas for low-cost and easy hobbies. I am going to concentrate on my love of reading fiction and running a blog about my reading – which I have been doing throughout my Honours year and I am still continuing even during my Masters!

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Postgrad is stressful

Deadlines, failed experiments, computers that somehow do exactly what you tell them to do and not what you actually want them to do, supervisors, admin, funding…there is no end to the stress that comes with being a postgrad student. Severe stress for long periods of time can make your life feel absolutely miserable. A hobby is something that can provide some relief from all that stress. It gives your mind something to focus on that isn’t all of your academic woes and bring you lots of joy.

It uses different parts of your brain

Academic work requires very specific types of thinking. When you’re wrapped up in solving equations, pipetting (that’s something that biologists do…right?), or coding all week, it can become mentally exhausting. Picking up a soccer ball, a paintbrush or – my personal favourite – a good novel in your off time can activate the other parts of your brain that haven’t gotten much use lately. Your research-academic brain has a chance to switch off and have a rest for once. This might even stimulate some new ideas for your research!

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You can learn new skills that benefit you both inside and outside the lab

These might be tangible skills – like writing for the public and search engine optimization through blogging – or less obvious skills like persistence and discipline from learning how to do something new without having deadlines to motivate you. Having a lot of practice at writing blog posts has helped improve my confidence in writing – which translates into more confidence in my academic writing.

It can turn into a side-hustle

While I think you should have one hobby that is purely for your own personal enjoyment and has nothing to do with your overall productivity, you might be able to monetize your hobby to stretch your tiny postgrad budget a little further. I recently got to enjoy a box-full of free books in exchange for advertising an upcoming book sale because I regularly post pretty pictures of books on Instagram. This has helped me free up a bit of extra cash since I would have purchased many of those books on my own anyway. If you have got a creative or crafty hobby, there may be easy ways for you to make some money off of it.

It gives you a place to succeed and fail in ways not directly linked to your academic progress

This is something that I think is especially important if you’re someone who takes failure and rejection really badly. I don’t handle those things well, but having hobbies where small failures show quite quickly that I’m making progress. For example, if I a blog post of mine isn’t as widely-read as I would have liked, I can look at it and figure out ways to write a better post the next time. All I have lost is the small amount of time I spent working on the post – and it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad blogger. Similarly, if something goes wrong in my academic work, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad scientist. Failure is an important part of the scientific process and every academic career, and hobbies are a way to make failure less intimidating.

It helps you with your time management

This sounds a bit odd, I know. While there are exceptions during really busy periods, but if you have less time to finish something – you’ll finish it in less time. For example, if you have two days to finish an assignment, then it might take you all of those two days to finish it. But if you only have two hours, you’ll get that same assignment done in those two hours. Similarly, if you’re finding something is dragging on, but you’re looking forward to meeting your friends at 7 p.m. for a soccer game, then you’ll get that work done in time so you can join them. Academic culture often requires our entire lives to be wrapped up in our research and having hobbies and activities outside of academia helps you break out of that unhealthy culture.

Some ideas for hobbies

I would like to emphasise that a hobby is a highly personal thing. If your hobby is binge-watching Game of Thrones and being totally immersed in it – that is awesome because it works for you and helps you de-stress. While reading might be my favourite thing to do, you might not enjoy it at all.  I would suggest trying to have at least one, even if it’s something you’re already doing (like cooking, for example). I have put together a list of ideas for you to try if you are looking for a new hobby. These are just suggestions and are generally affordable or doable with items you already own or could purchase very easily. Most universities also have societies or clubs for various hobbies and activities that you can easily join and gain access to equipment and experts

  • Cooking (putting a bit of effort into it instead of just eating 2-minute noodles…which I am guilty of).
  • Photography (if you have a smartphone, it probably already has an excellent camera that you can use)WhatsApp Image 2019-04-23 at 13.27.45(1)
  • Soccer/Rugby/Cricket/Running/ etc. (either sign up for a class or a club to make it social and even more fun)
  • Sketching (all you need is a pen/pencil and some paper)
  • Hiking (there are hundreds of hiking trails around the country!)
  • Journaling/writing
  • Yoga (I started with free, online classes by Yoga With Adriene)
  • Blogging (get started on WordPress for free!)
  • DIY/crafts like sewing, knitting, making cool things with your hands (this will probably require you to borrow equipment from someone)
  • Reading (you can get books for free from your university library or your nearest public library. You can also get cheap books from second-hand book stores).

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I hope this post has inspired you to try out a new hobby! Let me know what your current hobbies are!

Spot the impostor

I first came across the term “impostor syndrome” about a year or two ago while skimming through my Twitter feed. A fellow #WomanInSTEM had posted about a personal experience and I read on in amazement. She was a senior in my field and someone I greatly admired and here she was, sharing her story and I could relate to it in every way.

Academics, look away, I am about to quote Wikipedia. According to this valuable resource, impostor syndrome is defined as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubt their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’”. This essentially means that for some, their accomplishments seem too great to have been their own, and instead, they attribute it to various factors such as luck or deception. There is a short Ted-Ed video by Elizabeth Cox which explains the phenomenon in greater detail.

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The New York Times published an article by Kristin Wong which details experiences of people in different fields, such as entertainment and journalism, showing how prevalent impostor syndrome is in every industry. There are many successful individuals who have shared their experience with impostor syndrome including Ms Maya Angelou who once said “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, “Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”

In recent years, many scientific publications have also focused on this topic as it is prevalent in academic communities all over the world. Another article worth reading was published in Science in 2008, appropriately titled “No, you are not an impostor”.  Although impostor syndrome has a universal impact, research has shown that minority groups are particularly vulnerable. A study published by the University of Texas at Austin in 2017, suggests that the impostor phenomenon is an additional factor that compounds pre-existing stresses in minority students. Of 332 undergraduate students questioned, who represented Black, Latinx, and Asian students, many cited impostor syndrome as something they deal with often. For Black students, this was often coupled with high levels of anxiety. This is a very nuanced topic but demonstrates the need for change and discussion in university settings.

This type of study has yet to be conducted in a South African setting where minority students face many challenges including self-doubt as they are often referred to as “quota” selections. In truth, when trying to understand impostor syndrome we must acknowledge that there are many contributors. Snide comments and microaggressions have long-lasting effects on the psyche of individuals, for instance, being told that you have only achieved something because of transformation efforts is dismissive of hard work and talent.  Academic challenges, even at a postgraduate level, are daunting when you do not have adequate support.

My experience with constant impostor syndrome

My first real experience with impostor syndrome happened during my honours year. I had made a switch from biology to palaeontology and as an aspiring palaeontologist, I had to have a basic understanding of geology in order to contextualize the fossils I so adored. When it came time to writing exams I thought “they’ll never take me seriously” because no matter how hard I tried, I could only achieve so much in terms of understanding in a short space of time. I passed my courses, through a lot of hard work and dedication but at the end of it I thought “that was a lucky break”.

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My worst experience with impostor syndrome has ties to my greatest achievement as a young academic, getting my Masters degree. I completed my Master’s degree in a year and when my examiners’ reports came back, my supervisor and I were both so overwhelmed by the positive feedback that we cried a little. I had achieved it, with distinction and no corrections, this is truly rare in academia. However, if I am asked about my Masters, I tend to try and play it down: “I had to edit my page numbers” or “My supervisors were really great” or “It’s because I had 8465365 drafts before submitting” are some of my typical responses. And although all of this is true (the page numbers haunted me for weeks), I never acknowledged my own role in my success. I had the drive, I put in the work and endless hours, I wrote the drafts and even if they came back red with corrections, I would read through each point, question what I did not understand, correct it and try again.

As I mentioned earlier, microaggressions are a devastating tool that can dismantle the self-confidence of students. This is something I have dealt with, comments such as “You should be staying later if you want to finish”- when I already felt guilty for leaving at a reasonable hour so that I could catch public transport- do not help. Neither do comments like “Is this sound methodology?” when many researchers before me have tested it but when I try, suddenly, it is questionable. These are expressions I will probably never forget but now realise that they are not a reflection of me, because I am not an impostor.

It is a constant learning and unlearning process, especially as a young woman. Girls are often told to be ‘humble’, that it is ‘unladylike’ to assert yourself and that when you do, you are labelled ‘angry’ or ‘hostile’ or (the worst one for me) ‘EMOTIONAL’. When you use your voice and demonstrate confidence it is met with shock and fear. There are many posts which detail tips for dealing with impostor syndrome (check out the article by Kristin Wong) and I’ve prepared a handy little infographic that helps me cope. I use the word ‘cope’ because I am not over my impostor syndrome, I still struggle with it when I have to speak to seniors, when I go to conferences, when I am asked about my research work and even now as a PhD Candidate, I still feel like I know nothing some days. It is not a quick fix, it is a constant battle, but you will become better at checking yourself when you feel it coming on!

In the iconic words of spiritual activist and author Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.