Being a postdoc can be hard. Many postdocs seem to feel a sudden increase in responsibility that is not (within the near future) matched by the rewards. We can feel trapped in a postdoc holding pattern, with no stability or promotion in sight. So, when things get tough, we need a little something to remind us how good life is, how great we are, why we love our job, and sometimes just how to be happy again.
Different things will work for different people, but here are a few of my favourite ideas to lift your mood during a rough patch, to reignite your enthusiasm, and to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel (with thanks to Twitter contributors via #postdocpickmeups).
1. Teach an introductory course
Surely there is nothing like a room full of fresh, eager, inquisitive minds to reignite your love for your field? I recently had the pleasure of teaching an introductory course to first year students and found this an amazing way to rediscover topics I had forgotten about and questions I never thought to ask before. If you want your students to be enthusiastic, you have to show them your enthusiasm, and for me this process of picking out the exciting and challenging aspects of each topic and showing them off in all their strange but magnificent glory reminded me exactly why I fell in love with psychology in the first place.
2. Mentor a junior student/colleague
Closely related to teaching is mentoring. I say this because teaching brand new students and mentoring a new student or colleague have something very important in common; having a role in someone else’s learning and development. Being in this position of responsibility can bring challenges and stresses, but being in this privileged position should also show you how far you have come and how much respect you have already earned. I find mentoring very fulfilling; it’s a huge self-esteem boost when someone comes to me with a question that I know the answer to, or even just know how to help them find it.
3. Get busy
Being busy as a pick-me-up probably doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s one that definitely works for me. If I have too much time on my hands then I don’t tend to get much done and my self-esteem suffers along with my level of progress. If I have deadlines that must be met, I know I will meet them, so I have guaranteed milestones of achievement to celebrate. Self-imposed deadlines just don’t work for me at all, but if I promise my time to someone else, it (usually) will get done. At the time, I will tell myself off for taking on too much at once, but afterwards I nearly always feel rewarded.
4. Find some quiet space and fresh air
Taking a long walk or cycle, or being by the sea or in the mountains are popular ways to feel good. Taking some quiet time for reflection or to clear your head can be a great way to feel refreshed and reinvigorated, perhaps even more so when combined with strenuous enough exercise to warrant some liquid refreshment of your choice (maybe a nice beer in a cozy pub?) followed by a long, exhausted sleep. However, be clear that this tip is not mutually exclusive with tip no. 3, in fact a balance of the two might a very effective mood-lifter.
5. Talk about your research
So, you’ve been busy teaching and mentoring and you took the whole weekend off to hike in the mountains. Perhaps it worked for a quick fix, but overall you still feel kind of glum? Maybe it would help to talk about your research? Presenting your research for a departmental seminar, lab meeting, supervisory meeting, lecture, or conference might help you to find your enthusiasm. It gives you a fixed deadline and fairly clear requirements, which could be helpful if you are struggling to focus. Trying to convince someone else that your research is important and exciting can also be a way of reminding yourself of these things. Even if you don’t feel your research has been going well, the feedback that you get could help you make a break through that you might not have found on your own, or find a new collaboration that helps you see things more positively.
6. Get data – even just a tiny bit
Research is difficult; things don’t go to plan, there are administrative hoops to jump through, getting funding and equipment take time, and so on. Therefore, sometimes it can help to celebrate reaching small, but significant, milestones along the way. If you wait until you have collected all the data for a study, you may be waiting a long time. But if you remind yourself that each and every tiny piece of data counts, then perhaps you can feel up-lifted, even if (like me) you have only completed 4 out of 60 testing sessions. I keep reminding myself that I have completed 4 successful sessions without a hitch, which feels far better than none.
7. Ask for help
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t fix things on your own. Try to recognise these situations and don’t forget to ask for help. A while ago, my direct supervisor stopped working due to health problems, but I had a research plan and (in principle) everything I needed to carry on. Everyone assumed everything was fine. I assumed everything was fine. But I underestimated how important it is just to be able to tell someone when (even minor) things go wrong. There was a gap where I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to for advice, so I just made the best of things. Once I spoke to my new supervisor about the problems, we set up regular meetings to keep an eye on how things are going. This regular contact has made a huge (positive) difference to how I feel about my research in general.
8. Make a plan
One of the things that has come out of the new regular supervision meetings is a better plan. I had a research plan to start with, but it was more a list of goals, rather than a practical way to achieve them. Since then, my supervisor and I have worked on fleshing this out into something a bit more realistic. The plan started very small; just a list of a few changes to implement for two months, with a commitment to regular evaluations. Then, we slowly introduced more long-term goals, changes, and strategies to achieve them. Each time we meet, we look slightly further into the future and see if things are progressing in the right direction. It can be daunting to plan out a large block of time at once, especially if you set goals that are too broad, so just making a small plan for the coming days or weeks can be a good way to kick-start progress when things haven’t been going well.
9. Make time for your guilty pleasures – without feeling guilty
When you hit a research rut it can be easy to think that longer hours are the answer in order to push through it. Before you know it, you haven’t had a weekend in months. Therefore, this tip is all about making time for yourself. Remind yourself there is life away from your lab or desk. Indulge yourself in those special treats that you know will put a smile on your face. Put on your favourite music, eat your favourite food, drink your favourite drink, do whatever it is that makes you tick. The key is that you must (regularly) put special, sacred time aside for this, because you deserve it! Last weekend I spent most of my time making my own glittery shoes and the rest of my time watching bad TV. No marking, no (work-related) reading, and no guilt! I can almost hear you say how lucky I am to be able to afford to take a whole weekend off, but I assure you that I have plenty of deadlines and tasks I should have been working on. I just decided that from when I left my office on Friday until when I got back there on Monday I was taking the weekend off. Not because I had made any special progress that week, just because everyone needs a full weekend at least now and then!
10. Write something
This final tip is in the same vein as number 6. Just write something, anything, and then celebrate this achievement. If you are stuck on a manuscript, just write one paragraph and then recognise that you have made progress. If you are stuck on a revise-and-resubmit, just address one reviewer comment (similarly for manuscripts returned by collaborators) and then cross it off your list. If you are stuck with what to do next or where to start, write a plan, and consider the plan itself to be step one complete. If you only recognise your progress when you have completed something, it will take a long time before you have anything to celebrate. Therefore, don’t forget to reward yourself for the small amounts of progress you make. As my PhD supervisor told me towards the end of writing up my thesis, every tiny step adds up – if you are trying to cross the Arctic you cannot see the other side, but if you just keep on putting one foot in front of the other, eventually you will reach it.
I hope some of these tips will work for you if you have been having a hard time lately. Don’t forget to add your own postdoc (or researcher) pick-me-up ideas via the comments below.