Digging While Depressed: Struggling with Fieldwork and Mental Health

This post will be focused on dealing with mental illness, so if issues related to depression and anxiety are triggering to you, please feel free to skip today’s blog. Take care of yourself.

A few weeks ago, I was in Scotland doing fieldwork for the first time in years. Prior to this trip, I was under the impression that it would be a difficult one: I have a fear of both heights and enclosed spaces, so the idea that I would need to traverse steep paths along cliffs and work in narrow caves wasn’t particularly inviting to begin with. But I made the decision to go and excavate. Long story short, after a disastrous first day involving multiple injuries, a trip to the local hospital for x-rays, and an ill-timed panic attack climbing back up the steep side of a cliff, I asked to stay at our base camp to do faunal bone analysis rather than risk my mental and physical health getting to our excavation sites. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this was falling into a depressive episode after a few weeks of being indoors doing work.

Long time readers of my blog will know that I’ve been upfront about my own mental illness in the past. In particular, I’ve talked about the way mental illness affects my work as an academic. However, one thing I’ve never talked about (or really considered, to be honest), was how mental illness can affect one’s fieldwork, as well as how fieldwork can exacerbate the negative effects of mental illness.

Physical health and safety has always been the forefront of conversations regarding fieldwork, no matter what science you practice. However, there has been less attention given to mental illness, at least from what I’ve experienced. I started the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag during excavation to get the conversation going and was surprised at how many similar stories I heard on Twitter. It’s understandable, though, given the ubiquitous nature of fieldwork – you’re often isolated from your usual support group, and although you may have good relationships with your academic and research colleagues (as I do! again, my supervisory team is so supportive and generous with their help, I am forever grateful to them), it’s still not necessarily a group of people that you would confide your deepest problems and feelings to. Not to mention the fact that fieldwork (especially archaeological fieldwork) puts a significant amount of physical burden on you, which may make you feel worse, mentally.

With the advent of the #MeToo movement and the pressure being placed on organisations to combat sexual harassment and assault during excavation, I’d argue that we’ve started to see real strides in expanding the idea of a “safe” workspace and fieldwork environment to include not just physical health and safety, but also mental and emotional health as well. According to some via the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag, commercial excavation movements have started to take notice of mental health during fieldwork, which is a welcome change. I don’t really have any answers to solving this issue – after all, I’m learning along with everyone else – but hopefully just the fact that we are starting to have this conversation is a sign of real change and movement towards safeguarding all aspects of health while out in the field.

Feel free to add to the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag – not just with regards to archaeological excavation, but any type of fieldwork or research work. Let’s keep the conversation going, whether you have a story to tell or advice to give – in solidarity, we can grow and help each other out. And feel free to contact me if you ever need someone to talk or vent to – obviously I’m not a health professional and cannot replace seeking professional help, but I can at least offer my ear and my support.

When the Stress of the PhD Meet The Anxiety of the Visa: On International Postgraduate Studies, Financial Anxieties, and Everything Else That Scares Me

This week I had scheduled a different blog post to be published, but I felt as though it didn’t seem right to not write about something that has been on my mind lately.

And by “lately”, I mean “for the past few years”.

As many, if not all, of you know by now due to reading this blog and/or following my daily Twitter rants, I’m an international student. Since moving to the U.K. in the autumn of 2015, I have been on two different visas and had spent lots of loaned money to maintain my residence here.

There’s recently been a lot of discourse surrounding the precariousness of early career jobs in academia, and for good reason – the further marketisation of higher education is leaving more and more post-PhDs out in the cold with only poorly paid, short contract jobs to live on. Those of us in the middle of PhD research have extremely bleak futures ahead of us if this continues.

What hasn’t gotten as much attention (at least, as far as I have seen) is the plight of those of us who are battling the dire circumstances of the academic job market and the burden of being international.

Let me first say that despite the difficulties I have faced, I am undoubtedly one of the luckier ones. I’ve had the ability to take out federal student loans to cover my costs, as well as financial help and general support from friends and family from both sides of the Pond. Coming from the US, I most likely had less hoops to jump through to get my visa, in comparison to many others.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a huge burden on my life. Besides worrying about my current PhD work and the near future of having to look for postdocs afterwards, I also constantly have to worry about meeting the conditions for my visa.

Will I have enough money saved up to afford all of the fees for applying for a Tier 2 visa? What if the NHS surcharge continues to double, as it is scheduled to do in the upcoming year? How many days have I spent outside the UK and is it enough to eventually deport me?

International academics are expected to constantly keep track of these ever changing laws and policies, which results in many of us in constant fear of the Home Office, even if we have filled out all the paperwork needed and have everything taken care of. It’s so easy for them to make a small change that will turn out world upside down!

That sounds like an exaggeration but I’ve experienced it myself. Progressing from my MSc to my PhD, I was, at the time, still on my first visa from the Masters programme, which wouldn’t expire for another 6 months. Prior to this, the rule was that you could apply for a new visa within the U.K. as long as your current visa had not expired. Unfortunately for me, this had recently changed, and so I was booking an extremely last minute flight back to the US to apply for a new visa. A couple thousand pounds later, and I was sorted with a new visa – but financially, I have yet to truly recover from that last minute trip.

And, of course, it’s not just about the financial burden, either. Contrary to popular belief, most of us who study and live in the U.K. for several years end up cultivating a life and family here. That the Home Office (and other institutions apparently) believe we can uproot our lives, tear ourself away from the people we love and abandon the places we call home, just because we lack the funds to match the ludicrous fees and financial objectives, is utterly ridiculous at best and outright evil at worst.

I have spent many nights, awake and afraid, obsessively reading the guidelines for visas and immigration laws. As someone who already has depression and anxiety, this has caused my mental health to often dip dangerously low, to levels I haven’t experienced since prior to being diagnosed and medicated. But it’s a real, tangible fear that many academics, who already experience the burdens of a hostile environment in higher education, always have on their minds alongside every other problem.

Unfortunately, I can’t really offer any answers or advice for this sort of thing. It’s an issue that, alongside precariousness of early academic careers, must be talked about more in the public discourse. And I guess that’s all I can do, really – tell my story, remain public about the challenges I face, and hope that I can at least be one voice that won’t shut up about this problem.

To end this rather unfunny and serious blog post (shocking, I know, but I applaud anyone who has made it this far), I just want to point out a few great resources for more information on precarity, mental health issues, and international academic costs:

  • The Mental Illness Factory – A great piece by Mimi Petrakis on the current mental health epidemic in academia, especially for postgraduates
  • The Precarious Postdoc – Some really valuable research by Sophie A. Jones and Catherine Oakley who have been interviewing and surveying the situations of postdocs in the humanities and social sciences.
  • International and Broke– A fairly new Twitter account run by international academics employed in the U.K. that shares stories of the difficulties that other international academics have experienced in trying to stay and work in the country.

A Few Tips for Conferences When You’re Super Anxious All the Time Like Me

Hi, it’s your friendly neighbourhood academic with anxiety here to talk about one of the scariest things in academia: conferences! Unfortunately for many of us, “traditional” academia requires that we make appearances and presentations at conferences (even though they’re expensive…and we don’t always get the financial help needed to attend…and it takes time off from our research which is already limited to a specific time frame…well, that’s a conservation for a different day).

At this point in my life I’ve attend many conferences. I’ve also presented at many conferences, both papers and posters. And there’s definitely been a range of experiences throughout…from getting so nervous during a paper presentation that I start making self-deprecating jokes that fall flat and make things a million times worse, to giving such a great paper that I actually receive a couple of collaboration opportunities from it.

So with conference season in full swing, here are some tips from my own personal experience on how to best combat anxiety and stress in a conference environment:

A recent conference poster I created and presented for last year’s Association for Environmental Archaeology (AEA) Conference.

Bring a Friend/Co-Author

Probably one of the easiest ways to make going to conferences less stressful is to have a friend or supportive colleague with you. You could see if any peers in your department want to co-author a paper/poster or tag along – splitting the costs will make things cheaper, plus you have someone you at least know around (and can maybe get to know a bit better, too!).

If I’m travelling solo, I will usually make a beeline for people I recognise during tea breaks – usually that’ll get you introduced to a couple of other people, which I will promptly add to my mental compartment of “People Who I Will Cling Onto If I Don’t Know Anyone Else“. While its great to network and make connections with people outside of your institution, its also good to develop a friendly and supportive group of similarly minded people that are on similar conference circuits as you – it definitely makes finding seats at lunch less awkward, that’s for sure.

Recently, I actually managed to convince a friend from the US in a completely unrelated field (creative writing) to co-author a paper for last year’s Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference. I’m not sure if I would have been as calm presenting my paper in front of some of the most important figures in my field of research without her by my side.

Nothing like tricking a non-archaeologist friend into writing and presenting an archaeology paper with you!

Take Advantage of Scheduled Social Events

Many conferences will also include events, like field trips and dinners, alongside sessions. If you have the means to attend one of these events (unfortunately most cost money), they could be low-key, informal environments to socialise with other conference attendees. For example, field trips to local museums and monuments can provide great ice breakers for conversation among academics you don’t know.

I’ve had some excellent luck where I’ve gone on a conference field trip, made friends with some attendees, and had them come to my session the following day for support – it really helped to see some friendly, familiar faces in the crowd!

Plus, it’s just nice to see the sights – here’s me taking time off from a conference in the Orkneys to visit Yesnaby.

Remember to Get Their ‘Deets’!

This is mainly a tip for general networking, of course – but if you end up connecting with attendees during the course of the conference, be sure to swap contact information. I’ve ended up staying in touch with many people I’ve met through conferences, which has led to the increase in familiar faces in my audiences when I’m presenting papers. Of course, there’s also opportunities for future collaborative research (and, if you’re really fortunate, employment) with people you meet at conferences, so you’ll definitely want to be able to keep in touch somehow.

It may seem a bit silly and unfashionable these days, but it can still be handy to have a few business cards on hand! Exchanging business cards with someone is an easy way to quickly get contact information, or to introduce yourself without awkward small talk – plus, it feels very adult and cool. Many universities have business cards available for postgraduate students, but if yours does not, there are many cheap options online for printing your own.

Eat your heart out, Patrick Bateman. Maybe not literally, though.

Look into Alternate Conferences

If you’re looking into presenting at a “traditional” conference (read: in-person conference with poster and paper sessions in front of other academics) and are nervous about speaking in public, I would suggest you start with submitting and presenting a poster. In most cases, I’ve found that poster presentations won’t give you the impression that you’re being left to the mercy of a huge audience the way that paper sessions might. There’s still a bit of public speaking involved, of course, but its certainly a bit more informal than presenting a paper.

If that still feels a bit daunting (and I don’t blame you, believe me!), you could also look into something that’s recently become more common – alternate conferences! In response to the financial and environmental burden of “traditional” conferences, many academics have been experimenting with alternative approaches. For example, Twitter conferences have become more popular recently; for example, look through the #CAATCO hashtag to read through paper presentation from the CAA Twitter Conference, which was held in conjunction with a more traditional conference.

For those with anxiety, alternative conferences that allow you to present papers in a safe and comforting place, such as the comfort of your own home, may be a good compromise. With more academics looking to utilising the Internet to its fullest potential, these kinds of conferences may become more prevalent in the next few years – stay tuned!

I recently presented a paper at my very first Twitter conference hosted by the CAA (Computer Applications in Archaeology) – and did so while riding a bus! Super easy.

On Mental Health, or How To Breathe During Your PhD

Important note before I start: this post is going to talk about about personal issues and mental health issues, so if you're not comfortable reading about this, please skip! Don't worry – I won't be offended.

I've been feeling a bit stressed out and anxious lately so I figured this was a good time as any to write this post. It's something I've been wanting to write since I started this blog, as it's something that's incredibly personal to me: mental health.

It would be unfair to say that only your postgraduate studies will be some of the hardest and most stressful days in your career: life in general is incredibly stressful and hard! Unfortunately, as rewarding as postgraduate studies can be, they can also be the most challenging to juggle along with personal issues.

Time to get a bit personal – I've been struggling with mental health issues since I was 13 years old. For years I found both anxiety and depression to be manageable – not great, of course, but I could get through the day. Once I hit college, however, I could see that things were starting to get out of hand.

In the beginning of 2017, halfway through my first year of my PhD, I had a mental breakdown that left me very lost and without much enthusiasm for anything, really. Luckily I was surrounded by supportive friends and faculty that encouraged me to get help. I'm currently on medication that helps me stay focused and feeling, well, normal I guess?

If you're starting to feel overwhelmed, lost, depressed, etc. during your academic career, here's some tips I can provide from my own experience:

  • Talk to your supervisor. Be upfront and don't try to hide your problems, especially when it starts effecting your work. A good supervisor wants to see you succeed, but not at the cost of your health. You don't need to give all the details, of course, but let them know how things are and they should be able to help you figure out how to proceed from there.
  • See what kind of help you can get from your university/institution. Many places have counselors on staff that you can book an appointment with, usually for free. I spent a few months with a fantastic counselor who turned me onto journaling as therapy and it was all through the university. Counselors can not only be directly helpful, but they may refer you to different therapies or professionals that may cater better to your needs.
  • Remember that your academic career is not a race. This is something my supervisor has been telling me over and over again, and she's right! Don't feel like you need to be working every day, all day. If you need some time off, look into it! Some programs may be more accommodating than others, of course, but it never hurts to ask about taking mental health days.

Of course everyone's situation is different and unfortunately, some people may not have the kind of support they need. Personally, I feel like universities and institutions need to start taking mental health more seriously – academia can seem like a terrifying and competitive place. It would be beneficial to start giving us all a bit of space to breathe once in a while.

Anyway, I hope this helps someone out there. For those who made need someone to talk to, here is a website of hotlines for suicide prevention from all over the world.

Now take a deep breath.

Let it out.

Things will be okay.