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.

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The 2018 Excavation Season Wrap-Up!

I’m baaaaaaaaaaack! Missed me? Probably not, if you were following along with my project’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, and website).  For those of you who missed out, however, here’s a bit of a recap of the past three weeks of excavation at the Covesea Caves in Scotland.

So, the good news about my recent field work trip is that I got to experience some amazing sights and got a lot of data collection done towards my PhD dissertation.

The bad news is that most of those three weeks were spent indoors. Why? Well…

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Luckily nothing was broken, just badly bruised. Not pictured is the injuries I then sustained from falling down the stairs two days later.

And that was just Day One!

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Climbing down “the lummie”, aka “holding onto a rope and a ladder for dear life”.
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These “rock stairs” are deceptively easy looking – getting up them required a lift up for me!

So, here’s the thing about the Covesea Caves (the series of caves in Moray, Scotland that my current PhD research is based on) – they are known for being difficult to access. However, I didn’t realise until I finally went to visit them in person just how difficult they are to access! An average walk to our excavation site included a fair bit of hiking down a steep coastal path (which, as someone who is afraid of heights, was way too close to the cliff’s edge for me!). For some caves, we would have to climb down “the lummie” – a bit of a crevice within the cliff that included a climb down using a ladder and a rope. Other caves had a sort of “natural” staircase made of rocks that were simple enough to climb down – getting up was an entirely different problem, especially if you’re short like me. After that, it’s a long walk across a beach of boulders – which may be dangerously slippery if you’re unlucky like me and manage to go on a rainy morning.  On the first day, it took approximately a dozen falls for me to injure my elbow enough to warrant a visit to A&E (the emergency room). Thankfully, nothing was broken, but I still ended up working from our base camp for the most of the remainder of the excavation period just to be on the safe side.

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My makeshift “zooarchaeology lab” in our accommodations – on the left, my supplies are all on top of a washing machine.

Despite how unfortunate this all sounds, it actually ended up working in my favour. As a zooarchaeologist whose PhD work is focused on analysis of the animal bones from the Covesea Caves, it was much more productive for me to be doing a bit of assessment on the bones as they were excavated. Especially when the final count for animal bones just from this season alone was nearly 5,000 bones! And so I ended up taking over our laundry room and converted it into a makeshift zooarchaeology lab – don’t worry, I thoroughly cleaned it up before I left.

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A collection of faunal bones from Covesea Cave 2.

Unfortunately I can’t get into too much detail about the recovered bones, but I can say that things are getting pretty interesting with regards to my developing thesis. Let’s just say I’m literally drowning in cats. Well, later prehistoric skeleton cats.

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Yep, this is how dark it usually is when you’re excavating caves.

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I did make it to site one more time before our excavation season was over. It was one of the smaller, more narrow caves in the Covesea Caves, so it was a bit of a challenge for someone like me who, along with a fear of heights, also has a fear of enclosed spaces! But I actually found it quite nice and cozy to be excavated in the back of a cave that can only be reached by extensive crawling…see if you can spot me enjoying myself in the photo above!

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It’s me! Get me outta here!
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The entrance to the Sculptor’s Cave.

Accidents aside, it was completely worth the trip up to visit the Covesea Caves. The site has such a distinctive environment that most likely would feed into how past peoples would experience and interact with the caves, it would be impossible to fully understand the archaeology without experiencing it first hand. I’ve visited and worked on a few archaeological sites in my lifetime and to be honest, it is hard to top the sort of emotional impact that standing at the mouth of the Sculptor’s Cave gave me.

Plus, it was a gorgeous place full of amazing sites so…definitely worth a few falls!

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The rock arch outside of Laird’s Stables.

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.

On Imposter Syndrome, or What Are We Even Doing?!

With my transfer report coming up within the next month or so, things have been pretty stressful over here. Unfortunately I find myself not having fun poking around things in the lab, but pouring over drafts and corrections and trying to synthesize my transfer report*. So I figured this might be a good time to talk about imposter syndrome in academia – something that I suffer from a lot lately!

Imposter syndrome, for those who don’t know, is basically the feeling that you’re a fraud, no matter how many achievements you have. It is by no means only restricted to those in academia, of course, but I feel like it is quite common amongst graduate students and early career researchers.

In my opinion, the PhD (specifically the early years) is like academic puberty…you’re transitioning from a taught student to an “expert” of sorts, and the transition can be very awkward and weird! It’s easy to feel as though you’ve somehow cheated your way here at times. After all, I was just a student the other day! And now I’m giving lectures, presenting at conferences, answering questions from people whose work I’ve quoted in undergraduate papers – what the hell is going on?!

One of the best ways I’ve started to combat this feeling is by actually going through my drafts – yes, I am confessing right here that in the past, I’d skim through the comments of my drafts, if I even wrote one at all. Especially in my undergraduate years, I was a big fan of “one and done” papers – to some success.

But in the past year or so I’ve actually looked at the transformation of my drafts and lemme tell you – I can see my progress, clear as day. It’s slow, but I can gradually see myself getting more confident in my writing with each draft. And just having physical  evidence really helps me see that I am, in fact, achieving something.

Obviously imposter syndrome manifests in different ways for different people, but here’s my personal advice: go back to old drafts, old papers, whatever you have. Maybe its your masters dissertation you handed in just last year, maybe its your high school science paper. Compare it to whatever you’re currently working on – how far have you come? What progress have you made? Even if its the tiniest bit of progress, its still progress.

And if you don’t have written work to look at, try simply reflecting. Where were you last year? Three years ago? Five years ago? Even just last year I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me I would be presenting my work at conferences across the UK, or establishing myself as a science communicator on social media (although I’m still a baby at that!).

We’re not frauds! We’re learning and progressing and becoming the best we can be! Let’s give ourselves a break, shall we?

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This is basically how I feel at all times…an 11 year old presenting her science project at the middle school science fair.

*For those who don’t know – a transfer report is basically moving from the MPhil to the PhD. In my case, it basically shows off everything I’ve done in this first year: literature reviews, methodology chapters, analysis of bones, and what I plan on doing for the next few years of the PhD.

On Getting Through Bad Days, or How I Almost Set My Flat On Fire

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about mental health in academia. I didn’t really expect to write another post in a similar vein so soon, but I had a bad day today.

As always, if this sort of content makes you feel uncomfortable, please skip! I don’t mind.

I occasionally get hit with bad bouts of anxiety and panic attacks. This morning, I had a little incident (and learned a bit about proper candle safety) that set me off for the rest of the day. My thoughts were racing, my chest was pounding – you get the idea. I decided that today was not going to be very productive and took a mental health day.

Having to deal with bad days, regardless of how they manifest, is not only a major part of your PhD – it’s a part of your everyday life as well. Here are some tips that may help in the event of a bad day in the face of a mountain of work:

  • Take A Break – This is probably the most important advice I can give. If you get hit with a bad day in the office or the lab, take a tea break or a walk around the building, whatever might help you clear your head for a bit. As you take your break, you may want to…
  • Gauge Your Productivity – When you’ve been dealing with anxiety for as long as I have, you get pretty good at recognising how you’ll probably end up feeling for the rest of the day. If you feel as though you won’t be able to keep your mind on task, you might want to think about…
  • Taking a Mental Health Day – Remember that you should never have to put your academic work above your health in any case, so drop your supervisor a note if you need to and take the day off. Do whatever you need to chill out – watch some Netflix, read, whatever you need to do. But also…
  • Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself! – Whenever I need to take a break or a day off, I immediately feels guilty and start beating myself up over it. Maybe it’s a bit silly, but it’s also quite a sad indicator of our society’s standards: it’s much more the status quo to be overworked and tired and stressed out, isn’t it? Again – your health is so important. Remind yourself that you are taking the time to yourself to heal and feel better so you can be focused and productive tomorrow. Now, if you’re still feeling a bit guilty, however…
  • Work Light – Sometimes I can’t shake feeling guilty for taking a mental health day. So, a compromise: find something productive to do that isn’t so strenuous on your brain. Perhaps it’s just reading an article and taking some notes, or proofreading a chapter. Even doing a tiny task may make you feel productive, while keeping yourself more relaxed than you would have been with a full load of work.
  • Just Breathe – Of course, I write this all with my own life in mind – I am lucky to have a very supportive system at my university with some stellar supervisors and mental health resources. Unfortunately, not everyone out there may have that luxury. So if all else fails? Just remember to breathe. I know mindfulness may be a buzz word these days, but taking a few minutes or even seconds to breathe and centre yourself might help for a bit.

Remember, in the very wise words of my supervisor: your PhD is not a race. Take each day at a time; I know it’s tempting to thinking of the future and oh god I have to finish this dissertation in HOW long?! but ultimately that’s not necessarily productive. Just close your eyes, breathe, and think: I will be fine. Things will be okay. And keep moving.

But only when you’re ready.

Research and Wine

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.

On Getting Started in the Field: An Origin Story

After getting asked about hidden treasures and dinosaurs, the next most common question is, “So how did you even decide to become an archaeologist?”

It’s pretty simple, really. After I first saw the Indiana Jones films as a kid, I immediately went into my backyard and dug a 1 foot deep hole. I then proceeded to go to my best friend’s house and also dig a 1 foot deep hole there.

No one was particularly happy about my new obsession with digging holes at the time, if I’m being honest.

In school, I found myself drawn to subjects such as biology and history. I also realized that I’ve got a knack for learning by actively doing things. Combine those three together and next thing I know, I’m trying to explain to my guidance counselor what archaeology is.

I suppose I was lucky – I knew exactly what I wanted to do early in life and was stubborn enough to keep at it. I’ve also been lucky enough to have been in the type of circumstances that allowed for many valuable teaching experiences prior to graduate school (i.e.; easy access to museum/museum jobs, opportunities to get training through school programs, etc.).

But if I learned anything, it’s that with a little luck and a little stubbornness, you too can find yourself in Scotland, far from your hometown in New York, being looked at as a peer in the field that you’ve loved since you were making a mess in the backyard as a kid.

A (good?) photo of me from my first ever excavation during my undergrad

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