You can’t pour from an empty cup: self-care suggestions for ECRs

By Donna Littlewood and Emma Nielsen.

Over the past year ‘work/life balance’ and ‘self-care’ has been a regular feature on our Twitter timelines. Sometimes discussion is instigated in response to a blog from The Guardian’s ‘academics anonymous’ series, at other times it has been in response to research which has shone a light on the high rates of mental health problems reported by post-graduate students.

Asides from the general features of the academic culture, we also happen to work in a particularly emotive research area, focusing on understanding and preventing self-harm and suicide. Whilst there is no single panacea when it comes to self-care as an ECR in our field – and indeed some of those who know us most well may well raise an eyebrow at the notion of us being in a position to give advice at all – we wanted to share the things that have helped us, and the tips we’ve gathered from others along the way:

Tip 1: Be realistic

There are often key phrases and words of wisdom that are passed down within lab groups. ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’ seems to be one of those that has been written on post-it notes and stuck to many computers. Why? Because it matters that we are realistic about what is achievable with the time, experience and resources that we have. A PhD is a learning experience and, as hard as it is, it is important to recognise – and indeed own – the fact that you aren’t going to be able to do it all. There isn’t likely to be a day when any one of us can sit back at our desk and declare all the challenges embraced by Suicidology to be resolved. In terms of balance, self-care (and even our sanity), we think there is real value in being clear with yourself about what you are realistically trying to achieve at this point. You’ve a whole career ahead of you, should you choose, to do the next thing to improve on where you are now.

Tip 2: Find your tribe

Sometimes a PhD can feel like a pretty lonely experience, but there are so many wonderful people – and so much community – out there. For us, establishing a group of peers who are generous with their collective wisdom, understanding and experience has been fundamental to feeling a sense of balance. Importantly, contributing and being there for others to reach out to has been as central to our wellbeing as having those that we can contact. Having a tribe also helps with a sense of future and positive possibilities – these are the colleagues that we can see ourselves collaborating with throughout our careers.

Tip 3: Self-care is not static

Yes, it’s good to build in some regular daily/week activities to ensure we’re taking care of our-selves, but it’s also important to recognise that more ad-hoc forms of self-care may be warranted in response to particular challenges.

When talking to people about our research, they generally assume that our work is likely to be at its most challenging during periods when we are in direct contact with people who have experience of suicidal thoughts and attempts. For instance, conducting in-depth qualitative interviews to try and understand the factors and processes that contribute to the development of suicidal thinking.  However, whilst we can only speak from our own experience, on the whole, these type of work days tend to be most inspiring. It’s incredibly humbling that people are willing to share their experiences and insight, with the hope that this will subsequently help to improve mental wellbeing for others. That said, there are times that it feels extremely sad to live in a world where people have been subjected to such distress, and often such traumatic experiences. It can feel disheartening that our work will never eradicate all of the difficulties that people endure which can lead them to self-harm and suicide. This is probably something all people working in this area can empathise with this. In those times it’s important to try to focus on how our work can make a positive difference to others. Speaking with a colleague who also works in the field is often the best tonic to remedy this (see tip 2). There may also be times when aspects of people’s stories resonate too closely for comfort. Again, talking it over may be helpful, so may taking a break (see tip 4).

Tip 4: Take a break

Take a moment. Take a break. Take a holiday.

As much as it might sometimes feel like it, academia doesn’t need you 24/7, 365 days a year. No-one can sustain that level of work for long. So it is really important to get used to building in breaks. On a day-to-day basis, this might be as simple as eating your lunch in the staff room or outside on campus, away from the potential to be interrupted by an incoming e-mail or the temptation to just input that last bit of data while munching your sandwiches. On a bigger scale, ‘taking a break’ might be about scheduling in (and actually taking!) annual leave, turning off Twitter notifications when things are getting a bit too much, or saying ‘not now’ to that request you realistically just don’t have time for.

Tip 5: Celebrate every achievement

…and we mean every achievement, not just every success. Paper gets published? Grant gets awarded? Great! Absolutely embrace the moment and celebrate. But it isn’t just about outcome. Okay your travel grant didn’t get funded this time around, or your paper was desk rejected. In these moments of course it is easy to feel disheartened, but there is still achievement to be acknowledged – you got the travel grant together and your manuscript ready to submit. These are accomplishments and important milestones.

In our offices we used to just mark ‘accepted’ and ‘published’ successes. Now we celebrate and mark the achievement of submitting. It might seem like a very small shift, but it has had a marked impact. And for those days when it seems like all successes are far off?keep a folder of collated positive feedback, well dones and kind comments – anything really that can pull us back up and remind us that all is not lost. Whether a folder on your desk or your desktop, it can be a helpful little go-to.

Tip 6: Don’t be your PhD

This is one that, in all honesty, we probably learnt the slow and painful way, but we think it is so important to find something outside of your PhD that really captures you. Whether it is sport, or music, or life drawing, or baking, or anything in between, have a hobby outside of the office. Schedule it in your diary – just like you would a lab meeting or supervision – and stick to it.

Tip 7: It is okay not to be okay

PhDs are hard. ECR life is full of uncertainty. The stakes are often high. Suicide and self-harm are emotive topics. And that is just the work side of juggling work/life balance. As cliché as it sounds, it is okay not to be okay. If you are struggling, often the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to be open and honest about it. Use supervision. Talk to your boss. Not only will lab leaders likely have an understanding or experience of some of the challenges you might be facing, they are likely to also be able to offer some suggestions, advice, or even adjustments to help you through.

…And if all else fails, there is always chocolate. Tip 8: Coffee and chocolate!

Incidentally, we wrote this post in response to a Twitter suggestion for a feature on ‘a day in the life of academic self-care’. Through writing this blog we have reflected on the things that have worked for us and the advice that has resonated. Consequently, we have also developed a greater understanding of how we can ensure that we look after ourselves better in the future! With this in mind, it might be an exercise all ECRs (indeed, all humans) may find useful, to periodically reflect on where you are at and what works for you, or whether you need to take more time to look after yourself in the future. And if you want to write a blog post with your own tips for self-care, we’d love to hear them.


Donna Littlewood (@donnalittlewood) has a PhD in psychology and is a Research Associate at the NIHR Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre, University of Manchester (


Emma Nielsen (@EmmaLNielsen) is a PhD student in the Self-Harm Research Group (SHRG), University of Nottingham ( and an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Mental Health.

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