My name is Camille Hurley and I am a final year PhD student based in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. It’s a windy Tuesday in February 2021 and I’m writing this blog post from my desk in my bedroom, which is half a foot from my bed. It could be worse - I have a nice view out the window and at least I don’t have to work from the actual bed! I recently won the prize for the best talk at the BACR Student Conference and here I am going to share why that has become more for me than just something I will put on my CV.
By total coincidence, about a month before the world began to shut down in March last year, I was also shutting down. I was in 3rd year of my PhD, living in and working between Dublin and Paris, a few months here and a few months there. My time in France was brilliant – living in a lively city, doing my research with the experts in the field, working in a very welcoming lab, speaking another language. But at the same time, living a double life at 1000%, both personally and professionally, had lead me to a burn-out and I didn’t even realise (as if the crying, constant anxiety, and inability to make simple decisions weren’t obvious enough indicators). I was advised to take a rest in my family home, but really, a serious rest.
The year that followed has been my time to, very very slowly, learn and gather tools that are enabling me to take care of myself and complete my PhD without driving myself to breaking point again (if anyone is wondering, my favourites are being kind to myself, stop saying “I should”, gardening, meditating, podcasts, the list goes on...). Of course, having an understanding supervisor and a truly supportive network of PhD student best friends has been vital, and there just so happened to be a pandemic too, so the increased compassion, understanding, and conversation about minding ourselves and our mental health has also been quite important for my recovery this past year.
That being said, as I’ve been mostly working from home for the past 6 months doing analysis rather than lab work, the October and November lockdown in the shortening days was very tough, and I really nearly didn’t even manage to get my abstract in for the BACR conference. I was kind of hiding and had been working in a very isolated way, it was my first conference in over a year, and I had only ever submitted an abstract for a poster before. Of course all these factors really didn’t help my imposter syndrome. So that’s why I can’t emphasize enough the positive impact that the opportunity to present my work has had on me. I know to many people it might not seem like such a big deal (or maybe it is a big deal to all of us but we don’t talk about it!), or just a normal part of the PhD, but for me it has honestly been a turning point. I can see my progress in my research and I feel more like I am part of the scientific community. I no longer feel like I don’t belong here. It was also fantastic to hear the talks of other PhD students, not only to reassure me that I’m one of them but to hear some great science and gain an insight into other people’s research in a way that wasn’t overwhelming. As well as this, following being accepted to speak at this conference, I also presented for the first time at our department Christmas review, and gave a live webinar with a software company. So the positive domino affect has honestly been fantastic, given me a wonderful boost at this hard time, and changed my perspective for the better. This is compared to exactly one year ago when the “P” word couldn’t even be mentioned.
So my message to you is not to let fear stop you. There’s no need to hide. Even when you feel your brain isn’t fully turned on, or that you don’t have enough data, or that everyone else is better than you, try to gently encourage yourself to submit that abstract, attend that talk, set up that Zoom meeting. It can’t be denied it’s very hard to stay engaged at the moment, but even one small step in the right direction can have a substantial impact on how you feel about yourself and your work. For anyone reading this who is in the depths of despair, the hole, the fog, hang in there, you are not alone. I see you and I believe in you. I promise if I can do it, you can do it.
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