By Jenny Olson
Hello fellow researchers,
I am a PhD candidate and the focus of my research is active lifestyles in regional Australia. My mixed-methods research is taking place in inner-regional Southern Queensland. I am really enjoying learning about the lifestyles of people in these regional communities. The challenge for me is that I don’t exactly live in the environment where my research is being conducted. In fact, I live some distance away … in Japan.
I am quite accustomed to life as a distance student. My undergraduate studies were also undertaken at USQ in external mode, while I worked full-time on the Gold Coast. I moved to Japan at the beginning of my Honours year as a result of my husband’s work. As an undergraduate I had access to the Study Desk, which facilitated regular communication with my fellow students and my lecturers. I relied heavily on the online forums for academic guidance, but also for social support. I felt part of a virtual community. So many resources were available from the Study Desk. Every learning style catered for. It was truly a wonderful experience.
In the early stages of my PhD I struggled a little bit with the absence of my old friend the Study Desk. Yes, technically it still exists, but in a necessarily different form, with the absence of the structure provided by weekly topics that are relevant to course work. Most importantly, the previously relied upon avenue for social support was missing. After a few months I was really missing the connection with others. Suddenly Japan seemed a lonelier place than it had before. I started to wonder if I could really get through the long slog, and whether my research area was worthwhile – some classic ‘Imposter Syndrome’ thinking (The Thesis Whisperer, 2015) came in to play.
After a rough few weeks I decided that it was time to help myself. I had a trip to Australia planned in the coming weeks, and I decided to make the most of it. I booked a meeting with the student counsellor at Springfield. I planned a number of meetings with my supervisors and others, to talk about aspects of my research. The most important thing I did though, was to reach out to some of the other PhD students working within my team (Innovative Mental Health Solutions). I set up a lunch meeting at the Tavern near the Springfield campus. My world opened up. We shared professional knowledge. We shared personal stories. We encouraged each other. I had found the social support that I was missing. I realized I was not alone.
I came back home to Japan, and my PhD world seemed much brighter. I regained the belief that my research was worthwhile, and that I had the skills and wherewithal to see it through. I also knew that ongoing social support was going to be critical to my success. I kept in touch with my fellow students by email, Skype and Facebook. I arrange social lunches and coffee when I am in town. I also decided to get involved with the Postgraduate Research Student Society (PReSS) as an executive member of the club, with a focus on advocating for the needs of external students like myself. (PReSS is a club for all postgraduate research students at USQ. For more information please email PReSSclub@usq.edu.au)
I also try to be more active on social media. I joined the PhD Owls group on Facebook (for older wiser learners). I am still mastering the art of Twitter (@JennyLOlson) and LinkedIn but am finding them to be a useful way to connect with a broad range of like-minded people. I have also discovered that Twitter is an excellent way of keeping up with new publications/research in my area of interest. I would love to connect with any fellow research students through these mediums, so please reach out. As a keen amateur photographer I also have an account on Instagram (the_wandering_researcher). I do believe it is important to maintain interests beyond that of our research, for our mental health, and for the perspective on our research that can only be obtained by stepping away from time to time.
On the subject of stepping away, I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to travel on a number of occasions over the past year. This has led to a bit of a juggling act on occasions. Much of my research has been conducted in airports, on planes, and in hotel rooms (particularly in the middle of the night if I am jet lagged). This has taught me to manage my time, whilst still taking time out for the fun stuff. I have also learnt that even a 5-minute window of time can provide the opportunity to tick off a job on the never ending to-do list that we all have. Sure, there are times when I need to sit for longer periods and write. But a lot can be achieved in the shorter windows of time as well.
Overall, I have learnt that the experience of a wandering researcher need not be a lonely one. I am so grateful to my supervisors, fellow PhD students, and many of the staff (both professional and academic) who have provided professional support as well as social connections that have significantly enhanced my experience of higher degree research.