NUPSA’s 2020 President, Aaron Matthews, reflects on his own journey and challenges as a student, and how these have shaped his commitment to improving postgrad mental health.
Welcome to another year of postgraduate studies! I hope you are enthused by that. I know enthusiasm has a tendency to ebb away over time – mine certainly does, but I am very enthusiastic and excited for this year. Not only am I planning on finishing my PhD thesis, but I am also very fortunate to be President of NUPSA. This will be a massive twelve months.
Also, welcome all of the new postgraduate students starting this year. Myself and NUPSA are always available to help you through your journey. A big salute to all of the international students who have moved to Australia to study. I am blown away by your courage to make that step, so welcome and I hope you love and cherish your time in Australia.
The theme of ‘new beginnings’ is perfect for our February newsletter. It’s a new year, a new decade, and – soon – the start of a new student association. If you do not already know, NUPSA will cease to exist come 1st July, 2020. Like a phoenix, though, we shall be reborn, and a new student association will rise. It might be rocky at first in the new structure, but we will be able to support you better than ever before. I will talk more about this in the coming months.
Now, however, I would like to chat about the one thing we all have in common: starting, and completing, our postgraduate journey. And consideration of our mental health is critical throughout that journey. Looking after your mental health is something that I will always talk about, because it is vital to ensuring a positive and healthy experience while undertaking your degree. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to mental health issues, and the best way to break it down is to talk about it.
I started my bachelor’s degree at the University of Newcastle in 2010 in Electrical Engineering. Due to my chronic health issues, I quickly learnt that I needed to switch to part-time study, as the full-time workload proved too hard to balance. As exciting as it was to begin the next and newly independent stage of my life, that first month was tough. It took me a whole year to find my feet and be comfortable around campus.
Everything went quite smoothly for the next few years until my Mum passed away in 2014. An event like that shifts your life. It creates a path you cannot go back from. It is probably no surprise that I took six months off around that time. Family time and looking after each other was, and is, much more important than studying. I did not have long to go when I resumed my studies and in 2015 I completed my bachelor’s degree.
In a moment of uncertainly, an opportunity was given to me to begin a PhD the following year. I had nothing else planned for 2016, and the idea of a doctorate is certainly enticing, so I agreed to it. Hence, I started my Electrical Engineering PhD in 2016. To this day, I do not know if that was the right decision. It will be once I finish it.
I remember my first PhD week well for two reasons. Firstly, I had no idea what I was doing and I had no idea how to start. I was foolish enough not to chat to other students around me. I had chosen a topic I did not know a lot about. I felt very out of my depth, with everyone around me always typing papers and reports (seemingly) without effort. I felt bad not doing anything. I realise that I am a domestic student who grew up around Newcastle and had spent six years already on campus. So I applaud international students who make it through those first few weeks!
Secondly, on my very first day as a PhD student, my grandma passed away. So I remember that day well. Through working with my amazing supervisors and attending NUPSA events and meeting students in similar positions, I eventually found my feet and I was happy with my progress. After my confirmation, though, that momentum halted. It is quite common for people to have a bit of a lull after their confirmation.
Over the next eighteen months, nothing seemed to work. Only small progress was made. I realised that PhDs are not easy, and we should all remember that. It was at that time, halfway through 2018, that I took six months off. I was burnt out after all those years of consecutive studying, of making no significant progress, of feeling useless because of it and of feeling like I was letting down my supervisors. It was during this time that I really started to talk and listen to my friend’s feelings about their journeys, and I was surprised to find that a lot of what they were saying matched up with my own feelings. And surely, if we were feeling these things, then a lot of other people in our position must be feeling them as well.
This is a scary thought though. Do the majority of postgraduate students have feelings like this? Do the majority of postgraduate students struggle mentally at times through their degree? And then, who is responsible for this? Is it the student? Is it the supervisors? Is it the University? Or is it more institutionalised in the academic culture?
I’m leaning towards the latter, which is a significant problem. What is being done to help students through this? Discussion of that will be for another time. I will add, though, that this does not mean those feelings and thoughts are uniquely yours nor solely brought on by you.
After my six month break, things progressed well. Midway though 2019, there were changes in my personal life. A lot of these revolved around dealing with a disability and how that shapes your view of yourself, but also financial stresses. The main outcome of that is I am now enrolled part-time in my PhD, which I have found to be very beneficial to my work and health balance. Now I am looking forward to finishing this bastard off in 2020.
So here we are. I hope there is something in that wall of text that you can gain something from. I have concluded that postgraduate degrees are all-encompassing. You cannot simply walk away from it at five o’clock, it always nags at you. That is compounded by the isolating nature the work, so it feels like there is never an escape. My PhD has become entwined in my day-to-day life, and this is why I had to find a sense of balance and perspective. If I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on my mental health, I would not still be doing my degree, but it is something I dearly want to complete.
I know I have touched on some very personal things, and not everyone experiences those things during their journey (and I hope you don’t), but hopefully it highlights a bigger picture. Your thesis and research are not paramount every single day. It is okay to take time out and give time to yourself. We need that to see the journey through.