Looking after yourself during honours

Regardless of what discipline you are in, the Honours year is a challenging one. As with many challenges, it comes bundled with opportunity and growth potential. In this post I pull together some advice given to CSE Honours students in a recent presentation. Reading time ~ 9 minutes. 

Looking back to when I did my Honours year in psychology, it was a breeze. I sailed through with zero worries and crushed everything I turned my attention to whilst I remember it fondly, it was like many Honours years – exciting, nerve-wracking, productive, chaotic, unpredictable but definitely worth it.

Interestingly, I’ve had people who have done PhDs say that their Honours year was worse! The leap in responsibility, difficulty, and time pressure from undergraduate to Honours was more severe than Honours to PhD.

The challenge of the Honours year isn’t lost on those academics and lecturers that support students through these years. One of the regular requests to our service (HCDS) is for one of us to come and talk to Honours students about navigating their way successfully through the year.

One academic I get to work with on this topic is Professor Mike Gardner from the College of Science and Engineering. He and I have run a few sessions since 2022 to help CSE Honours students develop healthy habits.

Mike called me back to speak to the new 2023 Honours students earlier this year. This time I brought in my big guns. No, not my puny biceps or any startling new insights into self-care. I brought in Grace from Student Learning Support Services.

I did a couple of co-presentations with Grace in 2022. I got the impression that students found the combination of us talking about study/writing skills AND self-care/wellbeing skills more engaging than either topic on its own. The combination speaks to the inherent challenge in university studies of balancing productivity and wellbeing. However, it is very possible they just liked Grace more.

Regardless, we gave those CSE students in attendance a look into the kinds of health and productivity habits that make the year easier to navigate.

Here are some of the key takeaways…


Detailed weekly timetables

There have been times in my life where I functioned quite well without keeping a detailed calendar/to-do list. But any period of time where I’ve wanted or needed to be highly productive, I’ve had to think deeply about my time and how I allocate it. A calendar has been essential for me.

A common hiccup in an Honours year is the poor use of time at the beginning of the year and hence the need for frantic work in the last half of the year. Some of this is unavoidable and relates to the natural fluctuations of research projects. But I recommend starting early in the Honours year and scheduling your weeks, so you get familiar with precisely allocating your time. The idea is to schedule specific times for reading, taking notes, writing, supervision meetings, ethics applications etc. Getting used to the habit of setting aside time to think about your thesis, even if you might be waiting for stuff to happen. The early part of the year is great for reviewing and writing about research relevant to your thesis topic (ultimately becomes part of your introduction).

Remember to include in your schedule all the other parts of your life: coursework, work, family responsibilities, meals, travel, rest, leisure. If you don’t consider these, they may get neglected (which has wellbeing impacts) or you’ll grossly overestimate how much time you have to put towards your Honours project and get caught out.


Backward mapping

When planning for projects, we often project forward. What do I need to do today, this week, the next month?

But for projects that have a big final deliverable (e.g. an Honours thesis), it can be useful to start from the due date and work backwards to identify what needs to be completed by when. It forces you to conceptualise the final product and build in time to get each component of it built. You might use the thesis of a previous student to alert you to everything that an Honours thesis needs to contain (i.e. chapters, appendices, administrative stuff). Then you try to work out how long you’ll need to create each section and build due dates/ milestones into your calendar reminding you of this.

So, you might set aside times of the year to get certain chapters done, time for your supervisor to review them and time to do final drafts. You might set preliminary dates for when you want to have data collection done or analysis completed.

Tracking back from an end-point allows for you to develop an overarching schedule for the year, which is then supplemented with more detailed weekly schedules.


Chunking tasks and time

If you made a pizza and tried to eat it by just picking up the whole thing, it would get messy and awkward (but admittedly probably fun). Instead, the best bet is to cut it into slices and tackle each slice, one at a time. It is surprisingly (and disconcertingly) easy to get through a whole pizza using this method 🍕

Think about your Honours tasks and study time in a similar way. When you sit down to work on your Honours project, start by a) defining a clear and achievable piece of the thesis to work on and b) deciding how long you’ll work before taking a break. Break off tasks and blocks of study time, a piece at a time. This can counteract the overwhelm we might feel when we sit down to work but get caught thinking about the final product, and not the next specific task to complete.

Breaking up large tasks or large periods of time into chunks generally improves your productivity (less time is lost on contemplating what to work on) and also motivation (you feel less overwhelmed because you are setting yourself multiple achievable goals). Chunking goes well with backwards mapping because you have already broken down the major parts of your thesis and allocated time over the year to work on them.


Study groups

Study groups are a neat way to combine a wellbeing strategy (time with others) with a productivity strategy (harnessing collective motivation and wisdom). They can be formal, in that there are set study group meeting times and topics. They can also be informal, like a group sharing the same lab space that regularly discuss what they are working on.

Study groups can serve multiple purposes. They might be a place to let off steam. Members might help you solve practical problems. Regular discussions with other Honours students might help you feel less alone or validate your struggles. I found (back in my ‘do science’ days) that being around other scientists helped keep me excited about my topic as well as expose me to related areas. Informal study groups helped me stay motivated at times where I was feeling meh about what I was doing.

Whilst many people prefer to be alone when doing the final writing part, I have seen a marked increase in the use of ‘writing retreats’ where teams of people set aside a day or couple of days to complete big writing tasks together. You may find similar writing retreats happening in research teams you are attached to. Experiment with whether you find these a good catalyst for writing.


Write early and even when it feels hard

Even though you might have gotten into science more because of an interest in field or lab-work, writing will be a critical component of your work. Writing is your path to sharing what you’ve learned. Writing is your path to summarising the work of others. Writing might also be the path to understanding complex ideas in one’s field.

So, start writing early, even if that is just summarising research you are reading. See if you can discipline yourself to write on days when you don’t feel like it or it doesn’t feel like it is coming naturally. I get myself to write every morning (at least those where I don’t have a pre-existing appointment). Some days it comes easy and effortlessly. Other days it is an unrewarding slog. But try to write most days of the week.

If you’re struggling to write in an academic tone, feel free to shift to a conversational tone or write in dotpoints or fragments. Future you will just be happy that you got your thoughts and ideas down on paper (or computer), rather than keeping them jumbled in your head.

For a long time, I assumed that writing was the last step in the thinking process. I’d try to sort out what I wanted to say in my head and then write it perfectly. Only later in my career have I really started using writing to organise my thoughts. I became much more willing to write messily (dotpoints, sentence fragments) and then use expansion, organisation and refinement of what I’d written as part of my thinking process. This translates into a system that uses many iterative drafts, rather than a few precise ones. I’m much better now at using writing as part of my thinking, not just as the final expression of my conclusions.


Develop strategies for overwhelm

The human body is designed to experience stress. Stress and a burst of cortisol are part of what get us up in the morning. Stress gets us writing as a deadline looms. Stress gets us off the couch and pursuing the things that are important to us.

But the systems that manage our stress response (e.g. autonomic nervous system) can get overwhelmed. Severe and/or chronic overwhelm can lead to psychological injury and illness.

That is where ‘coping’ comes in. Coping refers to the things we do to manage the stressors we face. Coping can take many forms. It might be removing or nullifying a stressor. It might be taking a different perspective on a situation. It might be learning tools to manage strong emotions or calling in supports as needed.

Think about when you get stressed out. What strategies do you use to calm, reset, ground or ready yourself? If you have strategies that have worked well in the past, are you using them? If you can’t think of any or don’t think the ones you have are particularly helpful, there might be value in you making this a topic for further learning. An example might be doing this course from This Way Up – https://thiswayup.org.au/programs/student-wellbeing-program/ 


Getting back on track

Setbacks are inevitable. They might be due to things outside of our control, poor judgement on our part, the actions of others, or (as is mostly the case) a mix of factors.

How well we deal with setbacks is a function of our coping strategies (see above) as well as the attitude/mindset we have about setbacks.

A mindset is a collection of beliefs, attitudes and expectations we have about a particular object or situation. It is possible to change mindsets and they do shift naturally over time. For example, I’ve noticed that as students progress through their academic lives, from undergrad to Honours to PhD to post-doc, their belief in their capacity to deal with setbacks generally increases. They also tend to be more comfortable with the inevitability of setbacks.

During your Honours year, you’ll likely get a chance to test this out. Something won’t go to plan and you’ll need to course correct or change something to get back on track. At that point, you’ll gain an insight into your mindset about setbacks. Will you get caught in blame, shame and self-criticism reflecting an expectation that setbacks only happen when you’re at fault? Or will you find yourself being a bit more self-compassionate and problem-solving focused?


Engage supports

In a big community like Flinders, there is usually someone to talk to about most challenges. To get a birds-eye view of the support services available, your best bet is the Support and Services Directory: https://students.flinders.edu.au/support 

Seeking help is a skill. We can actually get better at it. What I mean by that is we get better at identifying what we’re struggling with, locating a person or service who has the relevant knowledge/ skills/ resources to help, and being more precise in asking for what we need.

Reasons that people don’t seek help include embarrassment, expectation of a negative response, unsure if problem warrants help, preference for self-reliance and negative self-worth. As a result, people often sit with problems for a long-time before reaching out, which can lead to the problem getting worse over time.

Ask yourself – do I have what I need to solve this problem in front of me? If no, start by asking a friend, family member, peer, supervisor or mentor. Asking for help is a bit like tackling procrastination in that the first little step is important as the rest flows from that first action.

If there are social/networking events during the year where you can interact with other Honours students, consider attending. They can provide great informal support as you are hanging out with people who are likely facing similar challenges and you can rely on some collective problem solving.


Key daily wellbeing activities

A little while back I wrote about a study released in 2022 that sought to identify the daily activities most strongly predictive of good mental health. You can read that post here.

The short version is this…

There are certain activities, that if engaged in regularly, are associated with good mental health. They’re the kinds of foundational activities that psychologists would recommend for most people.

Realistic thinking – take moments throughout the day to ask yourself how you are thinking about particular events or challenges and entertain the possibility of other perspectives

Meaningful activities – even if it is just 30 minutes, a few times a week, find and pursue a passion project or do something fun

Goals and plans – think about the different domains of your life and set goals in each of those domains and plans for how you will achieve those goals

Healthy habits – make small and regular improvements to your diet, levels of physical activity and sleep and maintain those changes

Social connections – share something about your day with a friend, family member or colleague/peer and do the same for them in return

The research suggests that those who do these things more regularly show lower level of anxiety and depression and increased life satisfaction.

Are these things built into your everyday life?


Final message – willingness to explore what works for you

The suggestions above are the advice we give to most people, most of the time. That doesn’t mean they will work for everyone.

In the session that Mike, Grace and I ran, we also had past Honours students come and share their experiences.

It was clear that whilst they shared some experiences, each of their Honours years was different, and different strategies/tools/resources/supports helped them through. Each of them had to adapt to their unique circumstances and personal quirks, characteristics and work patterns. They had to assess whether what they were doing was working, and if not, entertain changing their game plan.

Your Honours year will ask you similar questions: Is what you are doing working? If not, are you willing to try something different? View the advice above as some possible paths if you want to try something different.

I want to finish with a congratulations. If you are doing Honours this year (in any College), then yes, there is a great and exciting challenge ahead of you. But it also means that you conquered a great and exciting challenge to get to this point – undergrad or equivalent. I hope you were able to take or do take a moment to reflect on that achievement. It is testament to your capacity to work and achieve, and many of the same capacities that made that happen will be called upon to make Honours happen. Congratulations and my best wishes for the year.

Remember that Student Learning Support Services are always there to help with study challenges.

Health, Counselling and Disability Services are there to help with personal challenges

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'How to' series Academic skills Performance Productivity Psychological Tools

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