Incorporating travel and mindfulness into research…

…by Amy / from Canada / PhD Population Health Sciences / 1st Year

When traveling comes to mind, most people would automatically think of going on vacation with friends or family and stay at a somewhat lovely hotel of Airbnb. Conversely, when I travel, I’d spend the majority of the time writing my research at cafes while staying at a dorm for 16 people at a hostel. A little over a year ago, after obtaining a small grant for my master’s thesis, I traveled to Guatemala City on a shoestring budget. Before arriving in Guatemala City, I would go to our graduate office every morning at 6 am and leave around 11 pm, while holding an XL coffee in one hand and a Redbull in the other hand. Without my master’s thesis, I wouldn’t have become a Ph.D. student at UoE today.

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Even until today, I still can’t believe that a single e-mail to the medical director of Guatemala’s National Pediatric Oncology Unit has completely turned my dream of doing paediatric cancer-related field research into a reality. After arriving in Guatemala City, at first, the Latino partying atmosphere made me feel as if I was living the dream. I mean, what else can you ask for besides being funded to travel and leading a research at a world-class paediatric cancer institute while still being able to party on the side? Only a few days later, I got my rude awakening. A month of hostel life isn’t easy, to begin with. Aside from sleeping in the same dorm with 10 other people and having absolutely 0 privacy, I also had to appear as professional as possible when I go to the clinical setting the next morning and analyse data at 2 am while others were getting drunk. Eventually, I’ve had enough.

On my second weekend, I paid 20 Q (~£2) to hop on a chicken bus (the exact type of transportation trip advisors would advise you not to take) and arrived at Monterrico, a small beach town by the pacific coast. The town is a vacation hotspot for local Guatemalans and is famous for its black volcanic sand and monstrous waves. Soon after jumping into the waves, it suddenly came to my realisation that although I appear to have a vibrant social life along with my work in academia, I still didn’t understand the importance of self-care.

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During the following days, I developed a routine of waking up at 8 am, do an hour of yoga on the beach after breakfast to release all of my excess energy, and then sit at the beach bar and do hours of data analysis. Similar to others on vacation, I also gave myself permission to order a mojito during happy hour. I even became friends with local surfing instructors and hung out with them in the evening after completing over 8 hours of analysis. Eventually I got more work done in one weekend at the beach than in one week at the office. It then became apparent to me that working hard doesn’t guarantee a better result. As a young and single Ph.D. student, it’s definitely possible to have a social life, have time for self-care, and still be a high achiever.

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As we all know, mental health issues and stress are very prevalent among Ph.D. students. However, we are also privileged to have a more flexible schedule. We should also appreciate and take advantage of the fact that there are many cheap flights from Edinburgh to many European countries, whereas in my home country Canada, a 5 hr coach bus ticket to the next province costs at least £100. Of course, you need to first consult your supervisor, but it shouldn’t be a massive problem if you’re only away for a Friday or a Monday once in a while. There are also ways to travel without breaking the bank. It’s common for airlines like Ryanair to have super cheap flights to other major European cities once in a while. I recently purchased a round trip ticket to Stockholm on a random weekend for only £22. There, I visited my favourite DJ. Avicii’s grave. I also managed to write my integrative review proposal at the cafe of the Nobel Prize Museum and received great feedback from my supervisors during my supervisory meeting after I came back. I will be traveling to Tallinn, Helsinki, and Riga in the first week of November while my supervisor travels to Nepal for her teachings in palliative medicine. My 3 nights of accommodation and flight cost less than £100 altogether!

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It’s entirely up to you how you would design your life while doing research-intensive work. Obviously, every student’s life situation is different, and not everyone has the opportunity to travel and have a lot of time to themselves. But please remember: “wellbeing matters as much as doing well.”


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