Today’s blog is from Jenny Waymont, who recently completed her PhD and is now working with Brain Health Scotland. You may recognise Jenny from previous blogs, and also featured as an ECR in the SDRC Annual Report 2020. Jenny tells us about her where her career is taking her so far, and lessons on making the most out of seemingly less-than-ideal situations.

Everything Is Terrible, But Maybe That’s Not A Bad Thing?

Towards the end of my BSc, my mental health took a turn for the worse as I tried to press on through poorly treated cPTSD, depression, and anxiety. About half-way through my MSc, I sustained a head injury (pathetically mild and not even while doing anything fun) that nevertheless left me unable to concentrate, remember very much, or form fluent sentences for about the following 6 months (combine that with the aforementioned mental illness). I managed to finish that MSc, and another, thankfully in largely uneventful personal circumstances (unless you include the aforementioned mental illness), the only looming threat at that point being the faint possibility that the neighbourly folks of the UK might vote to leave the EU. So, with those being my previous experiences of real life interfering with academic life, finishing my PhD in a literal pandemic almost felt par for the course. Still, when I sat in that PhD interview and (perhaps arrogantly) assured my future supervisors that I had the resilience it takes to be a successful PhD candidate, I don’t think any of us in the room expected that challenge to rise to “Can you complete your PhD research through Brexit, a Donald Trump presidency, occasional threats of nuclear war, a handful of UK general elections, and all of the other unprecedented socio-political events that will come to occur on an almost daily basis, and then write up your thesis and pass your viva during a pandemic after having no meaningful social interaction with anyone for months?”. It’s been a lot.

 

This isn’t a plea for sympathy. Despite everything that has happened and that continues to happen, as I like to flippantly joke; it’s character building. If none of that stuff had happened to me – if none of these things ever happened to us – we’d never get to learn what we’re capable of surviving and of the ways in which we’re capable of thriving. There have been and there will be days when everything feels very unfair and I feel very sorry for myself, and that’s fine and necessary and part of the process of adapting to what we’ve all been adapting to this past year, but on the good days (which are fortunately in the majority for me now) I deeply appreciate how lucky I am. The day before the first lockdown was announced, I’d just finished my last session with a fantastic NHS psychological therapist that I had been seeing for the year prior. Had I not had the history that I do, I wouldn’t have been able to go into this pandemic with anywhere near the level of resilience I’ve had the opportunity to develop. As a result of that (and, of course, other circumstances in my favour such as not having childcare to worry about), I haven’t had a particularly bad pandemic experience.

 

That’s not to say it’s been entirely without challenges. It’s definitely an anti-climax to not get to celebrate finishing your PhD in any real way (I live alone, and my initial celebration consisted of cracking open my brand-new Swiffer – other brands are available – and cleaning my flat. Pretty sad). There were a tough few months after the PhD ended and before I got a job where – as a result of it being too overwhelming to juggle pandemic life/thesis/viva/grant applications/postdoc applications – I had no bridge funding in place and was only just beginning to get applications sent off post-viva. When I was in the midst of that financial panic phase, I had a huge spreadsheet of postdoc positions and jobs I’d found advertised that ranged from things I was genuinely passionate about but lacked postdoc experience to roles that I was probably over-qualified for and that, frankly, didn’t really interest me. Do you remember when you were 16 and you’d apply for a Saturday job at a shop and they’d say they can’t hire you because you haven’t worked in a shop before? It felt a lot like that.

 

Once I had done everything in my power to sort out my financial situation, I got back to applying for postdoc roles and related jobs in a less frenetic manner. I took the time to think about what it might look like if I wasn’t so stubborn about sticking with the plan of staying in academia, and what it was about academia that I loved. I loved the fundamental aspects of research: formulating a hypothesis, collecting and analysing data, communicating your findings. I particularly loved opportunities to have discussions with people who my area of research could ultimately benefit, specifically clinicians and adults concerned about brain ageing and brain health. Conversely, the thing I found most frustrating in academia is the amount of time we spend talking about things but not actually doing them (despite our best intentions, often because of bureaucracy and funding rather than a lack of will-power). The upshot is that I found myself applying for a research officer role with Brain Health Scotland. The advert made it clear this wasn’t going to be a role for someone wanting to bang out academic publications, but was sufficiently clinically and academically adjacent that it piqued my interest. I was vaguely aware of Brain Health Scotland’s inception through hearing Craig Ritchie talk at various events, and I’d been keeping an eye on them since they cropped up on Twitter in August (as a veteran Tweeter – 11 years’ service – I take those manoeuvres very seriously). I’ve been working for Brain Health Scotland since the middle of December, and every day brings a new and exciting challenge as well as real, tangible progress. And so, while not having been particularly prepared (especially in terms of securing bridge funding and having a postdoc role lined up before I’d finished my PhD as is often recommended) might have put me in a rough spot for a while, it did force me to re-evaluate my plans and ultimately led to a fantastic opportunity.

I’m often guilty of down-playing how difficult some of my past experiences were, and that’s maybe a disservice to others who may be struggling inwardly but performing well outwardly. I got a 2.1 in that BSc at a time when I very much felt that I had lost my mind, I got distinctions in those MScs at a time when my brain and mind didn’t seem to want to work together, and I passed my PhD viva at a time when it felt like the world finally caught up with me and lost its mind too. That all took so much more work and was often much more painful than I’m willing to admit, but I really do believe that nothing worth having comes without hard work. To be clear, hard work doesn’t mean pushing through despite everything. It means taking the time to look after yourself, learning your limits, and identifying what helps you thrive. While it doesn’t really feel appropriate or compassionate to describe 2020 as the best year I’ve had in terms of my wellbeing and my academic achievements, the truth is that it was. And the truth is that it wouldn’t have been had I not had the opportunities I’ve had to hone that resilience. So, yes, everything is terrible – and has been for a long time now – but maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Maybe we’ll just keep getting better at finding the light in dark places.

Follow us on Twitter so you know can keep up to date with the series.

You can also follow Jenny of Twitter: @jenny_waymont

 

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