Her PhD: from inner critic to permission to shine

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Shared by Connie Allen

A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is a massive research project that leads to the development of an academic book (thesis) and journal articles (papers). The five years it took to complete my PhD were some of the best and worst times of my life.

My study began with a deep sense of curiosity about what it might be like to be really healthy and happy. I wanted to learn directly from happy, healthy people, as the stuff I had picked up from books, courses and the workforce hadn’t helped me on a personal basis.

I interviewed 25 adults who said they had a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ level of health, happiness and wellness. I asked them to describe what this way of being was like for them, their wellness journeys, what helped (and what made it harder), how they were similar to (and different from) less healthy, happy people, and how others could become more healthy and happy. I also asked them to describe the type of day that made them feel particularly healthy and happy, and one that did not. This resulted in about 470 pages (300,000 words) of information (data).

I analysed this data by looking for patterns, and ways that these patterns might relate to each other. I shaped these patterns into a theory of what high level wellness is, and how people attain and maintain it. There is quite a lot of detail in this theory, but the essence is that high level wellness is the sense of peace (wellbeing) that comes from knowing, liking and being your best self; and that happy, healthy people learn to attain and maintain this over time through experiential learning (e.g., commitment, action and reflection).

Undertaking this study gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the wellness field, including completing a course in positive psychology, attending a bunch of retreats, joining some groups for wellness professionals, and getting to know heaps of people who have an interest in this space. I experienced high level wellness many times, including a deep sense of joy, purpose and connection. I tried as many new experiences as possible, and learned what it is like to shine.

I also experienced a lot of challenges including deep depression, crippling anxiety and crushing overwhelm. The research and writing process was very hard, and continually triggered my inner critic. I took years to learn how to do my research method (grounded theory), and another few years to figure out how to write it up. My scholarship ran out part way through my study, forcing me to take on a range of side jobs including assignment marking and editing books, articles and theses. I became a bit of a hermit, and relapsed into many of my old, unhealthy habits to get my thesis and journal paper finished.

It’s now eight months after I submitted my thesis. I received amazing feedback from my assessors, passed my PhD, and had my article published in an excellent journal. I’m really proud of the work I have done, but am still recovering from such a big investment of time, money and energy. I’m trying to balance a busy new job with self-care, and working out how to get my research into the world.

My PhD taught me to be more kind, loving and gentle, especially to myself. I learned that it is ok to take your time, pace yourself and follow your own cycles. It is also ok to lighten up, have fun and shine.

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