Proactive is the new reactive. Clodagh Butler

We need to keep in mind that the future is not something we simply enter, the future is also something we help create” (Baltes, 1997, p. 378).

When we think about the definition of work, you may think about the typical 9-5 in which you perform or fulfil duties in return for a wage or salary.  However, for many of us working in the area of academia (undergraduates, postgraduates, postdocs, researchers, lectures etc.), the definition of work reads more along the line of exerting oneself physically or mentally especially in sustained effort for a purpose or under compulsion or necessity.  There are no defining hours, sometimes no tangible rewards.

Even within academia, the notion of work is different between departments and schools.  I have experienced the last number of years at UL going from an MSc student, to full-time PhD student and part-time lecturer, within two different departments (PESS and KBS –P&ER).  Having come into contact with many PhD students and researchers across numerous disciplines, the biggest thing I have learned is that as researchers, our topics are different from one another, our methodology, our samples, our learning styles, our target journals.  Even though we are on the same pathway, we are all experiencing different stressors or challenges in our careers.

However, for PhD students’ one common stress or that we may all have is our deadline to finish up and submit.  Post-mortems from other successful PhD’s candidates are useful in highlighting important milestones along the way; however, for those of us currently in the clouds of despair with only a haze of a finish line insight, it is important that we do not let ourselves become overwhelmed with stress.

While the job of a PhD student can be a positive experience, it can also be a considerable source of stress, the consequences of which can include burnout, reduced performance, physical health, etc.  Such sources of stress can include work relationships, work overload, lack of control, lack of resources or communication, and work–life conflict.  Unfortunately, some of these stressors are uncontrollable and even inevitable, but our ability to reduce their effects are in our control.

Resilience

 “Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill.” (Kanter, 2013. p).

 In many contexts, including academia, there has been increased attention to increase individual psychological resilience in order to promote positive well-being; as opposed to simply dealing with the consequences of stress after it becomes an issue.  Being a resilient PhD student is now seen a credible by-product of our training and experience.  Even though we are expected to be resilient, how can we ensure we know we are developing it?

According to the resilience literature, we need two things, positive adaption of some sort and stress.  It’s not resilience if there is no stress, whether its acute or chronic.  The main method to measure resilience and positive adaption is by taking a self-report inventory/questionnaire (e.g.CD-RISC), otherwise it could be seen by looking at other psychological adjustment markers i.e. psychological well-being, physical-well-being, burnout levels, life satisfaction etc.  However, these questionnaires still only tell us about our successful adaption to stress and don’t give us insight as to what actually may contribute to developing resilience.

A new perspective on resilience…

One novel approach that I am testing for my PhD is the role of proactive coping in resilience.  Instead of focusing on what happens after stress (reactivity to stress), lets focus on what we can do to minimise stress before it occurs (proactivity towards stress).  For many jobs including a PhD, stress is inevitable, so let’s attempt to make it less harmful.

Proactive coping includes efforts to build up general resources that facilitate promotion toward challenging goals and personal growth.  Individuals who engage in proactive coping see stress as a challenge not a threat and experience better physical and mental health outcomes in response to stressful experiences than individuals who do not undertake such preparatory activities.  As a result, I believe that proactive coping can safeguard against the negative effects of stress, increase capacity to endure adversity and thus promote positive adaption, i.e. psychological resilience.

Therefore, if proactive coping has a role in resilience, then we need to look at becoming more proactive towards our stress.  Here are a few examples of how we can increase our proactive coping skills:

Social support: Social support comes up as an answer to every psychological ailment and for good reason.  We are built to belong.  However, seek the support, don’t just wait for it.  Surround yourself with positive and supportive individuals/groups/networks – in and out of the office.  Different supporters have different purposes and contributions.

Feedback:  It can be hard to think about seeking feedback on a task that we are not 100% about.  However, being self-starting and seeking feedback rather than waiting for it is one way of dealing with potential issues that could arise.  Whether it’s positive or negative, getting the feedback sooner rather than later can result in less work, help increase motivation and produce better productivity in the right direction.

Self-efficacy: aka confidence.  Self-efficacy is the belief that you can perform a given task.  Whether it’s writing an article, recruiting participants, having to do some teaching, starting to write or even just coming up with a topic.  Having a sense of personal competency to deal effectively with various stressful situations is one of the most effective methods of reducing the stressful effects of that situation.

Autonomy:  A popular term in the organisational literature autonomy refers to having personal control of over your work.  The freedom to make decisions, to make choices and a sense of personal responsibility.  It does not mean that you stop taking the advice or opinion of supervisors and others; but start taking responsibility of your own work.  Having some personal initiative.  Making plans, schedules, deadlines etc.,

(FYI, yes they seem boring and common but they not that difficult, cost nothing and work in any context, academia, work, sport!)

Clodagh Butler is a PhD researcher in the Department of Personnel and Employment Relations in Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick.  Her research interests include resilience, proactivity, stress and well-being.  Clodagh also lectures part-time in the areas of Organisational Psychology and Psychometrics.  You can contact Clodagh via email at; Clodagh.butler@ul.ie or you can view Clodagh’s research profile on Researchgate  or on Linked In