This month we are featuring Social Psychology PhD candidate Ashley Whillans. Ashley was recently recognized as the lead author of a study focusing on how having a “time is money” attitude can be a barrier to acting in environmentally friendly ways. It struck a cord with us at Healthy UBC, and prompted an invitation to become the first Thriving Graduate Student!
Thriving Faculty exemplify the integration of health and wellbeing into classrooms, research, departments and communities.
What central challenges do you face in your role as a PhD student?
As a PhD student working in two highly productive research labs, the biggest challenges I face are related to deadlines. In research, there are often many speed-bumps. I am constantly trying to balance multiple deadlines, while keeping enough slack in my schedule to deal with delays and (of course!) to make time for friends, family, and fun (I’m getting married in August, so there has been a lot of fun the last few months!). I am always working on time management – i.e., figuring out how to maximize productivity, while minimizing hours spent at my computer.
Based on your experiences, can you describe the relationship between student mental health, and wellbeing and learning?
I am a first-generation university student. When I graduate with my PhD, I will have three more degrees than anyone in my family! In second year of undergrad, I transferred from Douglas College to UBC. I remember feeling overwhelmed: The classes were huge, the coursework was demanding, and I worked part-time to pay rent. I struggled to feel like I fit in. It wasn’t until I became involved outside of the classroom that I started to excel. Extracurricular involvement made me feel part of the university experience and gave me a place to belong. I can say first-hand that social connection can motivate students not only to learn in class, but also to learn from and explore all of the unique and exciting opportunities that university has to offer.
Do you implement any strategies to support student mental health and wellbeing in the classroom/lab?
I work with a lot of undergraduate research assistants: they are our lab superheroes! To support the mental health and well-being of the students that I work with, I try my best to implement two empirically based strategies: (1) Fostering social connection and (2) Discussing challenges.
(1) Social connections are important! Having quality social connections is one of the most important factors in determining well-being. Because lab work can be quite solitary, I try to foster connections by hosting sushi lunches and going out for adventurous meals. These activities help to build a sense of community and friendship. Then, if there is a problem or there is a stressful time of the semester, we all have a “lab family” to turn to. I am a huge fan of the social media site “Humans of New York,” and there was a recent post that very nicely sums up this strategy: “I want [my students] to know that I cared about them before there was a problem.”
(2) We often think that other people are doing better than we are. My own research with UBC Assistant Professor Frances Chen suggests that most students believe that their peers are more socially successful than they are, which negatively impacts belonging and well-being. These beliefs stem in part from the fact that people act happier in public than in private and because people do not readily talk about their negative experiences. In other words, from a distance, everyone’s life seems rosier than it actually is! Many students look up to their graduate student and faculty advisors—it is even easy for me to forget that professors are humans too! Thus, I feel it is my responsibility to let students know I am constantly in a process of trying and failing in all areas of my life— from running studies to trying to fit in a few hours to jog around block. Science and life aren’t always as perfect as they seem from the outside! By being honest, I hope to create an open environment where it is acceptable to talk about both our successes and our failures.
What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as PhD student?
When I’m stuck and I feel like I’m not making progress, I take a break. I grab a friend and stroll the gardens at UBC, go for coffee, or spend time giggling with colleagues over the latest cute thing on the internet. Small breaks are refreshing, and make “work mountain” easier to climb!
Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote physical and mental health and wellbeing?
Psychology is a large department and it can sometimes be difficult for students to find their academic home. UBC Professor Michael Souza and I are currently exploring novel ways to increase student engagement among new majors. Specifically, we are assigning new psychology majors to small “cohorts” lead by senior students. These cohorts meet once per month to discuss anything and everything from study habits, to post-grad careers, to managing exam stress. Students also attend events throughout the year, hosted by our department like skill-building workshops, and meet-your-professor events. We are very excited to enroll 200-300 students next year in this program, in hopes of making our large department feel smaller and more connected.
In your role as a PhD Student, please describe your experience balancing work-life commitments. Is there a metaphor that depicts this relationship?
Work-life balance is about being honest with yourself and with those around you. By reaching out, being authentic, building connections and forming learning communities, work becomes less like work, and a lot more like a natural extension of life.
Ashley Whillans completed her BA (Hons.) and her MA at UBC. As a PhD candidate in the Social Psychology program, she works primary with Dr. Elizabeth Dunn & Dr. Frances Chen to study happiness, friendship formation, and health. Read Ashley’s article on UBC News here.