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Take a moment to Pause. Breathe. Listen.

When I work at my desk in my engineering PhD office, I often wear one of those intense pairs of headphones which blast music in my ears, block out all other noise, and cause immense shrieking (on my part) when someone taps me on the shoulder.

I like to get in by 8am where possible, and because I find it hard to be productive all day – plus love sneaking off for midday bike rides – might hang around until 6 or 7pm. These days seem to get longer and longer, the hours less and less productive, as the time since my last proper “break” increases – whether that break be a few days at home, a particularly restful weekend, or a (few) week(s) off.

My bike (and me)… off on yet another midday bike ride adventure.

Everyone’s PhD story is unique, and their work patterns their own, but the further I get, the more I begin to appreciate the incredible qualities of –





Before I can really breathe or listen, I need to stop a moment. When I get into one of those manic PhD weeks we all sometimes face, I tend to keep myself going by not resting. The week ends up looking like: get up and eat breakfast, go to work, do too much exercise and get exhausted, go home and sleep; repeat, repeat, repeat.

But PhDs are also about thinking, about reflecting, about communicating with others. And to be honest, robot, coffee-operated, two-speed “stop” (sleep) and “go” (work) Sien just isn’t that great at those things!

The times in which my biggest PhD revelations and progress have come are generally when I’m on holiday. When I’m taking a slower day at home. When I’m taking a random walk off campus to get some space and the clouds are chucking it down.

Coffee is GREAT. But I like it best when I’m having it because I want it, not because I need it!


When I’m stressed, really stressed, the first thing that goes wacky is my breathing.

I had to giggle to myself in my first group exercise sessions at the Jubilee Sports Centre – nothing to do with the sessions, more to do with that I never expected to join a gym, much less group exercise sessions! And then the instructor in Pilates started to specifically tell us when to breathe… Definitely cause for more giggling.

But I have learned so, so much to appreciate the skill of becoming aware of one’s breath, and learning how to bring it under control. For me, the next best action besides taking a step sideways from the PhD river and pause, is to stay in the river but breathe and realise that really it’s only a gentle, controllable stream.

Is it a river, or is it a stream? Sometimes these things are down to our perception of the situation.


I’ve paused. I’ve breathed. Perhaps in that order, or perhaps (hopefully?) I was breathing all along! Another skill I still need to hold on to and nurture is to listen. And not just to others, but to myself too!

To listen when I think I’ve had a good idea – and not discard it as trivial. To listen when I’m feeling tired – and get some proper rest.

But also to listen to my PhD supervisors – really contemplate what they’re saying, why they might be saying it then, and what I should do with their words.

Listen to my peers – if they can’t understand what I’ve written, how can I expect others beyond the University’s boundaries to be able to?

And to listen to my two pet cats when they’re hungry and go and feed them. Like now.

Grumpy cats want their food!


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