Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Stress of Self Care on Social Media

Self care is as simple as it sounds: taking time to look after your mental and physical needs. It's exploded in popularity over recent years due to the rise in the popularity of wellness and a society that's becoming more open in its conversations about mental health. But whilst awareness and positivity surrounding self care are at an all time high, there's an underlying competitiveness that sours the sentiment when it's discussed on social media. 

What I'm talking about is the one-upmanship that surrounds the trend for #selfcare. It's not enough to eat a balanced diet, you need to make your food aesthetically appealing and share it online. Ironically, putting this level of effort into cooking and letting your food go cold while you find the perfect angle creates more stress than a nutritionally balanced meal can heal. 

Likewise, jogging in the park or going to your local yoga class doesn't quite cut it online. You need the activewear, the messy bun, the barely there make-up, and selfies that scream I AM RELAXED. 

Alright, girls, we uploaded the group pic. We can go to 'spoons now.

This competitiveness is particularly prevalent in the gym. It's all about how many squats you can do, how much you can lift, which exercise routine you're following. And if you don't add a changing room selfie to your story, have you really even been? The popularity of waifish figures that dominated the 90s and 00s is in decline; what's in now is gains. Cramming as much protein as possible into every meal and going months without looking at carbs. Doing it all for the before and after photos. And justifying this unhealthy and obsessive behaviour in the name of physical wellbeing. 

Then there are social media celebrities who make their living from projecting a perfect lifestyle that their followers want to emulate. These accounts can be inspirational, insofar as they give meal ideas, exercise tips, life hacks etc. (I confess, I follow quite a few myself, avo-art is my thing). But they also encourage unhealthy comparisons between the everyday and what is, quite frankly, fiction. The people running them put in hours of effort and pass the resulting content off as something they just threw together, like it's all second nature to them. 

The darker side of all this is that some of these personalities are actually covering over a disorder. Orthorexia is on the rise and can be extremely difficult to spot. Sufferers follow restrictive diets and become obsessed with only eating the 'right' things in an effort to be healthy (for a great discussion, see the Pure2RawTwins). Recovery is made more difficult by fame because their livelihoods are caught up in the projection of a 'healthy' image. Moreover, their followers can turn against them if these celebrities speak out about their disorder.

A smoothie is nice, but so is a G&T. You don't have to choose between them.

All of the above isn't to say that social media can't be a good source of self care inspiration, however, it's all about learning to use it in an appropriate way. For example:
  • Think about how the accounts you follow make you feel. Inspired is good, envious and down on yourself is not. Unfollow anyone who triggers negative self-comparisons.
  • Appreciate photos, but remind yourself of the effort that went into taking them. 
  • Likewise, bear in mind that filters and camera angles distort reality. 
  • Beware of overly-restrictive foodies. Gluten free and vegan are not two concepts that naturally marry together. 
  • Equally, be suspect of accounts that project too perfect a lifestyle. If you enjoy seeing the content, they're fine to keep following, but don't get too caught up in it all. 
  • Mix up your feed with some quote-spiration. Positive affirmations help to build your own self value, instead of feeding that of others. 
  • Remember the golden rule: you do you. If your self care is a few hours of Netflix whilst eating a portion of dairy, gluten laden, refined sugar containing ice cream then that's okay. 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Buying a Plant, a Personal Landmark

I don't often write about my life on here, mainly because there's no one who finds me as fascinating as I find myself. And also because many of my readers have never met me, so learning about my daily happenings would be a very dull thing indeed - not least because, as a postgrad, my life is like an academic version of Groundhog Day.

But today I want to break from the mould and share with you all a personal landmark in my life - buying a plant for my bedroom.

Now, for all you stun huns out there who decorate your bedroom with rugs, fairy lights and fruit bowls, the idea that a plant would be of any significant value is probably alien. I experience great envy when I go into my friends' rooms because they're all so wonderfully decorated and feminine, by contrast I feel like less of a girl for not having that same flair in mine.

The reason I don't is pure pragmatism. I move around a lot, sometimes to another street sometimes to another city. When you regularly have to bundle your entire life into a car you soon learn to cull your trinkets. My room isn't completely bare, however, I have a few photo frames, a cat ornament and a collection of flyers that I've stuck onto my wardrobe. Though, the fact that I display a collection of random things I've been handed in the street probably doesn't say much about my décor tastes.

It's not that I never wanted to bring greenery into my bedroom, but the idea of owning a plant was too much of a commitment because I couldn't promise one a permanent space on my windowsill or that I wouldn't kill it through neglect or over-zealous watering. But now, 6 months after moving to Oxford,  I feel settled enough to put down some roots (sorry not sorry about the pun) and I think that's a wonderful thing.

In an abstract kind of way, owning a plant shows that I've found somewhere that I feel comfortable and happy. But, in the very literal sense, I'm just really pleased to finally own a plant.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Refillable Bottles

Water UK have today launched a scheme that aims to reduce the use of disposable plastic bottles by promoting the free availability of tap water. People can download the Refill app to their phone and this will tell them where the nearest refill point is. The scheme has already received support from a number of large businesses, including Whitbread, the owner of Costa Coffee. In addition to this, some water companies will fund the installation of new public water fountains and the repair of existing ones.
Water UK hopes that by providing a multitude of easy-access refill points, the public can be encouraged to carry reusable water bottles. This would save on the millions of single use bottles that are thrown away each year. It certainty is a good idea, but will it be enough to change people's behaviour?

Buying water is expensive if you do it everyday, so there's no doubt that investing into a reusable bottle would save you money over time. Price is therefore a major advantage of the refillable system.
However, it's not a simple case of getting water for free if you bring your own bottle. The free water is tap water, which is the lowest grade of water. Its taste will vary depending on what part of the country you're in (it's grim up north, but at least the tap water is bearable) and will also be affected by the quality of the plumbing.
Bottled water is either spring water or mineral water. It tastes better and mineral water comes with the added health benefit of containing...well...minerals. So, even though this scheme will be encouraging the provision of free water, it won't be of the same quality as the consumer was getting before.
You also have to question the cleanliness of water from public fountains, not because of the water source but because of the fountain itself and the horrendous things that happen to public facilities (case in point: telephone boxes).

Another drawback of this scheme is that it requires a person to be a) organised enough to remember to bring their water bottle with them; b) careful enough not to lose it; and c) willing to assume the chore of cleaning it properly. None of these things sound difficult, but you'd be amazed.
The fact is that carting around a clunky bottle is a pain, especially for people who don't usually carry a bag. It also brings the risk of spillage (I once was unfortunate enough to have a bottle of water leak in my bag and break my phone).
The market needs to provide more lightweight bottles with ultra safe caps. It also needs to expand to include more sizes. A standard bottle holds 500ml, but how many people drink that much tap water in one go? Smaller single-serving bottles would help to keep weight and bulk down, whilst also encouraging the responsible use of water i.e. just taking what you need to quench your thirst.

Think Bigger
There are obviously some kinks in the system, but the idea is good. If the public really wants to crack down on this issue we need to look beyond free tap water to consider how reusable bottles can be replace their disposable counterpart. 
Rather than choosing between free tap water and buying mineral water, a customer ought to be able to bring their own bottle and pay to fill it with mineral water. They could then receive a price discount to reflect the saving on the plastic bottle without having to compromise on the quality of their water. 
And there's no reason that this model couldn't be rolled out to other beverages. Fizzy drinks are just as popular, if not more so, than bottled water yet nothing is being done to tackle them. 'Fill your own' drinks points already exist in restaurants, cafes and cinemas. Why not roll them out to shops too?

Plastic is a major problem. Encouraging the use of reusable bottles is a step in the right direction, but this scheme needs to think bigger if it's going to change people's behaviour. After all, our disposable culture didn't start overnight so it's not going to stop overnight either.
The bottom line is that free tap water is great, but a discount across a wider range of beverages and an availability of well-designed bottles to meet consumers' needs is better.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Budget 2017

The budget is an exciting time of year for some of us. I've always enjoyed the showmanship that the news puts on, with lots of excited looking business correspondents and clips of various politicians played against a background of chart music.
But enough about my questionably enjoyment of fiscal policy. Let's knuckle down and talk about how this budget could affect you. As always, this is just a gloss of takeaway points for the average twenty-something who doesn't enjoy wading through 86 page long documents, not a lengthy examination to be taken as gospel.

Tax - The threshold at which people begin paying income tax will be raised from £11,500 to £11,850. Not too shabby! Hammond reiterated the pledge to hitting £12,500 by 2020. The higher tax band moves to £46,350, with a commitment to £50,000 by 2020.

Living/Minimum wage - Over 25s go from £7.50 to £7.83 on their living wage, whereas 21-24 year olds will get £7.38 per hour and 18-20 year olds will receive £5.90 per hour for minimal subsistence. The mind boggles at this system. 

ISA - The ISA rate is frozen at £20,000. This is a type of tax-free savings account, but with rates still eye-wateringly low it's hard to care.

Stamp duty - Return to sender! As of today, there's no stamp duty on homes bought by first-time buyers in England, Wales or NI. But there's a catch - the homes have to be worth between £300,000 and £500,000. Some of my southern readers may be struggling to work out the problem there, but our friends in the Northern Powerhouse get it. 

Cars - Do you work for a progressive and innovative firm that supplies the electricity to power your equally forward-thinking car? If so, the tax that they pay on this perk will be abolished in April 2018.
There's also going to be hella investment into charging points for electric vehicles.
Can't drive? Don't send off for your provisional just yet, the Government want to see driverless cars on our roads by 2021. 

Fuel - Fuel duty remains frozen. This is good news for drivers and non-drivers alike because nearly every physical thing that we buy needs to be transported, which ultimately feeds into the ticket price.

Choo choo - The 16-25 railcard, which offers holders 1/3rd off rail travel, will be extended to 26-30 year olds. Very handy for millennials as high rental costs have effectively turned us into a generation of eternal teenagers who need to travel home every few weeks to do laundry and steal tinned soup from our parents' cupboards. 

Plastics - England has just about overcome its rage at the 5p plastic bag charge, but plans have been announced today to look into how taxes can be introduced on other disposable plastics. Hopefully food producers will stay ahead of the curve by working on reducing their packaging now.

Education - We've gone maths mad today. There's investment into lessons, extra money for helping students who are resitting their maths GCSE, as well as more money for maths centred secondary schools. Maybe Diane Abbott could enroll?
There'll also be a scheme that'll see £600 go directly into the school kitty for every pupil that takes A Level or Core maths. Note Hammond's use of the word 'take' and not 'passes'.

More education - Do you love intelligence but hate humans? 450 funded PhDs in AI have been announced.

Pay for your education - There's been an issue with student loan over-payments. Yes, really. SLC and HMRC are going to look into it, but in case you don't quite trust them it might be worth logging into your SLC account and seeing what's going on. Unless, of course, you're a recent graduate, in which case you'll be met with debt that's more than your yearly income.

NHS - £6.3bn more to NHS England. It's never enough though, is it?

Northern Powerhouse - I don't think I've ever loved a phrase more. There's loads of money going into the railways which, combined with these new railcards, means that there'll be no excuses for remaining in one's own city.

Devolution goalz - Scotland up £2bn. Wales up £1.2bn. Northern Ireland up £660m, but they've no Executive to spend it.

The goodies - Cigs will go up by 28p, so why not quit now? Tax of alcohol has been changed to increase the price of strong white ciders and perry, so if White Lightning is your tipple of choice you're down on your luck (even more so than usual). If your vice is beer, cider, wine or spirits you can rejoice because they have all been left well alone. 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Interest Rates Rise but Remain Uninteresting

Big news broke in the financial world today as Governor Mark Carney announced that interest rates would rise for the first time in 10 years, from 0.25% to 0.5%. Whilst this has send the markets into a tizzy, it can be difficult to know how it affects the average person if, like me, you've never known a rate rise during your adult life.

Have no fear, today's blog post isn't going to be a storm of economic terms or an abstract analysis of the UK's financial health. It's going to set out why the Bank of England (BoE) decided to raise the rate and how it'll affect you. It's not going to leave you with a master's in economics, nor does it claim to be the full picture, but if you just want enough information to be able to say to your friends, "Rate rises, am I right?!" then this will be enough.

Interest Rates
Interest rates affect the amount banks pay when they borrow money. Banks then pass this cost onto the consumer. Higher rates means that the price of borrowing increases. So the amount of interest paid on a bank loan, a mortgage, a credit card etc. increases. However, it also means that the interest paid on savings increases too.

Rates were significantly higher before the financial crisis. When the bottom fell out of the economy, the BoE dropped them from 5% to 0.5%. They remained at 0.5% until 2016, when they were further lowered to 0.25%.

It should be the other way around but I can't find a
gloomy financial forecast stock image.

Why Change the Rates?
The big drop in interest rates, seen back in 2007, was in reaction to the financial crisis. It was a strategic move to increase the average person's spending habits by making it cheaper to borrow money. At the same time, saving money became less attractive because the whole point of putting money away is that it's meant to grow through interest payments.

The BoE doesn't like us to squirrel away all our money during recessionary times because it's better for the economy if we go out and spend. Why? Because if we're spending money then we're supporting businesses. Businesses employ people. People pay taxes. Some businesses pay taxes too. Taxes fund public expenditure, like hospitals, roads, schools, etc.
If we don't spend money, businesses fold. People lose their jobs. Public finances shrink, so there's less available for public services. Basically, the economy dies. It all comes back to the fact that money itself is worthless and it's value only comes about when it's spent on real things, like goods and services.

The overall aim of adjusting interest rates is to try to achieve 2% inflation. Inflation is the measure of growth in the cost of goods and services and it indicates the health of the economy. It's a delicate balance because we want the economy to always be expanding, but we don't want it to go too fast. If the economy was a pot on the stove, 2% inflation would be simmering nicely, whereas anything lower won't cook the food and anything higher risks boiling over. Incidentally, a recession occurs when inflation is negative; the economy contracts.

Why the Change Today?
In the wake of the Brexit vote, when we were all told that Pandora's box had been opened, the financial forecast was so dire that the BoE decided to drop the rate again. Today though, Governor Mark Carney expressed a reserved confidence in how things are going when he announced the decision to restore the 0.5% rate. This is down to low unemployment, a strong global economy, the UK's finances doing well, and the fact that the general public have been out spending their money instead of burying it in tins in their back garden.

How Rates Affect You
Let's get down to the effects of the change in interest rates for the everyday person. The worst hit by rate hikes are home owners because it pushes up the amount charged on mortgage repayments. Luckily for millennials, none of you can afford your own home anyway, so you won't experience this hike. Those with savings accounts will benefit from increased rates through higher interest payments.

Putting things into context, a 0.25% increase isn't going to make a pauper or a millionaire out of any of us. UK Finance have said that it'll equate to an extra £12 outlay per month for people with an £89,000 balance on their mortgage. However, in this context, size isn't everything. The fact that the BoE have broken their 10 year streak by putting interest rates up is significant in itself. In statement from the Monetary Policy Committee (the people who decide the fate of the rate), there's a definite sense that we won't be waiting another 10 years for the next rise.

Obviously, the more you owe on your mortgage the more the rise will affect you.

Going Forward
Rising interest rates are a good thing because they mean that the economy is performing. The BoE aren't rushing things and have stressed that they'll be playing this situation by ear. They're not being overly-cautious, the fact of the matter is that no one really knows how Brexit is going to pan out. Whatever happens, it's going to have a major impact on the economy, which has a direct effect on the amount of money in our pockets.

Doom and Gloom or Ray of Sunshine?
If you're looking for a one line summary of how you should feel about this news story, basically, it's fine. We're all fine. Not that meme with the dog surrounded by fire fine. Actual fine.

No, things really are fine. 
Other Remarks
It's interesting to note that the Monetary Policy Committee is a 9 person team made up of 8 men and only 1 woman.

Friday, 20 October 2017

A Guide to Applying for a PhD

This time last year I was navigating the minefield that is applying for a PhD. Spoiler alert, it all worked out and I'm currently in the first year of my DPhil at Oxford (DPhil = PhD). Now that the ocean of emotion has washed away, I can share my advice with you all. Get yourself a hot beverage and settle into your chair, it's going to be a long one.
  • Do a master's first. It will give you experience in postgraduate education, especially conducting independent research, thus making you a better candidate for a PhD. It also gives you a one-up on funding applications, which are highly competitive.
  • If you're applying for a subject that requires you to put forth a research proposal it's a good idea to begin working on it ASAP, especially if you're taking a master's because you'll be busy with your classes and exams around the submission deadlines. 
  • If you're flexible about your research area you should check out what projects universities are interested in. There will often be generous funding available if you're willing to mould to fit their interests. As an added bonus, it may lead you into an area that you love but would never have considered before. 
The only way to research productively is in a coffee shop in
full view of other people. Isolated research reaps no results.
  • The application form is long and tedious. You have been warned. 
  • Don't copy and paste elements from one application to another. Universities can spot bland general comments a mile off and they don't take them well.
  • A lot of application deadlines are in December or January, but some universities accept them on a rolling basis. Make sure that you do your research well in advance and write down the closing dates so that you're not caught out. 
  • Spread your applications across a number of universities. Acceptance rates vary from subject to subject and university to university, so I can't give you any detailed advice on how many to make. However, I can tell you that the best way to find out what's normal for your subject is to ask others in your field (groundbreaking, I know). 
  • Universities will often automatically consider you for internal funding opportunities, but some schemes require additional applications. This is tricky because the deadline for applying will be before you know whether you've been accepted. You can waste a lot of time on funding applications, especially if you're applying to multiple schools. At the same time, you're going to need funding. Apply for as many as you can, but be aware that it's a never-ending source of work.
  • The decision-making timeline is a joke designed to play with your nerves. If you haven't heard back after a set date it's no indication of success or failure. 
  • Check your spam folder if you use Gmail. I should have found out that I was accepted to Oxford on St. Patrick's Day, but I didn't receive the news until a month later. A month is a long time when you spend the majority of your waking hours obsessively picking apart your value as a person. 
  • Rejection can be hard to process, but don't beat yourself up. Often it's nothing to do with the quality of the candidate or the idea, but whether the university is interested in that field (for courses that require a research proposal). 
  • If you've put in multiple applications and your first response is a rejection it can be easy to lose hope, but try not to obsess about it and wait to hear back from everyone before you freak out. 
Schrödinger famously wrote terrible checklists.
  • When the offers start rolling in it's a good idea to take a step back and think about what you really want. One school might offer better funding than another, but what quality of life can they guarantee? Location and culture are important factors for consideration. If you have the time, take a trip to the different campuses and see which one gives you 'the feeling'. 
  • Further to this point, but so important that it requires its own bullet, is accommodation. As a victim of the Dublin housing crisis, I can personally attest that the quality, price and location of accommodation is the most important non-academic consideration. Nothing could have prepared me for the carnage that was house hunting before I began my master's.
    The questions you want to ask are: does the university offer housing? Does it offer a service to help incoming students find housing? What is the private rental market like? What is the average cost of renting? If renting privately, who will you live with? How far are you willing to commute?
  • Finally, if you've been rejected by the university you had your heart set on, take some time to consider your options. If you have offers from other universities, ask yourself whether you're happy to go there. As mentioned before, visit them and see where you find yourself.
    If you decide that you're not ready to give up on your dream school, consider taking a year out of education to work. Your application may benefit from a year's relevant work experience and it will give you time to work on a new research proposal (if your subject requires one). Taking this route may be difficult to accept at first because you feel like you're putting your life on hold, but concentrate on the positives i.e. it will help you to prepare financially for a PhD.
Overall it's a nerve-wreaking time. I won't gloss over my own experience. I was incredibly stressed and a general misery to be around, but now it's just another chapter in life. And remember that you're not alone, everyone who wants to pursue higher education has to go through this.


Friday, 22 September 2017

A Guide to Writing Your Dissertation

If you're going on to study at postgraduate level chances are you'll have to write a dissertation as part of your assessment. Likewise, some undergraduate degrees require a dissertation or an extended project to be written during your final year.
It's a daunting task, but it's not impossible. As part of my master's I had to write a dissertation that was maximum 25,000 words, excluding footnotes (!!!). When I first heard that I almost died, then I wanted to cry, and then...well I pretty much danced between the two for a while. But, luckily for you, I got through it and can now share my pearls of wisdom.

My baby

Beginning with your first month of class, you've probably have had ideas floating around your brain all summer. Now is the time to leisurely research them and sketch them out on a piece of paper. There's no need to cling vehemently to the original idea; your research question is often fluid at first. It's also better if you chose a really specific question and explore it in detail, rather than attempt a broad stroke across one area.
Once you've narrowed down the question, set out a chapter plan and the headings within each chapter. It's amazing how much easier the project looks once it's broken down into manageable chunks.

In terms of the writing process, routine and structure are key. A helpful tool can be, what I call, the algorithm of pain. This involves setting yourself a daily word target - say 500 words. I recommend not including footnotes in this number, even if your final dissertation word count does. This is because it will make the days that you include new sources imbalanced in effort. Divide your project's length by your daily target to calculate how many days it will take you to write it.
Once you know this you can begin estimate your dissertation's timeline for completion. Needless to say, the earlier you start writing the less pain you need to go through each day. Of course, extra time ought to be allotted for editing, but this will give you a rough idea of when your dissertation will be over - this in itself can be a great motivator.

The flip side of start early, work calmly is not to overwork yourself. Whilst it's tempting to push yourself to do better than yesterday, the human brain is not a machine. Unless you're really on a roll (in which case you probably won't even be looking at your word count), you need to learn to close the books too. Leave the library, have a conversation with another human being, eat. Taking care of yourself and your mental health is as much a part of the writing process as research and, er, writing.

Getting a bit drunk helps too.

Related to this point is your dissertation deadline. Whilst most universities allow you the summer to write it, some don't. I went to a university that wanted my dissertation to be handed in at the end of June, a mere month after my final exams. I had to balance my six classes alongside my dissertation, which meant that I had to factor in revision periods to my plan.
If you find yourself in this situation, allot yourself extra time to get reacquainted with your dissertation and materials. I generally spent an entire morning re-reading my work and my notes to get back into it all.

It's also important to not beat yourself up for missing targets or self-imposed deadlines (chastise yourself for missing university ones though). I aimed to have my first chapter written before I returned to university after the Christmas break. Instead of 4,000 words I only managed 500. It wasn't down to poor time management, I spent extra time on my studies for my modules. Life doesn't always go to plan, it's how you handle it that counts.

No one's writing process is so artsy and Instagrammable. 

Postgrad students especially suffer from the affliction of perfectionism, but if you're to get timely feedback on your work you need to quell that voice inside of you and send through a true first draft to your supervisor. This is especially important for your first chapter because you could be making a glaring mistake in your method. It's better to be given editing advice when you haven't already spent your soul writing the piece.

Another important piece of advice is not to leave your bibliography until the end. When you're writing a >5,000 word essay it's normal to leave the bibliography until the eleventh hour because it's only a mater of going over 100ish footnotes, a lot of which will be ibid or cross-referencing. When you're working on a substantial piece you need to get savvy, unless you want to lose a few hours of your life to something as mind-numbing as mechanical editing. Have a separate Word document that you add to as you go along.

The final arduous task will be getting someone to proof-read your work. There are two options for this: swap with a friend or pay a proof-reader. If you go for the latter you don't have to read anything but there's a hefty price to pay for that luxury. Whatever you do, don't proofread your own work. It's umpossible.