Mindfulness and the PhD Process

 Dr Allan Kilner-Johnson – Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences 

The Doctoral College’s eight-week Mindful Researcher course was based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme and adapted to the needs of PhD students from all three faculties. It covered topics such as developing attention and focus, understanding the mind-body connection, dealing with challenging emotions, and dynamic future planning and goal setting. Most importantly, the course explored why mindfulness is not simply a tool for greater relaxation, concentration, or productivity, but a way of being which enables researchers to more confidently approach the complexities of advanced research. The content explored mindfulness in the broader context of academic research in the field of contemplative studies, drawing on mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, yoga philosophy, and psychosynthesis.  

Weekly 90-minute live Zoom classes introduced and explored key mindfulness tools and gave participants the time and space to reflect on mindfulness with other PhD students, while weekly recorded 30-minute talks covered the theory and science of topics explored in the live sessions. Recorded audio meditations provided the focus for regular daily meditation practice at home and helped participants integrate practical and applied learning. 

As many PGRs are also involved in teaching, this course provided an opportunity to re-examine teaching practices and the shift from a reactive to a more compassionate student-centred approach to the challenges of teaching. Drawing upon the model of ‘right relations’, the course explored how mindfulness can help to foster more authentic and more meaningful teaching moments and promote effective teaching and learning. 

In the four separate deliveries of the 8-week course across academic years 2020/21 and 2021/22, participants made strong, sustainable connections with other PhD students. For many participants, the course provided a platform for meaningful exchange and community building, as well as a space to challenge their own beliefs and analytical thought processes. As the experience of running this course demonstrates, mindfulness is not a means of optimising performance, but a way of looking at research with more confidence and objectivity, and of building a community of practice across traditional disciplinary lines. The course provided an opportunity for self-reflection and a chance to explore the research process as a complex and often difficult one, frequently beset with practical and emotional challenges. 

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For more information contact: Allan Kilner-Johnson, Associate Dean (Doctoral College), a.kilner-johnson@surrey.ac.uk