Unexpected Lessons

Summer 2020 has been a difficult one, but the lessons I've learned will stand me in good stead for the future.

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Adapting to crisis and making adjustments is something that is intrinsic to good leadership and is a skill that has been widely discussed by all of us in the 2019/20 Laidlaw Scholars cohort. This summer has forced me to transfer these skills from theoretical debate to real world application, given the nature of the global crises and subsequent personal crises that have emerged during this period. Like all scholars in the cohort, Covid-19 hit my research for six- no longer could I travel to Hungary to conduct interviews as originally intended and instead, I was confined to my girlfriend’s flat in St Andrews to conduct my research. Furthermore, several instances of illness and bereavement within my personal circle and struggles with my own mental health made it increasingly difficult to conduct my research in the way I intended. Alas, the lessons I have taken from this summer are different to the ones I envisioned but are nonetheless pivotal as I go forward as both scholar and leader. I would like to use this blog to share what I have learned this summer;

• Go easy on yourself.
As someone who is highly driven and intent on maximising my potential, this piece of advice runs anathema to the way I’m wired. Nonetheless, it is of pivotal importance. After the death of my Grandfather, I experienced a bad bout of anxiety and spent weeks with a feeling of existential dread and worry that seemed to be completely detached from reality. Initially, I planned to soldier on with my Laidlaw research, hoping that it would provide a welcome distraction to what I was feeling. However, I decided the best thing to do was to delay the start-date of my research project by a month so I could come to terms with my loss and tackle the feelings of anxiety it generated. Whilst this was ostensibly a backwards step (I had lots planned for the summer and was eager to get started on my research), taking the time to get my head right was ultimately the more productive option in terms of my own happiness but also the progress of my research. When I did begin my research period, I did so revitalised and in a mental space conducive to learning. I also took additional steps, such as the reduction of my work week from five to four days so as to ensure I was not overwhelmed, having spent the best part of a month doing nothing. Taking the time to sort out a personal crisis is important not only for one’s own mental health but also for their productivity and effectiveness in their given field.
• Adjust the goalposts.
Research is not a linear process and it is important to adjust your goals as you go along. This is even more true under the current conditions, with the pandemic not only preventing me from going abroad but also from accessing vital workspaces and resources provided by the university library. Furthermore, as mentioned above, a month of my summer was rendered useless from a research point of view, therefore leaving me with less time to write an academic paper as I had planned. However, rather than stressing and forcing myself to go into overdrive, I decided to change my goals given the circumstances. Rather than viewing my summer as working towards the completion of a paper, I broke it down into weekly chunks where I could focus on certain elements of my research. I knew that, even if I didn’t achieve my goal, these weekly research projects would form the basis of my academic poster. Alas, I ended up surprising myself and have almost completed my paper! Had I not been forced to take a back step and reassess my summer, I may not have worked to this new plan which has worked incredibly well.
• Communicate with others.
This summer, I learned that communication is key when facing any issue. Whilst I toyed with the idea of pushing forward with my research, I was so glad I spoke to my supervisor about how I was feeling, as she was incredibly understanding and offered great advice throughout. I also reached out to friends and fellow scholars to get some advice (both personal and academic), which was another great help. By talking to others, I was able to pinch ideas about how to be more efficient in my research and how to come to terms with the losses I faced. I would urge anyone struggling with issues regarding to research or personal wellbeing to reach out to friends and colleagues- you’d be surprised about how many others have experienced the same problems and have invaluable advice!

I’d like to thank the Laidlaw Foundation for this opportunity and my supervisor Dr Peter and all the Laidlaw team at St Andrews for their understanding during these tough times.

Recent picture of me back at my best (taken on my lunch break)!

Steph Coulter

Laidlaw Scholar, University of St Andrews

Currently a Laidlaw Scholar at the University of St Andrews conducting research into populism in Hungary. My research project is titled "Heroes and villains; Orban, Soros and the performance of populism in contemporary Hungary". Conceptualising populism as a political style, I am utilising dramaturgical methodology to examine how the Hungarian billionaire financier George Soros is constructed as a societal "villain" as part of Hungarian PM Viktor Orban's populist political performance. I am currently working towards completion of a research paper with the view of academic publication.

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