Post-PhD viva feels

Post-PhD viva feels

Okay, so confession time. I originally planned to have this up on my blog two weeks ago, a couple days after my viva whilst the emotions were all fresh. Truth be told (which I think is a totally valid reason!) I needed a few days away from the laptop to indulge in bubbles and cake, to catch up with family and friends as well as getting back into Crossfit. Life is good!

To give a bit of context to this blog post, I submitted my PhD thesis to the graduate school here at University of Southampton mid-January after 4.5 years of hard work. That was massive relief number one! On Tuesday 27th February I passed my PhD viva and I am SO thrilled to say I am now Dr. Lisa Ellen Jones, massive relief number two!

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What is a PhD viva?!

The format of a PhD varies hugely across the world. Here in the UK we have a ‘viva voce’ which means by word of mouth. To prove that we are worthy of that Dr title we are questioned on our knowledge of the research subject, our methodologies, what the data means and the greater impact of our work. This is carried out by one internal examiner (at the same university) and an external examiner (from another university), both in a similar field of research.

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My viva experience

Everyone says you can’t fully prepare for a viva, you can’t really predict what questions the examiners will ask and how thorough/pernickety they’ll be. Very true. Everything I revised did not come up! Despite this, there is no such thing as being over prepared for a PhD viva.  Revise as much as you can because if it doesn’t go well after all that hard work, you’ll be kicking yourself!

So, the day arrived and I kept my cool until I got to work. Examiners met to discuss what they thought of my thesis in private, so waiting in the coffee room until they were ready for me felt incredibly long. They called me in and we chatted for a little bit before the viva started. It’s pretty common (from other people’s experiences) for the initial questions to be ones that ease the candidate in, e.g. summarize your main PhD findings in 3 minutes. Yeah, I did not have that! I think my first question was to define what ‘developmental priming’ is in a couple of sentences which was not mentioned in my thesis. The second question (from memory) was delving into the intricacies of epigenetics which was not part of my thesis. Tough start! My viva lasted for 4 hours and it was a page-by-page thorough going over. At times I felt incredibly stressed, but at other times I was able to relax into the questions a bit more. A PhD viva is all about defending your work… and gosh I did! Sometimes I felt that my ability as a scientist was being seriously questioned due to the intensity of the discussion, but the examiners are there to push your knowledge and to also learn themselves – remember that! I think I lost the perspective that I was the expert in my research field and some questions were not to trick me but were because they wanted to learn themselves.

After the 4 hours I was asked to step out of the room so they could discuss between themselves. I felt like I had no idea how it had gone. Part of me felt that I had failed as every little result was questioned and I really had to defend certain methodologies and statistical analyses. I walked back into the room and my external examiner smiled at me, shook my hand and said “congratulations Dr. Jones”. Hearing those three words were incredibly overwhelming (yes, my eyes totally welled up). For those of you that have read my previous blog posts (e.g. PhD slump) or followed my science journey on Instagram, you’ll know my PhD has been far from easy. Two years ago at the end of 2015/start of 2016 I really did not think completing my PhD was a possibility. With an incredible amount of love and support from friends, family and my mentor I decided to stick it out and persevere. To have carried on in the lab, written a whole 271 page thesis and to pass my viva and to be called “Dr” is amazing to me. I am so proud of what I’ve accomplished and I have so much respect for all PhD students out there.

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If you’re a PhD student reading this, I want you to know how amazing the feeling of reaching the final milestone and proving that you are worthy of that PhD is. In those tougher moments remember that you CAN do it. Be strong, be curious, work hard (but PLEASE not 24/7.. sleep and having fun is kinda important) and celebrate successes.

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So what now?

Now the madness of thesis writing and viva prep is over I am currently working for my PhD supervisor to finish off some image analysis as an extension from my PhD work. I’ve also got some fun scicomm projects on the go and I’m in the process of applying for jobs! I guess it’s time to enter the adult world. BUT not just yet. I’m all about treating yourself on completion of milestones, so in just over a week I’m taking myself off to Thailand and Bali for a month to relax, have fun and to get some energy back in me!

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Thesis writing: Preparing in advance

Thesis writing: Preparing in advance

It’s time to talk thesis writing, a topic I know a lot of my followers are waiting to see pop up on my blog! For for those that don’t follow my science journey, I’ve submitted my thesis and my PhD viva/defence is next week! Throughout the process of writing my thesis I noted down bits of advice I thought would be worth sharing – a combination of things that really helped me and things I wish I had done in hindsight.

Of course, every PhD is different and our experiences are all going to vary hugely. However, there are definitely some golden nuggets of advice which will hopefully help everyone out.

There is SO much information I want to discuss so I’ve decided to break in down in to a series of posts. So let’s start from the beginning. Here are some tips for how to prep for thesis life when it’s not the sole focus and you’re still in the laboratory/generating data.

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My top 10 thesis prep tips:

 

1. Plan ahead. When do you want the research component finished? When will you start to focus primarily on your writing? When will you have a first draft completed by? Set these deadlines earlier than you’d like. Everyone I know has said the process takes longer than you expect, me included.

2. Prioritise. To achieve the above, prioritise! Make a plan for the rest of your laboratory/pre-writing work. Discuss with your supervisor the list of priorities… 1) What is necessary for you to pass your PhD. 2) What would be nice additions if you have the time. 3) Extra work which would be an additional bonus for your thesis, it’s not vital and could be a project for a student.

3. Make a thesis outline plan. Get a plan together of chapters and headings so you can start to think about the thesis flow. Arrange a meeting with your supervisor(s) to talk about this so you know you’re on the right track. Once you have that flow you’ll have a clearer idea of how your thesis will shape up, exciting!

4. Familiarise yourself with thesis guidelines. Check your university’s thesis guidelines and apply this to your outline plan. Most likely there will be specific margin requirements, font size, line spacing, order of content etc that your thesis has to be inline with. Check if it’s required to be bound double or single sided (if double you need mirrored margins to account for the binding edge. Having a play with this and getting it all set up when you have a spare hour here and there prior to writing will save you a lot of time formatting in the long run..

5. Make graphs as you go. Graphs tend to be more time consuming to make than you think! If you have a spare 30 mins in between experiments and you have data to plot, graph them! Arrange them into a layout so they’re good to go into the thesis. I use GraphPad Prism to make my graphs, a really user-friendly bit of software.

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6. Little bit of reading each week. Even if it’s just one afternoon a week, try to set time aside to stay on top of the literature. It keeps you in the loop with current research. Some people say you should read every day. Well, from my experience that was totally unrealistic. In fact, squeezing in reading every week was tough due to the nature of my experiments. A lot of my reading was done during the thesis write-up. Not ideal, but hey!

7. Note down all the details. Make sure any protocols and methodologies you use throughout your PhD are written in detail (including manufacturer/product details). It’s the little details that can be forgotten so quickly! When I came to writing up about the animal model I set up, there were so many steps and considerations that I had forgotten when it came round to writing the methods section… so thank goodness I’m thorough and all those details were already in a document. A lot of time information searching saved.

8. Utilise the positives of social media. A PhD isn’t like an undergrad or a masters where everyone in your cohort has the same exams and the same deadlines. Thesis life can be a little isolating in that respect. If you’re on social media utilise it for your needs! Follow and interact with other people in the same position as you. It can be a good source of support, Instagram was great for that!

9. Look at previous theses. Ask your supervisors, colleagues and friends to look at previous theses. They will give you an idea of what you’re going to be embarking on.

10. Remember the lab work/thesis is never a finished product. There’s always more experiments which could be done and different ways to analyse the data. You have to draw a line under the work at some point in order to get that thesis written, submitted and be awarded the title Dr.!

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Medic, researcher and blogger – Dr. Farah

Medic, researcher and blogger – Dr. Farah

It’s time for another Scientist Showcase and I’d like to welcome you to the wonderful Dr Farah! Farah is a medical doctor specialising in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology whilst also doing an academic research component investigating the effect of antibiotics on the gut microbiome and human breath. I love learning more about what she gets up to in the clinic and in the lab over on her Instagram! Farah is a self-taught belly dancer (incredible!) and a lover of tea, travelling and reading! Over to you Farah…

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Tell us more about the scientific research!

We’re doing a pilot study looking at how the route we administer antibiotics (through a drip or via tablets) impacts on the community of organisms/bugs (microbiome) that live naturally in the human gut. This is a big topic in research at the moment as we’re learning that while we live in harmony most of the time with this microbiome, it can affect our health, our brains and even how we think! Importantly, changes in this gut microbiome can lead to the development of antibiotic resistance. If we can reduce effects on the microbiome, then we can potentially reduce antibiotic resistance. A lady in the US recently died because the infection she had was resistant to all our antibiotics. This should be one of our biggest fears- the antibiotic apocalypse!!

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What inspired you to go into medicine? And what inspired you to add research into the mix?

In all honestly, I wasn’t sure what to do in life (is anyone?!). I’ve been lucky in that I’ve managed to end up doing something I really love but that was honestly touch-and-go for a while. I wasn’t doing brilliantly in my AS levels and aiming for medicine helped me to achieve my grades. When I got into medical school, I found that I enjoyed the subject and I got better and better at it over time. I’m also a people person and enjoy the mix of skills, teamwork and the general variety within medicine. I was introduced to research during my undergrad- I did an extra degree for a year in International Health and conducted research in Ethiopia. I decided I wanted to be able to spend a bit of concentrated time on research, so here I am!

“I’m just proud of what I’m doing and have done, and happy with where I am in life.”

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How do you find balancing being a doctor and doing research? That’s a big job!

The NIHR-funded Academic Clinical Fellowship is great in that it allows for dedicated time to focus on research that is protected from clinical time. However, it is really tough pursuing both simultaneously and so I am having to balance that mix a little. I do it by trying to plan ahead, by listening to my body when it’s tired and by cutting myself slack when I’m not “achieving” the way I want to be. I find giving myself deadlines that I tell other people is also a big help. Also, I LOVE my Filofax. Writing things down physically and giving myself tick lists is the only way I focus my mind. I review and rewrite it every Sunday and during the week I work through it. I make that list short though. No more than 3 or 4 things to do. Never set yourself up for a fall!

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What advice would you give to those considering/currently combining medicine and research?

Do not say yes to everything. You have to learn to say no sometimes.

BUT be brave enough to say yes to open up opportunities for yourself!

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I learn so much from your science IG! What led to the decision to document your medical/science journey on social media and blog?

I’m not 100% sure how it happened. I think it started as a way of cementing my own learning. I’m a very visual learner so Instagram was an ideal platform. The blog came about because I had more things to say than I realised! Also, in thinking about doing a PhD, I noticed that funders like you to share your research and science, so I realised it wouldn’t just be seen as ‘time-wasting’ either. Scicomm is a skill (and a very difficult one to master) so every little helps. I became increasingly enthusiastic and I found the community a fun and supportive one too.

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Why is science communication important to you?

Lots of reasons, I think. It’s about showing the world why you’re passionate about your job and inspiring people to consider your career too. The thing with science communication is it breaks these ridiculous myths that science isn’t cool or that you have to be completely boring to do it. I want kids to be excited by schooling. I work with a charity called Students for Kids International Projects (SKIP) and when I was at uni we went to Zambia. The kids we worked with LOVED going to school- they saw it as fun, as an opportunity. I think finding learning fun is actually very natural for humans but it’s not always taught in the most engaging way. That’s because it’s difficult to do! Taking part in scicomm activities is challenging for me but it’s important in enthusing younger generations and showing them different possibilities for themselves.

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Finally, how do you balance work/scicomm and personal life?

I’ve been a bit poor at this for the last year or so, I’ve enjoyed my job so much and the balance hasn’t been great. Outside of work I used to go to Lindy Hop classes and my husband and I danced at our wedding in Lindy style! At the moment I mostly try to keep up with friends, relax in the evening to keep my sleep hygiene in tact and do exercise. Exercise used to be belly dancing around my room but now consists of BBG, walking and running. I also like reading and that for me is the best way to keep up with my Spanish language learning, in fact I’m reading Harry Potter in Spanish!

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Thank you Farah for being a guest on the blog! To learn more about her journey as a clinician and a researcher you can find Farah on Instagram and Twitter. Also, go and check out her blog!

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#WearingWhite: Cancer immunotherapy

#WearingWhite: Cancer immunotherapy

This Sunday is World Cancer Day. Staff here at the University of Southampton have been wearing white in order to raise awareness of the life-saving research being performed behind the laboratory doors. In fact, today the University of Southampton are celebrating hitting the £25m target for the UK’s first dedicated Centre for Cancer Immunology!

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Why white?!

We have a lot of different cells in our body, in fact there’s thought to be approximately 200 different types of cells, but today I’m talking about our white blood cells. White bloods cells are the superhero cells, their role is to protect us from infection, disease and foreign invaders to keep us healthy. Here in Southampton, these white blood cells are being used in laboratory research to develop new therapies to fight cancer. The research is being applied into the clinic, and results from clinical trials is showing a lot of promise!

Wearing White

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We are the cure

Immunology is a pretty complex field, and so I’m not going to go into the details (you’d be sat here reading for hours trying to get a grip on a lot of different molecules), but basically, researchers have found that our immune system could actually be used to cure cancer. That’s pretty neat right?!

A type of treatment called immunotherapy harnesses the power of the body’s immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells (see video below). Cancer cells have the ability to switch off or confuse our killer T cells which then enable the cancer cells to grow. Cancer cells are very hard to defeat! Immunotherapy switches these killer T cells back on and so those useful killer T cells become back in action. They are then able to detect the invasive cancer cells (and potentially any hidden cancer cells!) and destroy them, providing long lasting action to protect against cancer growth. There are different types of immunotherapy including the use of monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, cytokines and adoptive cell transfer and you can read more about these here! They’re all about enhancing the ability of the T cells to recognise the cancer cells. Immunotherapy has the potential to provide us with a lifetime immunity to cancer.

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Successes

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, but the results from cancer immunology clinical trials suggest great hope for controlling and curing most cancers.

Immunotherapy clinical trial patients in Southampton:

  • As many as half of the patients with difficult and terminal cancers (often just given months to live) are showing dramatic improvements.
  • 20% patients are cancer free.
  • Drugs for advanced and terminal cancers, such as lung, skin (melanoma), blood (lymphoma), head and neck cancers and childhood cancer (neuroblastoma) are showing outstanding results.

“The cure for Cancer? You’re it.”

– University of Southampton

To read the stories of patients, researchers, fundraisers and donors click here and scroll down the page.

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For extra info click the following links: Cancer Research UK & Cancer Research Institute.

If you are interested in taking part in an immunotherapy clinical trial please contact your GP or cancer specialist.

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If you want to learn some more interesting science then check out my previous science blog posts here.

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Science journey update & 2018 goals

Science journey update & 2018 goals

After 4.5 years of PhD-ing, my thesis is finally written and I submitted it to my examiners last week! The PDF version got sent off on the Monday (little bit of an anti-climax!) but the printed & bound copies got sent off on the Wednesday. It started to sink in once I saw my hard work in a physical form and I feel like a massive weight has been lifted off of my shoulders! The last month of thesis writing was pretty stressful as I had a few road bumps which made it tougher than expected… but it’s now done! I can be proud of what I achieved and I can (sort of) relax! The journey to getting my PhD, however, is not quite over!

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So, what’s next?

  • My PhD viva/defence is end of February, so there will be a bit of revision required for that and practice vivas to be had! For those of you who don’t know what a viva is, or don’t know how it works over here in England, I have one ‘internal’ examiner from my university and one ‘external’ examiner from another university (relevant to my field). They will quiz me on my knowledge of the subject and my PhD work for 3-4 hours in order to see whether I’m worthy of being Dr Jones.
  • In the mean time I’m doing some image analysis work. This is carrying on from fluorescent microscopy I carried out in my PhD but the analysis was beyond the scope of my thesis. So, I’m back to counting and circling around muscle cells again!
  • My supervisor and I will be having weekly meetings to get the ball rolling on writing journal articles from my PhD work, so fingers crossed for some good publications.
  • It’s now time to be more proactive about my future. I’ll be updating my CV, LinkedIn, and applying for jobs etc etc!
  • In amongst all the ‘serious’ stuff I’m going to be getting back into a better fitness routine like I had before, and I’m in the process of planning my post-PhD travels! I’ve never had a gap year and I know I need time away to re-energise myself in order to come back and start my first post-PhD job all guns blazing!

I also want to use this blog post to share with you what I want to achieve in 2018. It’s not a secret that I love goals – whether that’s daily/weekly work goals, fitness goals or life goals! In fact, I wrote a blog post back in January 2017 on how to make effective goals, so go and check that out here!

This is the third year of making a goals board and it really does give me a sense of fulfilment when I tick them off one-by-one. In 2016 I ticked all of my goals off but in 2017 only half were achieved. Why? A few of them were all based on me submitting my thesis and having my viva in 2017, which didn’t happen! Thesis writing time had to be extended and that meant some of my goals suddenly became impossible. So, here’s to 2018 being a more exciting year! I’ve already achieved my first goal (submitting that thesis) and here’s everything I aim to achieve this year…

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I’m not one for New Years resolutions and it’s never too late to decide on what you want out of this year. What career/lifestyle goals do you want to complete in 2018?! Comment below, being a goal-geek I love to hear about them!

 

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Science, scicomm and vlogging – Martijn Peters

Science, scicomm and vlogging – Martijn Peters

I’m very excited about the first Scientist Showcase of 2018! I’d like to welcome you to Martijn Peters, a scientist and very talented science communicator living in the land of beer, chocolate and French fries – Belgium! Over to you Martijn…

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So, why science?!

The origin of my spark for science can be traced back all the way to my early childhood. My grandfather took me on many hiking trips and explained everything he knew about nature. As a consequence, I developed an intrinsic need for wanting to understand everything that occurred around me. This eventually resulted in me studying the awesome science field that is Biomedical Sciences at university, I then specialized in Bioelectronics & Nanotechnology for my Master’s degree, and recently completed my PhD.  

“The human body is one of the most amazing accomplishments of nature and I really wanted to learn how it works and interacts with its environment.”

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Congratulations on getting your PhD just before Christmas! Tell us about your research!

Thank you! My PhD research revolves around a specific aspect of our brain. Our brain is one of our most precious treasures, one that requires protection at all costs. Therefore, nature safeguards it behind an impenetrable wall, called the blood-brain-barrier. This fortress keeps foreign invaders, like diseases, out but also makes it very hard for us researchers to investigate the brain when something goes wrong. As a results, to this day the working mechanisms of many brain diseases are still shrouded in mystery.

During my PhD I designed novel visualization probes that enable us to study the brain and diseases that wreak havoc upon it. These visualization probes are nanoparticles, small spheres one million time smaller than the width of a human hair, that consist of semiconducting polymers. Most people know these polymers from applications like solar panels or OLEDs that reside inside your smartphones and TVs, but they are also fluorescent and non-toxic. I covered the nanoparticles with special structures, which ensure that they will target specific cells, like a guided missile system. On top of that, they are small enough to cross the daunting blood-brain-barrier! This type of novel visualization probe will help us shine a new light on brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

Martijn - PhD defence

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For other current/soon-to-be PhD students, what are your dos and don’ts?!

Persistence is the key! If you’re persist you will get there.

However, don’t lose yourself in the process and don’t focus too much on the accomplishments of others. It can be quite stressful working in an environment that consists of nothing but top students. You often wonder if you are good enough. But rest assured, you are. You are also one of those students. You can do it! So work hard for your passion but also don’t forget to take a break now and then. You need and deserve them!

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Why is science communication important to you?

To me, science communication is important because it is all about building bridges. We often forget that we are the expert in our own research topic, and everyone else (even fellow scientists) are a lay audience.

“Learning how to communicate will not only help society but also science. A good scientist is a good communicator.”

Throughout my PhD I discovered that I could combine my creative side with my technical side through science communication, which has been an eye-opening experience for me. I am rather proud of my science communication achievements (especially since I managed to achieve them without losing any quality in my science work) and it has become a passion for me.

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So you’re an award-winning science communicator? Tell us about OMGitsScience!

OMGitsScience is a project that I started to show the human side of science. Too often we just shower people with nothing but facts. Yet we do not provide them with insights into who we are or how science works. Because these aspects are missing, people have a hard time making a connection of trust with scientists and distinguishing between “science facts” and “fake facts”. To counter this movement, I started communicating science on Twitter and a YouTube channel called OMGitsScience on which I show the life of a scientist through vlogging. I’ve also embarked on an Instagram journey recently (I really love editing pics and combining them with a story).

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Check out this fun vlog which showcases a day in the life of Martijn! Enjoy!

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Finally, how do you balance work and personal life?

I think a healthy work-life balance differs for everyone. Some weeks were really hectic during my PhD with zero free time during the day, and some weeks were rather “chill” with lots of time to do things not revolving around my PhD. You have to listen to you own body and discover what works best for you. I have used most of my free time for science communication projects (from speaking assignments to competitions to organizing a TEDx conference to starting a YouTube channel). I love being creative and it gives me an outlet to combine science with creativity. I also really enjoy reading, watching series/movies and running.

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Thank you to Martijn for being part of my blog! I absolutely love to hear about the lives of others. He’s a brilliant science communicator so please go and follow him on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and of course him awesome YouTube channel!

 

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A grad student’s Christmas guide

A grad student’s Christmas guide

It’s the last working week before the holidays and only six days to go until Christmas Day! Some of you may already be winding the work down for Christmas, but for some of you it’s a mad stressful rush to get all those things ticked off of your to-do list!

So, to try and help you manage that pre-holiday stress, here’s a few tips from me to you…

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Don’t panic! Yes, easier said that done. Do all of those items on the to-do list NEED to be done by Christmas? Take any self-imposed pressure off of yourself.

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Set goals, make a plan. Make a realistic plan for the next few days. Set small goals for each day and stick to them. Making a plan also helps you to think through the most time-efficient way of working. No faffing!

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Take control. If you’ve had a meeting with your supervisor and they’ve piled on a few more items to your to-do list, ask yourself the question in tip #1. Does it really need to be done this side of the holidays? Be in control of your plan and your week.

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Don’t open emails first thing. Opening emails first thing can really derail your plans. Are they really that important they can’t wait?! Perhaps add “Check emails” to your plan for midday. It means you start work and attack your daily plan head on!

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Think smart, act smart. Plan your days wisely to make the week easier. Set time aside around your work for those extra tasks e.g. last minute Christmas present shopping, doing the Christmas food shop, wrapping presents, writing cards, packing to go away. You don’t want a last minute panic.

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Look after yourself. As always, sleep well, eat right (I know it’s hard with all those festive treats!) and hydrate. They all help with work productivity, brain function and general feel-good positive vibes.

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Make the start of 2018 easier for yourself. Make a list of any work you need to do straight after the holidays whilst your brain is in work mode. It will make coming back to work slightly easier after a (hopefully) very relaxed time off.

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Don’t ban yourself from festive fun! Right, I want you to revisit tip #1 again (yes it’s an important one). It doesn’t have to be all work! Get the work for that day done then join your friends/colleagues for a few Christmas drinks!

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Take time out. Even if you are going to have to work over the holidays (like me – bad time for thesis deadlines!) make sure you take a few solid days off to properly unwind. Relax, don’t even think about work over those days and just have fun. Embrace this time with family and friends.

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For more PhD tips and advice, check out my other PhD SOS posts.

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Have a wonderful Christmas!

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