As a fourth year PhD student who’s finished in the lab and starting to write her thesis, I have definitely learnt a fair few things about how to survive a PhD. One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is so I can share my experience with others, but also enlighten current and soon-to-be research students with some of my PhD wisdom!
So welcome to my new feature – “PhD SOS”.
I am so excited about this feature! I’m going to talk about all the essential survival tips and tricks in order to complete a PhD, with lots of helpful (I hope!) advice. The PhD is not an easy, no hiccups along the way, everything goes swimmingly kind of journey, and getting advice from other students can really put things into perspective and help guide you through. So to start this feature off, here’s my top 10 tips for surviving a PhD.
1. Be organised, get a diary
This is a must-have item! So I’ve tried organising myself with online diaries, they’re great, they sync to all your devices and you know what you’re doing when. But it wasn’t until my third year that I discovered the power of going back a few technological steps and using a paper diary. So in your first year you’ll maybe have a good chunk of time to read and do some experiments, but by second year the more pieces of lab work you have to juggle due to more studies you’re a part of, and as time goes on the more intense the work juggling gets! At the start of the week, I get my diary and write what I’m going to do each day. I then tick each item off as I go (FYI learning what a realistic amount of work to set yourself each day comes with time). This keeps me on track and also makes me feel great and productive! It also means you can plan PhD work and social commitments around each other. Super important!
2. Regular meetings
Having regular meetings with your supervisory team is key. It keeps you accountable to getting work done and not just procrastinating your way through the week by scrolling on Facebook and reading the Daily Mail for the latest celebrity gossip. It can give you focus to work hard and be productive. All supervisory teams are different. I have friends who only have two supervisors and are both in the same department, so meeting often is easy for them. I on the other hand have five supervisors in three different departments/campuses at the University so meeting on a regular basis with all five just isn’t doable. How do I get around this? I have a main supervisor and we meet every Wednesday 10am. If any other supervisors are free they can drop in any week. Sometimes super important discussions are needed though (e.g. what direction an animal study should go in, or what the thesis chapters should be) and I need as much of my supervisory team there as possible. My advice for setting up a group meeting is to use Doodle. Just select a variety of times and dates, and all they need to do is tick when they’re available. Easy peasy.
3. A cute notebook
Buy a cute notebook for those regular meetings! It’s always a good idea to have a record of what was spoken about and what work you and your supervisor(s) have agreed you’ll do. You don’t want to come away from an unexpectedly long meeting forgetting everything that was discussed! A good notebook is also important for any courses or seminars you attend. Lots of sciencey thoughts all in an easy to find place. Plus, who doesn’t like adorable stationary?!
I don’t think you’ll find a research student who doesn’t appreciate the wonders of caffeine from time to time! When I started my PhD a work friend told me I wouldn’t be able to get through the four years without coffee. Well, I’m into my fourth year and I still can’t drink the stuff! However, tea is my saviour for those sleepy moments. You’ll find caffeine a crucial essential for the long lab days or the many hours spent staring at a computer screen! Schedule in a morning break. We have our 11am tea break, the most important part of the working day, aside from lunch of course.
5. Work/life balance
Such a wonderful concept. Every PhD student needs this! Please don’t let your PhD take over your life! I know I work hard but I also know that having ‘me’ time is incredibly important for my wellbeing. I make sure I go to CrossFit most week day evenings and also plan evenings/weekends with friends. Admittedly this is not always possible due to what’s going on in the lab or imminent deadlines, but if I can I will always make space for other non-work related activities. Staying at work for longer than is necessary is not my ideal use of time, it’s also not constructive! Got the work done? Go play, go and have some fun, relax. I believe exercise is something everyone should get into their routine, it’s a great way to unwind and clear the mind, especially when the lab work or thesis writing gets intense!
Whether that’s to listen to music, to isolate yourself from the noisy office, or both. At the moment I’m spending most of my day analysing the 1000s of microscope pictures for one animal study which is pretty repetitive and tedious. I get into the office in the morning, open up Spotify, plug my headphones in and image analyse my way through the day! Bopping along to some good music makes the work that little bit more enjoyable. For those much needed moments of concentration having noise-cancelling headphones can come in handy when you just need to drown out the noise of fellow PhD students in the office (something I obviously never ever do).
7. Focus on small bits of progress
A PhD is a long commitment and there are times where you’ll feel fantastic but times when you’ll feel demotivated. I had the PhD slump about two years in, and turns out that’s quite common. A PhD is a lot of work and finally getting all of the lab work or writing done can feel so far away and unachievable. Don’t get disheartened by this. Keep focused on smaller goals! One step at a time. This has seriously helped me, and a trick I learnt whilst writing my transfer thesis. Think about what the end goals are for each study/thesis chapter and make smaller goals in order to achieve those bigger ones. This is where the almighty diary comes into action. Make daily/weekly/monthly plans to keep that focus. And wait, here’s the best bit! Some advice from my personal mentor: give yourself treats when you achieve each goal. I actually love her.
8. Install a reference programme
This is a must-have for any scientist. Do you have a referencing system? If not, GET ONE! I use Mendeley and it’s great. Mendeley allows me to keep a record of all my references and you can attach the journal paper as a PDF so you can see the paper with just one click. You can annotate and highlight the PDF too so all your notes are in one place, and you can organise your references into categories. It’s just a nice, simple, easy way to organise all those papers. A great feature of this is the plugin for ‘Word’ so citing papers in your thesis is all done with a few clicks and it updates the reference list automatically. Boom! Please please please don’t try doing it all by hand! Also, everything is synced to all your devices so if you’re on the go and need to check how a certain someone did a certain thing, or just want to read another paper you can. Now there’s no excuse to not read papers!! Hah.
9. A support network
This is a supportive set of friends/family/partners/other academics who are there by your side through the good and the bad times. These are the people who love to hear about your ground breaking results and accepted papers, but also the ones that listen to you moan about failed experiments, supervisor issues and general things that are bothering you. Knowing where you can get support is vital. My friends in the lab have been there for me during the tough times but I also have a mentor (an academic unrelated to my PhD) and she’s been a saviour in times of need. From experience, it’s easy to get caught up in the “a PhD is supposed to be hard and the centre of your life” attitude many academics seem to have adopted, and this is where a mentor comes in use. I can go to my mentor with a problem and she’ll help me through it and will also confirm whether expectations that have been put on me are reasonable or not. Friends are amazing, but advice from an academic unrelated to your project is also really valuable. Check with your University if they have a mentoring support system and where sources of support are.
10. Confidence – take ownership
Last but not least, the final essential to surviving a PhD – confidence! Believe in yourself and the hard work that you put in. Take ownership of your research project. Supervisors don’t always know best (believe it or not), so over time I have felt more comfortable to put my opinions across and try to lead my project. Having the confidence to say no to your supervisor and stick by your opinions is a scary but good thing… but this does come with time! Just remember, you know more about your research project than anyone else. Confidence will win oral and poster prizes, confidence will get you noticed and confidence will lead to great things!
And there we are, my top 10 essential PhD survival tips! Watch this space for more in depth advice on various aspects of PhD life.
If anyone has any other tips then I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
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