What is your value?

What is your value?

Anyone doing a PhD will know that no matter how hard you try, sometimes it’s difficult to get out of the PhD bubble. This bubble I speak of is something I see surrounding so many students. We work, HARD! We work long hours to get data, supervisors put pressures on us, there are time pressure and most of us are guilty of putting undue stress on ourselves. It’s easy to compare ourselves to other students who seem to have it together (statistics would suggest they don’t!) and we aren’t able to see things in perspective.

Are you too caught up in the bubble? Go get that comforting cup of coffee, relax and lets reflect on you.

My question to you – how valuable are you?

I’m guessing that probably stumped you? Self-awareness and self-reflection are so important in developing a healthy perspective, but a lot of PhD students don’t do this. This PhD SOS blog post is all about realising what skills you’ve developed during your PhD and helping you realise how valuable these make you to future employers. Take a look at the following and think about how you’ve developed since starting your science journey.

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We’re managers as well as researchers

We may be undergoing STEM research but we shouldn’t only be labelled as a scientist, engineer or mathematician. We also become managers and leaders simultaneously which is awesome. Yes, we have guidance on our PhDs but we manage our own project, both in the experimental design but also managing the finances. It’s also very common that PhD students manage other people, such as students and lab visitors. As I’m sure many of you know, this can be very challenging but a valuable skill to have. Managing others comes hand-in-hand with developing time management skills. As another factor comes into your daily or weekly routine, you’ll have to plan which experiments of your own you’ll do when but also when you’re going to teach/help others in the lab. You’ll find yourself a master of organisation and prioritisation… hopefully!

 

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Oral communication skills

Think back to a presentation you had to do for your undergrad. How well did you speak? How nervous were you? Now think back to your most recent presentation. How have you improved? Do you feel more confident when you speak in front of an audience? A PhD offers many opportunities to speak about your data to others, both to small and large audiences. This could be in regular lab meetings, a departmental seminar, at a conference, or a competition like the three-minute thesis. Even explaining your thesis to your friends and family will help generate those all important science communication skills. Being able to explain complex science in a basic language takes practice. For those that work in a more clinical setting you’ll have to adapt the way you say things between colleagues and patients. Adapting to difference audiences is a great skill, and employers love the ability to adapt. It’s translatable to being able to work with different people and in different work environments. Another great way to develop communication skills is by teaching. Have you had any teaching experience? Is there any available to you? I’ve taught students of various backgrounds and levels of education in the lab but also undergraduates in physiology practicals. Seeking out those teaching opportunities will look great on that CV!

 

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Scientific writing

We get a lot of practice in this, it’s not all about the lab work. We attend conferences but to get there we have to write abstracts. The ability to write your introduction, methods, results and discussion into about 250 words or so can be very challenging! You’ll soon learn how to write in a succinct manner, otherwise that conference abstract is going nowhere. Some events and conferences ask for lay abstracts, reinforcing that skill of adapting to different audiences when we communicate. Then of course there are the bigger documents – that monster thesis and those all important science journal papers. Regurgitating all those results into concise words and reporting your results to fit journal requirements is a good learning experience.

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Analysis and problem-solving

We pretty much become experts at problem-solving. Science doesn’t work first time every time, as sad as that is! If your PhD has been hassle-free, I am 100% jealous. We try something, we analyse it, we realise it hasn’t worked (or isn’t optimal) and we have to come up with a new solution in the hope it will fix the problem and try again (and maybe repeat!). It will test your patience but a PhD will force you to manage it for sure. When something that hasn’t been working finally does you feel like a super scientist, you get that scientist buzz and a true sense of achievement! Having to practice and develop your problem-solving ability takes a lot of brain power, persistence and therefore a skill many companies value. It isn’t as easy process and shows you’re able to target a problem through logical thinking.

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Individual and team work

Your PhD is your project, no one else’s, and therefore most of the time you are working individually. It might be isolating at times but during these periods it does allow you to focus on you alone. Now, think about those moments when you’ve worked in a team. Does your lab group have communal tasks all members have to share in order for the lab to run smoothly? Have you collaborated with anyone? Working as a team can be so much fun but it definitely has its challenges. People have different ways of working, thinking and hold different opinions. The ability to work effectively in both settings will set you in good stead for a whole range of jobs. It’s so important to self-motivate and work by yourself, but also have the personal skills to work well with others.

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Character building

Now here’s the true self-reflection. Going through the PhD process will undoubtedly teach you a lot about yourself and you’ll develop new personal skills. A PhD is not like undergrad or a masters degree where you have multiple deadlines and only a short time to focus on one thing. You’re in the PhD for the long haul, and with that brings endurance and perseverance! You’ll also find you develop resilience to a certain point and ways to handle stress. Do you handle stress effectively? If not, maybe try different ways to improve this. Top tip, exercise! The PhD is a bit of a game really, it’s going to test you mentally and physically. Of course there will be times when you’re so motivated and productive you’re on a PhD high, but you’ll also go through phases where you feel a lack of focus. Have you found ways to manage those times of reduced motivation? What do you do to turn those negative feelings around? Having self-awareness of what makes you tick and how you work best are extremely valuable skills. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, and being clever with that knowledge is key.

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In research we bring knowledge into the world for the first time. That’s amazing! We often forget about how cool what we do is. We manage projects, we create, we problem solve, we discover, we develop in ourselves. A PhD is a journey and it brings a lot of value to us personally but to other people too.

A PhD isn’t just about generating good data. Remind yourself of the skills you’ve developed, it’s those that make you valuable to employers. Put those skills to your advantage.

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What skills have you developed during your PhD or science journey so far?

As always, comment below, I love to hear from you and your experiences!

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Enhancing placental function – my first publication explained

Enhancing placental function  – my first publication explained

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Four years after my Masters of Research in Maternal and Fetal Health at The University of Manchester, our paper is finally published in Theranostics which means I have my first science journal publication! As other scientists will know, this is a very exciting moment in our science journey.

 

The title is “Placental Homing Peptide-microRNA Inhibitor Conjugates for Targeted Enhancement of Intrinsic Placental Growth Signaling”. What does that mean?! In simple terms, it’s all about targeting the placenta in order to enhance its function by delivering therapeutic molecules to it. Science journals can be very inaccessible to non-scientists but it is so important we relay our scientific findings to the public. I’m going to talk about why an earth we did this research, how we did it, our results and what they mean… and hopefully it all makes sense and you’ve learnt something new!

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The background…

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Many serious pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure and protein present in the urine), fetal growth restriction (FGR; baby is smaller than average) and macrosomia (baby is larger than average) develop as a result of suboptimal growth and development of the placenta. The placenta is the interface between mother and baby for nutrient transfer.

These conditions can lead to preterm delivery which in turn can cause complications. Babies who are born too early have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, but there are currently no treatments available during pregnancy. Administration of a drug via an injection in human pregnancy can cause dangerous side effects and disturbances to the fetus’ development (teratogenicity). We all take pain killers for headaches from time-to-time right? You just pop them into your mouth, and the drug circulates throughout your whole body. This means at the site of pain, the drug is more diluted but may also result in unwanted effects.

This paper is therefore all about trying to target the placenta specifically with a therapeutic to improve placental growth and development. The human placenta has two different layers: the outer syncytium, which is the site of nutrient transfer, and the underlying layer of proliferating cytotrophoblasts (CTB). These CTBs are important for growth and supporting nutritional demands of the growing fetus. These cells divide, and fuse with the syncytium.

  • Low proliferation of CTB = FGR and pre-eclampsia
  • High proliferation of CTB = macrosomia

The rate of growth/proliferation is affected by various hormones and growth factors, but also regulated by small RNA molecules called microRNAs (miRs). These regulate gene expression and consequently alter various biological processes such as cell proliferation. miR-145 and miR-675 are known to cause a reduction in placental growth, and so inhibiting these could improve placental growth in the pregnant women. But how does this get around the issue of teratogenicity? Well, our group have shown it’s possible to deliver a therapeutic molecule, which is packaged in lipids (a liposome), specifically to the placenta with minimising unwanted effects in the mother and fetus. This is done by using a specific placental homing peptide conjugate (a link of small molecules that form the foundations of proteins) which selectively binds to the placental surface. Think of it as a molecular postcode for the placenta!

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So, put two and two together and in this paper we tried to use placental homing peptides to deliver miR-145 and miR-675 inhibitors directly to the placenta with the aim to enhance placental growth.

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What did we do?

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Testing the safety of miR inhibitor delivery

Ensuring that the miR inhibitors can be used as a clinical intervention for poor placental growth and development means prior safety testing. We need to make sure that their delivery doesn’t cause detrimental effects. We exposed pregnant mice to either a short or longer-term treatment of a fluorescent-labelled non-specific inhibitor. With a fluorescence microscope we visualised the presence and localisation of it (miR inhibitor in green) within the mouse placenta. Localisation of the miR inhibitor was found in the short-term treatment and also in the longer term one too.Results2 - fluor distribution writing

The miR inhibitor was not found in fetal tissues which is great! However, we found it localised in some of the maternal tissues suggesting a possibility of off-target effects – something that would need to be investigated further. The non-specific miR inhibitor didn’t cause a change to fetal or placental weight, litter size or the present of fetal abnormalities, so this indicates that it’s tolerated well in pregnancy… phew!

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Testing specific miR inhibitors in mice

Pregnant mice were either injected with a control solution (PBS), the non-specific (scrambled) inhibitor, or the treatments miR-675 inhibitor or miR-145 inhibitor.

Placental weight:

The miR-675 inhibitor did significantly increase placental weight. However, miR-145 did not. Despite this, interestingly a statistical test confirmed that it did reduce variability in placental weight. No placentas fell below the 10th weight centile for either inhibitor, which suggests they have growth-promoting effects.

Fetal weight:

Both miR-675 and miR-145 inhibitors increased fetal weight but the non-specific inhibitor altered the fetal weight distribution as well. At the moment, we aren’t too sure why. One potential reason could be species-specific effects, but if you want to geek out, check out the discussion section of the paper (link below) where other suggestions are discussed!

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We also tested the two specific miR inhibitors for any changes in litter size and number of miscarriages. Neither had an effect therefore further suggesting that this novel treatment is safe to use in pregnant mice, another step in the right direction!

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Testing the specific inhibitors in human tissue

Placental explants, which are chunks of fresh tissue, from first trimester (early pregnancy) and term (end of pregnancy) were cultured in the miR-675 inhibitor or miR-145 inhibitor with or without the placental homing peptide added on.  Both miR-675 and miR-145 with the peptide significantly increased the placental CTB cell proliferation, but so did their equivalents without the homing peptide, which was interesting. This enhanced cell proliferation was only found in first trimester placental samples.

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Summary

Without getting bogged down in all the intense sciencey discussion of this data (again, feel free to view the link for the actual paper below if you would like to read some more), what can we conclude from this study?

  • We provide evidence that the use of these homing peptides have a favourable therapeutic profile during pregnancy – they appear safe to use!
  • It’s the first piece of evidence for targeted delivery of a miR inhibitor to the placenta.
  • A homing peptide-miRNA inhibitor can be used to increase human placental growth in early pregnancy, which means it should be possible to manipulate the expression of those pesky placental miRs which contribute to pre-eclampsia and FGR.
  • This study suggests that these novel therapeutics may provide a new strategy for targeted treatment of compromised placental development and function.

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Of course further research is required to push the therapeutic potential of placental homing peptide-microRNA inhibitors further in the hope they will enter clinical trials in the future, but this study provides some really interesting data. Watch this space!

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You can find the original paper here!

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This was a much more science-heavy blog post than I normally write. Would you like more science explained posts?

Please comment below as always to let me know what you thought. Your feedback really is valuable to me. It helps me to grow as a science blogger and get the information out there that you like to read!

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Being a publicist – my Pint of Science experience

Being a publicist – my Pint of Science experience

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This post is coming a couple months late but it’s allowed me time to reflect on my experiences of an exciting project I was part of this year. In January 2017 I was given the opportunity to be involved in the amazing science festival “Pint of Science” as publicist for the Southampton events running 15-17th May.

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This was a totally new experience for me! Since starting my degree I’ve completed a masters and now I’m in my final year of PhD, and after all the time in the lab I’ve decided that academia isn’t a career route I’d like to pursue. In all honesty, coming to that realisation is a little scary as on paper that’s what I’m trained to do. So it was time to explore other options and get a feel of what else is out there, so hello science blog, and through that I’ve been given the opportunity to write for magazines. Science communication is now a route I’d like to test out (we’ll see where it takes me), and being publicist for PoS’17 was another side of science communication to have a play with! Life is all about testing out new things, figuring out what you like, what you don’t and eventually your experiences will guide you to great things. Well I believe that anyway.

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For those that don’t know, what is Pint of Science?

Pint of Science is a science festival that happens yearly across cities in the UK and has now expanded to numerous countries across the world. The concept is simple – scientists take to the stage at local pubs to deliver unique talks, demonstrations and live experiments with fun science-related activities and comedy sets in-between talks. It’s all about reaching out to the public and sharing the amazing research that happens behind those university doors. In one city there are 6x teams of volunteers all with their specific theme (Atoms to Galaxies, Beautiful Mind, Planet Earth, Our Society, Tech Me Out and Our Body), and each team hosts their three nights in a pub. What better way to learn some science than with some food and a drink or two?!

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My experience of being a publicist

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#1 – Create and promote

Generating promotional materials was a key part of my job role. Posters, flyers and business cards were designed, printed and distributed to our six teams and displayed all across Southampton. It’s a little more creative than my usual PhD work so a bit of Photoshop and a little less of the spreadsheets from time-to-time was a nice change!

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#2 – Camera, lights, action!

I developed a press release for our Southampton events, and with the University of Southampton’s media relations manager Charles Elder, I liaised with local media companies including a local TV station, radio and newspapers to set up a media launch event at Mettricks (love this place!).  This was a lot of fun and very rewarding, but wow it opened my eyes up to the fast paced, last-minute style of work the media world has! A little stressful but it all went to plan.

The morning was a massive success. My fellow publicist Sophie (at Soph Talks Science), three of our PoS Southampton researchers/speakers (Dr Nick Evans, Emma Osborne and Dr Becks Spake) and myself were all interviewed about the event, which was a fun experience in itself! The pressure was on not to stumble! You can watch the That’s Solent TV interview here and listen to the Radio Solent clip here!

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#3 – Upping my social media game

The final week before the event was all about social media and upping my Twitter game (also trying to actually figure out Twitter!). The Southampton PoS publicity team did an amazing job if I do say so myself! Team Southampton sold 970 tickets with 16 out of 18 events selling out. A Southampton record!

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#4 – Event nights!

After all the madness it was time to attend events, have fun and share what PoS’17 Southampton had going on with you guys via Instagram and Twitter! Here are some snippets of the event nights…

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Getting the chance to experience being a publicist was great. I’ve gained so many new skills and learnt so much. To be honest with you, I thought it wouldn’t take up much time. At the start we had an easy ride where all the six teams were planning their event nights, but one month from the festival and wow it was crazy busy. PhD-ing whilst doing publicity on the side was not easy and my time management skills were put to the test even more! I’m so thankful for having this opportunity and to anyone who is thinking about science communication as a potential career path, give this a go next year at PoS’18! I met some great people, learnt new science, had so much fun and would do it all over again.

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What experiences have you had of science communication? Any other PoS publicists from different cities out there? Comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

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Science Diaries: The inbetweeny stage

Science Diaries: The inbetweeny stage

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For those of you who have read my previous blog posts or follow me on social media, you’ll know that I’m a PhD student and I finished all my lab work in December 2016. In my final week of running around like crazy getting everything finished up, I published a blog post called LabLife: the final week showcasing what a day in the life of a science PhD student was like.

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With being out of the laboratory setting I thought why would people want to see a day in the life post without all the exciting experiments? But in actual fact the lab part is only one chapter of the PhD process, admittedly a very big one, but there is so much more to research than running experiments! There’s a lot of data handling, image processing, statistics and thesis/publication writing to do as well before we get awarded that Dr title! So I feel that this side of PhD life is important to show to those thinking of going into research, or for current researchers who like to have a nose at what others get up to!

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So where am I at with my PhD?

Little bit of background: my research is all to do with Are you what your mother ate? I investigate how maternal diets (high-fat and vitamin D deficient) during pregnancy alter the baby’s muscle function in later life. In terms of experiments I carried out long contractile studies to test the peak force generated by the muscles, and I’ve carried out staining techniques to visualise the different types of muscle fibres and also the amount of fat accumulated in the muscle samples (changes can alter muscle function). This all means a lot of files, a lot of microscope images… and a lot of time sitting analysing all of these. I call this the inbetweeny phase – lab work is over but thesis writing isn’t quite on the radar!

It took me ages to analyse the different types of muscle fibres in all my samples as this involved counting and drawing around 1000s and 1000s of cells. That finally got done (yay!) and then I moved onto quantifying the amount of lipid accumulation in the samples. Admittedly I struggled for a while with focus and motivation (useful tips here!) as for a very active person sitting all day every day and doing the same thing day-in day-out is hard! I was also juggling other exciting science communication opportunities so it took a little longer than planned. BUT that analysis has now been completed and here is another post in the Science Diaries…

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Alarm goes off at 6:15am. Surprisingly I was pretty good on the snooze front! I have a little scroll through Instagram and Twitter to wake myself up properly and to see what’s going on in the science world. I’m so much more productive in the mornings so I’ve been trying to shift my working day earlier. Top tip: playing to your strengths makes working so much more effective!

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6:32am: Breakfast time, my favourite meal. My good ol’ trusty protein porridge to give those brain cells their much needed energy for a day in front of the computer clicking some buttons.

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8:10am: Today was an on-call day for me. For a little extra cash now my PhD funding is over (super sad, I know), I process placentas when women give birth who are consented to the NiPPeR study. The study is all about nutritional intervention before and during pregnancy to maintain healthy glucose levels and offspring health. I do my 10 minute round route to check for any deliveries throughout the day. If there is a placenta my job is super simple, cut some chunks of placenta and umbilical cord, and freeze them for another scientist to analyse in the future.

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9:04am: Getting through more oil red O analysis. This was the technique I used to stain my muscle samples so any fat/lipid in the tissue was stained red. I previously took multiple photos of each sample with a fancy microscope and I’m now using a programme called Fiji Image J to get the images ready for lipid area quantification. I want to know the total muscle tissue area and how much of that is made up by lipid. It’s a pretty long process, and not the most exciting!

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11:00am: Tea break. Like I mentioned in my top 10 PhD survival tips, caffeine is an important necessity when it comes to doing a PhD.

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11:34am: Tea break over and time to check Twitter and emails before carrying on with the oil red O image analysis. Got a lot of work on and need to keep focussed? Top tip: don’t open up your emails first thing in the morning, this can put you onto a different path than you were planning on for your days work. Limit those distractions. Is it really that important that the email can’t wait until a few hours in?

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1:15pm: Super duper happy as my image processing is done and now it’s time to run my macro to generate my oil red O data. I select all my files, I press “run” on the macro (piece of code I wrote telling the computer programme what to do) and I sit and wait for the computer to do its thing. How wonderful!

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4:43pm: After the computer gave me the numbers I wanted, I compiled all the data into a spreadsheet… and voila graphs! Science is funny, after many weeks of lab work and many days of analysis I get four graphs (each row showing the same data, just a different format). Annoyingly some of the results aren’t what I hoped for (that’s science for you) but some data (third row down in particular) is really intriguing when considering some of my other data, so that’s pretty cool!

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6:31pm: The daily CrossFit workout done – heavy deadlifts and some running. Time for drinks and food with friends. Accomplishing my work goal means guilt-free treats! Exercising and socialising is so important for that work-life balance, it means your life isn’t all about work and gives your body and mind that much needed time out.

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What stage are you at in your PhD/science career?

Is there anything about life in science/academia you’d like to know more about?

Comment below!

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Restoring the work-life balance

Restoring the work-life balance

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Work life balance – something everyone needs! However, many PhD students or researchers in academia struggle to maintain this. There are different groups of people: those that wrap themselves up in their science bubble, those that allow their social life and other commitments to become priority, and those that do actually have this nice equilibrium of work and life. So, where do you fit in? Do you have the balance just right? Or is this something you need to work on?

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It is so important for us PhD students to have a good balance. A PhD is by no means an easy ride, your social life and mental well-being is just as important as your work productivity – no matter what your supervisors say! Working faster and harder is not always conducive to good quality work, whether that’s in the lab or writing a thesis.

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All work = brain overload = reduced efficiency & productivity = unhappy

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My PhD has been full of ups and downs, but on the positive side I feel that I’ve learnt a lot, both about myself but also how to manage certain situations. I’ve also become even more aware of the importance of having a good work-life balance. So please don’t let PhD take over your life! I know I work hard, but I also know that having time off is vital for my well-being and consequently how productive I am at work.

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Top tips

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Feel like you’re all work and no play? Here are some tips for restoring your balance.

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Focus and get the work done

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Working all day and all evening on PhD is admirable but how many of those 12 hours are you actually being productive? Working all day tends to be associated with procrastination. Planning your work and setting deadlines is so important. It gives structure to the day/week and ticking of those items on the daily to-do list feels great! Plan your work but also set time aside for your non-work plans. Doing this means you have a certain portion of your day to work hard and be productive, but have play time too. Check out my previous post “How to get your focus and motivation back” for more tips.

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Manage expectations

In research we get results, they lead to further questions, and supervisors will think up more experiments for you to do. This becomes a cycle and you get to the point where you have so many experiments to do but not enough time, so be realistic, can you keep saying yes to more work? Some supervisors will have your well-being in mind, but some will be focussed on maximum data for those papers. It is okay to say no that can’t be done right now – be aware of how much work you can take on without compromising your well-being and still having a balanced life. This leads me onto…

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Prioritisation

Prioritisation is key. Feel like you have too much to do or too much that you want to do? Weigh up what you REALLY NEED to do and the things you REALLY WANT to do. Inbetween bits can wait. Prioritising is key to balance. Get the work done, enjoy life but don’t feel over busy causing yourself unneeded stress.

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Hobbies and socialising

Find a hobby, even if it’s just going for a walk every evening to get out of that desk chair. Exercise is ideal. I CrossFit most week day evenings which is a great way to unwind and clear the mind, especially after a day of image analysis and writing! Make time to socialise too. Meet your friends at the pub or for dinner, socialising is important for mental health and gives that PhD brain a much needed break.

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Don’t just live for the weekend

Get out and have fun in the weekday evenings! Self-care is not just for the weekends. Don’t work 12 hours a day during the week with your hobbies and social life left to the weekend. This just leads to burnout, after all, how productive are you really being at the end of a normal 8 hour working day? My guess, not very. So have fun!

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Holidays

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You can’t be thinking about and doing science 24/7 no matter how much you love what you do or how much your supervisors would love you to! Having ‘you time’ in the week is important, but so is having a proper holiday with a solid one or two weeks off. This gives your mind and body a much needed rest, allows you to de-stress and regain focus and motivation. It is ok to take holiday, everyone is entitled to it, and don’t even think about checking those emails!

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The unexpected hold-ups

Admittedly getting this work-life balance is not always as easy as following those tips. Doing a PhD comes with its moments of intense work that are unavoidable such as endless long animal experiment days, and all scientists will run into those unexpected hold-ups when experiments don’t go to plan and the lab day is extended. When you are faced with these moments, allow yourself those guilty pleasures to make the day easier. And remember, this isn’t every day!

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Whether you’re a workaholic or you allow your social life to take over, try to put these tips into practice and allow yourself to have a good work-life balance!

 

Do you struggle to get the balance right? Do you have any more advice? Please comment below as I would love to hear what you have to say!

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Women in Science: #wearestemsquad

Women in Science: #wearestemsquad

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One fact about the science world is that women are not represented equally in occupations related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Although the number on women in STEM has increased over the past few years, most recent statistics from the WISE campaign (a campaign for gender balance within STEM) revealed that women only make up 14.4% of the UK STEM workforce.

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  • Only 33% of girls who take maths and science GCSEs progress into a STEM A-level (or equivalent qualification).
  • Only 7% of girls who take maths and science GCSEs study a STEM qualification in Higher Education (or equivalent).
  • 50% of STEM undergraduates are female.
  • But only 17% of senior academics in the EU are female.

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The gender gap in the STEM workforce could be due to many different reasons. Many women in academia have to consider when a good time to start a family is. Time out of academia immediately puts that career path of post-doc to professor on hold. There are now numerous organisations campaigning for a gender balance in the world of STEM.

Since I’ve started this blog I’ve come across some really supportive communities for female researchers, particularly through social media. There is a wealth of Instagram accounts specifically showcasing the research and lives of women in STEM all across the globe which have been fascinating to look at.

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The STEM Squad

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Throughout the month of March The STEM Squad launched a photo-a-day challenge for all women and girls in STEM on Instagram. This involved posting a photo related to a different topic each day and adding the hashtag #wearestemsquad. The STEM Squad is a supportive community for all women and girls working (or just enthusiasts!) in STEM. This challenge gave loads of women across the world an opportunity to share various aspects of their lives with others.

In case you don’t have Instagram, or haven’t seen already, here are my #wearestemsquad photo-a-day posts! Take a look to see what I get up to in and out of the PhD world…

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Day 1: “Me”

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This is me, Lisa, a final year PhD student at The University of Southampton UK. Over three years of lab work done and now time to write up all of those results into a beautifully large thesis! I’ve recently started science blogging so check out the link in my bio! Follow me to keep up to date with my journey through PhD and science, and for future blog posts.

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Day 2: “History”

2. History

Here’s a throwback to my masters graduation and a little bit about how I got to where I am now.

My first memory of being interested in science was when my parents took me to @Bristol Science Centre. One of the exhibitions was having a go at being a weather girl and from that moment it was all I wanted to be! But it wasn’t until my A levels that I decided Biology was my thing. My science journey started off by doing a Physiology degree and then a Masters of Research in Maternal and Fetal Health at The University of Manchester. I loved the pregnancy and developmental research, and had this amazing group of people with me all the way through.

The advert for my PhD popped up and I immediately knew that was what I wanted to research, so here I am at The University of Southampton studying developmental physiology and in my final year. My PhD journey has been a tough one and I’ve decided that academia is not for me. I enjoy the writing side of the PhD so hello new science blog and although it’s early days, I absolutely love working on it! I’m now looking into jobs in scientific/medical writing and I am so happy to have found an area which allows me to combine by love for science, writing and creativity.

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Day 3: “Field”

3. Field
My PhD is all centred around the question “Are you what your mother ate?“. I’m investigating how various diets (high-fat and vitamins D deficient) during pregnancy affect the development, structure and function of the baby’s skeletal muscle function in later life.

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Day 4: “Inspiration”

4. Inspiration

My PhD has not been the easiest journey. There was a time when I wanted to quit so badly but my friends encouraged me to stick with it through the tough times. They are the ones that gave me hope, told me not to give up and that good things will come from completing this PhD. I am so thankful they did. I will get this PhD and I already have exciting opportunities coming my way.
I learn a lot from my friends, both in work and life situations. It’s those friends who inspire me.

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Day 5: “Reading”

5. Reading

I am currently reading “The 4-hour work week” which has already taught me some good tips on how to be productive, and how to see work/life balance in a different light.
Next on my list “The Telomere Effect”, the science behind telomere length (part of our chromosomes that determine how fast our cells age) and how we can look after them to slow down the ageing process. Excited to read this one!

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Day 6: “Workspace”

6. Workspace

Having the luxury of working from home this morning. Now I’m out of the lab it’s good to mix my workspace up from time to time. Little bit of the office, little bit of home comforts and the occasional coffee shop visit!

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Day 7: “Equipment”

7. Equipment

Throughout my PhD I’ve used a lot of different equipment from my electrophysiology muscle contraction setup to open field activity monitors to assess behaviour. But now it’s lab gloves off and time to blast through this image analysis and write my thesis! All I need is my laptop, earphones to listen to science and fitness podcasts (helps me with endless analysis!), and glasses so I can actually see what I’m doing!

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Day 8: “Routine”

8. Routine

My normal week day involves eat, work, eat, little more work, bit of scicomm, exercise and socialise, eat, sleep!
I love CrossFit and Wednesdays are always for gymnastics class. Today’s session was progressions to get that strict muscle up. Muscle up, I will get you in 2017.

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Day 9: “Home”

I grew up and spent my whole childhood in a town just outside Bristol. I love going back for the odd weekend to get away from the PhD bubble and spend quality time with my friends and family.
Things are now changing, my parents have just moved to Brussels for the next three years but Bristol will always be my home. I am so lucky to have a lot of close friends living back there after we all went separate ways for university. My home girls, I love you!

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Day 10: “Details”

10. Details

As a physiologist I love to learn about the finer details on how our amazing bodies work. I’m also mindful about my nutrition. Getting the right foods in my body sets me up for a productive day, I need that all important brain power at work (this thesis won’t write itself!) and I need the energy to be strong when I workout in the evenings. I do my best to stick to the right proportion of macros (carbs, protein, fat) each day. A typical breakfast for me looks like this:
– 40g porridge oats
– 1 scoop whey protein powder
– 160ml coconut milk
– cod liver oil
– multivitamin
– big glass of water
Having awareness of the nutritional details is one factor that keeps me fit and healthy.

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Day 11: “Unwind”

11. Unwind

Yoga is a new thing for me and I couldn’t recommend it enough for relaxing and unwinding after a day of work. Absolutely love my one-to-one sessions with my lovely friend Fran.

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Day 12: “Creativity”

12. Creativity

My main creative outlet is for my science blog. I love doodling on a piece of paper and turning my drawings into illustrations to make my blog more personal and unique.

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Day 13: “Goals”

13. Goals

I can’t recommend setting yourself goals for the year enough! The feeling of ticking each one off throughout the year is just great. They give you focus and makes you realise how much you can accomplish. Read my blog post on how to go about setting yourself goals.

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Day 14: “Materials”

14. Materials

What would I have done without my trusty pipettes?! They were there throughout the long animal studies, many PCRs and those months of immunohistochemistry work. Time for a new owner now because lab work, I am done with you!

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Day 15: “Methods”

15. Methods

A little bit of training with a side order of caffeine. These are two ways which help me stay focussed during my PhD.
Exercise: it’s a great stress reliever, it gives those hard working brain cells a break and keeps you healthy. Don’t let PhD become your life. Go for some runs, join a team sport, throw heavy weights around. I love picking up those weights and practising my handstand holds at CrossFit Solent most evenings after a day of work!
Caffeine: a saviour during those sleepy moments at my desk. I’m pretty sure most PhD students have discovered the wonders of caffeine!

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Day 16: “Memory”

16 Memory

It’s good to reflect on things from time to time. I have so many amazing memories with all my amazing friends and family. Lots of exciting plans this year, and many more memories to be made.

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Day 17: “Food”

17. Food

I’m all about the meal prep. It means I stay healthy (most of the time!), eat the right foods for me and spend as little time as possible cooking in the week when I’m PhDing. Less time cooking also means more time to do those extra things in life I love. As I’m posting this I’m having all the cookie cravings!

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Day 18: “Colour”

18. Colour

It’s all about having a colourful fitness wardrobe!

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Day 19: “Break”

19. Break

Everyone needs a break from work, especially from all the stresses and pressures of doing a PhD. I’m not one to work on my thesis every weekend, and today was a day of friends, food and the coast.

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Day 20: “Now”

20. Now

I’m in work and planning what I want to achieve this week as we speak. Setting yourself daily and weekly goals helps to keep you focused. Stay tuned for my blog post on keeping focussed and motivated during a PhD.

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Day 21: “Writing”

21. Writing

This week I’m planning and writing a new blog post for my “PhDLife” feature. This one is all about keeping that focus and motivation we all struggle with from time to time. It’s going to be published this Thursday and will be packed full of advice so keep your eyes peeled!

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Day 22: “Organisation”

22. Organisation

Being organised is all about having a good filing system, neat lab books and planning out your days and weeks in a diary. My cute fluffy fat cell is always there watching over me and keeping everything in check!

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Day 23: “Fact”

23. Fact

It’s been 3 years since I graduated from my Masters of Research in Maternal and Fetal Health at The University of Manchester, and today I found out our paper has been accepted for publication! So happy right now!

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Day 24: “Fiction”

24. Fiction

Definition: “describes imaginary events”. It’s great to have aspirations and dreams in life, but we have to put in the hard work to take them from our imagination to our reality. Imagine it, then create it.

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Day 25: “Fun”

25. Fun

Had all the fun soaking up the sunshine rays today… summer is slowly on its way.

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Day 26: “Numbers”

26. Numbers

So Friday marked the end of the CrossFit Open 2017, and here are some numbers to throw at you!
3 = third time I’ve done the Open
1 = first time doing all workouts Rx
17.1 = 219 reps
17.2 = 78 reps
17.3 = 38 reps
17.4 = 151 reps
17.5 = 19 mins 23 sec
This weekend has been all about active recovery, enjoying the sunshine and drinking tea.

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Day 27: “Communication”

27. Communication

One important aspect of science is being able to communicate research findings effectively. Travelling and presenting my PhD work at various conferences has been so rewarding. They have without a doubt developed me as a science communicator. Now my attention turns to scientific writing, so let’s see where this journey takes me.

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Day 28: “Diversity”

28. Diversity

One of the things my transfer thesis examiners were happy about was the wide range of techniques I had used in the lab. I’ve done a lot in my PhD life… from animal dissection, to radioactive experiments, to molecular biology, to electrophysiology, to immunohistochemistry, to behavioural studies, to microscopy.

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Day 29: “Love”

29. Love

What do I love?…. CHOCOLATE. Chocolate cake, chocolate brownies, chocolate cookies, all the chocolate. Oh and of course my friends, family, CrossFit, cycling and working on my scicomm projects!

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Day 30: “Reflect”

30. Reflect

I think it’s great to self reflect. Life is full of fun but everyone has stresses at some point. Reflect on the things that have been tough, don’t shy away from them. Process what’s happened and think about how you can change that situation for the better. Understand you, and learn from you.
If you’re going through a tough time with your PhD then look back and reflect on all the amazing work you’ve achieved so far. You’ll surprise yourself. Check out my blog post for tips on focus and motivation. Get your sparkle back.

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Day 31: “March on”

31. March on

It was all black for me last night as I marched my way towards birthday cocktails. I had the best day and I’m now a wonderfully young 26 year old!

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So there’s a little insight into my personal/scientific life for you! I had a lot of fun with the #wearestemsquad Instagram challenge! It definitely got my creative brain switched on in order to reflect the 31 different topics through photography. Such a great science communication project. Even better is that it provided me with an opportunity to read about other scientist’s lives and experiences in STEM!

Are you interested in the lives of other women in STEM? Check out The STEM Squad’s Instagram page or scroll through the Instagram hashtag #wearestemsquad.

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How to get your focus and motivation back

How to get your focus and motivation back

Welcome to another one of my PhD SOS tips and tricks blog posts. Today’s post is all about how to stay enthusiastic, inspired and focussed. Everyone is guilty of losing focus and as a result feeling demotivated from time-to-time. Doing a PhD can be a long slog. Here in the UK a typical PhD takes 4 years to complete, and over in the US it’s a whopping 6-7 years! It’s no surprise that as PhD students, our levels of passion and determination can go through peaks and troughs. Post-doctoral researchers have a tough time of it too. The need to get the data, to write those papers and to hope a grant will be accepted so you’re not out of a job can become a little stressful to say the least. But it’s not just scientists that have these struggles, any career can have the highs and the lows! We can also feel unmotivated in aspects of our home life, such as training for that half marathon or learning a new language.

So, how can you stay focussed and motivated?

I’m going to ask you some important questions, so stop what you’re doing and have a proper think about your answers to what I’m about to ask. By doing this, you’ll hopefully find that burst of determination!

My top 5 questions from me to you

#1: Why did you choose to do what you’re doing?

When things get stressful or boring, and you lose the motivation to put the work in, it can be very easy to say the words “why am I doing this” or “I’m so fed up” or even “I want to quit”. At times like this you need to ground yourself and remember why you started what you’re working on. There’s clearly good reasons why you’ve chosen this PhD right? Rewind that clock back, why did you make the decision to take on this task? What inspired you to in the first place? Ask yourself these questions and remind yourself of all the positives in why you started what you’re doing. Revisit those feelings and remember your ‘why’.

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#2: What is your destination?

What is your end goal? What do you want to get out of it? These questions will really help you refocus on your aspirations and desires in life, and what makes you have that important sense of accomplishment. I’ve had my fair share of low moments during my PhD and with that came periods of zero focus or motivation. What helped keep me going? Knowing that I will eventually become Dr Jones, that all my years learning about science were not wasted, and it would lead to an exciting career somewhere in science. Imagine the moment when you get to your destination. Think about all the awesome potential it has for you. Imagine how fulfilled, proud and happy you’ll be to know you pushed through the harder times and ticked off that end goal. Thinking about those moments in the future will help motivate you in times of need!

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#3: Can you break the work down into small fun-sized pieces?

The answer is always yes. Little steps at a time. This is so vital to anything you’re lacking focus or motivation in. Completing all the lab work for your PhD or writing the thesis can seem like a mammoth of a task. Breaking the work up into small and easy to manage pieces is fundamental to focus. Check back over onto my “Top 10 tips for surviving a PhD” where I mention how focussing on the small steps can make the mountain that is your goal a much easier climb. This trick allows you to focus on the now. Trust me, the work will suddenly feel a lot more manageable, and you’ll achieve your end goal with much less stress. Make daily and weekly goals to reach those more significant ones.

Small steps vector

#4: What makes you happy?

Feeling unfocussed and demotivated often brings stress. So let’s focus on YOU and YOUR wellbeing. What makes you happy? What de-stresses you? What makes you full of life? This is the bit of advice I like to hear, go and do something fun! Treat yourself! Have ‘you time’. For me I love to CrossFit in the evenings, do some yoga, work on my science communication projects or hang out with friends. It is so important to do the things that make you happy. Yes, you might love your PhD for the most part, but when you do find yourself in a period of very little focus then you need to balance your time with other things that are relaxing and fun. These factors that chill you out will make you happier. In turn you’ll think more clearly, have a more positive attitude, feel more motivated and therefore be more productive. It’s all about that positive feedback loop!

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#5: Who is there to help you?

When you are having those dips in focus and motivation, having a good support network can really help. It’s healthy to get someone else’s wisdom and advice, perhaps they can say something that will empower you and boost your ability to focus. In my top 10 tips blog post I spoke about the importance of a good support network in relation to a PhD. These people could be fellow PhD students, post docs, supervisors, other academics, head of faculty or student services. Friends and family members are always a good place to talk things through with. The internet can also be a good place to seek support, and surprise surprise, I’m going to suggest blogs! You are not going to be the only person who is struggling with focus in the type of task or challenge you have committed yourself to. Search the internet and seek out other people’s advice who you can relate to. As you’re reading this, I hope that I can be one of those people in your support network! One thing I’d say is that to get the best help you need to identify what the issue is. Once you’ve done that, there is a wealth of support out there for you. Don’t struggle alone.

Support network vector

 

My bonus tips and tricks!

A serious procrastinator?

How often do you aimlessly scroll through social media, read the celebrity gossip or think you can watch Netflix whilst working? If you are guilty of procrastinating regularly then here are some tips to cut back and concentrate!

  • Set yourself a certain amount of work before allowing yourself to do these things.
  • When you do them put an alarm on (e.g. 10 minutes) so you don’t find an hour has passed!
  • For those serious procrastinators amongst you – consider using blocking websites!

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Take breaks… but manage them!

Having breaks throughout your working day enhances productivity. It gives those hard working brain cells a little rest, and helps keep focussed. My friends and I always have morning tea break at 11am (which I LOVE!), so that helps me to focus and get lots of work done before, which in turn makes me feel great. But remember, manage your breaks! Time flies by when you’re having a cup of coffee and catching up with friends. Schedule in the breaks but have a time in mind for when you’ll start work again.

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Sleep well

Getting optimal sleep is vital for that all important brain power. The optimal amount of sleep varies from person to person but we should be getting 7-9 hours a night.  Getting the right amount of sleep for you will make your whole day so much easier. You’ll wake up ready to start the day. You’ll have a good amount of energy and so your ability to concentrate and focus won’t be as much of a struggle. Good quality sleep also helps with those happiness levels. Having a positive mind set for the day will naturally make you more motivated, focussed and productive.

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Exercise

Take yourself out of that working environment and move around, shake off any stress. Exercise helps to improve concentration, but how?

  • Increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain – better brain performance
  • Stimulates hormones and growth factors – promotes growth of brain cells, slows down age-related decline
  • Hippocampus highly active – improves memory and learning skills
  • Releases serotonin and other endorphins – improves mood and mental health
  • Reduces risk of many diseases – improved overall health

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Celebrate successes

When you achieve a specific goal celebrate! You’ve put in the work, now do something for you. In my last “PhD SOS” blog post titled “The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis” I had a whole section about treats. This tip works for me anyway! When you accomplish your short term daily/weekly goals and your longer term goals, treat yourself. Do something fun. Go for a walk, go out for dinner, take a day trip to the beach, drink cocktails with the girls – whatever floats your boat. Planning these celebrations for when you reach those goals makes it all a lot easier and gives you that focus and motivation.

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So if you were feeling unfocussed and unmotivated before you read this post, I hope my 5 questions helped you to feel more inspired and ready to knuckle down and achieve the awesome things you set out to do. I want this blog post to be a resource for you – if you are having one of those dips in productivity and focus, then read back over this! Ask yourself those 5 questions again, and go back over those tips and tricks.

As always, if you have any other golden nuggets of advice, please comment below as I’d love to hear what you have to share!

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