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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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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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.

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#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.

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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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The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis

The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis

Welcome to blog post number two of my new feature “PhD SOS”. To start this off I wrote my top 10 survival tips for a PhD – go check that out if you haven’t seen it already! This feature will now be focussed on various aspects to the PhD, going into more depth, and I’ll be giving out some useful advice for you researchers out there. Not a scientist? Some of these tips could be of use to your job or studies, so don’t run away just yet!

I’ve been busy brainstorming ideas for this feature and trying to decide what my next post would be. I was umm-ing and aah-ing for a while, but then it became clear. Last week I was working in the office analysing my very pretty multi-coloured fluorescent images of muscle cells, and I soon discovered that quite a few fellow PhD students are in the process of doing their transfer thesis. One friend was messaging me about the stress of balancing lab work vs. trying to get the report written. Another friend asked to look at my report for structural/writing style inspiration as she’s starting to write hers now. A guy from a different research group was submitting his final draft to his supervisors and another girl in the office was getting her final printed copies bound ready to give to her examiners. It therefore seemed the perfect opportunity to dish out some advice and pointers on how to get it done.

The transfer/upgrade – what is it?

What is a transfer thesis I hear you say? So in the UK a PhD takes 3-4 years and at The University of Southampton we have a halfway report named the transfer thesis. It’s exactly how it sounds, a report based on our current findings 18-24 months into the PhD journey.  Once the report is written we have a viva (oral examination) which involves two examiners from the university questioning us on what we’ve done. It’s a big milestone for us and can seem like a mountain of a task to complete, and complete well. This comes with some stress!

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I went through the transfer thesis process about a year ago. I was in my second year PhD slump at the time due to struggling physically and mentally with 18-hour lab days, and some how needed to find the motivation and positivity to smash the transfer thesis and viva. It was a big learning curve. So whether you’re writing a transfer thesis or another report somewhere along your PhD here is my advice to you…

 

1. Stop comparing yourself to others

Not everyone’s PhDs are the same, so not everyone’s reports will be the same. Yes this sounds like common sense but it’s very easy to start comparing the amount of data you have to the amount your friends who started at the same time have. First day of my PhD I was right in there dissecting the teeny-tiny soleus and extensor digitorum longus muscles from the mouse legs and then straight into electrophysiology experiments where I was measuring the peak contractile force generated by those muscles. As a result, I had a lot of data from my first year so I had a lot to include in my report. On the flip side, I know people who were predominantly reading background literature for the first few months, and some people who worked for a long time on setting up their methodology. This meant generating data was a slower process for them and therefore less data in the report. That is ok! After all, it’s a report to show what you’ve done so far. Science is science, and some times things take time!

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Completion of transfer reports and vivas can happen at different times. For my cohort there was a very hazy deadline of 24 months from the grad school, but I had important mouse experiments at this time and for about 3 months after. This was one of my very long lab day phases, so writing the report at the same time was never going to happen. Too unrealistic. I took a long Christmas break to refocus, in January 2016 I concentrated on the transfer thesis alone, and 36 months into my PhD I finally passed my viva. All my other housemates had written their reports and were viva-ing before me but I made sure that didn’t get me down. Don’t let it phase you that you might be going through this process slightly later than other people, it happens at the right time for you.

Take home message #1: stop comparing yourself to others! It will drive you crazy if you do. Focus on your work and your project alone.

 

2. Play to your strengths

Understand you and understand how you work best, and be clever with it.

When are you most productive? What time of day do you struggle to keep your concentration? I know I work a lot better in the morning so I’ll get up early and be one of the first in the office. This means by lunch time I’ve got a lot of work done (make me feel good!) and I’ll allow myself to have the evening for ‘me time’. PhDs have flexibility, if you work best in the evening/night don’t force yourself into a 9-5pm routine – you won’t be as efficient.

Are you a multitasker? Or do you work better having one day to focus on one thing? I’m not one of those people who can switch between lab work and writing multiple times throughout the day. It takes me a while to get into the writing. I took three weeks out of the lab to write the report, to then solely focus on research afterwards. That meant overall I got a lot more work done in a given time frame. So understand you! Some supervisors will be happy with you taking time out. Some won’t like this at all – it’s all about generating that data in their eyes. But play to your strengths, if you work best taking time out to write than that’s overall a lot more productive and less stressful. Just have an honest conversation with your supervisor and come to some agreement.

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Where do you work best?

Write in the best place for you. I wrote at home so I didn’t have the office chat distractions but it can get a little lonely. My plan for writing my actual thesis is to do bits at home, bits at work and for those less brain-intensive tasks like making graphs I’ll be chilling out at the local coffee shop. Perhaps mix it up?!

Take home message #2: do what works best for you

 

3. Make a plan!

Again, sounds like common sense right? It’s surprising how easy it is not to do this when you are stressed about the large volume of work ahead. Making a plan is the number one thing on your report to do list. Set yourself a deadline to hand in your first draft, and work out your stepping stones in order to get to that final deadline. Set smaller daily goals to make the report more manageable. It will make the transfer thesis mountain easier to climb. First step: make a document with your chapter headings and subheadings.

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Take home message #3: realistic planning and small steps makes it a lot easier

 

4. Arrange regular meetings with supervisors

Regular meetings with your supervisory team are extremely important. They keep you accountable and regular deadlines/meetings forces you to get the work done! It also means if you are struggling or losing focus you have a regular time slot to talk about these struggles. They allow for discussion which will help with the write up. You and your supervisors may think about results in a different light, and talking through this can be very beneficial to how you discuss your results.

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Take home message #4: meetings mean you don’t go off track

5. Sit down and write!

You do just have to sit down and start writing. Something I find really useful is starting with bullet points in each section. I’ll show this to my supervisor so she can check the flow of logic before I spend a lot of time in forming the points into paragraphs. Once you’ve done this and have your foundations to a section, writing into prose is a doddle. Trust me, this makes it seem so much easier.

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Take home message #5: Bullet points first help you to start engaging your writing brain

6. TREATS!

Now that got your attention! This is a tip from my mentor. As someone who values a good work/life balance I absolutely loved it when she started talking to me about treats. It’s as if I’m a little child, but hey it works for me. Treat yourself when you reach your small daily/weekly goals. Go out for dinner, chill with friends, go and exercise, something fun for you. Also, if you achieve that daily goal earlier on in the day than planned, why not allow yourself to have fun – even if that’s just slobbing on the sofa watching the next couple episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. You have a plan of how to get to your deadline, so as long as you stick to it allow yourself treats on the days you get the work done quicker than you anticipated. Alternatively, if you’re in a good work zone you could ‘treat’ yourself with getting onto the next day’s goal!

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Take home message #5: Treats and self indulgence helps a lot!

 

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Urm, what’s the point?

So you’re writing a transfer thesis halfway through your PhD (or another type of report) but you have so much lab work to do and it feels like it’s just getting in the way. Is it a waste of time? No! Here’s why, and focus on the benefits of doing it:

  • Makes the final thesis/writing research papers that little bit easier.
  • An opportunity to really think about your data so far and what it means.
  • Allows you to assess your PhD – what are the strengths? Where are the holes? What else needs to be done?
  • The viva is a discussion about your work. Your examiners aren’t just there to ask hard questions, they can be of use and suggest potential research ideas to help guide you.

 

Viva time!

The report is handed in (yay!) and you are waiting for the viva day. It’s normal to feel nervous. I think people make it into a bigger deal than it actually is. Some say it’s when examiners “grill you” on your PhD topic and results. I think this is a bit extreme. Yes, some examiners can be unnecessarily harsh, but if done right, it should be more like a nice discussion and should be relatively relaxed. The examiners aren’t there to catch you out. They are there to discuss the data, make sure you understand what you are doing and ask you questions, but also a chance for them to learn something new. They’re scientists too, and although you’d ideally have examiners in your related field, you are the expert in your project. Naturally (as good scientists) they’ll want to learn from you. Remember this! After all, it’s not your final PhD viva, they should be there to encourage you to do well in your PhD and give you confidence, not make it hard for you and cause extra stress and worries about the final thing!

Top tip for the viva – prepare a three-minute summary of your thesis. This seems to be a popular request from the examiners!

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So there we are, my advice and tips on how to get through the transfer thesis process!

Don’t have to do a transfer thesis in your PhD?

I was surprised to find out that not all UK universities have a ‘transfer thesis’ and in fact other countries have a completely different PhD structure. So, if you’re reading this and you are from a different university/have a different system please comment below as I’d love to hear about your experience! And of course, if you have any other useful advice please share it below.

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PhD SOS: Top 10 tips for surviving a PhD

PhD SOS: Top 10 tips for surviving a PhD

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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.

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1. Be organised, get a diary

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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!

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2. Regular meetings

Calendar vector

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.

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3. A cute notebook

Notebook vetor

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?!

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4. Caffeine

Caffeine vector

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.

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5. Work/life balance

Work life balanc vector

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!

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6. Headphones

Headphones vector

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).

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7. Focus on small bits of progress

Small steps vector

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.

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8. Install a reference programme

Mendeley vector

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.

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9. A support network

Support network vector

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.

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10. Confidence – take ownership

Confidence vector

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!

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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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New year, new goals

happy-new-year.

New year, new goals, new you?

As we enter 2017 it’s the perfect time to reflect on the year that’s just passed. What amazing things did you achieve? What do you want to change for 2017?

Many of us make new year resolutions, yet come February they’re forgotten about and become a distant memory! Some resolutions you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear from friends or family members include wanting to be healthier, to become more organised and save more money… but why is it common that these resolutions are broken so quickly? The answer – they just aren’t focused enough. Not accomplishing new year resolutions can be disheartening and can make you feel negatively towards yourself, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

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My 2016…

In 2016 I decided to have a different approach to the typical new year resolutions, I made a list of goals of various things I wanted to accomplish throughout the year. Look at my beautiful goal board…!

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Tick, tick, tick!

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I can remember the first goal I ticked off was to finish my PhD transfer report (a halfway thesis) and have my viva (the 2 hours of questioning about the report). For anyone that knows me, they know about the tough few months I had in my PhD before I started to write this report. The day I handed in my transfer thesis was a major relief, it was such a big milestone to overcome. I went home, ticked my first goal off of my board and I had this amazing feeling of accomplishment. On 5th December 2016 I ticked off the FINAL goal left on that board – the 75kg back squat! It felt amazing to step back, look at all of my goals ticked off. From that point I saw the value of making specific goals and the positivity I gained from it was incredible. Having this set of goals for individual events allowed me to focus and achieve each one, I can’t recommend making a list of goals enough!

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My advice for making a list of 2017 goals…

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1. Include a mixture of career, life and hobby-related goals

This allows you to have a good balance between work and lifestyle. It means you won’t just focus on work (one thing a lot of PhD students or people in academia are guilty of!) and you won’t just focus on hobbies (an easy thing for people to do if they don’t like their job!). It’s great to progress in both aspects and helps you feel happier in the two.

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2. Choose a maximum of ten goals

I chose five last year and I feel like this was good enough but I could definitely add a couple more!

One or two goals might not be enough to gain that sense of achievement for the whole year. It might not be enough of a challenge!

Too many goals will become unachievable and may feel too overwhelming, causing more stress than happiness.

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3. Make the goals specific

Too vague and it makes it hard to focus and tick them off. Here are some examples:

  • If you want to lose weight have a set amount you want to lose in a certain time frame.
  • If you want to save money perhaps put a note in your calendar on pay day every month to put a set amount into a savings account.
  • If you are a PhD student like myself and don’t read enough journal papers (guilty!) perhaps have a goal of reading a set number of papers a week. But remember, reading papers is a timely process – even planning to read two a week might be progress and a step in the right direction!

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4. It’s you vs. you. Put the work in!

Keep yourself accountable. Think about the steps you are going to make to help achieve your goals.

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So what are my goals for 2017?

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New year, new goal board

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1. Become Dr. Jones!

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Finishing my PhD and becoming Dr. Lisa J is a massive one for me, but pretty much guaranteed, unless something goes horribly wrong! I finished in the lab a couple days before Christmas and I am about to start the massive task of writing the beast that is called the thesis. Final deadline to hand it in is the last day of September 2017. Role on ticking this goal off!!

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2. Get my first PhD publication

Writing my thesis is going to be a big project in itself, but as a researcher it’s important to get my research and hard work out in the public domain! I already know what my first publication will be on but it will be great experience writing my findings in the style of a scientific journal paper. Ideally I’ll get this paper published before my final PhD viva – if it’s been reviewed and accepted by the experts then it’s easier to defend the work! So that would be nice to tick off earlier on in the year!

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3. Do a muscle-up

This is a CrossFit-related goal and is probably the hardest movement to nail! For anyone that isn’t familiar with what one of these are, it’s a pull-up on gymnastic rings and transferring into a dip to fully lock the arms out at the top. Muscle-ups look super duper awesome and will help me on my way to becoming a CrossFit goddess!

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4. Survive The Fan Dance

So after a night-in with some of my CrossFit girls they persuaded me to sign up to an event called The Fan Dance. This is Special Forces style 24km weighted hike over both sides of Pen Y Fan, the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons. It’s happening this coming Sunday and I’m wondering what I’ve let myself in for! This is definitely a goal that will challenge my body and mind!

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From Avalanche Endurance Events

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5. Be able to handstand walk

You may think this is a weird goal? And yes, I do want to go upside down and walk on my hands! This is another CrossFit goal. Handstand walks are one of the gymnastic movements we train towards. This time last year I could only kick up into a handstand and come straight back down again. A couple of weeks ago I got my personal handstand hold record of 7.5 seconds (which feels like a really long time!!), so I am going to get that handstand walk by end of 2017! Plus, walking on your hands is a pretty cool and random skill to be able to do right?!

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6. Get yoga in my life

yogaOkay, so admittedly this goal isn’t that specific. With PhD work and CrossFit, I’ll have to figure out a reasonable number of times a week I can practice yoga. Even if it’s just once a week I’ll be extremely happy. Why have I decided to start yoga? I have some good friends who swear by it. It calms the body and mind (which will help with the stress and demand of a PhD) and enhances flexibility (helping me to be less prone to injury and become healthier). I do find it hard to just chill. I like to be busy all the time, so I believe yoga will be a good way for me to relax. I’m so excited to start this up!

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7. Travel post-PhD

I want to travel! And I want sunshine! I’ve not had a proper break in education in forever. I went straight to university to do my 3-year BSc undergraduate degree after A-levels, which lead straight into my masters of research, and then into my 4-year PhD. The PhD has been very demanding and I’m currently exploring various career options. The end of my PhD will be a great time to travel, even if it is just for a month, before I get stuck into a new job. It will give me that chance to unwind and regain focus before entering the real world of work!

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There are other things I’d like to achieve over the year. A big one is figuring out what I’ll be doing career-wise after my PhD! At the moment I’m researching into science communication careers, so I’m looking at ways in which I can get into it and enhance my CV. Since starting up this blog it looks like I’ll be getting involved in the publicity side of ‘Pint of Science’ which I am so excited about! Lets see what other exciting opportunities come my way!

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Over to you…

My goals have been made and I am so excited to tick them off one-by-one and see what else 2017 brings.

What are your 2017 goals? Leave a message, I’d love to hear all about them!

 

You’ve got this! Here’s to an amazing and fulfilling 2017

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