PhD self-care tips

PhD self-care tips

Working in the world of academia as a PhD student can be very demanding. We don’t get awarded the title of Dr for simply generating some good data or coming up with an awesome idea, we work hard to earn that PhD. Hard work comes with stresses and sometimes a few road bumps along the way.

One thing a lot of us can forget is that all important self-care. A PhD is like an endurance event, it’s a long and rewarding journey, but we need to take care of ourselves to get to the finish line.

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So how can we look after ourselves? Here are my top 10 PhD self-care tips:

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Stop comparing yourself to others

You may start your PhD the same time as other students but everyone’s PhD is different. Comparing yourself to others on occasion can be a healthy kick up the backside if you’re slacking. But trust me, for the most part it’s unhealthy and causes unnecessary stress and unhappiness. Focus on you and your PhD.

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Need help? Ask!

Whether you need help with a protocol or you’re having a few struggles with mental wellbeing, seek help. We all need help at times no matter how big or small the problem is, and there is a wealth of support out there for you. Know the right people to ask for help in the lab, find out what support services your university provides, and read blogs to help with issues related to the PhD life.

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Don’t just live for the weekend

Looking after yourself is not just for the weekends. Working 12-hour days during the week with those fun things left to the weekend is going to lead to burnout. Be honest with yourself, how productive are you after the normal 8/9 hour working day? Probably not very. So take time for you in the evenings, whether that’s just relaxing, going to the gym or seeing friends. Living for the weekend can lead to you associating the week with negative thoughts, that’s not exactly a great way to live.

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Emails. You don’t have to be attached 24/7.

Does your phone notify you as soon as you get a work email? If yes, I really suggest turning them off. Having them on means you never have a true break from work and in some situations this can lead to anxiety. Also, try not to check emails fist thing. Checking emails as soon as you get to work can lead you off track from your original plan for that day. Try opening them up a couple hours into work so you start your day off well. Are they really so important that they can’t wait a few hours?

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Sleep well, exercise regularly and eat right.

Being mindful of the foundations to leading a healthy life (mentally and physically) is so important. Getting those 7-9 hours sleep improves brain function. Regular exercise keeps you fit, allows you to focus on something non-work related and is a great stress reliever. Eating a balanced diet and not relying on sugar to keep you awake whilst working gives your brain and body the right fuel to function well. Being and feeling healthy helps to keep a positive mindset.

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Be organised

The deeper into the PhD journey you get, the more studies you’re juggling and the more items you have on that to-do list. Being organised is key to keeping yourself on track, focussed and motivated. These all lead to reductions in stress levels. Set short terms goals. I advise making daily goals at the start of the week or the day before and tick them off as you go along. Small steps make big progress.

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Play to your strengths

PhDs come with a degree of flexibility in how you work. If you are most productive in the morning, then start and end your working day earlier. Maximise that time you work well. If you aren’t a good multitasker then set aside blocks of time in your week to do your research, reading and the other odd jobs. There’s no point trying to tackle everything in one day if you know your brain doesn’t function like that!

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It’s ok to say no

You can’t take on everything your supervisor and others want you to. Saying yes to everything will lead to burnout. Be aware of the work you can take on without compromising your work/life balance. Developing this awareness does take time but it allows you to then manage the expectations you have of yourself, and enables you to manage your supervisor’s expectations of you.  

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Celebrate successes

We work hard so reward yourself when you’ve reached a goal. Allowing yourself treats will help you to stay motivated. For the smaller goals treat yourself to something little like your favourite dinner, and for the bigger milestones reward yourself something super fun like a trip to the pub/cocktail bar or a day trip to the beach.

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Time off

Remember we are entitled to time off, everyone needs a break. Taking time off helps us to relax, unwind and gives that overworked brain some nice relax time. It helps us to come back to work energised and proactive. If a certain phase of laboratory work means it’s hard to take a whole week off, make sure you’re planning in some long weekends.

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Are you mindful of putting self-care into practice? Any other tips you can enlighten us all with? As always, I love to hear from you! Just comment below.

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[ I originally wrote this blog post as a guest contributor for Let’s Talk Academia. Check the website out here! It’s full of brilliant advice and experiences about life as a postgraduate student and working in academia. ]

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PhDs, academia and mental health

PhDs, academia and mental health

It’s October 10th, and it’s World Mental Health Day.

It therefore seemed like a good time to talk about PhDs, the world of academia and mental health. It’s a topic that is commonly overlooked, yet so important to have awareness of.

Embarking on a PhD is exciting, they come with amazing opportunities and you’ll be an expert in your research field by the end of it. You’re the creator of knowledge and have the ability to share it with the world. How awesome is that? A PhD can take 3-7 years depending where you are in the world. Yes, it’s a long journey. Kind of like an endurance event – a lot of people go through the motions, you get the highs and you get the lows.

Everyone’s PhD journey is different, there are many factors which dictate how easy/hard the ride will be. For some it can be a very isolating experience and research shows a high proportion of students struggle with mental health, from anxiety to clinical depression.

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Self Reflected in Violets - Greg A Dunn Design
Self Reflected in Violets – Greg A Dunn Design

We don’t often like to talk about our struggles in life. We don’t want to appear weak to others. We want people to see the good aspects of our lives. Sometimes we may struggle mentally but we don’t want to even admit that to ourselves because the realisation is a scary one. It’s a taboo subject for sure.

There’s a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in the world of academia. This acceptance needs to be broken down. Why should people suffer in their job? Since when was that ok? Of course a PhD is difficult, it’s the highest qualification a person can get, and we don’t expect an easy ride but the common view “A PhD is supposed to be hard” is not ok. There’s a difference between a journey being challenging and a journey where struggling mentally is accepted as that’s just the norm.

Over the last few years, people have started to speak out more, which is fantastic. Sharing experiences can help others in the same position a great deal as it helps them to relate to another person.

 

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What research says:

A study in Belgium, published earlier this year in the journal Research Policy, investigated the prevalence of mental health problems in 3,659 PhD students. Here’s what they found:

  • 51% experience psychological distress
  • 32% experience common psychiatric disorders.
  • The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in other highly educated populations.

The main causes include: work-family conflict, work overload, unrealistic demands, unsupportive supervisors, interpersonal problems at work and sleep deprivation as a result of worrying about work.

A report in the USA also revealed that between 42% and 48% of University of California science and engineering PhD students are depressed.

Both studies add to the literature surrounding academia and mental health, and emphasises the need to put policies in place to support the issue.

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“Universities should adopt mental health as a strategic priority, implementing a whole university approach, with students and staff involved at all stages of the journey.” – Universities UK

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So what can you do for you?

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Self-care – Remember your mental and physical wellbeing is a priority, look after you! Fellow bloggers (dr.ofwhat? and Heidi R Gardner) have written blog posts about self-care so go and check those out!

Have a nose at my blog posts – I share advice on various aspects linked to the PhD life in my PhD SOS feature, from how to get out of the PhD slump, to easy ways to add exercise into your busy schedule, to getting your focus and motivation back – check them out!

Talk about your feelings – Whether that’s to family/friends/partner or a mentor. A mentor can be hugely useful. Seek out what support services your University provides. Talking about your struggles may help you understand your feelings a bit more, and that self-awareness might help you to push for change.

Be proactive in creating change – Talk to relevant charities, work with your university. Help to increase awareness of the issue and help to break these acceptances down. Perhaps you could promote wellbeing and mindfulness sessions within your university?

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Please remember:

  • You are not alone, there’s a wealth of support out there.
  • You can have a social life as well as get a PhD.
  • It is not ok to work yourself to the point of illness.
  • It is not ok for academics to encourage this behaviour.
  • Asking for help is not a weakness, seek help and try to put advice into practice.

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Healthy foundations: Making time to exercise

Healthy foundations: Making time to exercise

Regular exercise and staying fit is so important to living a healthy life, but how often do you exercise? Since starting my blog and sharing my science journey through Instagram, it’s made me aware of how many people rarely get that heart rate up – and yes grad school students, I’m looking at you!

Too much to do, too little time right? I’m going to be that devil on your shoulder and say, sorry, you can always find time! I know people don’t like to hear that, but bare with me…

In this blog post we’ll explore the positive effects of exercise and I’ll be dishing out some tips to help you get more fitness into your busy schedule.

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The wonders of exercise…

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Improves brain function

Studies have found that exercise helps to improve learning and memory. Physical activity leads to an increase in the expression of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in areas of the brain including the hippocampus (brain centre for memory). It is known to support the growth of new neurones, neural survival and synaptic plasticity. Exercise also stimulates other growth factors which promote the growth of brain cells and slows down age-related decline. If you want to nerd-out, read more about exercise and the brain in this review article.

Fun fact: Different exercises have different mental gains!

Ulitmate brain workout
Image: New Scientist

 

Positive mindset

Exercise can alleviate stress by stimulating the release of that feel-good molecule serotonin and other endorphins. They essentially act as natural painkillers which in turn improve our mood and mental health. Exercise also helps us to sleep better, consequently lowering those stress levels.

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Movement/mobility

Daily desk job workers – how does your body feel when you’re sat down most of the working day? After a while, probably not fantastic. Having good mobility is required to perform everyday activities. Developing bad postural habits and limiting your joint mobility is not going to do you any favours! Staying active and regular stretching will really help to prevent mobility issues in the future.

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Lowers disease risk

Exercise is great for our general health! It improves our muscular, cardiorespiratory, and bone health. It lowers the risk of developing complications such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, heart attacks, obesity and type-II diabetes. Weight training strengthens our muscles and helps to maintain our muscle mass. This is important as it slows down the rate of decline in muscle mass and strength that we experience as we get older (sarcopenia) leading to falls and fractures.

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My top tips to get fitness into your routine:

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Schedule in exercise time!

Just like you plan your work and social plans, schedule in the time to exercise as well. Planning when you’re going to go for a run or lift those weights in the gym will help you to focus on work beforehand and create more of a balance.

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Start small, build it up.

If you’re new to this whole exercise thing, then don’t go all out to start with! We want it to be a shift in mindset – a new lifestyle choice rather than a phase. Maybe just start off by exercising two/three days a week and gradually build it up.

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Ditch the car, cycle.

Cycling is a great way to get from A to B. You don’t get stuck in the traffic, you’ve exercised before the day has really begun, and you’re helping the environment. Triple win.

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Get some extra steps.

Take the longer route to work. Cut the time you spend in the coffee room for lunch and finish it with a 15-minute walk. If walking isn’t something you usually enjoy, try combining it with listening to a podcast or audiobook you like. Make it fun!

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Find fitness you enjoy!

Hate running but love exercise classes? Then choose the classes! Exercise should be enjoyable. It’s your “me” time so make the most of it and don’t make this part of your day harder for yourself.

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Make it part of your social time

Join a sociable form of exercise, like crossfit or a team sport. Alternatively, get a friend to go with you on that run/walk/fitness class. Exercise can be a social event too! Plus, it keeps you accountable to someone else.

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Create fitness goals

Like I said, we want exercise to become a habit and not a temporary love affair. It’s good to have focusses on other things than work. Whether it’s signing up for a 5k run, climbing up a mountain, getting that 100kg deadlift, set a couple of goals and work towards them. It will keep that motivation to stay fit.

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Are you taking enough time out of your week to stay active? How do you like to stay fit and healthy? As always, please comment below as I love to hear from you…

To read the first in my “Healthy foundations” mini-series all about sleep, click here.

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The PhD slump

The PhD slump

Everyone’s PhD is different and we all go through highs and lows. What I call ‘the PhD slump’ is that period many of us experience where we severely struggle with motivation, focus, belief in ourselves and passion for what we’re doing. Being in this negative phase is tough, and something numerous people I know (as well as myself) have been through.

I’d say it’s most common when students are halfway into their PhD. They start to question “will I have enough data to get this PhD?” and “will I be able to get it all done in the remaining time?”. An unsupportive supervisory team also makes it harder and some may experience the PhD slump due to burnout.

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PhD Comics

I share my experiences and advice on my Instagram account where I strive to give an honest and real feel about the PhD journey. Recently numerous people have reached out to me through social media and in person asking for help with their struggles, so what better time to share some tips…

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My 10 top tips:


1. Acceptance

Accepting you are going through a tough phase weirdly helps to relax into it. It will help you to gain some perspective on your situation. Having this self-awareness enables you to help yourself and find ways to work your way out of it.

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2. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness

Friends and family are wonderful, but also seek out support from your university. What support systems do they have in place? Is there a mentoring scheme where you can chat to another academic in confidence? Having an outside perspective who understands the academic system can be really useful. If you can speak to your supervisor about your troubles, then great! Having an open and honest conversation can take a big weight off your shoulders.

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3. Focus on each day at a time

Set daily goals. Tick them off one-by-one. This will help you be productive and in turn become more motivated. It’s all about the positive feedback loop! It may take time, and it might be tough, but stick at it.

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4. Do little things you love to stay positive

Balance out those daily tasks with rewards. It makes the working day that little bit easier. Self-care is especially important during this time, so make sure you treat yourself whether that’s with a glass of bubbles, watching your favourite movie or chilling with friends.

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5. Exercise, sleep and eat well

Mental and physical health is so important. Be mindful of the fundamentals in leading a healthy life. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating the right food helps us to be more positive and productive.

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6. Manage those expectations of yourself

So you’re finding things tough right now? Don’t expect yourself to be able to work like crazy! Don’t even put that pressure on yourself. Understand you, what you feel like each day, what you can realistically get done, and go back to point #3, plan each day to as you feel.

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7. Don’t panic, think logically

Too much work, not enough time? Don’t panic, it’s not constructive! Make a list of your top priorities, your secondary priorities, and the less important ones. Plan when you’ll get the top priorities done and fit the others around them if realistically possible. Remember, a thesis is barely ever a finished story.

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8. Stay accountable

When you’re in a rubbish phase, self-motivation is a lot harder. Let a friend know your work goal that day or week so you are accountable to someone. I recommend setting a weekly meeting with your supervisor(s) so you can discuss your plan and you don’t go off track.

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9. Time out

We all need time off, especially if you are feeling burnt out. Take a break to go on holiday or even a long weekend. Like I said, it’s all about the self-care. It will help you to recuperate, get some energy back and give you that motivation to push out of this PhD slump.

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10. Keep going!

I know this isn’t what people like to hear, but put all of these points into practice and really try to stick at them. Little steps each day make big progress and will really help you to feel much more positive about your PhD and your day-to-day life!

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Exploring Iceland after submitting my upgrade thesis

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Are you in this slump right now? Have you been in it and climbed back out? What tips do you have to go from being negative about your PhD to positive? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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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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