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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Making it Mindful: Dr. Chrissy Jones

Making it Mindful: Dr. Chrissy Jones

Since starting my blog I’ve interacted with so many other inspiring scientists, and I want to share their amazing journeys in STEM with you guys. I’m therefore thrilled to introduce my new feature – Scientist Showcase!

For the very first feature we have the beautiful Chrissy behind the Making it Mindful blog. I absolutely love what she writes about, in fact she was one of my nominees for the Versatile Blogger Award, so naturally I’m super excited to introduce you to her!

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Chrissy is a lecturer in Pharmacy Practice and research associate at The University of Manchester. She studied Psychology for her undergrad and masters degree, and during this time was introduced to the world of pharmacy through training to be a pharmacy dispenser. This all lead to her PhD combining both Psychology and Pharmacy. She’s a massive lover of Britney Spears and speaks fluent Welsh, how cool is that?!

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Tell us a little more about your research

My research explores how and why procedures are bypassed or deviated from in community pharmacy. In my PhD I conducted 13 focus groups to understand what the prevailing safety culture looks like in pharmacies. I then interviewed pharmacy frontline staff to ask them about specific instances of where they had bypassed or deviated from procedures and their reasons for doing so. Finally, I created a questionnaire based on a novel psychological theory to further understand the behavioural drivers for bypassing or deviating from procedures on a larger scale. In 2016 I had a paper published which was a huge milestone for me.

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Day in the life of Chrissy

So why a blog on mindfulness?

I’m a psychologist by background, I was fascinated by how the human mind works. However, the reason I got into mindfulness was because I was suffering from health anxiety a few years ago, following an asthma diagnosis. The constant anxious thoughts of “what if I have an asthma attack?” were completely exhausting. In an effort to become less anxious I looked into meditation and was astounded by it! I had a few seconds of complete silence in my mind. It was such a relief after the constant chatter of anxious thoughts. Since then I’ve tried to bring mindfulness into my daily life as it helps me to stay present rather than worrying about a future event that might never happen. I therefore love writing about practical ways to use mindfulness. I also wrote a few posts about what it felt like to be at certain stages of my PhD. PhDs can be isolating, so to hear people say that they felt the same way too was really comforting.

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How can we be more mindful?

When you find your mind wandering come back to your senses. What can you hear right now? What can you see? This helps to ground us in the present and to experience life as it is happening. Often our daily tasks like having a shower and driving to work can be done on autopilot. Commit to noticing what it feels like to do these tasks. Appreciate the moment and find joy in the mundane everyday tasks. This small change can lead to a big difference, and help to stop the feeling that life is passing you by.

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Maintaining a work-life balance is vital. How do you balance the two?

I love spending time with my family and friends, and I always make sure that I have something to look forward to in my diary. It helps me to schedule my time and motivates me to complete tasks so that I can really enjoy my down time without worrying about work.

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Graduating from her PhD at The University of Manchester

I see you’re passionate about inspiring young girls?

My mum always told me that I could do anything that I put my mind to, and I am passionate about inspiring girls to live the life that they want rather than the life that they think they should have just because they’re a girl. In an effort to instil confidence in young people I have visited schools and presented to young women about believing in their potential. I have also been interviewed for Women in Science where I talk about how I felt during my career so far – the fears, the doubts, and the lows. With social media, things can look incredibly rosy from the outside. It’s important to show that we are all human and we all struggle sometimes.

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A big part of my blog is to dish out PhD SOS tips. What are your dos and don’ts?!

Don’t let feeling like a fraud stop you. I would bet that everyone doing a PhD feels like an imposter at some point (check out Hugh Kearns’ work on imposter syndrome). It’s something many PhD students experience, so talk about it and look for all of the evidence that exists to show that you are worthy of being exactly where you are.

Do a PhD in a topic that you are genuinely passionate about. The years spent studying for my PhD were three of my favourite years of my life so far! I have no doubt that this was because I believed in my project, I could see the potential that the project had for making a positive difference in practice, that was what motivated me during the hard times.

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Thank you so much to Chrissy for being my first feature and taking the time to be interviewed! Please check out her amazing blog at Making it Mindful. She also shares mindful and inspiring quotes and posts on her @makingitmindful Instagram and Twitter accounts, so be sure to give her a follow!

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Every month I’ll be showcasing another scientist so stay tuned to learn about more incredible people!

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Science Diaries: The inbetweeny stage

Science Diaries: The inbetweeny stage

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

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

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So where am I at with my PhD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment below!

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Restoring the work-life balance

Restoring the work-life balance

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

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

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

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

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Top tips

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

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Focus and get the work done

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

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Manage expectations

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

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Prioritisation

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

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Hobbies and socialising

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

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Don’t just live for the weekend

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

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Holidays

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

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The unexpected hold-ups

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

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

 

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

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Women in Science: #wearestemsquad

Women in Science: #wearestemsquad

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

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

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

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

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The STEM Squad

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

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

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Day 1: “Me”

1. Me

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

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Day 2: “History”

2. History

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

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

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

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Day 3: “Field”

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

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Day 4: “Inspiration”

4. Inspiration

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

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Day 5: “Reading”

5. Reading

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

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Day 6: “Workspace”

6. Workspace

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

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Day 7: “Equipment”

7. Equipment

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

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Day 8: “Routine”

8. Routine

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

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Day 9: “Home”

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

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Day 10: “Details”

10. Details

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

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Day 11: “Unwind”

11. Unwind

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

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Day 12: “Creativity”

12. Creativity

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

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Day 13: “Goals”

13. Goals

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

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Day 14: “Materials”

14. Materials

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

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Day 15: “Methods”

15. Methods

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

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Day 16: “Memory”

16 Memory

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

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Day 17: “Food”

17. Food

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

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Day 18: “Colour”

18. Colour

It’s all about having a colourful fitness wardrobe!

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Day 19: “Break”

19. Break

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

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Day 20: “Now”

20. Now

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

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Day 21: “Writing”

21. Writing

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

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Day 22: “Organisation”

22. Organisation

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

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Day 23: “Fact”

23. Fact

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

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Day 24: “Fiction”

24. Fiction

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

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Day 25: “Fun”

25. Fun

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

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Day 26: “Numbers”

26. Numbers

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

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Day 27: “Communication”

27. Communication

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

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Day 28: “Diversity”

28. Diversity

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

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Day 29: “Love”

29. Love

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

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Day 30: “Reflect”

30. Reflect

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

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Day 31: “March on”

31. March on

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

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

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

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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

Diary

This is a must-have item! So I’ve tried organising myself with online diaries, they’re great, they sync to all your devices and you know what you’re doing when. But it wasn’t until my third year that I discovered the power of going back a few technological steps and using a paper diary.  So in your first year you’ll maybe have a good chunk of time to read and do some experiments, but by second year the more pieces of lab work you have to juggle due to more studies you’re a part of, and as time goes on the more intense the work juggling gets! At the start of the week, I get my diary and write what I’m going to do each day. I then tick each item off as I go (FYI learning what a realistic amount of work to set yourself each day comes with time). This keeps me on track and also makes me feel great and productive! It also means you can plan PhD work and social commitments around each other. Super important!

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2. Regular meetings

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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