PhD hacks

Doing a PhD is bloody hard. The academic challenge is immense, but so is the personal one. 

2019 survey by Nature showed that more than a third of PhD students seek help for anxiety or depression, but the incidence of poor mental health is likely close to double this number. Poor mental health is difficult and it impacts research productivity and our engagement as students.

Now two and a half years into my PhD, I feel I have finally hit on a combination of ingredients that allow me to maintain high productivity, while mostly staying sane. I want to share them. 

But to get the best set of advice together, I have teamed up this month with a fellow PhD student Lauren Bezzina, who has spent four years getting the balance right. Below are 8 tips and tricks we have curated together to help other PhD students operate at the top of their game. 

1. Keep detailed to-do lists

Hannah writes detailed to-do lists roughly once a fortnight, separating tasks into categories. She uses seven (yes, seven)—research, fieldwork, administration, teaching, professional development, volunteering and science communication, and life—but the categories you need will depend on how you divide your time.

This detailed approach to lists might seem extreme, but it greatly helps to organise ones thinking and to identify which tasks need to take priority. 

Throughout the course of each fortnight, tick things off once completed, and add new tasks. When the list (or your brain) becomes a mess, start a new one. 

We recommend writing these lists in your diary. Alternatively, record the date on your list, whether you use digital lists or a notebook. Knowing the date that you wrote each list helps to track your progression and to develop a sense of how quickly you complete different tasks. 

From Hannah’s diary

2. Alternate between projects

Hannah swears by this as her golden ticket to productivity. While it might be tempting to work at a project one day at a time (or a week or a month at a time), sticking at one thing is an easy way to accumulate fatigue. 

Instead, it can be extremely constructive to alternate between projects.

Start Monday with project one, work until lunch, then shift to a different project in the afternoon. A key to this approach is that the problems you encounter in the afternoon with project two will simmer in the back of your brain overnight, so start Tuesday morning with the same project as yesterday afternoon. At lunch, shift back to project one (or onto another project), and so on.

Although it’s often hard to put down the morning’s work, to change gears for the afternoon, I have found that doing so keeps me feeling excited about both projects, helps maintain stamina, leads to more productive hours in each day, and ultimately makes for faster research progress.

3. Write it all down

Keep a record of every decision you make, and any major thinking you do.

Yes, writing can be a chore, but this kind of writing doesn’t have to be eloquent and beautiful, it just needs to serve as a record. Make voice recordings or draw diagrams if this works better for you. A logbook or diary are also good tools. 

Recording things in detail can feel tedious while your research is in full swing, but documentation pays dividends when it comes time for writing your thesis and research articles. Another plus… when you need to go back through old work to correct errors, change things or just remember what you’ve done (yes, you will need to do this), a record of your thinking and decisions will shave days—even weeks—off your workload. 

4. Talk it through

Also know as…drum roll please...the rubber duck test!

During PhD’s we spend a lot of time feeling stuck and very, very confused. In order to get unstuck, we often reach out to colleagues and find the lightbulbs magically switch on (often in embarrassingly obvious ways)!

These lightbulb moments often happen when we write an email to ask for help, or when we set up and prepare for meetings with a supervisor or colleague.

This exercise works because externalising our thinking forces us to put ideas in order, and to be able to link and explain things for the other person. In doing so, we make those links for ourselves. And often, there’s no need to follow through with sending the email or setting a meeting time (hence the ‘rubber duck test’… our audience needs to be as responsive as a rubber duck for this to work). 

So we can hack this process! The first step is to minimise the time you spend brooding—learn to recognise when you’re stuck. Then write that email, get out a whiteboard, or mock up some diagrams you could use to describe your issue to a colleague or supervisor. When you’ve worked through your explanation of the problem, stand back and let the cogs turn.

And remember, if you do have a little breakthrough, make sure you follow Tip 3 and Write It Down!

The rubber duck test: if you try to describe your problem, will the answer just click into place?

5. Sleep the right amount

Sleeping the right amount means different things to different people, and the amount of sleep you need to balance productivity and feeling well in yourself is likely to fluctuate throughout your PhD. 

Expect to need more sleep, especially during periods when you feel extra pressure or stress, or when you’re learning something new and challenging. Very importantly, don’t beat yourself up over this. Sleeping more doesn’t make you lazy! It reflects the extra load on your brain thanks to intensive thinking and creativity. 

On this flip side, be cautious of sleep as an avoidant behaviour… If you find yourself sleeping more than usual but feeling less rested or ready for the day, this could be a hint that something else is out of balance. Lauren encountered this during the slog of thesis-writing and found that more breaks and (waking) rest were needed during her day to pull things back to balance. 

6. Talk to other PhD students

Despite probably being surrounded by other PhD students, on the whole doing a PhD is not a common experience. It can often feel isolating (even a little maddening) when friends and loved ones don’t quite understand what you’re going through. In addition, every PhD is unique, and your progression through a PhD is kind of amorphous… there aren’t a lot of milestones and assessments that provide feedback on how you’re travelling. 

Other PhD students are the best resource for normalising your student experience and gauging your progression.

One very important caveat: PhD projects differ a lot. The most useful gauge is to talk with and listen to students with similar projects. 

Your research group or department is a good place to start looking for these PhD comrades, but different types of PhDs follow very different paths in terms of their workflow and challenges. A PhD focused on instrumentation will be very different from one centred on computer modelling… or fieldwork… or building an artistic portfolio. Be conscious of this. You might find that students in a similar type of PhD have more relatable experiences than students in the same department. 

Find your PhD community

So… look for community. Whether found on Twitter, in your research school, through online blogs, or in university postgraduate societies, camaraderie will help you. 

7. Know the stages

Look for information about the timeline of PhD experience. Seek out blogs, later stage PhD students, early career academic mentors, podcasts—whatever works for you—to get a better understanding of what emotional stages to expect throughout the arc of your PhD. 

For example, an academic once asked Hannah which stage of her PhD she was in… the honeymoon period, disillusionment, working confidence, or spite. Hearing this take helped to flag what might be ahead.

On another front, one friend who submitted his PhD recently and has been ahead of us on the PhD journey for some time, has often helped us to recognise the progression of our feelings towards work. When one of us collapsed into tears of frustration he knowingly said, ‘Ahh yes… the foibles of the middle stages of a PhD. When it feels like your to-do list is only getting longer, and your timeline starts to look impossible’. These types of recognitions (and cups of tea) can help relieve a lot.

Of course, knowing what to expect doesn’t mean the course is set. You may encounter different challenges or unexpected feelings along the way, all of which can be confounded by other things in life. Nonetheless, knowing that your feelings and your process are normal is almost always enough to help. 

8. Let loose and have fun

Ousting responsible behaviour from time to time is an incredible way of relieving stress and restoring our sense of wellbeing. 

Be silly, have a big night with friends, go dancing, perform in a theatre show. Whatever you need to let energy course through you. 

Importantly, we are talking about activities that add quality, but cannot be used as a measure of success. We make this point distinct from finding yourself another hobby (we see you). Less emphasis on doing. Strong emphasis on ‘letting loose’. 

Roller disco… I mean…. it has everything.

***

Postscript.

Doing a PhD can be as much about research as about learning to manage ourselves. This is a list of some key things that work for us, but you are likely to stumble on and invent others too! Most of all, be kind to yourself and be conscious of when your balance of learning, productivity and fun are working, or when they are not. And, of course, don’t be afraid to change up your approach. 

Many thanks to Lauren for contributing this month!

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