Surviving your PhD in 10 steps

PhDs are both rewarding and gut wrenching. Any PhD student who says they have never cried over their thesis, or felt down in the dumps about their progress, is a big fat liar. We all have bad days. Personally, when I start laughing uncontrollably over code, I know it is time to throw the towel in and go home and drink some homemade juice in front of Blackadder. Blending fruit can be surprisingly therapeutic.

If I’m honest, this is how I feel most days about my thesis:

calvin and hobs2

Notice the Calvin and Hobbs reference?

Here’s what I feel the 10 most important things are for surviving your PhD:

1. Set realistic goals

Setting realistic goals is important. Breaking objectives down into feasible steps is invaluable. Instead of telling yourself you will write a paper before the end of the month, tell yourself you will draw one graph and write one paragraph today for instance. I strongly believe that crossing items of a to do list can work miracles for your sanity.

2. Maximise your productive time

Everyone is different. Some people are most productive early in the morning while other  late at night. Figure out when you are most productive, and make that time sacred. That is your thesis time. Organise other activities such as meetings around that time. Also, if you are having an unproductive day, no point whipping a dead horse, take a break, have a coffee, work on something different or even go home and have a nap.

3. Write every day

Give yourself time to write every day. Even if you start of writing gobbledygook, if you keep at it for about 20 minutes, it’ll slowly start coming more naturally. Writing takes practice, and the more you write, the easier it becomes. It doesn’t matter if you are not writing for your thesis: diaries, emails and blogs all count and are all useful in their own ways.

4. Nag your supervisor for time

I hate this one, but it needs to be done. Most supervisors are busy and can’t always make time for you. It is for you to take that initiative and ask your supervisor for time and help. Nag them for meetings and feedback. Set up skype calls if you have to. Don’t wait to have results. You will always have something to talk about no matter where your analyses or fieldwork are at. Supervisors will always have helpful insights of some sort.

5. Embrace your despair

No one spends 100% of their PhD loving their thesis. It just doesn’t happen. So in those times of despair, embrace it. Eat chocolate. Use your hatred for your work to fuel you. “Take that thesis! You don’t like insignificant results? Well too bad, because I’m going to force-feed them to you for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with an extra serving for desert! Insignificant results are important too, you know!”

6. Perfection is your enemy

Finished is different from perfect. You can waste invaluable time trying to get something perfect. Learn to realise when you have done enough and move on to your next chapter/task. Often input from someone external can help with this.

7. Exercise

Exercise can help keep you sane. Doing a little bit every day gives you an endorphin high. Even walking to and from uni can help you to think about what you are going to do for the day and organise your thoughts. Personally I really got into Karate when I started my PhD: (i) it enabled me to release my frustrations by punching and kicking things, (ii) I couldn’t think about my thesis when concentrating on not getting punched.

8. Don’t forget you are still a student

PhDs are about learning. Never forget that. You can’t be expected to know everything straight away. You don’t necessarily need to use methods you already master for your chapters/papers. You can also choose what you are going to research based on a particular method that you wish to learn. Particularly if you know that mastering this method is more likely to get you employed after your PhD.

9. The grass is not greener on the other side

It is often tempting to compare yourself to other PhD students and to think that you are doing a really bad job. Remember that all projects are different. Maybe someone who started at the same time as you published before you. But their analyses were probably different. Maybe they spent less time in the field and maybe their simulations took less time top run.

10. Don’t be scared to ask for help

PhDs can be lonely sometimes, particularly if you are struggling with an analyses on your own. Don’t be scared about asking your supervisor for support. If you do however feel you are not getting the support you need from your supervisory team, find an additional supervisor or ask a Postdoc or fellow PhD student for help and offer them co-authorship on your paper. Most universities also provide support for PhD students as they have invested in you and do not want you to fail. They often provide mediation services for conflict resolution and psychologists. Browse your university website to see what is available to you

It’s all worth it

It’s all worth it in the end. Once you survive you can make people call you “The Doctor” and parade in front of your family with a sonic screwdriver. But seriously, you get to travel and meet a lot of passionate people while doing something stimulating and interesting. It’s not that bad really.


Image from here.


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