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20 Tips for Surviving your PhD

PhD studies are the highest level of education, and the road can be frustrating and exhausting at times, but the final result (your dissertation) is at the same time a major achievement in life, and a very rewarding event.

Whenever you feel like you keep on working on the same problem, with no way out, remember that blocks and friction are simply part of the creative process that is research.

When you feel like your world is limited to your lab, your bed and the library – know that there is no shame in taking a break and refueling yourself.

In the 3,5 years of my PhD research (no coursework), I’ve spent about 40 to 80 hours a week on my research. Sometimes, I was in the lab from 8am to 4pm, and then making calculations for the funding organization from 4pm to 10pm. Major deadlines always tend to fall around the same time. Other times, I left the office at 5pm and spent the entire evening relaxing.

Some people say a PhD costs you a kidney and a lung, other people say it’s just like a 9-to-5 job. I say, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and you have the freedom to determine how much time you really want to pour into your work. It’s not a linear process, at all – and it’s different for every student.

With these precautions in mind, I’d like to share with you my 20 best tips for making it through the PhD, in a time-efficient way:

1. Don’t work too hard

It’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize – and in this context I’d like to remind you of your sole purpose of your PhD: finding a way to answer your research question, in a novel way, showing that you are an independent researcher.
Everybody has loose ends, but if they are only remotely related to your research question, cut them out and leave them for later (or put them up as an idea for a MSc thesis student).

2. Know when you need to do some extra effort

When major deadlines collide, go into bunker-mode. Don’t stay in that mode for too long, but know when you need to put in that extra effort to push things through. It’s just a temporary thing, never stay bunkered or hermiting for too long.

3. Take enough breaks during the days

Don’t skip your lunch break, for the love of the Flying Spaghettimonster. Browsing the internet does not count as a break. You know what I mean – get some fresh air, talk to a colleague or go and grab a coffee with a friend.

4. Make friends in your department

If you’re a foreigner, befriend a local to whom you can turn for advice on the non-written rules in the society you landed in. Make friends with your fellow PhD students, and have fun together. I contribute the “success” of my PhD by and large to being in a great research group, and working closely together with the bestest lab tech and awesomest daily supervisor in history.

5. Go to conferences

If you can find funding, get out of your institution and learn from the rest of the world. Conferences have been my eye-openers, my trial-stages and the place where I made friends within the research community on my topic.

6. Reach out to the industry

Especially true for a PhD in Engineering, which will always keep at least one finger at the pulse of the problems of the World Outside. Try to go to conferences that are attended by industry players, or attend workshops/meetings/… where practitioners of your field come together.

7. Don’t forget the bigger scope

When you get frustrated with a detail, remember the bigger scope, and if you’re a little on the idealistic side, remember what the Greater Good of your work is: are you making sure the roads/bridges are safe (my case), or protecting baby hearts, or improving water purification? Connect to that feeling of pride and importance on being able to contribute to the greater problems of society for a meager salary.

8. Work up a sweat

After sitting all day behind my computer screen, you need to get your body tired too to be able to get a good rest at night. Try to move your body for at least 15 – 20 minutes a day; and try to find time for 3 to 4 longer workouts per week.

9. Pick up a hobby

Get a hobby that absorbs your mind fully, so that you can concentrated on something completely different than your research. The options are plenty: musical instruments are a great way to clean your mind, but gardening, handiwork, cooking,… all work equally well. Just find something that touches a *dzing* within you.

10. Get your finances sorted out

Avoid financial stress during your studies. Get a good overview of your finances, know in how much debt you will be getting over your studies (if any), and always always have an emergency fund ready in case shit hits the fan. Don’t overspend. If need be, roam around in clothes from thrift stores and eat from a discount supermarket. Been there, done that, stayed out of debt.

11. Make time for your friends and family

There will be times when you bunker down and don’t call anybody. But make sure you find the time to catch up with your friends and family every now and then. They are what truly matters in the end.

12. Find a routine that works for you

Nobody ever told me to come to campus early, but I’ve always started some time between 8am and 8:20am at the latest. Having a routine of certain evening/social activities throughout the week, designated cleaning/laundry days and batch-cooking evenings, can greatly help you at getting into a routine that makes sure you get fulfilled in all your needs.

13. Lead your own research

Become the CEO of your own research-enterprise. Take leadership of your project, and come up with ideas. Don’t depend too much on your supervisors, make sure you know what to do when they are unavailable for a month or longer.

14. Present wherever you can

Practice presenting your work as often as you can, and for as many audiences as possible. Try giving a TEDx Talk, talk at an industry event and present at as many conferences as possible. Get your face out there, and practice practice practice.

15. Write, write and write some more

Write as often as you can, as much as you can, so that by the time you write your dissertation, you will have become a fluent academic writer. Writing is your single most important task, so make time for it. Practice makes perfect (or at least – experienced), so ask for ample feedback.

16. Get the right fuel

Say goodbye to grilled cheese sandwiches and instant tomato soup, and get yourself some decent food. I’m talking veggies here, as well as quality protein, some good grains and healthy fats (avocados ftw).

17. Read outside of the borders of your research topic

Read as widely around your topic as possible. Having broad peripheral knowledge has helped me in two ways: 1) by teaching me how to think out-of-the-box, and 2) by having a basic understanding of a broader field so that I can more easily follow conference presentations and have chitchat with other researchers.

18. Make time for deep work

Get a good slot of time to do your deep work, as this is the time when you get to push your project forwards. Dedicate an entire morning or afternoon to unraveling one tiny subquestion of your research question.

19. Teach and supervise students

Teaching is incredibly rewarding, and so is supervising thesis students. If you’re in a program that does not comprise coursework, it’s easy to get fully bunkered down into your small topic. Teaching helps you to regain a broader perspective of your field.

20. Remember why you started this PhD journey in the first place

I have my own reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD, and yours my be very different – but remind yourself from time to time why you started this in the first place. Remember the greater goals you have in mind, and know that it was your personal choice to start.

What is your best advice for surviving the PhD? What keeps you going when the going gets though?

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This Post Has 44 Comments
  1. First tip: abandon the \”survival\” lexicon that accompanies every article on PhD research on the internet. Even though we may have hard times, I think we have seen much worst jobs, so let's just ENJOY our freedom rather than trying to SURVIVE it.

  2. Stop hanging out on doctoral student sites, stop participating on listservers, avoid unnecessary social interaction with other people who have not completed programs, obsessively focus on completion.Life hands you more than enough distractions when you are trying to concentrate – why add to them?

  3. I could relate so much to your tips Eva. There is some sort of peace knowing there are so many out there who go through the same process.

  4. Some really good comments here. As well as your routine for #12 I'd also say, especially when discouraged, \”just show up\” is important. Over 3+ years progressing a little bit every day is important.I also really like \”Become the CEO of your own research-enterprise\” – especially a good way of thinking once you get into 3rd year of the PhD …

  5. I agree with so much that you've said here. I started my PhD having worked in corporate HR for over 17 years, and so I firmly believe in working hard during my 'office' hours, and also am very aware how this 'thing' can consume you. Therefore I ensure I dedicate time for myself, and others – since starting the PhD I've become a Girl Guide (Girl Scouts in the US) Leader! It's great – because I have to do stuff for the Guides and have to commit to turning up & not letting them down. Overall, you do need to remember \”it's ONLY a PhD\”!

  6. I am in my final 6 months, indeed I began writing the Thesis today – and everyone of your tips is spot on Eva. The best thing is I met and made some really good friends and have had an enjoyable experience.Alex

  7. Writing is not the single most important task… you need the results to present! You can be a great writer, but if your research sucks then no amount of writing can make up for it.

  8. I love how comprehensive is this  .. thank you so much for that. I am upgrading from masters to PhD in the next month and I am finding your tips helpful to start my exciting journey. Thanks Eva!

  9. oh yes: and talk to someone if you become to frustrated, don't just swallow the anger…it will come back worse sooner or later

  10. Thanks for your very interesting tips. But I am finding it very difficult, because my guide makes me involved in different projects (not related to my work). His knowledge level is very poor. However, demand of high impact papers are always bothering me. Considering his zero (or negative, saying demotivating words, non technical lectures some time goes upto 3 to 4 hours) help it is getting very difficult to finalize any topic also. He has no specific field, so it is going no where. I am feeling to leave it. Any way thanks for your good suggestion.

  11. Dear Anonmous,Guess what same situation! You are a brave person and I am sure you will surely find a way out of it, I will suggest you to try as much as you can and then just let the things take its own turn

  12. Optimistic…..I am on the verge of giving up after a long hiatus and getting back to it. I hope I can carry on….

  13. I am facing the same issue. Getting involved with various projects that are not related to my thesis. Worst of all, he has problem funding me. We will all brave through!

  14. Well, contrary to what others are saying, you should jump at the opportunity to work on your supervisor's projects because it will lead to publication. For all academics, especially us in the infancy our of career, I cannot over-emphasize this. If i knew what i know now I will gatecrash my supervisor's projects so bad he wouldn't be able to say 'no' consistently.

  15. Hi Eva. The tips are super helpful! I am now doc candidate with some conference presentations on my CV, but I am not able to get my conference work to publication stage. I really want to publish as a lead author, but I feel that I have no energy left. How do I recover? How do I become the CEO of my work and just produce and disseminate work?

  16. Hello Eva, Do you know of a blog that can help people who's English is their second language and want to pursue their PhD in the U.S. or Canada? Do you know any obvious differences between doing the PhD in Canada or the U.S.? Thanks alot for the informative blog!

  17. Hi there,Thanks for the kind words. I don't have much information about the PhD process in Canada, but I thought it is rather similar to the USA… perhaps maybe unless you go to Quebec and need to learn French?Best,Eva

  18. I'm 26 years old and my specialty is optical communication.Why did I start my Phd in US? because it was a way out of my country (Iran).Why am I frustrated?Because after publishing many journals (TVT and TCOMM), patents, even grants, I have realized that none of these matter. every thing is a show. I do not have any debt, but I have realized that I do not have any savings either. a dog has more monetary value than me.I have realized that I'm over-qualified for many many job positions, but I can not apply for them because I cannot obtain security clearance (I'm an international student)All of your skills and trainings, all of those papers, working 88 hours per week for 6 years, and 240 credit hours of course works with GPA of 3.97 mean nothing but shit. after some point if they like you they hire you.Why I do not do any thing about it?It's the only choice and hope that i have for a better future. I will continue this shit until I get what I want.

  19. Good luck – given the current political situation in the USA I can imagine it must be really hard for you to get ahead. Have you considered applying for a position in Europe?

  20. many thank for your kind response and feedback eva. recently I have started to apply for some faculty positions in here. my Plan B, will be Canada and then Europe.By the way thank you for your informative article. I enjoyed it.

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