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?