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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Avoid These 10 Mistakes During Your Ph.D.

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

For the last few years, I’ve been consistently giving you my best advice. Today, I will give you a list of what not to do during your PhD years. Without me blabbering away with too much of an introduction, here are the 10 mistakes you should avoid when doing your PhD:

1. Start research without reading
When you start your PhD, you may be very eager to start working right away. While you may need to start working in the lab very soon after starting because of project deadlines, you need to start reading at the beginning as well to get a better understanding of what lies behind your observations in the laboratory. Your literature review is the basis of how you will phrase and tackle your research question. Pay due attention to the foundation of your work before you start building your research castle.

2. Stop reading after finishing the literature review
Once you finished your literature review, you may feel like you are “done” with the reading part of your research. Spoiler alert: you’re never done reading. As a researchers, you need to keep up with the literature constantly. Set aside time on a weekly basis to read new papers, or to read classic/historical papers you missed when you did your literature review. Use this material to update your literature review until the final version of your dissertation is ready. And before your defense, delve into the literature again, so that you can show your committee members that your knowledge on your research topic is up-to-date and that you knwo their work very well too.

3. Avoid all “extra” work
You are not traveling to conferences and presenting your work because writing a conference paper is not a graduation requirement. You don’t volunteer for extra work for committees within your university or of professional organizations. You reject all invitations to review papers. While I’m not an advocate for overloading you with work, you should consider opportunities carefully. For example, writing a conference paper can be a good first step before writing a journal paper. Presenting at conferences and other events helps you grow as a speaker, and replying questions during the Q&A prepares you for your defense.

4. Isolate yourself as a researcher
You don’t talk about your research to the senior PhD students and post-docs. You don´t ask your supervisor for help when you feel stuck. You don´t listen to the input of the laboratory staff on your test setup. You are a complete solo player in your research. Unfortunately, research is a collaborative effort. Work in a team, and learn from those around you. Ask for help and advice – there’s no shame in asking for help.

5. Isolate yourself socially
You eat lunch behind your computer. Your friends haven’t seen you in months. At night, you watch Buzzfeed videos on your phone. Your mood levels are subarctic. Maybe you don´t even go to campus anymore but prefer to “work from home”. Sounds familiar? Break out of your rut and make sure you rekindle your friendships and work relationships. Even better: set goals for your relationships with others, and add events to your planner (I learned this from Laura Vanderkam’s 2018 book “Off the Clock” and now set goals for work, self, and relationships to balance these aspects of my life).

6. Procrastinate
OK, we all procrastinate. I love watching cat pictures on Twitter and reading random Wikipedia entries. But, when you can’t get any work done because you are procrastinating more than anything else, you need to take action. You need to have a conversation with yourself about why you are not getting to your work. Is the task ahead seemingly too complex? Split it up into smaller, actionable items, and make lists and a planning. Do you have difficulties staying concentrated? Remove distractions and try the Pomodoro technique. Do you have something in your personal life that throws you off balance? Deal with it first and then get back to work.

7. Work without documenting your work
You want to work fast and don’t want to get writing to slow you down – so you do all your calculations without documenting the references you used, the steps you followed, and the iterative changes your procedures went through. Big mistake. Document everything you do. If possible, ask for a computer with two screens: one screen for doing your calculations, and one screen in which you write down what you have been doing. Don’t read without taking notes. Add a “version management” tab to your spreadsheets to log changes to your calculation sheets.

8. Work without a planning
You don’t know where research will be leading you, so you don’t need a planning. Maybe you work based on what comes into your email inbox. When you work like this, it’s easy to lose track of your priorities. Make a list with your goals and priorities, and allocate your time accordingly. I’m a big advocate of setting milestones during the PhD, and planning at multiple levels (entire PhD trajectory, per year, per semester, per month, per week, and per day). I use a combination of lists in Todoist, planning and a weekly template in Google Calendar, and a Bullet Journal to write down my priorities and reflect on my progress.

9. Have the wrong motivation
Your goal in life is to become a professor so you need that PhD. Or, your goal in life is to make a lot of money, so you need the Dr. title. If you have the wrong motivation for doing your PhD, you will dread the journey. If you don’t like what you’re doing, then something is wrong. Try to find what motivates you to get to work every workday – will your research possibly have an impact on society? Whose lives will improve thanks to your work? How do you feel in the lab? If you really regret your decision, don’t try to drag yourself through the next three or four years, but see if you can change project, topic, university, or even quit altogether if you learn that research is not for you.

10. Forget about self-care
You need to get through that PhD, whatever it takes. Well – it may take your health (physical and/or mental), and then you won’t be able to finish maybe. So prioritize self-care, even when you feel you don’t deserve it. Schedule time to unwind and do what energizes you. Take proper care of yourself by getting enough sleep, movement, and healthy food.

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