Having completed a good ¾ of my PhD remotely, I like to think that I’ve learnt a thing or two about motivation, reflection, and time-management. Here are a few things I’ve realised over the last 18 months that I am going to try and keep reminding myself of as I navigate the next year. Even if I don’t follow my own advice, there’s always hope that it’ll help another student.
1. Never start from a blank page
Whether it’s for an essay, an analysis plan, or a scientific paper, sitting down in front of a blank document is daunting. Something that has worked for me is to begin filling the document a day or two before I want to really get going on the writing. Add a title, or a few provisional options. Add all the headings and subheadings you may want to include. Copy in a few bullet points of the key pieces of information you want to cover. Then, in a few days’ time when you sit down with your hoard of snacks for that “big writing session”, you have a bit of structure on the page to guide you and can get stuck in straight away.
2. Teams is academic Instagram (and you are being catfished)
The versions of ourselves that we present in meetings are always the best, most put together versions. Having remote meetings on Teams has just exacerbated this. What you see of someone from the shoulders up for a few hours each week is rarely an accurate reflection of how they are actually functioning. Similar to a duck appearing to be swimming calmly on the surface of the water but paddling frantically below. Most other PhD students that I have spoken to remark on how everyone is coping better than them, working harder than them, producing more than them. But this only seems true because that’s all we show each other. The reality is that we are all giving ourselves a quick pep talk in the two minutes before our team meeting starts every week and summoning all of our strength to present our happiest and most high-functioning selves. We look like we’re on top of things because yesterday we didn’t leave our desk until we’d worked through the whole of our to-do list. The analysis we’re presenting seems so well thought out and ground-breaking because we’ve been stressing about every tiny part of it for the last three months. And as soon as the meeting is over? We’re going to be back in our dressing gowns crying into our third cup of coffee about the colour scheme of our WCPG poster.
“Most other PhD students that I have spoken to remark on how everyone is coping better than them, working harder than them, producing more than them.”
3. The PhD workload is dynamic
During every PhD, there are times when we will be working flat out, all hours of the day, to meet deadlines. What I’ve learnt is to use the times when things are quieter to balance out those manic periods. If you find yourself with a day or two where you’re on top of your to-do list, make the most of working at a slower pace. Do not make things harder for yourself by panicking about why you’re not insanely busy, feeling guilty that you could be working harder or inventing tasks that will end up being a waste of your time. Take those days as opportunities to dedicate a few hours to reading interesting papers that have been pushed to the bottom of the pile, or catching up on academic admin, like updating your CV, researching post-doc options or getting your thesis notes organised. Or even ending your day early and going for a walk. Being productive doesn’t always mean churning out papers, and those “slower” days go a long way towards helping you feel more prepared to handle the busier times.
“Use the times when things are quieter to balance out those manic periods.”
4. Start things early
Everything is more enjoyable when it’s not a high-stress task. Try keeping a note of ‘further-in-the-future’ tasks somewhere. These could bethings like conference posters, presentations or even writing up a paper. When you get an awkward short gap between meetings, or you’re waiting for feedback on something before you can resume working on it, go to that list of future tasks and make a start on something. You might not get very far, but you’ll thank yourself for any progress when you eventually come back to it two days before the deadline. Plus, it’s a nice change of pace to occasionally work on something that doesn’t have the pressure of an imminent deadline looming over it.
5. Every PhD is different
The paradox of being a research student: everyone’s PhD is better than yours. In reality, it’s almost impossible to compare PhDs and you definitely shouldn’t evaluate the strength of yours based on what others have done (or what you perceive others to have done). Some students collect their own data, some use several different methods, some take on more active roles in other aspects of research life. All these things mean that every single student is balancing their workload differently and will produce a different output. Even other students in the same lab, using the same methods, will have faced a completely different set of challenges because their research questions are different. If they weren’t, your PhD wouldn’t be a unique compilation of research. At a glance, everyone else’s projects look better simply because you are only paying attention to the headlines. The hardest thing to do is to take a step back and imagine how impressive your research and achievements look to other students (and if you can’t picture that on your own, go and talk to a new first year student for a nice ego boost).
“The paradox of being a research student: everyone’s PhD is better than yours.”
How much of my own advice will I follow in the next year? That remains to be seen. By the time I’m approaching handing in my thesis my perspective may have completely changed and these points could go out the window (“start things early” haha nice try). But for now, the aim is to approach my final year with a sense of balance, realism, and intention to complete the best PhD that I can in the boundaries I am working within. I’ll let you know how it goes.