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“gray concrete road between buildings” by Janusz Maniak on Unsplash

Cycling in a Welsh downpour in the blistering cold just hoping that I catch the 20:26 train back to Bristol, I realise that the first six weeks of my PhD have not been without mistakes. In what reality are mistakes absent though? The mistake here being the choice to not live in the city I am studying in.

The start of my PhD has taught me many things regarding mistakes. The biggest lesson has been the mistake of my judgement and preconceived notions of what this process would be like.

We suffer more in imagination than we do in reality — Seneca

The quote above has, once again, revealed its relevance to me every day of my life and this is what I would like to talk about in this post. The contrast between our perception and the reality of starting a PhD, and reflections on that choice.

There was plenty of reasons for me not to study for a PhD. Three years of 80 hour weeks (we will come back to this), financial uncertainty, a qualification that is “worth little more than a master’s” according to the Guardian [1] and increasing reports of depression amongst postgraduate students [2]. It is all pretty scary stuff and there are lots of people on the internet that advise against the plunge into academia.

So why on earth did I do it? Doubt can cripple any opportunity if you allow it and there was plenty of reason to have doubt on this occasion. The opinion of strangers in the media or on the internet seemed pretty clear, but their opinion is fueled by their own experiences and definitions of success. Their advice was not tailored to me. It isn’t a conversation, it is just noise.

When you chose to do a PhD the most important question is why. It is my belief that if your ambition is driven by a desire for wealth, titles, power, or a job title you have fixated on, then you will experience the negative outcomes that the crowd describes. It is misplaced hope for an outcome designed not in reality but in one's mind that can guarantee misery.

Towards the end of 2016, shortly after reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl, I wrote down what made me happy and the meaning of its actions.

I love learning. I love the process of it. The euphoria of discovering something new.

The meaning I derive from the sentence above is very personal. I worked as a Biomedical Scientist for almost 5 years in diagnostic Microbiology laboratories. I have also always been fascinated by building and applying tech in this domain. So the sentence above was followed by:

Can we predict infection? I want to spend my time on this question.

This came long before I applied for a PhD. I was already a programming geek and building things in my spare time, but I started delving into the world of data science and machine learning. I would read/code/study before work, in my breaks, during lulls at work, and into the late hours after work. I started applying what I learnt wherever I could (sometimes to the frustration of my work colleagues, to whom I probably sounded like a broken record or just nuts).

The point is, long before I started the journey of a PhD, curiosity and a disciplined approach to acting on that curiosity already existed. I choose to study a PhD because, if I wasn’t doing a PhD, I would still be chasing questions. But instead of squeezing this chase into the twilight hours, I now get to spend every day on my questions. This is why I think a PhD is worth it. It nurtures a curious mind.

If you’re thinking about doing a PhD, my advice (albeit a bit naive, I am only six weeks in) would be to find something that correlates with what you already love.

Even before I started, I felt confronted by a very negative culture surrounding PhDs. The impression is that they are, or almost should be, a near impossible challenge that will take you to dark depths of misery. What has troubled me the most, is a feeling of guilt for not being stressed. Like I’m somehow not doing this right because I am not stressed — this is of course, utterly ridiculous. But when I discuss this with colleagues, they laugh and say “Yeah, I get that”. WHAT?!

I won’t for a second claim that a PhD is not difficult. It should be. This qualification certifies that you can independently conduct original and novel research to a standard that would be published for peer review and influence the direction of scientific discovery. That is a big deal and for that reason requires that it is rewarded only to those that demonstrate the utmost diligence.

In my opinion, however, this does not mean you should make yourself ill in order to achieve this. It is not worth it. I mentioned previously that PhD students work up to 80 hours a week. This is something I’ve heard many times now. I would argue that if it is a true estimate, those students are sinking at over 30 of those hours into either anxious tinkering or procrastinating.

I think it is easy to lose awareness of our state of mind, to get caught up in a spiral of doubt and angst, which drives you into an unhealthy pattern of 80 hour weeks that achieve no more than a healthy routine would. Be realistic with your self-evaluation. Would you ever demand a friend work to a state of a malnourished and sleep deprived mess? No, so stop asking yourself to do it.

This is why I have defined a few rules for myself going forward:

  • Sleep and a healthy diet is the number one priority — if you fail yourself you fail your PhD
  • Aim to work a 40 hour week with a maximum limit of 50 hours per week
  • Schedule time for procrastination so that it doesn’t infiltrate deep work

So with that being said, I wanted to share my design for time management going forward. There are a few observations I have made in the past six weeks. I entered my PhD eager to design and plan each step. The problem with scientists is we want to control every step of every process. Accepting chaos does not come naturally.

With the overwhelming amount of information that comes with the start of a PhD you can only imagine how quickly a concrete plan can become full of cracks. I had a conversation with a superior of mine recently after spending the day reading a stack of papers and feeling like I knew less than when I started. Expressing my concerns of “not knowing anything” he replied, “You don’t get a PhD reading, you get a PhD by doing research”.

I don’t think he meant “stop reading”. I think he meant, embrace the ignorance, jump in and start experimenting, and worry about the details later. I realise now that it isn’t that I feel like I don’t know anything, it's my impatience. So, the first thing I am outlining in my new time management approach is:

Get stuck in. Fail fast and fail cheaply. Make as many mistakes as you can now but be sure to reflect and learn from each of them.

Another observation of mine is the level of fatigue that results from multi-tasking. I measure my output in the number of pomodoros completed each day. For me, a pomodoro is 25 minutes of solid work followed by a 5/10 minute break (the normal routine championed by Francesco Cirillo). I put together a quick and dirty graph of my efforts over the past few weeks and noticed something:

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Pomodoro count on the x-axis, with tasks broken down into categories and the total number of pomodoros completed shown by the blue line

Although the graph above is not 100% accurate (I will admit that I sometimes fail to record pomodoros as religiously as I would like too) it does demonstrate something to me. I have dips in performance where I allow excessive multi-tasking to take hold. It just so happens that when I try to achieve too much at once I just end up underachieving. I’m the first to admit that the above data is messy and is not much to go by, but for comparison's sake (if nothing else):

I intend on limiting my daily tasks to a maximum of two solid goals — do one or two things really well, not 10 things half-arsed. Perhaps multi-tasking is overrated.

The final observation I wish to reflect on is distinguishing between types of work. I have found there is work that you can plan and timetable, and then there is work which is crippled by such attempts of constriction and control. It is perfectly feasible to say “I will sit down this afternoon and dedicate 2 hours (4 pomodoros in my case) to pages ## to ## and accompanying exercises or perhaps 1 hour to complete a piece of administrative work such as a structure set of forms. It is the structure that is key here. The task already has predefined objectives and a common path to follow. I call this work static or fixed-time working.

There is a type of work for which allocated time units and a strict timeframe just don’t work. I call this creative time. Whenever I am programming or creating something new. Where I need to immerse myself and just get lost in my work, I can’t have a timeframe set around that. I can’t say “this will take 2 hours maximum”. For this type of work, I have to set aside a day and just see what happens. So my last point when creating a time management plan to follow for now on is:

  • Fixed-time working — plan in advance and have a strict time frame
  • Creative working — create time for this type of work, clear your schedule. When you start a creative session, don’t plan any fixed-time working after creative working.

What next? Well, I’m going to keep pushing on of course. I try to journal every day and I honestly think this helps to maintain my sanity. There is a lot to be said about putting your thoughts on paper and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

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My sanity bundle: bullet journal, the five-minute journal, and the daily stoic journal

I never intended to contribute such personal articles to Medium but I have enjoyed creating this piece. So in the future, I would like to update my progress in a similar format and maybe reflect on my PhD as I progress.

I invite people to comment below, perhaps share your experiences in higher education or taking on a daring new challenge. Thanks for reading =)

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/careers/phd-right-career-option
  2. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

Biomedical Scientist, Data Scientist, and technology enthusiast

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