How to ease your PhD experience

Dan Fehring
Oct 23, 2019 · 5 min read

As I come to the end of my PhD, I look back to the approaches and ‘rules’ I followed which drastically helped me throughout. Many of which I wish I had adopted earlier. Using these approaches, amongst others, in collaboration with my lab I have been able to publish 6 times in peer-reviewed Q1 journals, and spent my last PhD year in Japan.

These approaches can be broken up into two main areas: (1) approach to work, and (2) approach to self.

First the approach to work, these are a few methods that I now try to apply to my every day work, as some were so beneficial, their use has quickly expanded into my everyday life.

  • This is your passion, pursue it to the nth degree. As unfortunately due to the nature of funding in research, where only the ‘best’ researchers and projects are funded, it is not enough to be average, and as you progress in your career you are in an ever diminishing pool of increasingly brilliant peers. You need to excel.
  • Flexible hours are more than OK if you are an early riser, or a better night worker. As long as it works well for your lab colleagues and supervisor, as after all, research is a collaborative effort.
  • Work smarter, not harder. Hours spent at work is by no means representative of the quality of your work. A few approaches to optimize workflow which I found beneficial include…

1. The Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is a commonly used time management method to optimize work flow. Once you have selected your task, work uninterrupted for 25 minutes, then take a short 5-minute break, alternate between these 25 minute ‘on’ and 5 minute ‘off’ blocks for 4 cycles. At the end of the 4 cycles take a longer 15–30 minute break. Repeat this approach throughout your workday. By using this technique, I found I was able to maintain a constantly high work load across a day, and never felt stagnant in what I was working on.

2. The 5-minute rule. The 5-minute rule is a cognitive behavioural therapy approach used to minimize procrastination. In short, force yourself to do just 5 minutes of the task that you are actively avoiding and only continue if you ‘want’ to. Often, starting is the hardest part, and more times than not you will be fine to continue the task you were previously dreading. This avoidance induced procrastination can happen in research as different researchers have different strengths and preferences (many hate stats!), so it’s important to have an approach to combat this.

3. The 2-minute rule. Simply, if something is going to take you less than 2 minutes. Do it immediately. Right now. Send that email. This approach will stop a bunch of tiny tasks snowballing into something much more time consuming which you would otherwise begrudgingly do at the end of the day.

4. When you finish your work day, don’t just save and close that document. Leave future you at least a dot point explaining: what you would do next, or even what you’re thinking about now. This is helpful as it will save time in the long run, as you’re in that mindset now it’s a lot quicker to spend 30 seconds continuing that train of thought and writing a dot point so your future self doesn’t have to spend the inevitable 5–10 minutes trying to work out what’s next.

5. Optimize your workspace. The reality is you’re going to spend a lot of time at your desk, so you want the space to work for you as efficiently as possible. If you can, invest at the very least another screen and a decent pair of noise cancelling headphones. As without them, the distraction of constant background noise and tabbing through apps/ tabs will simply slow you down. If you prefer standing, get a standing desk. Even small things, such as a plant or a small piece of artwork can really turn it from a desk into ‘your’ space.

6. Schedule everything. Everything. It doesn’t matter how well you think you remember things, nothing will compare to that densely populated calendar full of experiments, meetings, teaching, grant applications and travel award deadlines. This will also help you visually see where you have empty time, for when the inevitable happens and you have to complete some additional work. Now rather the burden juggling between 4 things simultaneously, you can feel relaxed knowing that everything has its own time allocated. On top of that, you may even see how you can slightly adjust your schedule to have say a Friday afternoon off after a hard week of work!

Second, and more importantly is the approach to self. It’s YOUR PhD, and so your wellbeing is the most important element of its success. This area will of course be different for each and every person, but here are a few things that may be beneficial for most.

1. Drink water (obviously). You’re not going to write a good thesis, let alone a manuscript, as a dehydrated mess, have a water bottle on your desk and make it habit to fill it up as soon as you get into the office.

2. Get enough sleep. Sleep is critical for overall health, mood, and efficiency. Simply, research is hard and can be mentally draining so you definitely won’t do your best work sleep deprived.

3. Find a way to stay active. Apart from maybe being on your feet for an experiment, the majority of your workday you will be sitting. Find a way to stay active in a way that suits you, whether it’s the gym, a sport, or a daily walk. At work, if you are practicing the aforementioned Pomodoro Technique, that longer break is a perfect time to go and have a 10–15 minute walk around campus!

4. If possible, create a separation between work and home. You work at work, and you relax at home. It’s healthy for you, and your research, to switch off from work at times. As often when you return to your research, you’ll have novel insights you wouldn’t have had otherwise. If you like working from home, that’s OK too, but make sure to have a workspace and that be the only place you do your work in order to maintain some level of separation.

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list but rather an assemblance of approaches which greatly benefited me. Everyone’s PhD is different but all can be a time of great learning, networking, travel and independence.

Best of luck in your PhD and feel free to reach out if you need some insight.

Dan Fehring

Cognitive Neuroscientist

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