PhD: Connecting the Dots…

Hanan Hindy
5 min readDec 18, 2021

The first day I met my supervisor, Dr Xavier Bellekens, he said, “your PhD is a marathon and not a sprint’’. I didn’t understand what he meant back then but as days passed and as my PhD journey unravelled, all the ups and downs, victories and failures, slow and rushing moments — this list can go on forever —, I understood what he meant exactly.

This opening advice links strongly with what I quoted at the beginning of my PhD thesis (I didn’t notice that earlier, my bad)! I quoted Steve Jobs “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”.

I had a great PhD journey experience, I CAN say this now! Looking back, I had crazy days, days that I felt all was in vain, moments where nothing made sense and days with an exciting “Aha’’. However, I hung on to invaluable advice that kept me sane. I will try and put my experience in words in the next few points.

Follow a routine:

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A PhD is a long process, keeping a daily routine is key. Do whatever works best for you, but random working hours is tiring and leads nowhere. I have experienced this with both my Master’s degree (where I worked a couple of days a week on it) and my PhD (where I worked 5 days a week). The main point is, when you force yourself into a routine, in a good way, you progress every day. You have the tiniest, yet important, output every day. To be honest, I had days where I could have just disappeared, however, it is best to do something; watch a Tech Talk, a tutorial video, or so, but “keep the routine’’.

Take time off:

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It is easy at the beginning of the PhD journey to feel like you can work non-stop. From the other side, I tell you, this is not only undesirable, it is catastrophic. Take a break, I am not speaking of weekends here, take time off, stop checking your email or worry about a drowning experiment.
I remember my first PhD proper break was 6 months after I started, it took me a few days to really switch off but it was a needed recharge.
Again quoting my supervisor, “You need a break to keep going, otherwise, you come back from the break even more tired’’.

Cut the loop:

Back to the daily routine, always have different things in your to-do list (reading, writing, coding, watching tutorials, webinars, university sessions, etc.). This varies from one person to another, but keep yourself occupied, balance the percentage of time you allocate for different activities and don’t leave yourself to boredom.

Keep the PhD-life balance:

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I know this is easier said than done, and it might sound irrelevant at the beginning when all the enthusiasm is there. However, it is way more important than expected. Do other things in life, yes the PhD is/should be the priority, but you need to live as well! As an international student, I struggled at the beginning to have a group of friends, yet once I had one, my life changed. I always say that I moved from a survival state to a living one. Make friends who share the same interests, cook together, go for walks, chat, get coffee, etc. It is also helpful if you have a PhD buddy, it helps you find someone who understands the struggle without too much explanation.

Write as you go:

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Writing is tiring, that’s why it is the least desirable (most of the time). However, writing as you go saves so much time and hassle. Everyone, including myself, thinks that information will be there when needed. Trust me, it doesn’t work this way. Remember, it is a 3+ years worth of work.

Publish .. Publish .. Publish:

This links with the previous point. Publishing your work helps enormously when writing your final thesis. By then, the work has been peer-reviewed, has been properly written, all background is there, experiments (including tables and figures) are there, etc. Although publishing might not be a requirement for your PhD Defence/Viva, going through the process you learn A LOT. Another tip is that good survey papers grow themselves and help in getting started with the publishing process.

Two-way trust:

Build a two-way trust with your supervisor early on. Be honest ALWAYS. If your supervisor is friendly enough, keep an open channel with him/her, chat about random things, and so on. This helps you grow in all directions. Moreover, this helps you start building your trusted circle of researchers. These connections result in life-long collaborations.

Always go back to PhD high-level plan:

Discuss a high-level plan with your supervisor early on and keep on doing this throughout the journey. It is easy to miss the path and feel like nothing is being done. Visiting this plan helps keep your sanity and keeps you on track :)
Also, it helps you understand what is on your supervisor’s mind in regards to your PhD. If your supervisor is not this kind of person, prepare a high-level plan yourself and share it with him/her.

Automate things:

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Automate things whenever possible. This saves A LOT of time. Use scripts to run experiments with different parameters, use google sheet formulas to extract results, use formulas to build LaTeX tables. Build your own LaTeX commands, use helper tools available online, use a reference manager, build PhD thesis front matter automatically, ….. Anything that can be automated, search for a way and do it.

Embrace every opportunity:

A lot of opportunities will be thrown your way throughout the PhD journey. Don’t discard them. Go to conferences, connect with people, volunteer in organising events, attend talks and webinars, follow Twitter threads and collaborate with those, and so on. Every opportunity opens a door to growth.

Keep yourself up-to-date:

Keep an eye on new research in your domain. I managed this through (a) email search alerts with keywords and (b) Twitter and (c) my supervisor papers recommendation.

My final tips would be, don’t take things personal, appreciate the tiniest achievements, and “remember to enjoy your journey’’. t is a learning process, so embrace it.

Best of luck with your journey! I pray you have a wonderful one!