Navigating your PhD Successfully : Tips and Tricks

Regardless of where you are in your PhD journey, I hope this article gives you some ideas on how to organize your work, reflect upon your progress, and finish strong. Personally, I was engaged in a joint-doctorate program in the EU for a little over three years. When I started I didn’t really know anyone who had a PhD or how the process was supposed to go. I moved halfway across world and traveled for placements, navigating new workplaces and cultures at the same time as balancing my PhD work and personal life. This was the best time in my life but also the most challenging. And at the end, like many, my defense was interrupted by the pandemic and it ended with a fizzle instead of a bang. I learned a lot over those years and I hope to help your journey be a bit smoother. I know times are a bit different now so I tried to add extra ‘pandemic-friendly’ suggestions sprinkled throughout this piece.

The Importance of Self Care

I am putting this first because it is often overlooked and it’s the most important thing that will influence how everything else goes. Taking care of your mental health as a PhD researcher is tough. You’re under a lot of stress to produce quality work in a short amount of time and you have to navigate new working relationships, networking, and career and skill development. In a recent survey of over 50,000 PhD researchers, reported rates of mental health issues were higher than in the general population. So, throughout all of this, please take care of yourself and don’t let your PhD consume you.

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Sometimes it may be hard to have a good work-life balance but your productivity and mental health will be better if you take breaks. Get outside into nature, go to the gym, and prepare healthy snacks and meals for the week ahead when you might have a few late nights at the office. Given that work now has drastically changed and you likely aren’t running into other PhD researchers or colleagues at the water cooler, seeking support and information online can help fill in these gaps. Twitter has a large supportive community of PhD students and Early Career Researchers who often use the tags #PhDChat and #ECRChat. Academic Chatter (a account and hashtag) is a more general ‘group’ which can be helpful for research-related questions. In addition to seeking support throughout the PhD process, it’s also important to celebrate along the way — your first first author publication, getting accepted to a conference, passing a hard test! Celebrate it all!

Planning Ahead

Gantt charts can be a lifesaver and can help you have a ‘big picture’ view of your projects and overall goals. I made a Excel example (below) for you to download, use, and edit to get you started on planning your individual projects, specific tasks, conferences, and extra activities that you may have. You can edit this as you go forward (things happen!) and use patterned vs. shaded cells to highlight when something is a main or ‘background’ task during that time period. Having this constant reminder can help keep you on track and can help you visualize how the different parts of your project work together. I printed out smaller sections of mine and taped it to my monitor and into my bullet journal so I had a visual reminder of the months past and ahead.

An Gaant chart template for your use!

Writing Up

Starting from day one with a ‘master document’ can be immensely helpful. However, it’s never too late to start one. While I always found it helpful to highlight articles, organize, tag, and take notes in Zotero, putting this information in a separate *somewhat ordered* document was a lifesaver when it came to writing up. When I needed information on certain topic areas, it was already under relevant headings in Word, no additional searching needed. It gave me a great skeleton to start my thesis from.

When you’re beginning the final write-up process, it’s important to recognize that not everyday is going to be a good writing day. Any progress is good. There is the #500WordsADay challenge/community on Twitter and if you really feel stuck, try switching to a different section/chapter or task-shifting to more ‘mundane’ tasks like reformatting or fixing your references. Setting smaller weekly goals can be helpful.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

It’s also important to recognize that you will get stuck and it is not the end of the world. Step away and recharge. Not for an hour or two. Legitimately take a day or two off completely to clear your head. This goes back to the first point — if your mental health is suffering, your work will suffer too. It’s also helpful to mix things up if possible in terms of where you’re writing — it’s more difficult now since you likely can’t go to a café but try writing in different places of your house if you can. Splitting things up into smaller pieces (1 hour on the couch, 2 hours at my desk, an hour at the kitchen table) can help battle the feelings of drudgery. Another trick I used was to work someplace without a power outlet. That way I knew I had to be as productive as possible during that time.

When you have a decent draft, it is important to be realistic with your expectations of your supervisors and editors. When you start the writing up process, ask your supervisors and editors about their preferences for how they would like to give feedback — when you’re done with your first full draft? chapter by chapter? People have different preferences.

Keep in mind that no one will read the piece as closely as you and, in general, theses are long and often cumbersome to edit. Respect everyone’s time and energy and recognize that it is a large task. You need to be your own harshest critic. After reading the document for the 10th time, you might not pick up on certain things anymore. Asking others to read pieces (as opposed to the whole thing) can help you detect issues in certain sections you may have become ‘numb’ to. If it’s available to you, it might be helpful to swap with other PhD students who are also in the writing up process.

The Defense

The final boss fight is different for everyone. Some are closed defenses while others are open…some won’t give you a defense date unless you’re likely to pass and some could very well fail you. Knowing how your university and program works is essential to success. If possible, reaching out to PhD students who previously graduated from your department may be helpful. There are also lots of helpful examples of potential questions you might face online.

Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

The Job Hunt

The Excel file previously linked also has a tab for tracking and planning your professional development. Before 6 months, sit down and think about what you’d like to achieve at the end of your PhD — an industry/governmental position? a postdoc? What kinds of skills do you want to develop and what do you need for future employers? Having a reference in one place can help keep you accountable, allow you to reflect upon your progress (and pat yourself on the back!), and also give you all the information you will need to write your resume and cover letters for jobs.

The final writing up process can be tiring and you might not have as many different options for ‘task-shifting’ as your data collection and analysis is likely over at this point. In an effort to still be productive, I recommend starting the job hunt early and interspersing small tasks within your write-up process to move you forward — for example, updating your resumes, academic CV , and online profiles (LinkedIn, GitHub, personal website, etc.).

After you’ve reflected upon your progress in your career and skill development, you may have a better idea of what potential jobs you may be interested in or eligible for. Academia is notoriously difficult and there are more PhD researchers than there are postdoc positions. If you choose to go this down this path, make sure it’s for the right reasons. Regardless of if you choose academia or industry, start by defining the geographical area for your job hunt (it might need expanding!). Setting up job alerts many months in advance of your planned applications can help you understand the options and potential job titles to look for. It might also be helpful to enlist the help of a recruiter, contact people in positions for informational interviews, and reach out to PIs who you might like to work with. If you come with your own funding it’ll be much easier to get a postdoc position but in that case you need to plan very far in advance (more than 1 year in most cases).

When you actually get to the point of applying for positions, make sure to keep track of where you’re applying and save the original posting and your submitted materials. The third tab of the Excel file has a quick layout for keeping track of applications. Especially in today’s economy, it might be hard to find a position. Don’t get discouraged! You’ll find your perfect fit one day!

Epidemiologist specialized in meta-research. American in Europe. Photographer and Embroiderer on the side.

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