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Top 10 tips for surviving a PhD


From what I can tell most people sign up to do a PhD with little to no knowledge of what the ‘job’ entails. I too was one of those souls that ventured down the PhD path and despite watching colleagues seemingly breeze through the 3 to 4 years, it was only through my own experience that I have come to realise the amount of hard work, sweat and tears that goes on unannounced in the background. I have recently popped out the other end of the time warp and I guess you could say I have been reminiscing about my PhD journey of late and thinking about what I would perhaps do differently next time (not that I am planning on doing a second PhD just yet). If used wisely, hindsight is a very valuable tool and I have compiled my top 10 tips to getting though.... I hope you find one or two of them to be helpful and while these are some of the things I have learned along the way please feel free to post a tip or two based on your experiences (no matter what stage you are at it might save someone else going through the same heart ache)!

  1. Supervisors; your supervisors are your guiding lights throughout the PhD. They are the ones who have been there and done that and survived the process before you, in essence they know what you are going through albeit their recollection of the process may be a little fuzzy. Establishing a regular meeting time with your supervisor(s) early in your PhD is crucial to staying on track. It is a time where you can plan your PhD, receive feedback on your work, ask questions, seek clarification and at times answer to someone else where you have spent the last fortnight. Sure the truth hurts sometimes and what you hear dints your pride but at the end of the day it is in your best interest to stay on track, ensure that issues are nipped in the bud and progress is continually being made!

  2. TIME OUT – in moments of stress and mania I would find myself pulling late nights, early mornings, eating at my desk and dreaming (or rather nightmare-ing) about my PhD and the work that I still had to complete. During these more stressful times, family, friends and exercise were wrongly forced into the backseat. In order to function at your best you really need focussed work time to be balanced with quality down time, a laugh and a good sleep. Lose this balance and unfortunately your work does suffer and the stressful spiral intensifies. However, allowing yourself to have a genuine break, regular exercise and good night sleep will see you wake refreshed and ready for another productive day.

  3. Referencing programs such as Endnote and Mendeley. While these may be a little time consuming in the beginning they will without a doubt save you a lot of precious time in the future. These programs are life savers when it comes to re-formatting a manuscript or keeping a large number of citations neat, tidy and in the correct order.

  4. Realise research is a team sport, very rarely are you ever sailing solo! While it is true that the thesis is yours and/or you may be the lead author on a manuscript it is important to realise that you are a part of a research team getting a project done. For me this realisation came a little later in the piece however once I did realise this I was less anxious at holding onto things and trying to make them perfect rather I did what I had to do then sought feedback from the other members of the team. This takes me to point 5....

  5. Don’t waste precious time trying to make the first draft of your work perfect. Holding onto your work be it a manuscript, protocol, introduction (whatever) for too long is actually counterproductive. You will progress more quickly if you can keep the paper moving. Work to a timeframe that you have set with your supervisors and/or co-authors e.g. draft protocol (skeleton) in 2 weeks, protocol finalised in 3 weeks, systematic literature search completed in 4 weeks etc. This will give everyone time to comment on the methodologies and your work while more importantly ensuring that you are making progress. This links nicely into point 6....

  6. Goal setting… you hear about it all the time and you know it is important, but do you really do it? Setting yourself short term goals (e.g. a list of jobs for today or the week) will help to keep you motivated and making positive progress towards your long term goals (e.g. completing a project or writing your thesis). However in saying that I never mastered the skill of setting myself realistic goals for the day as everything seemed to take me longer to complete and jobs would be shifted to tomorrow’s list. I overcame this problem by having a master “to do list” then at the end of each day I would write down what I had actually done or achieved that day.... by making a note of the small step(s) I took each day I was able to realise that I was being productive and eventually I was able to cross items off the master to do list (which was always satisfying)!

  7. Create a dossier of PDF’s that are relevant to your work. From the very start I would suggest that you save articles in the one spot, using a common naming system for articles (e.g. author_journal_year). I unfortunately went about the process of saving articles which I used for one particular manuscript and when it came time to use the article for another manuscript I would find myself having to sift through a number of folders and the process usually ended with me having to search the library site and download the article again (not a time efficient process).

  8. Forms and documents...ahh when was that form due? When you are in the final year of your PhD I would strongly recommend that you contact your university and find out what forms/documents need to be completed prior to you submitting your thesis and when they need to be completed by. For example, at the University I attended you need to submit an “Intention to submit form” three months prior to submission as this is the amount of time that it can take for the University to find suitable examiners for your thesis. In addition check what forms (if any) your supervisor needs to sign at the time you submit your thesis for examination. Knowing about all of this ahead of time will save you from some last minute stress attacks!

  9. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Take the time to have a look at the thesis of students who have gone before you and use their thesis as a guide for the information to include in the mandatory sections as well as the overall style and layout.

  10. Time flies when you are having fun (and working hard)... the four years do really fly by and it will be over before you know it. Persistence is the key, revel in the opportunity to learn as much as you can while challenging yourself in a reasonably controlled environment. Enjoy the PhD process and don’t forget to celebrate every win (no matter how big or small) and push through every challenge with the support of your family, supervisors, friends and colleagues.