The PhD how-to literature tends to focus on writing, research and other very useful topics. However, more basic PhD/life survival tips are under-represented (with some good exceptions). Since I was officially awarded my PhD today, I wanted to share some of the basic tips that got me here.
My tips are broken down into three lists, which reflect a kind of hierarchy of priority:
- Stay physically healthy (to do a PhD, you need your body to work too).
- Stay mentally healthy (at least relative to your pre-PhD state of health).
- Procrastinate effectively (because I suspect you’ll do a lot of it).
One caveat: for lists A and B, If you have injuries or are taking prescription medication, please consult a doctor before following any advice here!
A. Stay physically healthy
- Regular, goal oriented physical exercise at home will save time/money.
- Prioritize safety/core strength: back injuries are common and take ages to heal.
- p90x3 takes 30 minutes/day at varying levels of intensity.
- Eat small meals throughout the day to keep your energy levels consistent.
- During work sprints you can use food replacements to mitigate poor nutrition.
- Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day for consistency.
- Use a pedometer or a fitness band to track your activity/sleep levels.
- Walk for at least one hour every day, read and take notes while you walk.
- Alcohol (even a little bit) will harm your next day’s word count. Try going teetotal.
- Try exercise first thing: an early commitment kept makes other daily habits easier.
B. Stay mentally healthy
- If you do list A. effectively, B. will most likely take care of itself. However…
- Mental illness is normal amongst PhD candidates, learn to manage it well.
- Get a good psychotherapist if you can afford one, self-study CBT if you can’t.
- If you’re in a relationship or have children, consider seeing a family therapist.
- If you are caring for a sick relative/partner tell your supervisor and get help.
- Your psychological vulnerabilities will sabotage your PhD. Get curious about understanding and learning to mitigate them in various ways.
- Try to cultivate hobbies that involve social contact, but where you can turn them on and off like a tap when you need to. Social dancing is a good example.
- Read up on perfectionism and depression/burn-out: both big PhD saboteurs.
- If you’re in the UK or some other gloomy climate get a good S.A.D. lamp for winter and supplement it by walking outside daily, even if the weather is horrible.
- If you feel depressed, desperate, or suicidal, that’s OK and quite common for PhD students – so learn to spot the signs and get professional help immediately.
C. Procrastinate effectively
- You are going to spend most of your time procrastinating, so do it well.
- Enhance the ergonomics and comfort of your workspace and equipment.
- Develop your research infrastructure, use tools you’re excited to learn and try.
- Start and maintain a ‘second project’ to keep you interested and have a plan B.
- Do something useful for your research sub-community. It really pays off.
- Become obsessively knowledgeable about a specific research methodology (especially useful for cross-disciplinary scholars).
- Follow people you respect on twitter, post something useful for them daily.
- Organize and re-organize your literature, files, data, drawers, pencil case etc.
- Blog about all the things you procrastinate on usefully (and your real work).
- Seek out new tweaks, hacks and incremental improvements everywhere.
This post started as a talk to incoming students on the MAT program. Thanks to everyone who sent me their own tips, and encouraged me to share mine more widely. I think it’s important that people who have recently finished share the challenges they’ve faced, and show that it’s normal to struggle through the extremes of the PhD training.