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

  1. Regular, goal oriented physical exercise at home will save time/money.
  2. Prioritize safety/core strength: back injuries are common and take ages to heal.
  3. p90x3 takes 30 minutes/day at varying levels of intensity.
  4. Eat small meals throughout the day to keep your energy levels consistent.
  5. During work sprints you can use food replacements to mitigate poor nutrition.
  6. Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day for consistency.
  7. Use a pedometer or a fitness band to track your activity/sleep levels.
  8. Walk for at least one hour every day, read and take notes while you walk.
  9. Alcohol (even a little bit) will harm your next day’s word count. Try going teetotal.
  10. Try exercise first thing: an early commitment kept makes other daily habits easier.

B. Stay mentally healthy

  1. If you do list A. effectively, B. will most likely take care of itself. However…
  2. Mental illness is normal amongst PhD candidates, learn to manage it well.
  3. Get a good psychotherapist if you can afford one, self-study CBT if you can’t. 
  4. If you’re in a relationship or have children, consider seeing a family therapist.
  5. If you are caring for a sick relative/partner tell your supervisor and get help.
  6. Your psychological vulnerabilities will sabotage your PhD. Get curious about understanding and learning to mitigate them in various ways.
  7. 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.
  8. Read up on perfectionism and depression/burn-out: both big PhD saboteurs.
  9. 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. 
  10. 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

  1. You are going to spend most of your time procrastinating, so do it well.
  2. Enhance the ergonomics and comfort of your workspace and equipment.
  3. Develop your research infrastructure, use tools you’re excited to learn and try.
  4. Start and maintain a ‘second project’ to keep you interested and have a plan B.
  5. Do something useful for your research sub-community. It really pays off.
  6. Become obsessively knowledgeable about a specific research methodology (especially useful for cross-disciplinary scholars).
  7. Follow people you respect on twitter, post something useful for them daily.
  8. Organize and re-organize your literature, files, data, drawers, pencil case etc.
  9. Blog about all the things you procrastinate on usefully (and your real work).
  10. 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.