It’s come to my attention that, in these intermittent posts about my trials and tribulations of PhD research, I’m usually complaining about the research process or releasing some of the negativity and frustrations of it all.
Well, for a change, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for current and prospective PhDers (what I’m going to tentatively call ‘Plight Club’): if you’re someone just starting on the path to a PhD, or even a grizzled veteran like me who’s going through a rough time, then maybe there’ll be something useful in here for you. Welcome to Plight Club.
1 (a). Talk to your Fellow Plighters.
If you’re having difficulties in your PhD or research, there is absolutely no shame in talking to others about it or admitting that you’re struggling. Often, with a PhD, such a personal relationship is developed with the research and it can be hard to admit that things aren’t going well. Likewise, when it comes to talking to others (other postgrads, family, friends, supervisors), it can often be easy to pretend that things are going swimmingly as you don’t want to seem like you’re ‘behind’ or not as successful as everyone around you (SPOILERS: no-one is ‘WINNINGS’ at their PhD, no matter how much they might say or pretend they are).
Much of the time, everyone is so wrapped up in their own research that it can be difficult to find to talk about personal matters beyond “how’s your research going?” or ” did your conference paper get accepted? “. Get to know the people who sit and work around you – not only will it make the project less lonely, but they’ll also be able to reassure that no PhD is easy, and that they’re probably having just as many problems, and suffering just as many setbacks, as you are. It’s also good to have time each day to ‘reset’ and come back to your work feeling refreshed after a quick coffee and a piece of cake or something. And hell, even if you don’t feel any better about your work, at least you have cake, and that’s never a bad thing, right?
1 (b). Talk to Other Researchers.
As I already mentioned, a lot of the time spent doing a PhD is done alone, usually facing a computer screen trying to make your code work, mending some broken piece of experimental equipment or trying to work out what the hell your results mean. Since a PhD is usually a very specialised area of research, this means that, invariably, there aren’t that many people around who can help fix your problems or dig you out of a sticky situation. So, don’t be afraid to randomly send emails to other academics/researchers studying elsewhere. They’re not monsters; they won’t bite. They’re real human beings, and if they’re worth their salt as academics of a particular field, then they’ll be happy to help out someone if they’re struggling. Don’t forget that even seasoned academics probably struggled through the PhD process, and so will inevitably relate to your woes when you send a ballsy email saying “ZOMG THIS STUFF IS TOO HARD, I’M REALLY STUCK CAN YOU HELP ME PLEASE THANK YOU 😥 .” Also, putting your name (and/or face) out there will come in mega-handy when you start jetting off to various conferences/workshops to present your research, as you’ll at least meet familiar faces/names when you’re making your first steps into the the ‘public eye’ of research.
It’s not a foolproof system, as you’ll likely get the odd academic who either ignores all communication (or just gets so much in their inbox that they can’t keep up) or comes across a little gruff, but most academics are SHOCK HORROR actually kind of nice. As long as you’re polite, clear and concise with your requests and/or problems, then even noted experts will be happy to at least point you in the right direction to how you track down a solution. In a world where even the most distant fellow researcher is accessible via email or Skype, then there’s no harm in reaching out. Who knows; maybe you’ll get through your stickiness and find answers to your problems, or at least feel that you’re not alone.
2. Use Mendeley.
One of the constant battles of a PhD is squaring up against the tens/hundreds/thousands (delete as applicable) of academic papers relevant to your field, and being able to efficiently locate citations or reference other academics’ work in your own writing. In the digital age, gone are the prospects of having to maintain a well-catalogued library of paper copies and books, as everything is in PDF form these days; however, efficient management of these files is still tricky, and can lead to lots of headaches when trying to find a particular paper or piece of information.
In this vein, Mendeley is a staggering piece of kit. It keeps all your papers in one place (it has a PDF viewer as well so you don’t need to use Adobe Acrobat) and lets you make notes, highlights, annotations or download referencing data from the web. You can sort by authors, publication; you can add your own tags and keywords, and collect similar papers in folders; plus, you can access papers in your library from the web and from any location. It has a Word/LaTeX plugin as well, letting you ‘Insert Citation’ from your word processor and it’ll include the reference; then when you’ve finished your paper/thesis, just hit ‘Insert Bibliography’ and it’ll compile your reference list for you. Oh, did I mention that it’s free?
Essentially, it does for PDFs what iTunes (etc.) does for mp3s, and while other programs like EndNote offer similar experiences, Mendeley is just better. Download it here, you can thank me later.
3. Write EVERYTHING Down.
A PhD is, naturally, epic. You’ll cover so much material, think about so many things and touch on so many concepts, that you’ll quickly lose track of minute details.
– Done a new experiment? Document it properly so you can go back and check your results, or you can repeat it again if you need to.
– Had an idea in the middle of the night? Write it down in case you’ve forgotten by the morning.
– Have a deadline or somewhere you need to be? Write it down, as you don’t want to miss a supervisor meeting if he/she has a busy schedule and is not in their office for most of the time.
Keep some paper with you at all times; from a notebook you carry around with you everywhere, to a pad of paper and a pen when you inevitably reach a ‘EUREKA!’ moment in the middle of the night[*], to maybe even some shower crayons you can use to write out mathematical equations on the bathroom tiles during your daily bathtime routine. And if you’re slightly more 21st century than writing things down, get a dictaphone or use a sound recorder app on your smartphone; even an desktop/mobile app like Evernote are kind of handy, and have the added benefit that you’ll remember to write down your ideas but then go ahead and lose your notebook in the pub or something.
[* It’s worth bearing in mind that I’ve never had a ‘EUREKA!’ moment, despite my best efforts to instigate one by spending as much time as possible in the bath, bah.]
4. Try some Tomatoes
My major failing is procrastination (future PhD Fraud post coming on that subject very soon), and it’s usually a constant battle to avoid getting distracted from my work by the plethora more interesting things that exist on our watery, blue sphere. I’ve tried many techniques and methods to combat this but with minimal success, but found solace in the wonderfully simple MyTomatoes tool based on the Pomodoro method.
It doesn’t work so well with experimental PhDs, or those that aren’t desk-based or involve other activities that mean you’re not in one place for long stretches, but if you’re involved in a lot of reading, writing or programming during your studies, then a time management technique like Pomodoro can be good for structuring your time such that you focus on the job at hand, but are given lots of small breaks (in which you can quickly check Facebook, news or whatever) as a reward for 25 minutes’ hard work.
There are lots of free resources all over the web for Pomodoro stuff, and you can easily find a tracker/application/browser-based site that suits you. MyTomatoes is good insofar that it tracks both your work-periods and your breaks, and also lets you write down what you did in each tomato period, which can be very helpful for cataloguing progress and reminding you how much you’ve achieved throughout the day.
As I said, it doesn’t work for everyone, but for those who have a difficult time concentrating on the task at hand it can be a godsend. Give it a whirl.
5. Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.
If you ever feel that your research is causing you more stress, worry or frustration than is good for your health, then stop. Life is really too short to let work-related matters define your well-being,
Your supervisor should not be your master; they do not own you, so if you’re being pressured into taking on extra work or doing other stuff that you don’t want to, and which distracts from your PhD (which is likely causing you enough stress as it is), then learn how to say no to extra work, student teaching or supervision. Focus on your own work, and making it the best that it can be.
No-one ever said that doing a PhD had to be easy, but it shouldn’t rule your life; no matter what your supervisor might think. If things are genuinely tough or you can’t cope, then there’s no shame in getting out of things for a while or seeking professional help. Finishing the PhD might feel like it’s life-or-death, but in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t. Just give things your best shot, or at least the best shot under the circumstances. If you don’t (or can’t) make it out of the PhD process with what you wanted, then don’t stress over it; life has far more to offer, and you’ll still be able to find something fantastically fantastic to do with your life, and unless you’re desperate to
waste away live your life in academia, then chances are it won’t stop you getting a pretty rad job.
And if you ever feel alone, just think about all the other Plighters across the globe – all struggling to make traction in the research world but who will ultimately get there in the end: I’m certainly one of them. I still haven’t figured out a way to ‘WIN’ at the PhD process, but hopefully I’ve passed on a few of the things I’ve learnt to keep me at least on even keel. Let me know if you have any success trying them out, or have other Words of Wisdom that you’d like to share. Peace out.