Never let a disadvantage become an excuse

When you look around at other PhD students, you might notice that many of them seem to have advantages over you. Maybe they have a better supervisor, maybe they have better equipment, or funding, or they’ve been given a better project.

Or maybe they’ve got skills you don’t have. They’re better at statistics, or speak better English, or seem to have no problem writing.

It may be that actually their situation isn’t as easy as you imagine (because everybody struggles with something), but that isn’t the point.

It’s easy to focus on your disadvantages, but in doing so you give yourself an excuse; it’s not your fault because your situation is so much harder. There’s comfort in this, but that comfort only reinforces your disadvantages because it stops you doing anything to overcome them.

If you have a disadvantage, you have to work harder. This might mean:

  • Spending 2 hours a day, every day studying statistics, if that’s your weak point
  • Hiring an English tutor and practicing every single day
  • Arriving earlier and staying later to fix a problem
  • Making extra effort to talk to other researchers and ask questions if your supervisor isn’t available

If you engage with your difficulties and put in extra effort to overcome them, and if you keep working on them, over and over, day after day, eventually they become strengths. It’s a hard path to take, because it means doing things you aren’t good at or don’t enjoy, but it comes down to a simple choice…

Are you going to be the kind of person who gives up (or disengages) because of a disadvantage, or the kind of person who does something about it?

Never let a disadvantage become an excuse.

See also:

That thing you just don’t feel like doing

Planting seeds or putting out fires?

“I can’t contact my PhD supervisor until I have something to show”

Nobody wants to send an email to their PhD supervisor saying they’ve achieved nothing in the last three months. The more time passes, though, the harder it becomes.

An example:

Let’s say, for whatever reason, you are unable to work for a whole month. You have two options with regards to what you tell your supervisor:

  • You can just tell them you have fallen behind, or…
  • You can say nothing and wait until you’ve caught up with where you should be.

The second option avoids a potentially awkward conversation, but it also places you under a much higher burden of expectation.

Another month goes by, but you haven’t yet caught up with where you should have been after that first month (perhaps because you under-estimated how long that piece of work would take). It’s now been two months, so you want to produce even more before you say anything.

The more time passes, and the more you feel you should have produced, the harder it gets to reach out. You avoid being reprimanded, but you also become more and more isolated.

By far, the most common cause of PhD failure (or extreme difficulty) I have seen is isolation and a lack of feedback from other academics. So if you’re in this situation, don’t wait to re-establish contact. Do it today.

I know it’s been a long time since I sent an update. I’ve fallen behind quite a bit but am doing my best to get back on track. Right now I’m working on …, but am not sure how to …

Keep it brief, don’t make excuses, and if you’re having technical problems, ask for guidance.

It’s so easily avoidable…

I’d recommend emailing your supervisor every two weeks with brief updates, no matter how well or badly it’s going, saying what you’ve done, what you’re working on, what you plan to do next. For example;

“Just a quick update: I’m still working on the analysis of …, which is taking a little longer than expected as I’m having to learn (technique) as I go. Realistically, this is probably going to take another week or two, and the next step will be to…”

It only takes 30 seconds of their time, and it ensures that they always know (and you have a record to prove that they know) what stage your project is at.

Don’t try to hide like a kid who hasn’t done their homework. Be professional, be honest and communicate.

Write, or don’t write, but don’t do anything else

When you’re trying to write, it can be frustrating if the words don’t start flowing straight away. But getting frustrated doesn’t help. It’s better to relax into the writing with a calm, focused mind.

Neil Gaiman has a simple rule to help with this:

You don’t have to write. You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.

This takes the pressure off. It gives you time to think, to daydream, to juggle ideas in your head.

More importantly, perhaps, it lets you experience the slight discomfort of not producing.

I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.


I’m giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. You sit there and you’ve been staring out the window now for five minutes, and it kind of loses its charm. You’re going, “Well, actually, let’s write something.”

Write, or don’t write, but don’t do anything else.

See also:

Procrastination Hack: Get to Zero

That thing you just don’t feel like doing

Quote Source: Neil Gaiman interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast

That thing you just don’t feel like doing

Yesterday, I posted about a simple time management trick I often use. Whatever tricks or tools you use, though, your mind can easily defeat.

Let’s say you have a to do list of just three things (see yesterday’s post on this), and there’s one task left. It’s not technically difficult, but for whatever reason you just don’t feel like doing it right now. You know you should do it, but it’s nearly lunchtime, you’re hungry, and there’s time to do it later.

Nothing terrible will happen if you don’t do it now, but knowing that you should do it creates conflict. Just that little bit of internal stress that you’ll carry around for the rest of the day. If this is your habit, that stress will only accumulate as the weeks, months and years go by.

There will be times when you face really tough problems, so if you find yourself avoiding even the easy stuff because you don’t feel like doing it, how are you going to cope when something difficult comes along?

What if you did the opposite? What if, when you felt resistance, you took it as a signal that you need to go all in?

That thing you don’t feel like doing, that’s what you need to do.

Actions for today
  • Think of something easy that you’ve been putting off because you don’t feel like it
  • Do it
  • Think of something a bit harder you’re putting off
  • Do that, too
  • Repeat daily

I’m writing this for myself as much as anyone else. I procrastinate, too, but I’m finding this mindset not only helpful in terms of productivity but happiness, too. In part this is because I’m not carrying around those incomplete tasks or un-started goals in my head (which frees up a lot of mental energy). There’s great satisfaction in facing discomfort and it’s the only way to find out what you’re really capable of.

A simple time management trick: Just 3 things

Do this:

  • Write down just 3 things that you need to do. No more, no less
  • They should be small enough that each one is achievable in less than an hour
  • Pick one, do it
  • Don’t add anything else to the list until all three are done
  • If you get distracted, bring your attention back to the task

Too often, we make to do lists that are too long to finish. So we start the day feeling out of control and end the day unhappy with what we’ve done.

But by reducing the list to three, it becomes possible to finish everything and feel good before starting on the next tasks.

Try it now, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Planting seeds or putting out fires?

Do you spend most of your time planting seeds, or putting out fires?

If you’re planting seeds, you not only have to wait before getting the benefits, you also have to put in more work to cultivate them. It’s slow, but the earlier you start the greater the payoff in the long term.

If you’re only putting out fires, you’re dealing with the urgent, short-term problems, but neglecting your longer-term success.

Here’s an example…

  • You’re working on your PhD as hard as you can. You are reading and reading and gathering data as quickly as possible. Everything is rushed, because there’s NOT ENOUGH TIME.
  • You worry about your level of English, but you don’t have time for lessons. You just have to write because your supervisor wants to see something and it’s been so long since you sent something you feel you have to produce more.
  • And you have a ton of data to analyse, but you’re no good at statistics and there’s so much to do. If you just get something down on paper maybe you can sort it out later.
  • You’re working as hard as you can, but nothing seems to work and you’re afraid of being found out as an impostor

You’re putting out fires. There’s no time to think, let alone do the slow work required to cultivate your basic skills.

But nothing is on fire. There is no emergency. And the stress and energy you are investing isn’t going to pay off. By working in a panic, you’re neglecting the longer-term development of your project and your skills, so when time runs out and there’s a genuine emergency, there’s nothing you can do about it.

What to do

Slow down.

Let’s just take one aspect of the situation above; the stress about writing in English. This is entirely predictable and solvable, but it takes time. The earlier you start to address this problem, and the more consistently you attend to it, the easier it will be later.

If you know you have to submit a thesis in a second language in 3 years, you have 3 years to work on that skill. One lesson won’t make much of a difference, but if you start early and spend an hour per week with a language tutor, focusing primarily on formal written language, and if you do the work to practice, you’ll be fine. But you have to stop putting out fires and plant and cultivate the seed.

The same principle applies to statistics or to any other skill you have to develop. Make time to plant and cultivate seeds, no matter what else is going on.

Academic writing: Context is everything

Here’s a structure that works for almost any piece of academic writing:

  1. First, describe a situation.
  2. Next, describe a problem or question that arises from that situation.
  3. Now describe how other people have approached that problem or question.
  4. Explain a need to approach it in a different way or expand upon what’s been done.
  5. Say what you aim to do…

Each of these steps sets up a context for the next, so the flow of information naturally makes sense. There is no need to signpost* what you’re going to do, because the reader can follow you easily.

Here’s an example;

  • Worldwide, the number of PhD students is increasing
  • However, there is also evidence of disproportionate levels of stress among PhD students.
  • While there have been a limited number of studies to date which have highlighted the scale of the problem, and individual institutions have made efforts to provide better support, there has been little research into the effectiveness of different interventions
  • This research will…

This example combines points 3 and 4 into a single sentence, but the flow of information is the same. Each step sets up the context for the next.

Once you have this structure, you can add extra detail to support the main points, or you can keep it concise. Or you can treat some of the points briefly and go into much more detail on others. As long as the basic structure is there, the reader will be able to follow you.

So, for example, you can write 500 words about the increasing number of PhD students worldwide, adding statistics for different countries or an explanation of why the numbers are increasing.

  • Over the last 10 years, there has been a huge increase in the number of students enrolling in doctoral degree programmes worldwide. Recent statistics from the UN estimate that…
  • While the increase in the numbers of doctoral students is seen globally, it is even more marked in developing nations such as…
  • This is in part due to the a concerted effort at government level to …
  • Although increasing engagement in doctoral research has a number of benefits, recent evidence has shown evidence of disproportionate levels of stress among PhD students

Even though we’re adding extra information, we don’t need to alter the overall structure. This makes it much easier to edit your writing than if you just write with no structure at all.

Context in literature reviews

You can use this structure not only for the introduction to a thesis or paper, but to individual chapters or sections as well.

For example, in a literature review, you can place individual papers within a broader context.

  • Situation: A long standing problem in the field has been…
  • Traditionally, this has been approached by…
  • However, there’s a problem with this approach…
  • To address this, Smith proposed…
  • This has caused…

What most writers do is focus on Smith’s paper and introduce it by starting with the authors name, then what they did, then why it matters. But if you set up the context first, the reader has a reason to be interested in what Smith did and they immediately understand the significance of the work.

You can then say how it influenced the field, or how others built on Smith’s work, or how it created other problems. You’ve set up a new context now, describing other work as a response to Smith…

Context is everything. It’s the glue that holds the information together. And it’s probably the most important academic writing skill you can learn.

*Outside academia, no professional writer signposts what they are going to do. You never see a newspaper article or non-fiction book say, “this chapter consists of 4 parts; the first will…” or, “this article covered the latest developments in…” If a piece is well written, most signposting is unnecessary. If it’s badly written, signposting doesn’t help.

See also:

Signposting your writing

How to write a compelling literature review

Do you have to cite your external examiner in your PhD thesis?

Do you have to cite your external examiner in your PhD thesis? Maybe. There are reasons why you might need to, but the mere fact that they are your examiner isn’t enough.

“I’ve just found out who my external examiner is, so I need to make sure I cite them”

The assumption seems to be that the examiner will give you a hard time for not citing them, but there are a few problems with this way of thinking.

First, do you want the kind of examiner who will punish you for not citing them? While there are plenty of insecure, narcissistic academics out there, the majority are not like this.

It can cause more problems to cite your examiner badly. If you haven’t properly read their work, or if you misrepresent it, or if it’s obvious you’re just citing them to score points with them, you’re inviting a difficult conversation in your defence.

Of course, it’s likely that your examiner will have some relevant publications, but the same rules should apply to their work as any other citation.

  1. It should be placed in an appropriate context
  2. It should be a good example of the kind of work you are writing about
  3. You should have read it and have a clear reason for citing it (other than the fact that they are your examiner)

My own external examiner had invented one of the experimental techniques I used, so I would have cited him anyway. If your only reason for citing them is that they are your examiner, it’s probably better not to.

Small wins, part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about focusing on the small wins, rather than the big goals or major breakthroughs.

The first step is to define your threshold for success in the short term.

What would make today a successful day?

When I was writing my thesis, I set myself the target of writing a minimum of 500 words per day. This meant that I had a specific metric of success; on a difficult day, if I struggled to reach 501 words but fought my way through, it was still a successful day. If I blasted through 2000 words easily, it was a great day.

Sometimes, though, you aren’t in complete control of the outcome. Things can go wrong, equipment can break, experiments can fail… On days like these, your effort might not produce measurable forward progress.

But it’s days like these where your effort is most important. It’s the ability to stay engaged and creative when things go wrong that will make all the difference in the long run.

It’s still a win if you kept trying. It’s still a win if you stopped to think about the problem instead of just working on something else. It’s still a win if you stayed curious and engaged.

If you think this way, if you can look back on even the most frustrating days and say you did your best, more tangible success will come. It takes time, but it will come.

See also
Be like the ocean