Raising the bar

If you’re doing a PhD, it’s quite likely that you did well at all the previous levels of the education system.

But a PhD is a completely different challenge requiring completely different skills. This means that many PhD students find themselves struggling for the first time in their academic lives.

Whereas an undergraduate degree, generally, has a clear structure and timetable that’s the same for everyone on your course (you’re told where to be, when to be there, and what to do while you’re there), a PhD does not.

The other key difference is that an undergraduate degree has a clear standard to reach, which, again, is the same for everyone on your course. In your PhD, though, the standard you have to reach is not only unclear, it’s different for every student depending on the project and the individual subjective preferences of the supervisor.

In the absence of a clearly defined standard, if you want to impress your supervisor or examiner the temptation is to aim as high as you can think of. A PhD is a bit like doing the high jump in the dark; if you don’t know where the bar is, naturally you’ll just try to jump as high as you can.

But this approach , no matter how natural, doesn’t work. If you want to develop the skills you need to succeed, you have to start easy and raise the bar gradually. If you skip this process, you’ll just end up overwhelmed.

Example: Working with Literature

When I started my own PhD (way back in 2003), one of the first things my supervisor asked me to do was to write a literature review. Desperate to impress, I decided that I would write the best literature review the world has ever seen. I even thought that I might be able to get it published. Of course, I failed to live up to my own expectations. I didn’t have the skill or experience to write a literature review that good, and felt a tiny bit demoralized by my own failure.

What I should have done, and what I now coach people to do, is lower the bar.

With the literature, this means starting with just a small number of papers and figuring out

  • What problem they were attempting to solve
  • Why it was a problem
  • What they did (and how)
  • What they discovered
  • Why that discovery was significant

It’s best to do this with important, groundbreaking papers, because these give you a foundation for understanding the incremental work that followed.

This is far more effective than taking a stack of 200 papers and trying to write summaries of them all.

See also: How to read a journal article

Example: Data Analysis

Data analysis is a skill, not just a process to follow. This skill needs to be developed over time, rather than at the end of your PhD. Obviously, you also need to learn how to interpret the data, but one of the key meta-skills that’s often overlooked is to know how the analysis can go wrong. This can only be developed through experience.

Again, the way to do this is by starting easy, with a small amount of data, getting to know each step of the analysis deeply. This way, you can make and correct mistakes at a manageable level, with each correction gradually improving your skill.

See also: Don’t neglect your data

Example: Project design

Part of my own PhD involved working on an instrument development project. The original plan was basically to build a machine that did everything, combining atomic force microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy and near-field optical microscopy, in ultra-high vacuum at low temperature.

The technical details don’t matter here. The point is that in trying to do everything at the same time, none of it worked.

It was only when we simplified things, getting one part working before adding another, that we managed to make any progress. You have to start with a low bar, then raise it gradually. We would have saved a lot of time (and money) if we’d done it this way.

If you want to develop the skills you need to succeed, you have to start easy and raise the bar gradually. If you skip this process, you’ll just end up overwhelmed.

See also
The “Good” PhD Student
What to do when your PhD project gets too big
By Joop van Bilsen / Anefo – http://proxy.handle.net/10648/a9dd8eb4-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84, CC0, Link

Revisiting the pomodoro technique

Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work on just one thing for those 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. After 4 rounds, take a longer break. When I first tried the pomodoro technique back in 2010, I loved it for its simplicity and effectiveness.

Since then, I’ve often used timers to help myself focus; it’s always easier to keep going when you know how much time you have left. Usually, I’ve done bursts of 40-45 minutes, but over the last few weeks I’ve revisited the original 25:5 formula.

I’ve found that;

  • By forcing myself to take breaks after only 25 minutes, I’m finding that I want to carry on. My brain is still engaged with the task I was doing.
  • I don’t have to decide how long to work for; the decision is made once, so it frees up a bit of mental space
  • I like the rhythm it imposes on the day
  • I’m not working to the point of fatigue or distraction

But the pomodoro technique on its own is not enough…

  • You need a way of prioritizing and deciding what to focus on, and, of course, you need the skills to do what you aim to do
  • Turning the internet off (or blocking email and other distractions) is a huge help
  • Having a deliberate routine for what you do in the breaks stops bad habits creeping in (don’t check email!)

Try it out and let me know what you think in the comments below!

External references:
The pomodoro technique
I’m currently using the Flat Tomato timer app and Cold Turkey to block internet distractions.
See also:
Procrastination hack: Get to zero

Day 3: Levelling up

See all the videos here
Even simple things can take time and thought and mental energy when you’re doing something new. By taking care of these simple things you can make them automatic, freeing up your mental capacity to do more complex things, step by step.

I intended to add a title slide today, but it’s a bit more complicated than I thought and not possible to do in YouTube’s editor. Pushing slightly helps you find and face unexpected difficulties!

Today’s small improvements:

Today I used a real camera rather than my phone, but this adds a layer of complication because I then need to transfer that data to another device before uploading. This sounds simple, but because the file is now much larger, it takes that little bit longer (and some methods I tried, like connecting the camera to my PC via wifi, didn’t work).

Having done this, though, it’ll be faster tomorrow.

Day 0: Stop waiting for conditions to be perfect

A very quick video I made about perfectionism. I’ve been meaning to make short videos for a long time, but I get held back by my own perfectionism. Care in your work is good, but not when it stops you doing anything at all!

So today I recorded this, in very not ideal conditions, just to get over the perfectionism. I’m not going to wait for conditions to be perfect if I have a message to share!

See also
Why some perfectionism is a good thing

Why is it so hard to stick to my PhD plan?

It’s easy to make a PhD plan; to list out all the things you need to do and fit them into a nice, neat timeline. Perhaps you add colour codes too or make a Gantt chart. Doing this gives you a feeling of control, but that feeling of control doesn’t last very long. And if you fall behind then your beautiful timeline can become a source of stress rather than a useful tool.

There are three major problems here

  1. PhD research always has an unpredictable element to it. The plan does not give you control over these.
  2. When planning, we tend to underestimate how long things take (because it represents an optimistic ideal)
  3. By focusing on the long term, the plan doesn’t tell you what to do right now

So how can you plan in a way that actually makes your life easier, rather than just temporarily making you feel better?

A good PhD plan; flexible, realistic and useful

A good PhD plan should be;

  • flexible, to allow for the unpredictable
  • realistic, so you can actually achieve your goals
  • and useful, helping you decide where to focus your effort

To do this, it’s useful to divide the plan into long- and short-term components.

Long-term and short-term plans

The long-term plan gives you direction, and possibly includes important deadlines, but should not be overly detailed or rigid.

The short-term plan is where you should put most of your attention because this is about what you’re going to do now. As a general rule, think 2 or 3 moves ahead. So you know exactly what you need to do now and what you’re going to do next.

The long-term plan, though flexible, should influence the short term. So if you have to submit a report next month, this should have some influence on the decisions you make right now. If the plan on your wall doesn’t influence the decisions you make, it’s nothing more than office decoration.

Meeting your goals

The individual goals you set for right now need to be realistic and set on a scale that’s achievable in the short term. But then you need to follow through to completion. Too often, PhD students switch to working on something else when they hit a problem, but this means that nothing ever gets finished.

Sometimes this means spending longer than you planned on one task, but at least it means that you’re one small step closer.

The final ingredient

The final ingredient is skill. When you’ve done something before, it’s much easier to predict how long things will take and plan effectively.

See Also

When there’s so much to do that nothing gets done

Productivity comes last

Beyond the obvious

When you have so much to do that nothing gets done

Sometimes, there are so many things to do that it seems impossible to do any of it. You want to, but everything’s just blocked and every day that goes by just adds to the pressure.

It’s a bit like having a hundred people trying to squeeze through a narrow doorway at the same time. The more they push, the harder it is for anyone to get through.

In this analogy, the best solution is to form a queue and let people through calmly, one at a time.

The same can work for work; by focusing on just one thing at a time, you can dedicate all your mental energy to the task at hand.

To do this effectively, you need to stay with the task even if it’s difficult. Don’t switch to working on something else just because it’s difficult. That way, you can actually solve some of the problems that arise, rather than saving them up for later.


See also:

What to do when your PhD project gets too big

The one-item to-do list

Everybody knows how good it feels to write a to-do list. It gives you a real sense of calm and control when you have a million things to do.

But how long does that good feeling last? And is it really helpful if you get your psychological reward before you’ve actually achieved anything?

A to-do list is only useful if it tells you where your attention needs to be right now. If you’ve made a list but not decided which one item to focus on then you’ll never get anything done.

Once you’ve written a list, the next step is to decide, firmly, what you’re going to do next. Reduce it down to a list of one, making sure that it’s a small enough task that you know what actions to take.

You’ll still get distracted, but it’s much easier to get back on track when you have a single, clearly defined task to bring your attention back to.

See also:
A boring but useful blog post about checklists
Quick tip: to do lists
By TrounceOwn work, CC BY 3.0, Link

How to meet deadlines

When under pressure, setting out a timeline with deadlines can give you a temporary feeling of control, but if you fail to meet the deadlines you set it can make you even more stressed.

One of the problems with self-imposed deadlines is that they don’t come with consequences. Other than feeling guilty, nothing immediately bad is going to happen if you miss an arbitrary date. But if it keeps happening again and again and again then the guilt and the stress builds and builds and builds, potentially affecting your ability to do the work.

There are ways to create artificial consequences, but I think this misses the point.

The key difference between hard and soft deadlines is that hard deadlines force you to be decisive. When there isn’t time to consider lots of alternatives you have to commit to a single course of action, with the choice you make often being determined by the time available.

If you want to meet a self-imposed deadline, then you have to use it as a basis for making decisions. Often, we aren’t aware of the decisions we’re making and the reasons behind them, so sometimes it’s good to pause and think about what you’re doing.

Let’s say, for example, that you allow yourself two weeks to write a literature review. First, you’re going to have to put in some serious effort—so deciding to close Facebook, deciding not to watch that interesting documentary on Netflix. It’s easy to justify putting off the work, deferring it to your future self (“I’ll get up at 5am tomorrow and get 3 hours work done before breakfast”), but recognise this for the avoidance it is, and let the deadline make the decision.

Next, what do you do with the time and effort? You could, easily, spend all of that time reading through a stack of new papers. This is easy to justify if you’re worried you might miss an undefined something you imagine the examiner might want to see, but if you do this then you’ve missed the deadline before you’ve even started. But if you use the deadline as a basis for making decisions, then it’s obvious that you have to limit the amount of new reading you do, and limit the scope of the review to focus primarily on the areas you already know. This means excluding things—deciding what not to do—which is really the only way to gain clarity of purpose and get the work done.

Of course, using deadlines as a basis for decisions isn’t a guarantee of success, but I do think it is a prerequisite and far better than leaving things to chance.

By JuergenG, modified by Rainer Z - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5512303
By JuergenG, modified by Rainer ZOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5512303