Sleep!

There’s a good reason why Shakespeare called sleep “chief nourisher of life’s feast”. It is as important as food for physical and mental health.

Of course you have to make sacrifices sometimes in order to finish your PhD, but sleep should be the last thing you sacrifice.

Cutting down your sleep even by a small amount per night can have serious negative effects;

  • Decresed alertness and cognitive performance
  • Impaired memory
  • Irritability and stress

To succeed at PhD level research you need your brain working to the best of its ability. So giving up sleep might gain you an extra ahour or two of working time, but if you can’t think straight then that extra time isn’t very useful.

If you deprive yourself of sleep consistently over a long time it also affects your immune system meaning you are more likely to become ill. So any working time you gained by cutting back on sleep, you can lose in sick days.

Sometimes research demands a late night. There were times when I was still in the lab when the sun came up. But it’s not sustainable in the long term and you have to give yourself time to recover!

If you have too much work, if you are stressed and not making fast enough progress, slow down and think about how you work. Depriving yourself of sleep is never the answer.

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Free yourself from internet distraction while you write your thesis

When I wrote my PhD thesis, there were many factors that helped me write fast.

But if I had to pick one thing- one defining factor in my success- then it would be this…

I wrote it with no internet connection.

I knew that the internet was my Achilles heel. It was my biggest distraction, and if I didn’t keep it under control then I would end up losing days and weeks doing nothing.

Willpower?

I could have tried to use willpower and self-discipline to avoid procrastination, but this takes effort to do.

Willpower is a limited resource and eventually it runs out. You know how it goes… after working for a while your brain starts finding reasons to go online…

You start by telling yourself, “I’ll just see if my supervisor has replied to that email”, but in the 3 seconds it takes to load,  you’ve already opened a tab for facebook, and before you know it you have spent 45 minutes watching YouTube videos of cats.

Removing the option

If you remove the need for willpower to keep you offline, you can direct that effort towards your work instead.

So I removed the option of going online and worked with no internet connection in my flat. There was simply no way I could get online from my home computer.

But… what if you need papers?!?

There was a time before the internet, when journals were only available in physical form, and searching for an article meant looking through pages and pages of abstracts in the library.

So it is clearly possible to do without having an internet connection!

I did it using the internet connection at the university (a 10 minute bike-ride away). I would plan ahead and download the papers I needed.

Next to my desk, I had a row of ring-binders stuffed full of articles, sorted by topic. So at any point I could reach out and grab the relevant articles.

What if you can’t cut the internet off?

It might not be possible to cut the internet off completely, especially if you live with other people or have to work in an office at the university.

If that’s the case, I can strongly recommend downloading a program called “Freedom”.

Freedom!

Freedom works by switching off your internet connection for a set amount of time.  If you set it to 60 minutes, then once activated you cannot access the internet. There is no password, there is no stop button, you are completely cut off until the 60 minutes are up.

You can get Freedom here. It costs $10, but if it helps you finish your thesis faster, it is well worth it!

I have no affiliation to the company, I just recommend it because I use it.

Try it out and leave your comments below!

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Searching for inspiration?

How many of you have done this?

You sit down at the computer to get some work done, but it’s just not happening. The ideas are there, you sort of know what you want to do, but you’re just feeling uninspired.

So you open up a browser and search for inspiration… something to trigger that creative spark. But before you know it you have lost half the day just surfing the web.

I do this all the time, but it rarely works. Even if I find an outstanding blog post or YouTube video or TED talk, after I watch one, all I want to do is watch another. It’s easy to justify to myself, but it is nothing more than a gateway to endless procrastination.

But while searching for inspiration I found this blog post by Derek Sivers which stopped me in my tracks.

Musicians, writers, artists, and everyone else, all scouring the world for inspiration…

Yet most of them aren’t feeling inspired enough. They’re looking for more, thinking something else out there will truly inspire them.

[but] nothing is truly inspiring unless you apply it to your work...

You may hear something or see something that gives you a new idea. But it’s only when you stop and think of your work through this new perspective, that you actually jump up and go turn the idea into reality…

The inspiration is not the receiving of information. The inspiration is applying what you’ve received.

You have to pause the input, and focus on your output.

I can’t put it any better than Sivers does. Read the full post here, then apply it!

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Tips for surviving a remote PhD

Doing a PhD is undoubtedly harder when you are geographically separated from your academic institution.

Whether you are doing a distance-PhD or are separated for some other reason, isolation from contact and support from your supervisor and fellow students adds a whole other level of difficulty to a task which is already pretty damn difficult.

Why is it a remote PhD more difficult?

The reason universities exist is to bring together academics with different ideas and expertise. This creates an environment where the discussions collaborations and arguments crucial to innovation can take place.

Because nobody is good at everything, the sharing of ideas and knowledge can lead to discoveries which would have been impossible for any one individual to achieve alone. Even if the bulk of the work was carried out by one person, discussions with other academics are almost always an essential part of the process.

This is clearly more difficult if you are doing a remote PhD.

Also, when you start a PhD you almost certainly lack research experience. This is OK, because you are supposed top know more when you finish than when you start. If you are surrounded by more experienced researchers then you can learn from them, not just research techniques but how they think and talk about their work. Without this contact you have to figure everything out yourself through trial and error.

Essential tips for surviving a remote PhD

1- Fight for attention

Contact with your supervisor wont happen by accident. Many students assume that their supervisors time is more valuable than their own and are therefore reluctant to seek regular contact, but this is a false assumption.

If your supervisor is busy, you have to fight for their attention. it is your responsibility to ensure they don’t forget you. As a minimum, you should push to have contact via telephone or skype at least once per month.

If they are not willing to spend 1 hour per month with you, you probably have the wrong supervisor.

2- Update your supervisor, no matter what

Another false assumption is that you have to have something to show before contacting your supervisor. This is probably the worst assumption you can make! It means that you wont seek help when you need it the most.

It also means that the longer you go without contact, the greater expectation you put on yourself to produce something amazing to account for the time since you last spoke and the less likely you are to make contact.

Email your supervisor with updates, irrespective of whether it is going well or not. You don’t have to ask for input every time, you can just let them know;

  • what you have been working on
  • progress/ problems
  • what you plan to do next

Do this every 2 weeks.

3- Take every opportunity to talk to other students and academics

At some point, you will hopefully get the opportunity to meet other students and academics face to face.

Take every opportunity you get, and talk to as many people as you can. If you leave without anyone’s contact details, you have missed a huge opportunity!

4- Ask questions!

You are not expected to know everything, and you do not have to do everything on your own.

Asking questions shows that you are engaged and interested in the process and that you value other people’s input!

In summary…

The common factor in all of these tips is that you must make extra effort to get yourself noticed. If you hide away from contact with others, it will be a very lonely process indeed…

Productivity vs creativity

Being more productive is easy.

If you have a clear plan and process, then you can;

  • Work harder or faster
  • Work more hours
  • Improve your efficiency and organisation

But this only works for routine tasks where you know what to do and how to do it.

If you have done something 1000 times, then you will have a refined process to rely upon, and you can be productive simply by working harder and longer hours. Even if you are tired, you can still be productive because this kind of routine work does not require much creative thinking.

But during a PhD, there will be many times when you don’t know exactly how to do the work, or where you have to create or learn a methodology or solve a difficult problem.

In this situation, you need to be creative, rather than productive.

Creativity involves allowing your mind to wander and explore many ideas, or many possible solutions to a problem. It is a playful state where it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes.

To be creative, you have to be able to relax while thinking and give yourself time to come up with a solution. This is very difficult to do under the pressure of a deadline, or if you are tired.

PhD work requires a mixture of productivity and creativity, but they require opposite approaches, and you cannot do both at the same time.

Productivity and Creativity in Writing

Writing requires both productivity and creativity.

When you know a subject extremely well, have spoken about it many times and are confident in what you have to say, then you can often just sit down and write. To be more productive, type faster or spend longer typing.

But there will come a point where you have to stop and think. Are you sure you know what you want to say? Or how to link two ideas together? Or how to interpret your data? Or how to explain the conclusion? These are problems which need solutions.

Maybe there are different ways to structure your argument, so you need to consider what to say next… maybe you have a lot of information and you need to decide what to leave out… maybe you need to clarify an idea or check a reference…

In this situation, it is often tempting to leave the problem and write about something else in order to stay productive and keep increasing your word count, but this is not a good idea because the problem hasn’t gone away.

Instead you need to slow down and take some time to think creatively, then you can go back to being productive once the problem is solved.

This means that your writing pace will vary enormously throughout the day, but this is OK.

It is OK to spend 45 minutes on a single sentence sometimes, especially if it is a key point in your argument and need to do some work to make sure it is accurate.

You can then speed up again, set a word count target and go back into productive mode.

You need both the fast and the slow, the productivity and the creativity, in order to be successful.

Coming back to your PhD after a long break?

Despite the best laid plans, sometimes things come along in life which can throw you off track and lead to a long, unplanned break from your PhD. This could be bereavement, the breakup of a relationship, illness or a stress-induced breakdown (or all of the above).

Or maybe there have just been been too many other demands on your time… especially if you have a job which actually pays you money to show up, it’s easy to let the PhD slip away. One week off turns into a month, one month off turns into 6, 6 months turn into a year…

The longer you leave it, the more difficult it is to come back and reestablish the PhD as part of your life, but there are some simple steps you can take to get yourself back in the PhD habit.

1. Reestablish contact with supervisors

This can be daunting, especially if your supervisor doesn’t know you have taken time off. Many students only want to contact their supervisors if they have something to show, but this means that the longer you leave it, the more pressure you put on yourself.

You must reestablish contact and tell them about the situation and that you are coming back. This is the only way they can help you form a plan for how to proceed.

2. Take stock of what you have

It’s easy to forget what you have done in terms of data, results and writing. Looking at the work you already have helps to refresh the memory.

It can be difficult to look. There might be a bit of a psychological barrier to overcome, but it is essential to take stock of what you have before you can do anything else.

3. Pick something simple to start with

There may be many things you have to do to finish, but to get started again it’s best to pick one thing to focus on initially.

4. Create the time

If your schedule has filled up with other things, then you have to create time if you want to go back to work on the PhD.

There will always be other demands on your time, but you must protect sufficient time for PhD work.

5. Decide, and take action

If you have taken time out, you need to make a clear decision whether or not you want to continue with the PhD.

The worst situation is to drift along without making a decision, carrying the burden of an incomplete thesis on your mind.

It is OK to leave, and it is OK to carry on, as long as you make a clear decision and follow through with action.

Understanding academic literature

In order to understand academic literature, first you need to know that academic journal articles are written by real people. This can be easy to forget when you have a massive stack of printed papers on your desk.

The field consists not of words on paper, but of professors, lecturers, postdocs, and PhD students just like you.

Publish or Perish

Publications are the lifeblood of an academic career. Spend enough time around researchers and you will inevitably hear phrases like, ”publish or perish”, or ”you live or die by your last publication”.

This is because getting funding for research usually depends on the applicant’s recent publication record. A funding agency is much more likely to give money to someone who has a strong track record than someone who hasn’t published anything for years.

Without funding, it’s difficult to do research, and difficult to publish, which makes it harder to get funding…

And often, a researcher’s ongoing employment depends upon bringing in funding to the university they work for.

So to put it simply, if you don’t publish, your career will at best flounder, and at worst, come to an abrupt end. This is the pressure on most academics worldwide.

Not all papers are of equal value

Many papers are written under extreme pressure to publish, and even experienced researchers sit nervously checking their email inbox to see if a paper has been deemed good enough to be accepted.

Some papers are exceptional and have a massive impact, but the majority make a small contribution which the authors are just happy to have published.

If you want to get to know a field quickly, just reading as many papers as possible means you’ll be reading a large number of papers which only have a very small impact on the field, so it will take a very long time to build up an overall view.

Focus on the leaders in the field first

But, if you focus on the leaders in your field, the ones who have made the largest contribution, then by reading a relatively small number of papers you can quite quickly develop a decent level of knowledge.

This is easier the more specialised you make your search.

When you narrow it down to your own very specific area of study, there many be only 3 or 4, or perhaps even fewer, experts dedicated to studying that particular thing.

When you narrow it down that much, it is possible to read a large proportion, or even all of the papers those people have ever written on the subject.

This will give you a far better insight into the subject than just downloading hundreds of papers by keyword.

Understanding academic literature

Obviously you need to build upon this foundation, but it becomes much easier to understand many papers once you’ve got a good understanding of an important few.

How to get through your PhD without going insane (lecture at Edinburgh University)

(feel free to share this video or embed on your own site)

There is no shortage of PhD advice out there; how to be more organised, how to procrastinate less, how to sort your data and so on… And yet there is no shortage of stressed PhD students either.

Is the advice flawed? Or are the students just not working hard enough? Neither; the problem is that the advice generally given consists of tactics, while most students are still trying to figure out the rules of the game.

If you don’t know how the system works or what you have to achieve, then being more organised or working harder simply won’t work… you’ll just end up going insane!

In this talk, you will learn the fundamental principles every PhD student needs to know in order to succeed.

PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs!

Pretty much everyone who goes through a PhD will experience some kind of stress. This isn’t always a bad thing. Some PhD stress can help focus the mind, and the discomfort of going beyond your current limits is often necessary to learn.

But stress can also be destructive. Instead of helping you focus it can have the opposite effect. And instead of helping you learn it can make it difficult to do even the simplest of things.

In academia, there is a culture of just accepting that stress is part of the job. Everyone goes through this, so just keep going. It’s normal. Get on with it. Sometimes, though, stress is a warning sign that something is going seriously wrong.

PhD stress: signs you should not ignore

  • Constantly feeling you can’t work hard enough
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the workload
  • Feeling like you are not working to your true ability
  • Inability to focus
  • Feeling like nothing you do has any impact, and that you have no control
  • Feeling that even easy things have become difficult
  • Constant fear of failure
  • Feeling like you don’t belong on a PhD program, and that you will be “found out” (impostor syndrome)
  • Physical or mental exhaustion

Just working harder, or trying to be more organised is not going to make a difference if you feel these things. You must address the root of the problem.

Slow down

The most important thing to do (and often the hardest, when under pressure) is to slow down.

Give yourself time to think, and simplify what you are trying to do.

Ask yourself…

At a simple, practical level, reducing the number of things you are working on is a good start

  • How many different things are you trying to work on at the same time?
  • If you were to just focus on one thing, what would it be?
  • How can you break it down into steps, and what’s the simplest thing you can do?
  • How do you react when things go wrong? Do you stay with the problem or switch to working on something else?

Slowing down and reducing your area of focus is easy in principle, and in terms of the practical component of PhD stress this is often enough. But it’s not always so simple…

Signs of depression

  • Change in sleep patterns (waking up much earlier or later than usual)
  • Emotional numbness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feelings of guilt or grief or worthlessness
  • Feeling like everything you try to do is exhausting

This is not a comprehensive list (and I am not a qualified psychologist), but just some common signs to look out for. I strongly recommend watching Robert Sapoloski’s lecture on depression linked at the end of this article for a more detailed description.

If you’re experiencing any of these, the best thing for you to do is seek help. Here are a few possible options;

  • Talk to your doctor
  • Find out if your university has a counselling service (and book in a session)

Many therapists offer sessions via Skype (so if, for example, you’re an international student and want to talk to someone in your native language, you can find someone online), but talking to someone face to face should be your first option if available.

There is a directory of online therapists here

My own experience

I’ve written before about my experiences with depression and PhD stress, and while I usually focus on addressing the practical component, I also spoke to my doctor and had a number of sessions with a therapist through the university counselling service (something I should have done much earlier).

I often found when talking to friends that they tended to say things like “it’s OK, everybody goes through this”, but this never really helped. It was only when I acknowledged that things really weren’t OK (and spoke to people who were qualified to help) that I was able to do something about it.

See
Robert Sapolski’s Stanford lecture on depression (this link includes the YouTube video and a text summary)