“The best of the best”

On the very first day of my PhD, I sat with all the other new students through a whole day of induction meetings.

Various people came to speak to us over the course of several hours; the safety officer, someone from the finance department, somebody else to talk about the monthly reports we were supposed to fill in…

But there was one that stuck in my mind. It was the “motivational speech” where we were told that we had been accepted onto a PhD program because, by definition, we were,

… the best of the best…

I’m sure it was meant to motivate us and give us confidence, but for me it had the exact opposite effect.

I was definitely not the best of the best. I hadn’t done particularly well as an undergraduate, and I felt like I had bluffed my way onto a PhD program. Maybe these other people were the best of the best, but I was the impostor and I spent the next couple of years with a small but ever-present worry that I would be found out.

Worrying about what you don’t know

I was always worried about what I didn’t know. My maths wasn’t that great by physicists standards, and there was a lot of fairly basic stuff that I had either forgotten or simply never learned in the first place.

I would occasionally try to fill those gaps… I would get a book and leave it on my desk in the hope that the knowledge would enter my head by virtue of proximity, but of course it never did.

Background stress…

The fear of being found out added a level of background stress. It wasn’t particularly bad… my life was perfectly comfortable and I woudn’t say that I was suffering, but there was certainly a slow erosion of confidence.

But this background stress stopped me working to the best of my ability. When I did an experiment, I never really believed that it would work, and so subconsciously I undermined my own effort by not doing thiogs quite as carefully as I could.

Of course, this menat that things were less likely to work, which reinforced my negative beliefs, and the whole thing became a self-sustaining cycle of futility.

The realisation…

It was only in my third year of the PhD, after nearly quitting, that I realised something crucial…

Everybody has different skills and expertise. It did not matter that I had weaknesses and gaps in my knowledge, because there were other things that I was really quite good at. Other people weren’t better or worse, they just knew different things.

I had forgotten a lot of basic physics and maths becasue I didn’t need it for my project and wasn’t using it. But I had learned a huge amount about the experimental technique I was using, and knew the equipment as well as anybody.

I had become a specialist. An expert in one or two things, and so I decided to focus on that and not worry about how much I didn’t know.

I didn’t have time anyway to fill in all the gaps, so there was no point worrying about it.

The thesis

When I came to write my thesis, I decided to focus only on material I knew and understood well. By focusing on my strongest areas, I could write faster and with more confidence.

There was always a risk that an examiner would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, but I just took the view that this is my work, I am proud of it and I am happy to defend it, and if the examiner doesn’t like it, I don’t care.

With this attitude, I was able to relax and actually enjoy the writing process.

Get really good at something

The best of the best is meaningless. Everyone has different skills and strengths and weaknesses, and nobody knows or is good at everything.

So don’t worry about comparing yourself to others, and don’t worry about the gaps in your knowledge, because you can never fill all of them.

But what you can do is get really good at a small number of things, know where your strengths lie, and focus on them instead.

PhD research proposals: a good idea is not enough

In many PhD projects, you have to write your own research proposal. This is in some ways similar to the process that professional academics go through when applying for funding to do research.

It is not enough to have a good idea and research plan. You need to be be able to convince other academics that the project is interesting or valuable or useful.

A PhD research proposal is a pitch for investment of resources… whether that investment is money, equipment or time. Before anyone will invest in your project, you need to do two things…

1. get their interest

Of course, different people find different things interesting, valuable or useful. Your research may be very far removed from any obvious practical application, but it can still be of academic interest to others working in the field.

So you need to know who you are selling it to, and why they should be interested. It is this understanding, as much as your technical knowledge, that will help you sell your research idea.

This means becoming familiar with the literature and knowing how your work fits into the broader context, but it also means getting to know people in the field, what motivates them and what they find interesting.

2. reassure them

Any investment carries some risk. If someone invests money in your project, or agrees to invest time supervising it then they carry some of the risk if your project is a disaster.

So you need to reassure them that the research idea is viable, that you have done adequate background research, and that you have thought through clearly how you will carry out the project.

If you can convince other academics that your project is interesting, then reassure them that you can deliver, then you will have a high chance of success.

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.