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, but 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.

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

What is a PhD, anyway?

What is a PhD anyway? It seems like a stupidly simple question. If you’re smart enough to do one, you should know what it is!

There are many ways to define it, often talking about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. But this is only part of the story.

I want to define a PhD in a way that helps you understand what you need to actually do, and what standard you need to achieve.

What is a PhD, anyway?

A PhD is the entrance qualification for the world of professional academia. It is designed to test whether you are capable of conducting academic research at a professional level.

If you define a PhD this way, what then are the logical consequences?

The standard required

If you want to prove that you can conduct research to a professional academic level, then that tells you exactly what standard is required. You need to produce work of a high enough standard to publish in a peer-reviewed journal.

This is why, in most academic systems, your thesis is assessed by an expert in the field from outside your university; it is modeled on the process for publication through peer review.

The standard is set by the field

In an undergraduate degree, your competition comes from your classmates. But in the world of professional academia, you may be competing with researchers all over the world.

So the standard you have to reach is set relative to what others in the field are doing. If your research area is relatively new, the standard will be different to a research area which has been well established for decades. Therefore…

You must know the field

You have to know what others are doing and what they have done in the past. In other words, you must know the field before you can make a significant contribution to it.

But a knowledge of the field is still not enough.

Execution of research

If you are to publish professional-level research, the execution of the research needs to be highly competent.

So whatever methodology you use, get really good at it. If you are planning to conduct interviews, then practice and practice and practice some more. If you are doing experiments, get to know the equipment as well as you can. Find people with more experience in relevant techniques and learn from them, because this is crucial to the success of your project.

It is not easy…

None of this is easy, and it takes time to develop this level of knowledge and skill. But it is possible with persistence, patience and the right approach.


See also

How to do a PhD: top 10 tips

Why academic ability doesn’t guarantee PhD success

Academic ability is clearly important for PhD students. You need to be fairly smart to get onto a PhD program. Or at the very least, you need to be able to convince people you are smart which is an important skill in itself.

But academic ability can only get you so far. To successfully complete a PhD, you need more..

Academic ability doesn’t guarantee success

Academic ability, intelligence, IQ, test scores and so on help to get you in, but don’t guarantee success in a PhD program.

This is because by the time you get to PhD level, everybody has a high academic ability, high IQ etc. It is no longer the deciding factor between those who succeed and those who fail.

It’s like being tall and playing basketball. It helps, but doesn’t guarantee success because once you get to professional level everyone is else is tall too.

Practical competence

Because you are largely left to organise your own research, practical competence is probably just as important as academic ability.

If your research involves interviewing people, then it doesn’t matter how good you are academically if you can’t find and persuade people to take part in the study.

Or if you are running complex simulations but can’t persuade the IT manager to give you time on the supercomputer, then you’re in trouble.

Every project has practical barriers.

  • Obtaining equipment
  • Contacting the manufacturer when it breaks down
  • Contacting them again if they don’t get back to you
  • Figuring out how to fix it yourself
  • Dealing with administration
  • Getting safety or ethical clearance
  • Finding someone with expertise you need
  • Managing your data or samples
  • Finding funding…

It is often these kinds of problems that take the most time and cause the most frustration and stress, but they have nothing to do with academic ability!

The burden of expectation

Dealing with the practical side of research can be tough, and there are always problems you didn’t anticipate. Because most PhD students are accustomed to succeeding, these problems and delays can cause you to doubt your own ability.

So don’t put yourself under too much pressure to get results straight away. If there are practical obstacles to overcome, focus on those first!

Some tips

Get to know people in your department. Get to know secretaries, technicians; the people who can make things happen. Say hello to them if you pass them in the corridor. Then they’ll be much more inclined to give you help when you need it.

Phone calls beat email. If you are contacting a supplier (or anyone), a phone call is much more powerful than email. If you sent an email and never got a reply, don’t give up, pick up the phone!

Do small trial runs. Because some problems don’t appear until you actually try something, it’s often a good idea to try a small scale practice run. That way, you can adapt your approach before committing to the real thing.

Be patient but persistent. Don’t expect everything to work out perfectly immediately, but don’t sit and wait either. Keep pushing and keep adapting!

Positive Thesis Perfectionism and the Pursuit of Excellence

Thesis perfectionism is often seen as a problem for thesis writers, but is it really?

Can perfectionism be positive? In the right circumstances, it can be.

Conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom says that thesis perfectionism is a bad thing.

If you worry too much about getting it perfect, then you won’t be able to write anything. Or if you do write something, you’ll never be satisfied and will get stuck in an endless cycle of writing and rewriting and never finish.

So you end up with advice telling you not to worry about the details. To just get words down on the page. To come back and edit later. Just get something done. (See the worst thesis writing advice ever [and what to do instead]).

This works only as a short-term fix for writer’s block. If you don’t think too much you can probably write 1000 words in a couple of hours, but eventually you will run out of momentum and be back where you started.

Or if you do manage to write several thousand words, it will be a mess of poorly structured thoughts with depth and no supporting detail. This is very hard to edit! So the temptation is always to move to writing about something fresh to get that momentum going again. Following this path you can end up with 6 chapters all in a state of “70% done”, but nothing actually finished and in a submissible state.

The more you write, the more detail is left for later. The harder it becomes to make any progress, and the more stressful life becomes as the months tick away.

But this is normal, right?

What is perfectionism?

Thesis perfectionism has been given a bad name, but that’s only because it’s misunderstood.

If you’re never happy with what you’ve written, is that perfectionism? Or is it something else?

Often, it’s just a lack of confidence, or being indecisive in what you are trying to say. So you write and rewrite but still aren’t happy. Or you worry so much about whether it will be good enough in the eyes of the examiner that you are too scared to write anything.

Just getting more on the page, then, isn’t going to help. What you need is the confidence to make a clear, assertive statement which you know you can defend.

This comes from knowing that you’ve taken the time and care to verify what you’re saying. Knowing that the evidence is there (and knowing where it is). Understanding the consequences of the argument you’re making, and Questioning yourself in a constructive way. In other words, taking time and care over the details.

Absolute perfection is unattainable (if you write 100,000 words there will be a spelling mistake soemwhere),  but excellence is attanable, and there’s nothing wrong with aiming for it.

The pursuit of excellence

The first attempt

It’s true that you shouldn’t worry too much about your first attempt at a sentence or paragraph. All you need to get started is some idea of what you want to say.

Because we don’t think in perfectly formed sentences, the first version is often a bit clunky. That’s OK. As long as you know what you’re trying to say, you can then work to improve it.

But if you edit immediately, while the thought is fresh in your head, it is much easier than writing 10s of thousands of words and then coming back to sort out the mess.

Exploring many options

There is no one right answer, no one right way of expressing an idea.

So you can and should explore many options without being too attached to any one.

The key is to immerse yourself in the idea and give it deep thought.


Whatever idea you’re trying to express, immerse yourself in it. Stay with it.

Look at what you’ve written. Do you know what point you’re trying to make? Does it make sense? Is it true? Have you really cut through to the essence of the argument? Is there another, better way to phrase it? Do you have the references and evidence to back up what you’re saying?

Sometimes you might get stuck. This could be because;

  • If the thought isn’t yet clear in your own head, you have no hope of communicating it effectively.
  • If you don’t have the references to back up what you’re saying, you can’t write with confidence.

If you don’t have a strong foundation, then it might feel like writer’s block. But actually what you need to do is spend some time either finding the information or clarifying what you want to say.

Whatever section or idea you are working on, stay with it and do what’s necessary (whether finding the evidence or just spending more time thinking) to be able to write about it with confidence.

Then you can actually complete the section knowing that you’ve done the work to give your writing a solid foundation.

Constructive self-criticism

You will have to defend your work, but you can strengthen your defence by anticipating criticism.

Question your own results and interpretation, and the address those questions in your writing (or change your interpretation if you find a major flaw).

This is not the same as self-doubt. Self-doubt is stops you doing anything, but self-criticism is essential.

Care and pride in your work

When looking at literature, my view was always that I wouldn’t cite anything that wasn’t of a high standard.

I took time and meticulous care over my figures, to get them just right.

I looked after it, I nurtured it, and I gave every section the time and thought it deserved. I did it well for the sake of doing it well, and not for external approval, and so I finished each day happy with what I’d done, which made the next day easy to start.

Of course it was balanced by the need to finish. I still aimed for a minimum of 500 words a day, I just made sure they were good quality.

In anticipation of the comments…

I know that many will disagree with this approach. They will say that there’s no point worrying about the details because some things might not end up in the final thesis.

To them I say, “so what?”

It’s the nature of research and writing that some things you put effort into won’t be useful in the end. But if you at least put time and care into each idea then you can cut it decisively if you know you gave it a good shot and it didn’t work out.

Some details are more important than others, and you must prioritise and not let yourself get sucked into spending day after day on irrelevancies, but the details do matter. You will have to take care of them eventually, so you might as well do it now.

Positive Thesis Perfectionism

Sometimes thesis perfectionism can help you get things done faster, because you have taken the care to do things well the first time round.

I was never a very good physicist, but finished my thesis in 3 months, passed with zero corrections, and found the writing-up phase the least stressful and most enjoyable part of the whole process.

The key is to find a sense of relaxed control. To be able to take the time to do things well, irrespective of deadlines, yet still aiming to complete every section you work on.

Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo): It’s a great idea, but…

November is academic writing month. If you’re into twitter, you may have noticed the #AcWriMo hashtag flying around, but if not, here’s the deal.

  1. During November, set yourself some crazy writing goals.
  2. Tell everyone
  3. Take action
  4. Declare your results

Because there will be thousands of students doing this at the same time, you’ll be able to share your experience, get advice, and join in the feeling of shared effort so you don’t have to feel isolated while you do it.

You can check out the complete (but simple) rules of academic writing month over on the PhD2Published blog.

Academic Writing Month: It’s a great idea, but…

I think academic writing month is a great idea, especially because of the community aspect. Also because the timing in November means you can have a concentrated burst of productivity before December and the associated shenanegans of Christmas and the new year.

I am certain that there will be plenty of success stories, but there are some potential problems you should be aware of.

1. Announcing goals doesn’t always work…

It’s widely believed that announcing your goals makes you more likely to follow through with them, because there is an element of accountability.

The problem, though, is that making the announcement gives you a slight psychological reward as if you have already achieved the goal (just like making detailed plans can make you feel good too, without having actually done the work).

This flies in the face of the standard advice, but sometimes it’s better to delay gratification, keep your goals to yourself and focus on what needs to be done, as explained by Derek Sivers in this video.

I also included this video in the blog post “Are some targets bad for your productivity?”

2. Focusing on high word-count is dangerous

Academic writing is about more than just word count. It’s about effective communication of difficult ideas.

When you start writing something new, there will be plenty of things which flow easily because you know them well, and you will be able to write fast. But inevitably, you will reach a point where you have to explain something that requires more thought and effort, and you will slow down.

This is a natural and unavoidable part of the writing process, and you just need to slow down and give some thought to what you want to say and how to say it. It may be that you need to think about how to link one idea to the next, or you need to check a reference, or take some time to find the right wording.

Many people mistake this natural slowdown for writer’s block, and received wisdom states that you should just get words down on the page and figure out the details later. But these details matter, and it’s best to engage with them now rather than save all the difficult bits for later (see the worst thesis writing advice ever, and what to do instead).

3. There will be bias in the AcWriMo results…

Part of the AcWriMo process is reporting your results. This is good, but it’s likely that the only people reporting results will be those who have achieved their goals.

For some people, it might not work, and it may be demoralising to see everyone else announcing how successful they have been. If you take part and you don’t meet your goals, I strongly advise you to announce this too, then readjust your goals to make them achievable the next day.

What I would suggest is setting an easy goal the first day (say 500 words), then if you smash it and do 800, set the target for 1000 the next day. To push yourself, go slightly beyond what you find comfortable, but do not work yourself to exhaustion because you have to last the whole month.Then if you can’t sustain 1000 per day, drop back down to 500 again because you know it is achievable.

4. Work on one thing, finish it

If you have a daily word count target, make it part of another target, such as “finish chapter 3”.

It’s common to get stuck just before the end of a chapter because you come to a point where it’s all about the small details rather than producing large volumes of new text. The temptation is to leave it for later and work on something else to maintain the rate of word production, but it’s much better to focus instead on finishing.

That way, you can move on to the next thing with a sense of satisfaction that you’ve completed something, rather than having that nagging sense that you’ll have to come back to it later.

So maybe set your crazy academic writing month goal as finishing a big piece of writing, and make your word count targets a subordinate part of that to help you on the way.

5. Work on something you can finish

In order to finish a piece of writing, other things need to be finished first.

For example, if you are writing a data chapter, you can’t finish the writing unless you have collected all the data. If you start writing before that, then you’ll hit an inevitable block (unless you are capable of time travel).

If something needs to be finished before you can finish the writing, do that first!

Good luck!

As  I said, I think it’s a great idea, so best of luck if you’re taking part.

I’d like to know if you face any problems, so leave your comments below!