How to balance a PhD with full-time work (and other questions)

Continuing the series on reader’s questions, here are more answers!

Today we have questions about learning during the PhD, juggling the PhD with full-time work and overwhelming worries about time, supervisors and PhD failure.

If you have any questions, email me at james@jameshaytonphd.com, and if you have any tips, share them in the comments below.

Hi James,
I definitely struggle with time management and the volume of new research material there is to read. I sometimes wonder if I have learnt any new science during my PhD as I never seem to find time to read text books or attend lectures anymore.
Many thanks,
anonymous

This is a common one! It’s easy to worry about whether you are reading enough or learning enough or doing the right things, and the feeling is always that you should be reading more.

You can’t read everything. In many fields, there are more papers published daily than it’s possible to read in a week, so you have to be selective.  Read the material that interests you,  and don’t worry about volume, because you’ll be fighting a losing battle.

As for learning… you’ve probably learned more than you know. A PhD is largely about gaining practical experience in academic research, so rather than thinking about the kind of book-learning you did before to pass exams, think about all the problems you have faced and solved since you started. That’s the basis of true understanding; facing problems and coming up with solutions yourself.

Hello James,

Like many mature age students I am working full time (Director of Nursing) and really struggling to quarantine PhD time. I find I am brain dead by the end of the day. I would like to study in the morning but that is the best time to get any work done without interruption so best time to do work work too and by 0830 it is all happening here or off to a meeting.

I have two years left of a part time load but would really like to finish end of next year. I have done my methodology chapter and data collection but that is it….seems a huge mountain to go. I have just been through ‘should I really be doing this?’ phase but want to keep going as I really do love it once I get down to it. My supervisors very understanding although this is not necessarily good!

Susanne.

Hi Susanne,

The common problem when juggling a PhD with work is that there are always “urgent” tasks to be done at work which seem to take priority. You end up responding to stuff happening right now, which leaves the thesis just sitting there.

There are only 24 hours in a day, and you have a limited reserve of energy and attention… So there comes a point where you can’t do more without something else being sacrificed. So the simple, unavoidable, blunt truth is that in order to have any hope of getting your PhD, you have to create space for it in your schedule (which means having time set aside where you don’t do work-work).

Writing requires uninterrupted time. No calls, no meetings, no emails, no internet. It’s up to you to create that space for yourself, but if you do, here are some tips to help you…

1. It’s hard to switch from work mode to thesis mode. 

If you sit down to work on the thesis, you’ll find all kinds of other thoughts interrupting you… I need to email back to Rodger about that meeting and  I need to finish that report and I really must go and sort out that situation with HR…  You need to ignore these thoughts and relax into the thesis. It might take 30 minutes to do this, but once you’re there, you’ll be able to work.

2. Consistency is key!

It needs to become part of your routine. The longer you leave it, the harder it will be to pick up again. But if you do something related to the PhD on a regular basis, then it not only maintains some momentum, but it also keeps it ticking over in your mind

3. Focus on the detail

The whole thesis is too big. Instead, just pick one thing to work on. It could be as simple as organising your data in the right format, or writing a single paragraph on a very specific idea. Whatever it is, immerse yourself in it and do it well. Do this consistently, and you will finish.

Consistency and routine has to start just by doing it once, so I’d suggest taking one day and setting aside 2 hours for the thesis, focusing on one specific task.

P.S. thanks for the kind comments!

I am in phase of writing up my thesis and really in stress
I am facing all situation , L.R overlap , cant control my Time
My supervisors not following me
Don’t know how to start writing up
short time allowance
Really I don’t know what to do
I think I will fail

Regards,

Shaikha

Hi Shaihka,

I think you summed up the situation for many PhD students!

When you have many things you’re worried about at the same time, it reduces your capacity to work to your best. The lit review, for example, is difficult and requires a lot of focus and effort, but it’s possible if you really apply yourself.

The problem is that when you’re stressed and under pressure and worried about time and your supervisor and that you will fail, your attention is divided. You can’t focus, and that means you find the lit review even harder, and you can get stuck in a cycle of feeling out of control.

So what I suggest is that you look at each of the things you’re worried about and ask yourself what you can do to take control. Your supervisor isn’t following you, but you have options. You can make contact and explain how worried you are. If they don’t reply, email again, or call, or show up at the office.  If you still don’t get a response, you can look for someone else to talk to. You can talk to other students or academics about specific aspects of the thesis… Every situation has a solution, but the key is to try multiple things. As long as you can think of options you shouldn’t give up.

Support is there, but sometimes the hardest thing is to ask for it and to tell people how you feel. Get it out in the open, and if you don’t get support from the first person, try someone else.

Then once you’ve openly talked about the stress, it’s time to focus on what to do to take control. Not knowing where to start writing up, you can write down ideas on paper, pick one idea and start writing about that. Simplify the task and just try to focus on doing one thing well.

Everything is an experiment

In research, you never know in advance what the answers will be.

You can give your best guess, you can even give a detailed justification for why things should turn out that way.

But whenever you assume you know the results in advance, the universe has a habit of kicking you hard.

Everything is an experiment. It will work out however it works out. The skill then lies in responding to the results, asking more questions, refining your methodology and trying again.

The interesting stuff lies in the unexpected, and it’s when things go wrong that you can develop your skills as a researcher.

So if you are looking for that one big research idea, or that one methodology, you’re doing it wrong because you can’t predict how things will work out. Try something small, treat it as an experiment, and build from there.

Searching for literature: why Google Scholar is a blunt instrument

If you’re going to use a tool to help you with an important part of your research, it helps if you know a bit about how it works.

Searching for literature is a major, time consuming, and vital part of any PhD, so your choice of search tool matters.

There are some major drawbacks to using Google Scholar. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, but you should know what it’s weaknesses are.

The Google Search Algorithm

When you do any kind of search through google, their search algorithm decides in what order to show you the results.

It’s an incredibly sophisticated system, taking into account all kinds of measures of importance and relevance for each search result. But here’s the problem…

Nobody knows what the algorithm is. So you don’t know how they’ve sorted them, and you have no control beyond selecting the search terms and what years to search.

An example

If I search for “scanning tunneling microscopy”, then I recognise some of the top results (including the nobel-prize-winning inventors of the technique). There are papers there which have been cited hundreds or even thousands of times. So far so good.

But there are articles there that (with all due respect to the authors) have no business being in the top 10.

Why Google ranks a paper with 3300 citations at number at number 6, and a paper with 21 citations (from 1990, so it’s had plenty of time to have more of an impact) at number 7, is anyone’s guess.

This stuff matters. There are over 200,000 search results, so if google is filtering and sorting the results for me, I’d first I’d like to know how, and second I’d like to be able to play with the settings to sort results the way I want.

The advantages of Google Scholar

Well it’s free, so anyone anywhere can use it (even if you have to pay for access to some of the results).

And of course you can change the search terms you enter to get more specific results (but that’s not really an advantage as you can do that with any search engine).

Alternative Tools

I always used Web of Knowledge, which gives far greater control and transparency over search results. It requires a subscription, but if your institution is registered then definitely use it.

The key thing is being able to control how search results are presented to you. Leaving it up to Google is not PhD-level thinking.

I’m going to throw this one over to you in the comments section. What tools do you use to search? And why?

 

The most important thesis writing tool ever invented

You can argue forever* about whether to use Google scholar or Web of Knowledge, Word or LaTeX, Excel or Origin…

But the most important tool is the simplest.

Get yourself a thesis writing notebook, and make it the first and last thing you use every day.

Start the day by writing down what you hope to achieve. Break down tasks into small, achievable milestones, and tick them off as you go.

Write down ideas and tasks for later throughout the day… so you don’t lose the thought, but you don’t get distracted from what you’re working on now, either.

And at the end of the day, write down ideas for tomorrow.

It’s the simplest technology in the world, but sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference.

 

(* there is no argument. Use LaTeX, WOK and Origin.)

Leaving your thesis introduction till last? It could be a mistake…

The introduction to your thesis is the first thing the examiner will read. It’s your only chance to form a first impression, if the examiner doesn’t already know you. It sets the background, context and motivation for your work. And so it’s at least as important as every other chapter.

And yet a lot of people leave writing the introduction till last and if you’re near the deadline, it’ll be written in a rush. This is a mistake. If you write your introduction as a hurried afterthought, or as just a dry list of things that will be covered later then they will want to skim read it to get to the proper work in later chapters.

It is far better to write an engaging introduction, having spent time thinking about why your research matters and why anyone would want to read about it.

Why you might write the intro last

If you are writing chapters but you don’t yet know the full story, then it might make sense to write the introduction last.

If you’re doing this, I guarantee you will be stressed in the run up to submission. Why? because you’re trying to finish the research and the writing all at the same time.

It’s like cooking for a dinner party and constantly running out to buy ingredients while the guests are arriving. It’s not going to end well!

Stop, finish your research, then resume writing once you know what you’re going to say.

Writing an engaging thesis introduction

The job of the introduction is to make the reader want to read the rest of the thesis.

Examiners are busy people. When your thesis arrives on their desk, there will be that moment of dread… will this be an interesting read, or will it be like wading through wet cement?

A good thesis introduction will set up a sense of anticipation.

Why is this work important? And why should anyone care?

Here are a few tips to help you write an engaging introductory chapter:

1. Start with the big picture

Start with an idea of how the whole thesis will be structured. What will be covered in each subsequent chapter? Then when you talk about specific concepts in the intro, you can say “this will be discussed further in chapter …”.

Without these references to what you will cover later, the examiner might be wondering, “why are you telling me this?”

2. General > specific > general

A good structure to follow for the chapter is to start broad. Why does your field of research matter to the wider world?

Then you can talk about specific things related to your niche, and say why those matter to your field of research.

Then at the end of the chapter, try to link your specific niche back to the general, wider world again.

3. Give them something unexpected

Examiners have read a lot about your subject, but they don’t know you.

Give them something unexpected; a unique perspective, something that interests you or that you find fascinating, and they will be interested to read more.

4. Set boundaries

At some point early in the chapter (but not necessarily the first paragraph) tell the reader what you will cover in the chapter.

In my thesis, I included the following paragraph after a brief introduction of about 2 pages as to why nanoscience and nanotechnology matter:

Though there are several excellent general reviews of nanoscience and technology
(3–6), each to some extent reflects the authors’ personal research interests
and expertise. Due to the pace of development and breadth of research,
a truly comprehensive review is probably impossible, and certainly beyond
the scope of this thesis. The following brief review presents the properties
of semiconductor and metal nanostructures, in addition to the principles of
self-assembly and self organisation.

So I set out clearly what the review would cover, while pointing the reader to more general reviews for reference.

This meant I could be highly focused on specific principles, but also relate these back to the general motivation of the field.

It helps if you know what you want to cover, and how it relates to your research!

5. Relate your work to the best in the field

When you talk about the state of the art in your field, focus on the very best work.

This not only reduces the number of papers you have to reference, but it gives your thesis a feeling of quality by association. It shows that you have some standards and appreciation for good research.

Say why that work matters, and you help to justify your own.

6. Where are the gaps?

Once you’ve talked about the best work in the field, what gaps in the knowledge remain?

This is where you introduce your work:

Although giant strides have been made in recent years in the field of …, there remains an open question as to …

The work described in the following chapters attempts to …

7. Tying it up and introducing the next chapter

Your introductory chapter needs a conclusion, but it also needs to set up a sense of anticipation. You want the examiner to want to read the rest of your thesis (or at least the next chapter).

So it’s good to summarise the general principles you have just introduced, state a problem or question that needs an answer (and why it matters in relation to the general aims of your research field), and give a quick hint of how the next chapter will help to answer that question.

If man-made nanostructures are to follow a similar path [to nature], exploiting guided self-assembly to rapidly form functional structures, we must study both the physics of structure formation at the nanoscale and the influence of structure on function, specifically optical and electronic properties.

Scanning probe techniques provide a versatile means of characterisation of these structures.

Specifically, scanning near-field optical microscopy (SNOM)
provides a means of optical characterisation with resolutions beyond the classical diffraction limit, in parallel with topographic information. These techniques, along with synchrotron based spectroscopy to probe deeper into the
electronic properties of nanostructured assemblies, will be discussed in the following chapters.

Does this structure work?

My examiner wrote in his report that the first chapter of my thesis was one of the best introductions to the subject he had ever read, including those published in the literature.

I was never a particularly good physicist, compared to some of the people I have worked with. But first impressions count, and introductions matter.

The invincible mindset

If I were to ask you the number one factor that will determine whether you succeed or fail at your PhD, what do you think it will be?

Having better time management and procrastinating less?

Having a better system for dealing with literature?

Better resources?

Or even just having more time to do what you need to do?

Well it’s none of the above. They might be important, but there’s something more fundamental that makes everything else possible.

The importance of mindset

Everything starts in your mind. Your mindset, or your way of thinking about the problems you face is the basis for everything.

The way you approach a problem, the way you react to the challenges and surprises ahead depends entirely on the way you think about it.

A positive psychology makes all the difference in the world. It’s what will help you keep going when you face problems, it will help you stay creative when you need to be at your best, it will help you start the day excited about what you’re going to do and it makes a real difference to your chances of success.

But if you believe that no matter what you do nothing will work, then you aren’t very likely to achieve what you are really capable of. You can try all the time management techniques in the world, but if your own psychology is working against you then you’ll never make progress.

Fortunately, no matter how stressed you are right now, a positive attitude is something you can practice.

There are lots of positive mindsets to take, here’s just one to get you going.

The invincibility mindset:

No matter what happens, I will deal with it

Lots of things can go wrong. It’s easy to imagine the worst, and allow that to become a crippling fear.

  • What will the examiner say?
  • What if I fail?
  • What if this goes wrong or that goes wrong?

It’s easy to end up focussing on what might go wrong. The problem is though that it eats away at your confidence and stops you doing the things you need to do to succeed. It makes you doubt yourself and your work, and that makes you hesitant with everything you do.

Now of course things can go wrong. But you have to take the view that whatever happens, you will deal with it.

Let’s look at the worst case scenario.

If I fail (at part of the PhD, or the PhD as a whole) then is it the worst thing that can possibly happen? No. I’ll deal with it and move on. Whatever happens I will deal with it. But in the meantime I am going to give this my best shot.

When I did my PhD in experimental physics, my failure rate was probably well over 90%.

I let it get to me, and it ate away at my confidence until I reached a point where I was constantly expecting to fail. I saw myself as powerless… out of control. That meant I undermined my own efforts. I was sloppy in my preparation and rushed experiments.

It became a self-fulfilling philosophy.

But when I shifted mindset and accepted that things might go wrong, but decided to do things meticulously anyway…  my success rate increased and I made faster progress.

Whatever happens, I will deal with it. It cannot hurt me. I am invincible. So I’m just going to do my best.

What if the examiner asks a question I don’t know?

When I started writing, I knew that there were holes in my knowledge that the examiner might find. He had invented one of the techniques I had used… he could easily ask me something I didn’t know. Or he could ask me a basic undergraduate physics question involving maths I hadn’t used in 4 or 5 years… that would be embarrassing.

But my view was that If I get asked a question like that, I’ll just be honest. If I don’t know then I don’t know, and if I have to work it out or guess based on what I do know, then that’s what I’ll do.

I couldn’t go back and relearn every bit of physics I had forgotten (or not learned in the first place), and so since I couldn’t do anything about it I decided not to worry about it and get on with it and do my best at what I was doing.

I thought… well I’ve put the work in. The research is competent, I understand its implications and its limitations, but if I fail then I fail. So be it.

It takes the pressure off, and builds your confidence at the same time because it assumes, at a fundamental level, that you have the ability to cope with whatever happens…

It gives you a kind of invincibility. Nothing can harm you, because whatever happens, you will deal with it.

One of the big blocks that comes up again and again in my conversations with PhD students is a kind of reluctance to make a clear statement about what they are trying to argue. I think this is because it could be a point the examiner could disagree with… and so instead they write 1000s and 1000s of words circling around the issue.

But there is no avoiding it. You have to state your central premise clearly. So just say it. Take the invincible mindset, and have the courage to say what you think.

There is uncertainty in the future, but you have to be willing to take risks in order to move forwards, knowing that you are able to deal with whatever happens.

Writing a thesis is hard, but it’s not THAT hard.

Not like rowing across the Atlantic or climbing Everest, and it’s not like surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash. It’s not even as hard as raising a family

There is no massive physical effort you have to make, other than sitting and typing. And there’s no real danger either.

The invincible mindset allows you to work without being afraid, and once you remove fear, then you’ll be surprised how many perceived obstacles melt away.

What’s the point of a PhD?

The point of a PhD is really simple…

It’s to prove that you can conduct research on a professional academic level.

Ok, so you’re supposed to contribute something too, but that’s just how they test that you’re capable.

So you set about your project probably not really knowing what you’re doing.

Then you realise how hard it is, as you run into more and more problems.

But gradually you solve them. You find better ways of doing things, faster ways, easier ways.

And when you’ve solved a problem once, it’s much faster next time it crops up.

So after a few years, you’re a much better researcher than you were at the start,and all those problems you solved add up to a detailed and unique practical experience.

First year students come to you for advice and you can instantly see what they’ve done wrong. To you, it’s just because you made the same mistake years ago. To them, you seem like a wizard.

What are your best time saving or productivity tips?

If you could pass on one piece of advice that will save other students masses of time, what would it be?

Leave a comment below and share your wisdom!

The self-sustaining cycle of thesis productivity

How do you stay productive, day after day?

One day you’re on fire, the next you struggle to write 50 words.

It’s frustrating; you know you’re capable of doing it, but that just makes it worse on those days when you can’t get going.

1: The first working hour of the day is the most important

If you start the day achieving something, then you’re more likely to stay productive for the rest of the day.

But if you don’t know exactly what you’re going to work on when you sit down at your desk, then your default routine takes over (email, news websites, etc). Two clicks and you’re stuck in a procrastination loop.

So wait before turning on the computer. Spend 10 minutes or so just thinking about what you’re going to do. Start with something easy you can finish!

2: Stop while you still have something in reserve

At the end of the day, don’t work till exhaustion just because you are “on a roll”. You need rest to stay consistently productive!

Stop, and set yourself something easy to start with tomorrow.

The self-sustaining cycle of consistency

If you do this, taking care of the beginning and end of the day, you will be able to keep your momentum from one day to the next.

Achieving something early generates momentum. That means you get plenty done and can finish the day happy with what you’ve done.

Then it feels OK to stop, so you can rest properly, and leaving yourself something easy to do means you can achieve something early, which generates momentum…

Thesis Submission Guidelines: 10 tips to avoid disaster

A bit of forward thinking can save you a huge amount of panic when it comes to thesis submission day.

Here’s a quick checklist… Most may be obvious, but you only need one to go wrong to have a very bad day.

1. Double (and triple) check your thesis submission deadline

Do you have it in writing from an official source? Don’t rely on what anyone tells you!

Do not assume you will be able to get an extension if you miss the deadline. If you think you will need one, apply for it early.

2. Where do you submit it?

Do you know where the office is? Also, what time does it close? You don’t want to show up at 4:45 if it closed at 3:30.

3. What paperwork needs to be filled in?

Universities love bureaucracy and paperwork. And thesis deadline day is not the time to have to battle with someone because you don’t have the right forms signed by the right people.

Make sure you know well in advance what paperwork needs to be completed and whose signatures you need.

4. What formatting is required?

Best to know this one early… what margin size, line spacing, typeface is required for your thesis? It’s good to sort this out right from the start, so that you don’t have to reformat in a panic at the end.

5. Does it need to be bound? If so, how?

There are probably very specific requirements for this. Do you know where you can get it done if your thesis needs binding?

6. How many copies?

It’s usually at least 2, sometimes more

7. Do you have guaranteed access to a printer?

With enough paper and ink? Do you have a backup printer in case one breaks down or you can’t get access to it?

8. Have you checked how your figures look when printed?

If you have complex figures and diagrams (especially in colour) have you checked how they look when printed? Things don’t always come out the same on the printed page as on the screen. If you rely on colour images, check them on the printer you intend to use.

(See “How to design figures for a PhD thesis“)

9. Check your title page.

There will be spelling mistakes in your thesis, that’s inevitable… but check your title page very carefully, and get someone else to look too. It’s the first thing the examiners will see, and you don’t want to mis-spell your title (or even your own name!)

10. Give yourself time to compile and print

Pulling together multiple chapters from different files? Converting to PDF?

This may seem mundane, but things can go wrong when you try to create a large file (especially in Microsoft Word). Your references may become scrambled, your figures may disappear.

Compiling and printing your thesis is not always trivial. Give yourself a minimum of two days to sort any problems!

See also…

Your Final PhD Year