How to restart PhD work after a break

By James Hayton,
January 2, 2020
I'm James, I'm a former physicist (PhD, Nottingham, 2007) and author of "PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life".
Since 2010, I've been helping PhD students all over the world overcome barriers in their research and writing
My strategies have helped thousands of PhD students just like you to build confidence, write better and finish on time

Sometimes it's difficult to get your focus and momentum back after a break from your PhD. Whether you've had a long break or a short one, here are some tips to help you get going again.

Don't try to make up for lost time

Your first task is just to get started again. This will be infinitely more difficult if you put yourself under pressure to make up for lost time.

Re-read the last thing you wrote

It's easy to forget what you've already done. Re-reading the last thing you wrote (whether that's formal writing or notes) is an easy way of reminding yourself and re-engaging with the work.

Make a plan

You need to be careful with this one. There is a difference between a practical plan and a fantasy wish-list with deadlines.

To make a practical plan, you need two main ingredients.

  • Clear strategic goals (eg. finish your analysis)
  • Clear short-term objectives

The short term objectives define what you focus on right now. It's no good having a long-term plan if you haven't also decided what to do today.

Ideally, what you focus on right now should move you towards your longer-term goals.

See also: planting seeds vs putting out fires

Stick with it

Whatever you decide is your first objective, stick with it until it is done.

As I'm writing this, I've had a ten-day Christmas break and there are a million other things I know I need to do. But whatever you decide to do will probably come with some resistance. It's important to stick with it and see the task through to completion.

Build consistency

It's what you do consistently that matters. Getting back into the habit of daily work might mean putting other things off to prioritise your PhD.

To build consistency, one of the best things you can do is ensure that you end each day with a clear objective for tomorrow. Do whatever you can tonight to prepare, so you're ready tomorrow to get up and go.

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