Planting seeds or putting out fires?

By James Hayton,
May 17, 2019
James Hayton is a former physicist, PhD coach and author of "PhD: An uncommon guide"
Since 2010, he's coached hundreds of individual PhD students and now offers
group support and online courses

Do you spend most of your time planting seeds, or putting out fires?

If you're planting seeds, you not only have to wait before getting the benefits, you also have to put in more work to cultivate them. It's slow, but the earlier you start the greater the payoff in the long term.

If you're only putting out fires, you're dealing with the urgent, short-term problems, but neglecting your longer-term success.

Here's an example...

  • You're working on your PhD as hard as you can. You are reading and reading and gathering data as quickly as possible. Everything is rushed, because there's NOT ENOUGH TIME.
  • You worry about your level of English, but you don't have time for lessons. You just have to write because your supervisor wants to see something and it's been so long since you sent something you feel you have to produce more.
  • And you have a ton of data to analyse, but you're no good at statistics and there's so much to do. If you just get something down on paper maybe you can sort it out later.
  • You're working as hard as you can, but nothing seems to work and you're afraid of being found out as an impostor

You're putting out fires. There's no time to think, let alone do the slow work required to cultivate your basic skills.

But nothing is on fire. There is no emergency. And the stress and energy you are investing isn't going to pay off. By working in a panic, you're neglecting the longer-term development of your project and your skills, so when time runs out and there's a genuine emergency, there's nothing you can do about it.

What to do

Slow down.

Let's just take one aspect of the situation above; the stress about writing in English. This is entirely predictable and solvable, but it takes time. The earlier you start to address this problem, and the more consistently you attend to it, the easier it will be later.

If you know you have to submit a thesis in a second language in 3 years, you have 3 years to work on that skill. One lesson won't make much of a difference, but if you start early and spend an hour per week with a language tutor, focusing primarily on formal written language, and if you do the work to practice, you'll be fine. But you have to stop putting out fires and plant and cultivate the seed.

The same principle applies to statistics or to any other skill you have to develop. Make time to plant and cultivate seeds, no matter what else is going on.

Join the discussion...

Join James Hayton's PhD discussion and support group on Facebook to discuss this post and connect with other students

Stay up to date...

The PhD Academy:
Online training and support for PhD students

learn more...

For more detailed guidance and support...

The PhD Academy All-Access Pass

Weekly calls with James

You don't have to do it all alone! Get the All Access Pass for weekly group calls and Q&A sessions with James

Every online course

Build your skills and confidence with our detailed video courses. Go at your own pace and get advice and support when you need it

Get the book!
PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life

order now on amazon