I began my PhD at ACAD with the colourful optimism that I would sail through it, no problem. I figured a PhD would just be a slightly busier extension of my fun-loving student lifestyle and I’d be getting paid for it! Woo hoo! I was convinced that the 3rd year PhD students were just being melodramatic when they told me to expect days when I’d cry like a baby because my experiments had failed miserably yet again, or my supervisor had completely shredded my latest piece of writing (for the 5th time). However, as I now approach my 3rd and final year, I realise that the 3rd years were most certainly not being melodramatic, and actually, the only similarity between a PhD student and an undergraduate is the discount on public transport! They were simply trying to prepare me for what was to come. So with that in mind, I have decided to put their advice (and some of my own) in writing, as a kind of SAVE YOURSELVES! approach to managing PhD related stress:
Top tips to managing PhD stress:
1) The early bird catches the worm.
Get in at 9am and don’t leave until gone 5pm; treat your PhD like a real job and you will get more done. Fact. The more effort you put in at the beginning, the fewer ‘all-nighters’ you will have in your final year …supposedly.
2) Write ‘to do’ lists.
Write lots of lists! Write lists of your thesis chapters, set deadlines to have each section completed and show your supervisor. Write a list on Sunday night of all the tasks for that coming week. Write a list first thing in the morning of what you want to get done that day and challenge yourself to not leave the office until all daily tasks are complete. This will help you stay on top of things and prevent you from feeling overwhelmed (most of the time).
You cannot expect to complete a PhD on time with a ‘one task at a time’ attitude. Realistically, you will be working on three or four separate projects at the same time, so organisation is key! See tip number two.
4) Stay focused on your own goals and targets.
Don’t compare yourself to others. All projects are different and making comparisons will only serve to drive you crazy and stress you out. If another PhD student has three papers already published and you have none, you do not need to panic. They might have a stronger background in their research field and so are finding the transition easier, they may have a project that involves lots of smaller experiments, or they might have written the papers in collaboration with a more senior scientist. Don’t worry. Just concentrate on your own progress!
5) Read at least 2 papers a week.
It’s surprisingly difficult to find time to read papers when you have a ‘to do’ list the length of your leg (see tip number 2), but it’s so important to stay up to date on the latest studies in your area. Set aside a specific time each week to just read.
6) Spend two or three hours a day purely on writing.
That means no checking emails, no Facebook, no chatting to people, no checking your phone. Just writing. Designate a certain time of day to do it, for example 9 am – 11:30 am, when everyone in the office is still half asleep and less likely to bother you.
7) Always write an outline first!!
Not doing this was my BIG MISTAKE when I began to write my first paper. An outline not only keeps your writing focused and succinct but saves you the stress (and time) of having to restructure the paper at a later date. See How to write your first research paper for more info.
8) Don’t assume your supervisor will be around to help you.
Scientists are busy people. Your supervisor will have their own on-going research projects, as well as other students, post-docs and collaborators all demanding his/her time. Therefore, your supervisor will not be at your beck and call. For ways around this issue see tips 9 and 10.
9) Don’t be afraid to ask for help/dumb questions.
If you’re confused about a protocol/piece of equipment, can’t decide on a paragraph/results figure or can’t find something, ask someone! Anyone! You wont get anywhere in life if you’re too afraid to ask for directions.
10) Socialise with work colleagues.
Talk to people! You might have an issue that someone else has the answer to, but you will never know unless you start conversing with people. Introduce yourself to everyone in the building; it will also do wonders for your social life!
11) No drinking on a school night.
You need to put in the hours and you will actually need to concentrate! Which means no hangovers/sleeping on desks allowed!
12) Make time for exercise, and eat well.
Healthy body, healthy mind! It will help you sleep at night (instead of worrying about your PhD) and it is a great way to relieve stress.
…So, new PhD students, follow these simple guidelines and hopefully they will save you some stress throughout your candidature! I guess all there is left to say now is Good luck! 🙂