Doing a PhD is tough! Embarking on a journey that is going to consume the next three or four years of your life at least can be daunting. With only the finishing line as any sort of measurement of how you’re doing & because a PhD largely involves self directed learning – self management is critical! Especially so we don’t compare our own PhD progress to others around us as everyone’s PhD is different and unique – my PhD lesson of the day there!
Doing a PhD for me is not about intelligence, but resilience. It will push you to your limits, but you will learn so much more than just why the amount of sugar and low oxygen helps a stem cell to stay pluripotent! If you can’t juggle at the start of your PhD, then by the end you’re going to be an expert at it! If you’re not super organised at the start of your PhD, then you will be an expert by the end! If you’re not self-motivated by the start of your PhD, you definitely will be by the end! You kind of get where I’m going with this….
But getting motivated in the first place – especially in January – and then keeping track of your different projects can be difficult, so I thought I would share how I have organised my last few months of PhD life to hopefully give you some inspiration and a boost to get to that next stage after receiving a few questions and messages about the topic.
So, how do I do it?
I use MOPS!
No I haven’t gone crazy! My four key tips for staying on top of things and making PhD progress are:
♥ Managing Tasks
♥ Setting Goals
These might seem like obvious and straight forward things to do – and they are – which means anybody can achieve them! It’s sticking to your methods and working out how is best for you to implement M.O.P.S that is the more tricky bit and the part will help you through. I’m in my fourth and final year of PhD now and have tried a lot of different methods that haven’t worked for me! I’ve tried having one notebook for everything I do from blogging, to PhD work, to meetings, to scicomm and it left my head fried! I’ve tried working from one long To Do list – and while it works for some – it left me feeling like I was never getting anywhere. So, after some trial and error I have finally found a system that works for me, and I want to share with you how I do that in case it, or parts of it, works for you too!
What is your end goal?
For me, I have to start with the big picture. I have to set my end goal for the year and then set smaller goals that are going to help me reach my target. So, this year I am finishing my PhD! I have to submit my thesis at the end of September and hopefully I can do my PhD viva before the year is out and start 2019 as Dr. Arthur!
So, working backwards, I know I need to give myself 3 months to write up my thesis with editing and formatting and so on! That means lab work has to finish at the latest end of June! So, in my last few months, I need to define what I have to achieve and then what I want to achieve and prioritise accordingly!
Always having the end goal in the back of your mind gives you something to judge your own progress on and gauge whether you need to adjust your plans, deadlines and priorities! So, I have my whiteboard with my monthly goals for 2018! This allows me to set the end goal and how I’m going to reach it – plus I can rub it out and change it if I need to!
But the most important thing I want to share with you, and what I think is one of the first things you should put into your monthly goals after your end goal is when you’re going to take a break! A PhD is grueling and can really take it out of you, especially when you’re coming towards the end. I’ve found that any more than 3 months of constant lab work without a break drives me a bit mad. So, I try to schedule a break every 3 months and then set end goals for each of those sectors!
Start BIG, and keep breaking it down
End goals are set! January and February – tie up loose ends, start experiments for final chapter, draft paper number 2! March – holiday! April-June – finish all lab work and finish paper number 2! Short break! July-September – thesis writing & job applications!
The next question I ask myself – what do I need to do to achieve those goals?
What do I need to do to tie up those loose ends in my experiments? What will I need to do to finish my lab work and get out of the lab on time? What can I do now to help the thesis writing process?
Working out what I need to do to achieve these goals is how I’m going to reach them! Cue the project notebooks and monthly To Do lists! I find it so much easier to have one notebook per project I’m doing. At the start of each month I set myself a monthly To Do list for each project. This gives me the satisfaction of physically ticking things off once I’ve completed them, and also allows me to monitor if I’m spending too much or too little time on specific projects.
Keeping each project separate in one note allows me to think clearly about it when planning my monthly goals and all the tips, tricks and information I need is all there in my hand. With your monthly goals set, it is time to break them down again and ask myself what thinks I need to do to reach them! Now while this might sound familiar and repetitive – which I suppose it is – I find that it makes everything into those manageable chunks of tasks that I don’t find overwhelming. For example, thinking that I have to write an entire PhD thesis is terrifying, but breaking it up into goals such as complete Chapter 3 or even Chapter 3.2 makes me feel I can achieve it!
Getting the most out of your time
Now I’ve got my lists of small tasks that I need to do to achieve my end goals! I got to work out some sort of schedule that allows me carry out all these tasks! I usually sit down at the start of the month and plan the next four weeks or so, and revise anything at the start of each week – because you never know when things might crop up! So, here is a typical week for me!
I am one of those people that as soon as they get home will switch off from everything, so in order to combat that with my endless To Do lists, I am perfectly happy to sit at my desk in work until I have achieved all I need to achieve that day. When that’s done, I can head home to actually relax and do things I want to do rather than things I need to do – plus I can’t concentrate at home either!
I’ve recently found that using Google Calendar is much better for me than a paper diary because it would drive me mad when meetings got rescheduled and I had to cross it out and write it in elsewhere. So using an app on my phone, I always have my schedule with me and it is easy to reschedule and colour coordinate – which again let’s me assess whether I’m spending enough time on certain projects.
I am super guilty of forgetting that there are only 24 hours in a day though, and with some many passions and goals that I want to achieve, making sure I don’t completely burn out is super important! Hence, why scheduling in time for me and time to socialise with friends is again just as important as putting in the time to do all my lab work.
So, my top tips for self-management in your PhD are:
♥ Set your end goals
♥ Plan in blocks, but around breaks
♥ Keep breaking things down into manageable chunks
♥ Manage your projects seperately
♥ Don’t try to do too much
♥ But don’t beat yourself up, if you didn’t achieve one of your tasks for today
♥ Scheduling in personal time is just as important as scheduling PhD work
What tips and strategies do you use to help manage yourself and all your projects so you feel like you’re making progress? Share them in the comments as someone might benefit from them 🙂
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