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Sunday, 16 April 2017

How to survive a PhD: time management skills and self-motivation

I have recently started accumulating quite a lot of experience mentoring students with career aspirations in STEM subjects, in particular in academic research. Such a career path is indeed very challenging and requires a huge amount of hard work, mental and physical resilience, dedication and a little drop of masochism to pull through the long and frustrating studies leading up to the dreamy end of a successful science career. There are many obstacles and points where everybody feels like giving up, especially women find many of the additional complications and frustrations very hard to deal with. Staying motivated is the greatest challenge during the early stages of such careers. I always like to say that obtaining a PhD is a real test for endurance and dedication and has rather little to do with one's intelligence or talent. Particularly, when it comes to PhD students, two most crucial questions always seem to arise during my mentoring experience:
  • What did your typical day as a PhD student look like? How did you manage your time?
  • How did you stay motivated?
I will attempt to answer these important questions in this article.

Oxford Matriculation: and the fun begins :D

At first, I would like to point out that during my PhD at Oxford, I had two burnouts, one relatively little breakdown and one pretty serious one that rendered me useless for months and forced me to seek some more proper help. Later, I found out that most PhD students experience problems of this kind. Some of if may be inevitable as it is associated with the broken system or perhaps the pure nature of the initial (or even later) phases of work in scientific research. Some of it, however, can be effectively avoided by an early realization about what are the normal things to feel and experience during your PhD studies and the subsequent development of coping mechanisms and effective time management. Here, I will describe some of the coping, motivating and time management techniques and rules that helped me to not only survive my PhD, but later also start a pretty successful and  enjoyable scientific career. Before, I tell you about the good stuff, I will also have to tell you a little bit about the hard and bumpy road that lead up to devising those techniques and rules.

When I started at Oxford, I quickly realized that I found myself in one of the most high pressure environments a student can experience in the world. I knew that I could cope with high stress levels having just graduated with MSci Physics from Imperial College, that is very famous for being an extremely tough course. But even this was not enough to prepare me for the frustrations and despair associated with my PhD. Firstly, I realized that to everybody around I was nobody and I had to prove myself to be taken seriously. That seemed to be the way our group worked. I learned from other students that the first year was very hard for everybody as it was perceived as some sort of "trial period", which obviously did not help with the stress levels. Secondly, I found out that although my supervisor was one of the most brilliant young scientists in the country and the world, he had very little experience, time or patience to deal with a greenhorn like myself. We also had no postdoc to guide me at the time since the groups was just starting. So, here I was completely lost, clueless, with no one to give me any advice on anything at all really, in a situation which could be considered possibly the worst conditions to start a PhD. I started tackling the problem the only way I knew to date, with extreme amounts of hard work and effort. I worked myself to death, I did all my courses very rigorously, attended all lectures and seminars, I worked on all my coursework extremely diligently, I did EVERYTHING my supervisor asked me to do, even the things he never though would be important or that he would think they could work and usually quickly forgot he even game me these tasks. I even volunteered to do more work any time there was an extra project. I had no idea how to say no and I was so worried that my project would not work out so I took on every experiment and extra project I was given or told about, just to have enough "back up plans" for my thesis and publications. It was extreme. It was unsustainable.

When you work too much, you start going crazy ...

I worked all the time. I worked during the day. I worked at night. I lost my weekends. Often, I would be sent on long experiments lasting for weeks, back to back for months. I often had night shifts on beam time. I was also stressed and felt like I was completely worthless. My life was turning into a living hell. While alone with a close friend or my spouse I would often break down crying. My self-esteem was at all time low. I also kept a very busy social and party schedule, I drank a lot of coffee and alcohol. I lived non-stop. I hardly found time to stop or even sleep. After this went on for almost a year I reached the burnouts. First, just a relatively small breakdown, which was the warning light I conveniently chose to ignore and later a full blown burn out that took me about 3 months of severely diminished productivity to recover from. This killed my creativity and motivation as well. I decided that this lifestyle was completely crazy and unsustainable. It did not however help to see all the other students in the group to work nights and weekends. They were not particularly productive, as I learnt, but there was an unspoken rule that work never stops and you have to show your dedication by working long hours. I knew that I could no longer go along with this work culture and had to come up with my own. It was hard going against the habits of the work place and against my stress, but after I got some help I realized that I had to find space to rest, time to think creatively (not just fulfill tasks) and boost my self-esteem. 

I took up yoga (I practiced about every second day), I stopped working on weekends (unless there was a deadline that had to be met), I minimized work in the evenings, I left the office every day no later than 6 pm. We started to take outdoor trips every weekend, the trick was to go alone to some exciting nature, like the national parks in Wales and hiked to exhaustion. To the others, I started to look like a slacker, yet my productivity soared. I found a balance I knew I could keep up till the end of my PhD and beyond. One funny moment came after a job interview to a postdoc in a highly competitive group in California when I told my potential future boss that prior to hardcore writing of my thesis I was going to spent 2 weeks hiking in Scotland. He looked very critical and probably thought I was too lazy to write my thesis. A week later I had a job interview with mu future boss in Los Alamos, who had the opposite reaction, in fact he started telling me about the amazing outdoor possibilities in New Mexico. I did finish my thesis in a record time after a very restful time in the mountains which was exactly what I needed to clear my head to really push with the hard work of completion of my PhD. Needless to say, I took the job in New Mexico and continued my "lazy looking" yet extremely productive life style there. While working as a postdoc at Los Alamos, I took every second Friday off, never worked evenings and spent all my weekends traveling around the national parks and monuments of the West. I also managed 2-3 times as many projects and publications than my peers who worked insane hours at other universities. I learned that motivation and creative thinking needs space to think, rested mind and inspiration. These things come by easy if you sleep plenty and find a good life-work balance. They are impossible if you work 15 hours a day exhausted and stressed.

Submitting my DPhil thesis in Oxford, 2011.

So, here are the important habits and rules that helped me survive the PhD madness and flourish as a scientist:

My daily routine:

I usually got up reasonably early, but not too early. I was never a morning person, but my hours prior to lunchtime were always most productive. I would arrive in the office around 9 am, well before most of the other students and postdocs, which gave me some time to work quietly on my stuff without any distraction. I normally listen to some upbeat music when I work, usually skate punk as it has nice fast, yet monotonous beat and no challenging lyrics to pay too much attention, but it keeps a good rhythm and background to my work. I would always take a proper lunch out with friends. I made sure that I would not go out for lunch with other people working in my group, unless there was some group meeting or anything. I normally spent a lot of time and productive meetings with them, but lunch was my break - a time to turn off the brain and let it rest. I usually ventured into one of the many colleges or restaurants, ideally with friends who did something totally different from me and had some fun conversation about anything, but my work. After that I would spent intense afternoon working in the office, teaching, in meetings with other group members or some seminar/class. I always made sure I would leave between 5 and 6 pm, no later than that. I would often go directly into some yoga class and exercised for 1.5 hours. After that I went home, where we made and ate dinner together with my husband. This was always our social time and we would dedicate it to ourselves. Other times, we would go out for dinner and drinks with friends. Often, we would go for some social or cultural event. I would then spent maybe 30 minutes or an hour reading some paper of finishing some simple brainless task for my work or study before going to sleep, but never more than that. Weekends were completely free, I almost never worked on the weekends, only in extreme cases of a pending deadline. This routine would be broken during experiments at user facilities (beam time), which were more intense and often required long hours. I would however always take some days off after each experiment to recover mentally and physically. My golden rule was to NEVER work on Friday evening. I never broke this rule.

Rules for efficient time management and motivation:

1) Always take time off periodically: Take a proper lunch out, do not eat at hour computer while working, avoid working lunches. That time in the middle of the day is an excellent opportunity to gain some energy and motivation for the rest of the day. Take tea/coffee breaks if you can, all breaks are important. Finish early every day, never work long nights on regular basis. Set some time that you should stop working every day and try to stick to it. Avoid working on weekends, your brain and body need those days to recover from the week and gain new energy and motivation to go on the following Monday. If you must work during some evenings and weekends due to a pending deadline, try to minimize it and never make it a habit. Set some time during the week that is always work free and keep it.

2) Do some physical exercise and outdoors activities: I find that physical exercise is the best way to  rest your brain and force it to turn off if you do a stressful and intellectually challenging work. Yoga is one great way to keep mindful and let your mind find a good balance, while it also creates a nice body through strengthening exercises. It also helps to release any body tension due to stress. Any other sport is also great. I also find that outdoors activities are excellent to keep a good body and mind balance. It is proven scientifically that doing outdoors and spending time in nature reduces stress levels and boosts creativity. Getting some fresh air never hurts either. It is no coincidence that most scientists love hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, etc. 

3) Organize your time in to do lists and flow charts: Keep a very good calendar. At first I had a paper calendar where I wrote down everything, absolutely everything. I later switched to an electronic calendar, which was more convenient, but I always had a paper to do list. I still keep those to present day. I find that there is a psychological value to having a piece of paper where you can tick off and cross over individual tasks. Now, I have a special block with very fancy lines where I write all my goals and tasks, big and small, from "write an email to XYZ", to "start a major trans-European collaboration funded by a major grant proposal". Each time, I complete a task I cross it over with a special red pen and then again with a pink highlighter (I hate pink - which is the point!) and draw a little tick off on the side. This is almost a ritual for me by now and gives my brain silly, but very effective motivation to do even the smallest boring jobs that just have to be done. I also keep flow charts in a wall calendar, where I draw timelines for individual projects and tasks. That helps me to keep a visual overview of all my tasks and their overlap, so I never overload myself with too many close deadlines and keep more of a steady flow work.

4) Give yourself lots of small deadlines: Break down your projects in smaller chunks with individual deadlines. Each project, new paper, proposal or your thesis can be broken down in smaller more manageable tasks with better defined times of completion. You may find that multiple projects benefit from the same tasks, maybe writing a small piece of code for data analysis, so you can give this task a priority in time and speed up both projects simultaneously. You can put these tasks and smaller sub-projects in your flow chart in the calendar or on the to do list. Ticking them off and seeing how the combine and overlap with other tasks in your calendar will have beneficial psychological impact on your time management. Not only you will see how all your work fits into another and allows you to plan out your time more efficiently, but more importantly you will see how you complete these tasks and that will help you with gaining a sense of accomplishment and increase your self-esteem.

5) Always remember the big picture: Look out for the greater connections to other scientific topics and the bigger picture. It is so easy to get lost in lots of little problems like not working instrument, a code that would simply not compile or that article you have been stuck on for months and you cannot seem to get anywhere with it. This is where you need the points 1) and 2) come in handy. It is good to take some time off and walk away from all those little tasks. That is exactly when you start seeing the bigger picture. Your brains is constantly compiling all the data and thinking about your research, whether it is while sleeping or going to the bathroom, it is always there. So, it is very important to take the time off and let those ideas surface. I would get countless "heureke moments" while climbing a mountain, doing the downward dog in a yoga class or while having a shower. If you keep that bigger picture on your mind at all times, it will help you keep up the motivation. You will remember why you love science, why you are doing what you are doing and what is fun and cool about it.

6) Blind paths are useful: During your PhD and research later you will keep on walking along paths that lead nowhere, try ideas that give no result, try techniques that do not work, etc. You must remember that none of this time is lost. All of it teaches you something, you learn about new techniques and scientific concepts. This is how you build up your "scientific intuition", which is the thing experienced scientists use to recognize good ideas from bad ones and "sniff" the new paths towards innovation and scientific exploration. You cannot skip this step, in fact even after your PhD you will often find yourself trying something that will ultimately not work. You must resist the frustration and remember how useful exercise this is. A good idea is to give yourself limits again, e.g. your supervisor gives you a new analysis technique to try and you are not sure if it may work or not, tell yourself that you will do it for 2 weeks maximum and if it does not yield anything, you try something else. While it is important to try these blind paths, you should not get lost on those, always come back after some limit. I also set up this thing I called the "bullshit filter". My supervisor was excellent at coming up with lots of new ideas all the time and told me to try them, but only about 30% ever worked out and my time and energy is limited. I tried most things, but I set up this filter to never kill myself trying things I felt would not work or would not try for too long. As I walked many blind paths and tried many "useless things" I built up my scientific intuition and refined my "bullshit filter" to greater efficiency. Now, I use this filter for my own ideas and it works great.

7) Use all your resources: Always see if other people or university resources can make your life easier. I always had the problem that my supervisor never had the time or patience to give me the time I needed to explain and show me things. So, I found other students, postdocs or even experienced researchers to help me out. People are always very willing to help if you are not afraid to ask. Use libraries, online resources, counseling, find other laboratories to do your work if something does not work in yours. Once I needed a specific calibration for a measurement no one at Oxford had at hand, my colleagues or supervisors did not help me, so I contacted a group leader at Harvard whose paper I recently read and guessed he would have what I needed. He responded very quickly and helped me to complete the project I was working on and I even ended up with a bonus job offer from him. It always pays off to ask for help and find other ways to do your work if the resources handed to you are not sufficient.

8) Never cut sleep: Sleeping is important. Try to make sure you get your 8 hours every day. Adults loose the ability to "catch up with sleep" that teenagers have, so regular and good sleeping pattern is very important. It is good to set some maximum time (e.g. midnight) by which you should go to sleep on normal work day. Having a set morning alarm is also important. I know that it is very hard to fall asleep during stressful periods, then I find it useful to do evening yoga or meditation to clear your head before bedtime. Some people even do power naps, that never worked for me, but I know people that trained their bodies to take short naps during the day to increase their productivity. 

9) Keep up with hobbies and social schedule: Do not sacrifice everything to work. A good work and life balance is important and it most definitely is not a myth. If you have a family, spend a lot of time with them. If you love painting, paint, if you love horse riding, go and ride some horses, if you love collecting stamps, do that ... I could not stress enough how important is to keep up with other activities apart from your work. It is these moments when you let your creative mind go full power. I always found that the best scientific ideas or problem solving came to me while I was doing something else, painting, playing music, hiking or hanging out with friends. It would be foolish to think that if you keep a staring competition with your laboratory equipment or a computer that you can come up with some brilliant ideas, it does not work like that.

10) Try Mindfulness: Mindfulness meditation and other techniques to keep my attention in the present moment probably saved my life, more than once. I first came across Mindfulness during my PhD, but revisited it and kept up with it later in my career. It helped to reduce long-term stress and deal with acute panic attacks and challenging situations. These situations could be anything from a hard exam, getting a difficult question after giving a talk at a big conference, or simply dealing with a stressful moment during an experiment or dealing with my supervisor. Check out if there are some good courses in your area or this this excellent and free course online: Palouse Mindfulness

By keeping these simple things in mind I was able to complete my doctorate in a very short time of just 3 years. I had lots of good publications and gained huge amount of experience that lead to great job offers afterward. And most importantly, I was able to stay happy and well rested even during the crunch time of writing my thesis despite having a difficult relationship with my supervisor. All went well thanks to knowing myself and keeping a few rules that allowed me to remain rested and motivated. The real bonus of all of this was the realization how much I love doing science and that I got pretty good at it during this time. I was able to build a great scientific intuition and keep in mind the bigger picture that now allows me to come up with original and new ideas for research, white unique proposals and see connections to other projects and fields that improve my papers and help refine future research plans.

Yes, I did it! To my own disbelief, I graduated with a DPhil in Atomic and Laser Physics.

A funny bonus (especially for ladies out there):

It is no secret that a PhD teaches you about time management and endurance, in fact I dare to say that those are the main aspects of such a qualification. There is another thing that teaches you about this: motherhood/parenthood! You may hear from so many first time mothers/parents how having a baby was at first very stressful and extremely tiring, but it taught them to use every minute of their time efficiently, sleep when the baby sleeps, eat and work in between naps, do stuff in short chunks of time efficiently, get back to work while being interrupted, planning travels, etc. much better. Well, my lady friends who had babies after they did their PhD do not say that :D They already had the best time management skills from their doctoral studies. So, when the baby came, they all seemed to be calm and ready for all the new stuff. I found the same thing when my daughter was born and I was able to write on my papers in between her naps, just the same way I was writing on my thesis while waiting for my flights during a 2 hour layover while traveling to a beam time on another continent. You just never know, when these time management skills come in handy! ;)


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