If I could give one piece of advice (part 2)

This is the second of two blog posts talking about this question, posed on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

The first post talked about health, wellbeing, and support. If you missed it, you can find it here.

In this post I’ll share the replies that gave writing advice.

Again, thank you to @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses, included either in this post or the previous one.

Writing advice

The three replies that focused on writing posts all had a similar message: Write from the beginning, and don’t expect your writing to be perfect. You are not a wizard. Here are the first two:

“Write from the start, and expect to go through at least three drafts per chapter, sometimes more”

“Just write. You may end up scrapping it but it will focus you and mean you keep moving forward”

Debates exist as to whether it’s sensible to write from the beginning, or to wait until later. The “wait until later” team argues that you don’t really know what you need to say in your thesis until you’ve gathered all of your data. But this assumes that all “writing” is “thesis writing”. For me, designating something as “thesis writing” makes it all too easy to obsess over getting it just right. And this is where the “write from the beginning” team comes in: Learning to write is a big part of a PhD. Do free-writing. Blog. Write summaries of the literature. You’ll find them later, and be very grateful (it happened to me quite recently). And a particularly practical way to write from the beginning was included in the third writing reply:

“Document what you did – you won’t remember 3 years later”

This is really important. We’ve all had those moments when we assume we’ll remember something: A recipe in a cookbook, a reference in an article, or, once, where I’d put a particular stone on a pebble beach (I was 5, and very confident of my own memory skills).

Don’t let that happen to your PhD. I recommend having a Scrivener file full of questions and answers, explaining what decisions you’ve made, and why. I started my Q & A file when I was still awaiting data but couldn’t wait to start writing.

And finally…

Two tweets didn’t fall neatly into either “health, wellbeing, and support” or “writing advice”. Rather than try to make them fit into a place where they didn’t belong, I’ve given them their own mini-section.

The only one-word response:


I’m not here to tell you whether or not to do a PhD. Embarking on a PhD is rarely (never?) the only option, so it’s important to think about if it’s what you really want. And like anything in life, a PhD is made up of good parts and bad parts.

To maximise the good parts:

“Be passionate about exploring what you are researching: its a long road and that will keep you going”

This is important. PhDs are fun, they are difficult, they are exhilarating, they are stressful. Studying something that you find fascinating and important is brilliant. Still difficult at times, but brilliant. If you’re not interested in what you’re researching, you may get all the “difficult” bits without the “brilliant” bits.

That’s all of the replies I received, folks. I hope you find it helpful. People are gifting out beautiful words of advice everyday on Twitter – I particularly recommend keeping an eye on #phdchat. If you have any advice of your own, or any questions or comments about the tweets in this post, please let me know in the comments section.


An update…

It appears that the “don’t” tweet was a case of hitting-send-too-soon, and was intended as a much more positive message:

“don’t become your PhD. It can consume your life so take time off to do things you enjoy!”

I’m delighted to hear this, as it means that the tweeter is not deep in the valley of shit (to the best of my knowledge). But for now, I’m going to leave the post as it is. I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay to decide that a PhD isn’t for you.


If I could give one piece of advice (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago (when I started writing this post, it was “last week”…), I posed a question on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

You see, I’d already decided what my advice would be, and I was really interested to hear what other people thought. I had more replies than I expected! Thank you @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses.

Answers fell into two main categories:
1) Health, wellbeing, and support
2) Writing advice

In this post, I’ll share the health, wellbeing, and support replies. Why? If years of watching Neighbours taught me anything, it’s that people love a cliffhanger. No, really it’s just that it’d be far too long a post. I’ll share the writing advice in a later post.

Health, wellbeing, and support

In the competitive world of academia, it often seems like working all hours is a badge of honour. Indeed, of those who do work constantly, it seems a further boast to not be achieving what was hoped for. PhD stress duelling is no joke. As such, I was greatly encouraged to read tweets advising new students to take care of themselves:

“Remember to put yourself first. You can’t finish the PhD if you’re not well – in all realms”

“don’t work weekends. Time off is just as important as time in the office/lab.”

Heed these tweets. You can exist without your PhD, but it cannot exist without you. Be kind to yourself. If you consistently overwork yourself, you will end up having a longer, more difficult recovery than if you treat yourself well throughout the PhD. Yes, this may seem unnatural, in the face of the Great Postgraduate Stress Competition (GPGSC?!), but it is better for you.

Equally pleasing were tweets recommending that students develop a good support network:

“Find someone that you can talk to when you are ‘down’ . If possible someone in the same situation”

“Make & Keep phd & non-phd friends. Make time for them. This will keep you sane(r)”

A PhD can be lonely at times. Those not doing a PhD can sympathise, but may not understand, and it can seem hard to discuss successes and failures with someone in the same position as you.
But try. I’ve been delighted by friends’ and peers’ responses to both.
The final tweet in this section embodies one of my life philosophies:

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help: the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked.”

I have always been THAT PERSON, academically and socially. I really like to understand things, and would much rather ask the question than nod along and be caught out later. I was new to Clinical Psychology when I started my PhD, but this just gave me a reason to voice the questions that everyone else seemed to be wondering. It was easy to be the “stupid” one, because there were lower expectations for me.

Do you have any advice for those who may be starting their PhDs? Let me know in the comments section, or on Twitter (I’m @ellenspaeth). Happy researching and writing!

Ladder 1 Rung 3: Reviewing tasks

In this “ladder” (or series) of blog posts, I’m talking about how I’m trying to make my PhD more like a video game. I have always responded well to structured, achievable tasks, and the lack of these has been really difficult for me during my PhD so far.

This ladder is looking at the short bursts of achievement that video games can give you. As such, the focus is identifying, scheduling, and reviewing tasks. There are 3 “rungs” (or steps) to the ladder, with one blog post for each rung.

In the first rung, I talked about how to identify tasks using to do lists and free writing.

The second rung covered how to schedule those tasks, whether using a pad of paper, a diary or calendar, or a task management app like Producteev.

In this, the third rung, I’ll be discussing how to review your progress with the tasks you set.

Please note…

After the first and second rungs (where you’ll have identified and scheduled your tasks), you need to actually attempt the tasks you’ve set. I would usually set tasks for one week, and set a time at the end of the week to review the past week and identify and schedule tasks for the next week.

So to make full use of this post, it’s a good idea if you’ve already identified, scheduled, and attempted your first set of tasks (say, a week’s worth).


  1. Do you have your list of tasks, and the times you scheduled them for? I tend to have these in a file in Scrivener from when I was identifying and scheduling the tasks.
  2. Has it been a week (or however long you scheduled your tasks for) since you scheduled those tasks?
  3. Do you have a way of writing things down? I use Scrivener for this too, because it means that it’s easy for me to have my “identify” and “review” files open next to each other using “split view”, and refer to both

Let’s go!

Use whatever method you’ve chosen (pad of paper, Word, Open Office, Scrivener…) to write words to make three headings

  1. Tasks you completed
  2. Tasks you started but didn’t finish
  3. Tasks you didn’t start

For each of the tasks you’d identified and scheduled for the week, choose which heading fits best. Then, write the task under that heading with a gap between each task (you’ll be writing more in those gaps).

Have you done that for all of your tasks?

Next, under each task write:

  1. A sentence or two about the task (when you did it, whether you encountered any problems, what you found or achieved)
  2. Why you think you managed to/didn’t manage to complete it.

For me, point 2 is the most important part of this rung, and one of the most important parts of the whole ladder.

Look at your reasons for completion or lack thereof. Are there any themes within the headings? Write them down!

To give you an idea, I’m going to share some of the patterns from my first review session.

1) Tasks you completed

Things tended to get done if they were:

  • Manageable
  • Specific
  • Scheduled
  • Urgent

In my first week (and in following weeks), most of my completed tasks were done during a writing session with a friend. That’s one session in the week. If this working pattern sounds familiar to you, I highly recommend this blog post from the Thesis Whisperer.

It’s easy to view the rest of the week as a failure, or write-off, but instead I’m trying to try and focus on the achievement of that one very productive session, and to figure out how to replicate it

2) Tasks you started, but didn’t finish

This mainly happened with tasks where the criteria for completion were unclear.  I started using the “measure for success” heading when identifying tasks as a way of combatting this problem.

3) Tasks you didn’t start

With me, these were mostly because I was ill or tired, or other things came up. “Tasks I didn’t start” seemed to be due to unforeseen circumstances. It’s also possible to have a high amount of tasks in this list if you overestimated the amount of time you’d have, or underestimated the time it would take you to do the tasks.

Once you’ve done that, think about ways you might replicate the conditions that helped you to complete these tasks. If you’re interested in the idea of improving a situation by embracing the positive rather than banishing the negative, appreciative inquiry is a research approach that draws on this. As my research focuses on improving healthcare, I’m also including this abstract for a paper which uses appreciative inquiry in a healthcare context.

In my first review session, mine were

  1. Set immovable work sessions (this was because my writing-with-friend session was so successful)
  2. Acknowledge when it’s a busy week, and set fewer tasks accordingly
  3. Set specific tasks, and incorporate a “measure for success”
  4. Have contingency plans in place (this and the previous bulletpoint were addressed by adding the “measure for success” and “backup plan” headings in the identification phase)

If you review your tasks each week, and schedule the next batch of tasks at the same time, you’ll start to get a good idea of:

  1. What time of day is best for you
  2. What working environment is best for you
  3. How much time you can devote to these tasks
  4. How long it takes you to get things done
  5. What stops you from getting things done

And that’s the end of this ladder. Well done, you reached the top!

I’d really like to write more posts on improving productivity by taking hints from video games. If you have any requests or ideas, please let me know in the comments section. You can also use the comments section to say nice things, let me know if you’ve found these posts helpful, or if you have any suggestions.