2015 #AnnualReview Part 5: Lessons learned as a PhD student

This year was an eye opener for me regarding my research and the PhD process. I feel like I’ve overcome a few hurdles, and that’s prepared me to really punch it in during this final year of my PhD. Here’s some PhD advice and lessons learned for those interested.

Previous posts in the 2015 Annual Review:

You can find guidelines here and here, and inspiration for this post on lessons learned from this post by Chris Guillebeau.

I think I’ve figured out the best way for me to function for the remainder of this PhD. It might be different for others, but I now know myself a lot better and can adjust my research strategy accordingly. I do think there are some more general lessons that I can share, and hopefully others can benefit. It is difficult because each PhD is different, and each person is different. So naturally, this is very generalized and nonspecific.

What I’ve learned, or some PhD advice

Lesson #1 You are essentially self-employed
Figure out a routine and schedule that works for you. If you work better at night, go for it. Like working more in the daytime? That’s ok too. If your advisor protests, make your case.

Lesson #2 Don’t get stressed, get even (more focused)
It won’t help anyone to get overly stressed out. A certain amount of stress helps push productivity, but try not to let it build to a point where your health is suffering and you can’t get things done. Some things are out of your hands, and that’ll happen. I’m not great at this one yet, but I’m more aware of it than I was before and am working on it.

Lesson #3 It’s ok to not be working all the time
Just because other PhD students spend more time in the office or lab, doesn’t mean they are necessarily more productive. If you can be efficient with your time, there is no problem with not “working” all the time. Most people spend significant amounts of time on Facebook, online shopping, or other side projects anyway. There’s no point in comparing yourself to others.

Lesson #4 Take care of your mental health
Mental health and depression in PhD students: read this article and this one too.

Lesson #5 It’s ok to feel like you still don’t know anything
Impostor syndrome can be crippling. Sometimes I get into a spiral of feeling like I still don’t know anything, I haven’t done anything, and I should have done more by now, etc. Take it one piece at a time, and little by little you’ll realize you do actually know something about something.

What works for me

I’ve pretty much figured out all the things that are important to me to live the lifestyle I want, including health related things. Good meals, and regular exercise in activities that I really love, and down time alone and with friends are all super important for me to maintain a generally good mood and energy. I feel good about how the last few months went, and hopefully I can keep it up without feeling like I’ve lost momentum from the holidays.

General advice

These are the general points that have been working for me the past few months or more:

  1. Planned exercise sessions
  2. Making lunch for a few days at a time
  3. Avoiding rush hour
  4. Alternating between analysis mode and writing mode, each for a few days at a time
  5. Giving myself time to research things that I don’t feel confident in, practicing self-compassion about it
  6. Letting a few days pass if a certain decision is stressing me out
  7. Meeting up with friends
  8. Not worrying about finances, putting budgeting on auto-pilot
  9. Breaking my workday up: Doing more analytical work in the morning, and more reading and writing in the afternoon
  10. Not using technology in the evenings, avoiding email and social media after dinner
  11. Daily morning meditation

It’s a work in progress

I’ve heard many times that you never actually feel finished with a PhD. You just have to cut it off somewhere and be done with it. I am starting understand that now, and the idea that you can’t be a perfectionist about it. I’ve found a new determination that I hope will carry through 2016.

If you read the articles from the links in Lesson #4, I think it’s crucial to have a support system, either near you or virtually. It’s ok to talk about things with other students. Then they’ll realize it’s ok for them to talk about their issues too. We don’t have to all pretend that things are going swimmingly when they aren’t.

I’m a little unsure if deciding to do this PhD was the best choice for me, but I’ve committed to it and I’m going to see it through. I still think it will open up opportunities for me that would not have been available to me before, so all in all I don’t regret it. In any case, I’ve grown a lot in this process, and look forward to continuing to progress this year!

Photo: Colton Brown