[A note from the editor: Ananya is a PhD student in Marine Science at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology, Saudi Arabia. Her research focuses on the impacts of oil pollution in three critical marine environments: the Arabian Gulf, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Red Sea. She looks at how toxic pollutants accumulate in sediments, travel through reef food webs, and affect even the smallest microorganisms. In this article, Ananya reflects on her PhD journey and shares the key lessons that helped her progress in her PhD.]

A PhD is a marathon. Reaching the finish line of your PhD research and thesis is a net result of things you do (and don’t do) daily over a long time. So, on any given day, when you’re in the lab running your gel and hoping for that one band to show up, you may not see the milestones you are reaching. This can sometimes lead to feeling like a hamster on a treadmill.

How can you develop the endurance for this PhD marathon? During my PhD, I have learned to grow out of my comfort zones, challenge my perceptions, ask questions, stand up for myself, set realistic goals, and inch every day a little bit closer to the finish line. As I looked back on my PhD journey so far, I wrote down some key lessons that helped me progress along the way.

Celebrate small wins

Learn to appreciate small wins every day. Completed the lab work you planned for the day? Good. Got something valuable out of reading a paper? Great. Wrote 3–5 sentences for your next paper? Fantastic. Did all of this? Your day has been exceptionally successful. These are the real everyday metrics. ‘I wrote a paper today’ or ‘I started and completed this project today’ are neither realistic nor achievable.

While most pre-doctoral education teaches you the subject matter, it often misses advice on time and project management (eg, setting realistic, achievable goals to feel adequately productive). Many PhD students find themselves learning these skills on the go, which adds to a pre-existing academic workload. To reach your PhD finish line, you need to set a realistic pace for the long road ahead, splitting work into timely, small, and often daily ‘celebrate-able’ milestones. Practice this as a mindset continuously and focus on the next immediate task ahead of you. The big picture will paint itself, eventually.

Find and understand your productivity pattern

I remember telling my counselor that I can work for ten hours continuously. Later, I questioned myself: Do I really? Or was I trying to fit into what’s commonly expected of PhD students? To ascertain this, I started observing the peaks and lags in my productivity – time spent on odd tasks, working in the lab, in the field, reading, etc. Using a productivity tracker, I divided my work into different projects and added categories for personal development, reading, and administrative tasks. Depending on how specific I wanted to get, I sometimes further split a project into smaller tasks, such as experiment planning, data collection, analysis, writing.

Each time I began working on a specific task or project, I would start the app’s timer. By looking at weekly reports, I soon realized how much time I really took to complete any given task. My average focused productivity was around 5–6 hours a day, with some exceptional high peaks when I ran long experiments. And by working this much, I have come to the final year of my PhD marathon. Knowing my productivity pattern also helped me plan my time better and take on some fun side-projects and internships for professional development.

Productivity pattern
Figure 1. A week of productivity (Jan 4 – 10, 2021) when I was doing a winter internship with a lighter PhD workload.

Plan your schedule and set boundaries

Before the pandemic lockdown, I used to work in an open office. I often had people walk in with particular requests – almost all of which got marked immediate priority, making it harder to complete tasks that required steady focus. During the lockdown, I expected to have more uninterrupted time – but working and interacting through zoom and other platforms with mosaic tiles of faces led to significantly increased screen time and hazier personal schedules.

I dealt with this by planning my schedule to fit in a couple of days/hours for such interactions and requests and keep other time slots for undisturbed productivity. During my lockdown’s tenure as a teaching assistant, I set a specific time window during which I was available for immediate response to students.

Using features such as ‘Do not disturb’ on collaborative platforms is another useful way to set boundaries and create space for focus. You are still working – just not interacting and taking immediate requests. I learned that by setting boundaries for my availability, I became far more efficient in the different tasks I had to accomplish during my PhD – even during a pandemic.

Don’t hesitate to take enough time off

Schedule well-spaced breaks where you cut yourself off from your academic workload, emails, and, if necessary, social media. Set aside at least one day per week to let go of all your “to-dos” and relax, catch up with friends, or spend time on a hobby. You shouldn’t feel guilty – you deserved those breaks, and they ward off work burnout!
Besides my weekly day off, I set aside at least one hour each day for some form of exercise or hobby and built my working schedule around this. When I was looking forward to my dance, yoga, or board game session at the end of the day, I could focus better and get more things done in the time allocated to work. Especially during COVID-19, when personal and professional lives have merged, planned disconnection from work is an essential coping mechanism.

The PhD is a marathon – build endurance for this long run by equipping yourself with the right self-management tools and by crafting a schedule that’s unique to your needs and includes elements of self-care and time for other things that matter. In the end, a PhD should not be something you sacrifice everything else for. Instead, consider it as a learning experience to explore what works for you. When I find myself over-prioritizing the PhD, I remind myself of the following quote to slow down: ‘You are a human being. Not a human doing. Sometimes, simply be.’

Featured image by sporlab