[A message from the editor: Lisa was a runner-up in our Tipbox writing competition. Get ready for the peaks and troughs of PhD-life in the brilliant PhD survival guide!]

Are you contemplating doing a PhD? Or maybe you’re halfway through one already and in need of some wisdom? Wherever you are in your science journey, listen up!

When I started my PhD, there was very little information out there about what the PhD life is like. It’s a massive commitment, and I think it’s fair to say all students have their ups and downs with doing one. As a final year PhD student who’s had a rollercoaster of a journey, I want to share what I’ve learnt with you all. So what better way than with my very own PhD survival guide.

Small goals, big progress

When you start a PhD your final end goal is going to be a good few years away, and focusing on that alone is not going to do you any favors. It’s all about taking little steps at a time. Break up your work into small, easy-to-manage chunks. Making daily and weekly goals help you to focus on the now and to keep you on track. It will make that PhD mountain easier to climb. From experience, writing those goals down and physically ticking them off gave me a great sense of achievement, and like my very wise mentor said, when your goals for the day are achieved, treat yourself! Trust me, it works.

Play to your strengths

Self awareness is key. Understand you, how you work best and be clever with that. When do you work best? If you’re more productive in the morning, shift your day earlier and maximise that period in which you work well. Are you a multitasker? If not, don’t try to do a little bit of lab work in the morning, a little bit of writing and then more lab work in the afternoon if you don’t have to. Plan your weeks to work for you.

Work-life balance

This is vital. Everyone is different, some people are totally contained within their PhD bubble and others allow their social life to be top of their priority list. We all need balance to have a fulfilled life. Plan your work days and what you’ll get done when, but also set time aside to exercise and meet up with friends. Your PhD supervisor may expect you to work 12 hours a day but that isn’t okay. Your brain requires some much needed time off and you need to do those other things in life that you love. Remember, more hours worked does not always mean a more productive work output.

Manage expectations

Being able to manage your own expectations but also your supervisor’s will make your PhD journey that little bit easier! The further into your PhD you get, the more studies you are involved with and the longer your to-do list gets. Data generates more questions and therefore more experiments, but it is okay to say no to things! Be aware of how much work you can take on whilst maintaining your wellbeing and that all important balance. Learn to prioritize.

Science doesn’t always work!

It’s most likely you’ll be a master of problem solving and perseverance by the end of your PhD! In undergraduate degrees, we’re used to pre-planned experiments which are known to work first time in order to develop laboratory skills for the 100s of students in one go. The science just worked. Then hello PhD, hello new protocol, and “urm, why has this not worked?”. Be prepared to not get data first time round every time. Yes, it’s frustrating but it’s the reality of working in science and what you have to go through to discovering something new, which is worth the wait right?!

Support network

A shockingly high percentage of PhD students struggle with mental health. We never think we’ll be affected but the PhD journey is by no means an easy ride. Having a supportive set of friends, family, and colleagues who will be by your side during the good and the bad times is invaluable. Friends are wonderful, but there are situations when advice from other academics unrelated to your project is needed. I have a mentor who’s helped me through some tough situations. It can be easy to get caught up in the mentality that a PhD is supposed to be hard and the center of your world. My mentor gave me unbiased advice, put my problems into perspective and helped me to find a solution. Check out what sources of support your university provides. There is a wealth of support out there. Don’t struggle alone.

Self-reflection and less comparison

Staying enthusiastic, focused and motivated can be tough, but self-reflection can really help with this. Ask yourself the important questions. Firstly, remember your why. Why did you choose to do this PhD? Secondly, what is your destination? What do you want to use your PhD for afterward? Asking these questions will help to rediscover your passion and aspirations, and therefore your motivation again. It is also important not to compare yourself to others. Every PhD is different, even if a group of you started at the same time. Comparing yourself to others will only cause unnecessary stress. Focus on you.

Maximize opportunities

A PhD comes with so many exciting opportunities. Make the most of this time, be proactive and seek those out! Okay, so taking on these extra opportunities will add to your workload, but seeing where else the science can take you can be eye opening. Are you able to get teaching experience? Check out what public engagement events are available to you so you can learn how to share your research with non-scientists. Given the opportunity to travel for a conference? Take it! They’re perfect for practicing your networking and presentational skills, plus who doesn’t like a free trip away?!

So there you have it, a little guide to help you through the PhD life! Put these tips into practice and they’ll help to make your PhD experience a more enjoyable, trouble-free one.

Lisa Jones

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