9 useful tips for PhD students

I’m back again with another post after a long time! I’m currently a second-year PhD student in software engineering at TU Delft. Since last summer, I wanted to write a blog post for giving some tips to PhD students. You might now call me a “lazy person”!! 😀  but I tweeted some short tips a while ago. However, on Twitter, it’s not possible to explain things and give examples. I’m also writing this post to remind myself of the below tips, given that I haven’t finished my PhD yet.  Without further ado, let’s talk about the tips:

 

Reading

Read A LOT! I don’t mean to read your Twitter feed every day. 🙂 I mean you should read recent papers in your field of research. You won’t be able to find new research ideas and insight unless you read papers on a daily basis. A typical PhD student often reads around 200 papers before writing their thesis. Of course, this is not a rigid rule! The number varies across disciplines and research topics. Also, don’t confuse the quantity with the quality! Yes, you need to read a lot of papers but you should comprehend what a paper is about and what it adds to its field. Make sure that you fully understand a paper, its approach, results, and findings before start reading another paper. This old post of mine may help you in reading papers. Lastly, reading is one step towards becoming a good writer.

Time management

I can’t stress this enough! Time is your most valuable asset on this planet. One day, I might become a millionaire but I cannot go back to 10 years ago when I was a teenage boy who was playing PC games all day! So you should manage your time by working on important tasks related to your PhD. That is, creating a todo-list for every week is a must. Also, I use the time-blocking technique myself for completing tasks. Basically, you divide each day into blocks of time, (e.g. 10-12 writing introduction of a paper). You can read about it more on the internet. Aside from these, learn to say “NO”! Don’t simply accept every task or work by anyone (even your supervisor!). Your time should be spent on things that help you finish your PhD in one way or another. In the case of supervisors, you can give them a compelling reason why the task/idea X doesn’t worth your time or it can be delegated to someone else. Here, one big caveat is that tasks given by supervisor(s) usually belong to a project that you are part of or it’s part of your responsibilities (e.g. teaching) and you have to complete them. So don’t bluntly say NO to your supervisor(s) without a compelling reason if you don’t like the task/idea.

Health

Without a healthy mind and body, it’s almost impossible to come up with new research ideas and getting a PhD. So eat right and do some casual exercise at home such as push-ups. Trust me! If you don’t rest properly, you’ll get burnout after some time, which means you’ll lose motivation and don’t want to do anything.  To avoid burnout, don’t just work all day. Rest on weekends and have some productive hobbies such as reading non-technical books or cooking etc. Earlier I said, “rest PROPERLY”. You heard me right! Don’t watch 6 movies on a weekend or play a video game for 10 hours. This is not a rest. This makes you more fatigue after a week of work. Moreover, for PhD students, it’s fairly common to have some level of stress or depression, especially, in the current pandemic, this is sadly worsened more than ever. There are techniques that help you reduce your stress and depression but this is beyond the scope of this post. So do your homework. In short, take care of yourself.

Writing

At the end of your PhD, you need to submit a thesis document, which usually has 150-200 pages. These pages are not filled with your childhood memories or fictional stories. 🙂 Sorry! sometimes I may write a harsh statement 😀 A PhD thesis is a scientific document that clearly explains your novel research ideas, experiments, findings, implications, and future work, etc. In addition to a thesis, PhD students often publish several research papers that are reviewed by “experts” in the field. Scientific writing is a skill that you need to practice. To begin with, you can summarize the papers that you read in our own word, which may be used in your future papers. I know that technical writing is boring and you are not the first PhD student that complains about it. Start your writing session when your energy level and focus are at their peak during the day. Some people do it in the morning and some do it in the evening. Find the right time for yourself. That being said, there are many books on improving (scientific) writing. You can grab one and learn about the style academics use in their writing. There are also writing courses for PhD students at universities. But keep in mind that you don’t become a good writer by just reading a guide or following a course. So write something (i.e. a paper). The more you write, the better your writing skill becomes. I almost forgot to mention the paraphrasing skill, which means learning how to describe someone else’s research work in your own words while citing their paper. In your text, make sure that you properly cite a paper if you’re describing an idea or finding from the paper. Take these ugly citation brackets very seriously. 🙂 You don’t wanna get your paper killed by a plagiarism detection tool or worse your whole PhD.

Critical thinking

This is an essential skill for researchers. As I said above, you need to read a lot of research papers during your Ph.D. However, this doesn’t mean that you easily accept whatever authors claim in their paper or their findings. You need to think critically about their approach and findings. There might be a covert limitation in their approach that you may be able to find and address, which may lead to a paper for you. Note that you cannot just question a published paper’s approach. You need to come up with sensible reasons and evidence. To improve your critical thinking, you can ask your supervisor(s) to give you a submitted paper to a conference or journal for sub-reviewing.

Perseverance

Doing a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. You may have heard this somewhere. Unlike MSc-level research, PhD research usually takes 3-4 years or even more. You should be persistent while doing PhD research. Many PhD students think about quitting at some point. Let’s face it. PhD research ain’t easy! 🙂 You will face failed experiments, paper rejections, dramatic events (e.g. this freaking pandemic) or financial issues, etc. Perseverance is key to successfully finish your PhD. Don’t just give up if you can’t solve a math problem, an experiment fails, or the code doesn’t work. Perseverance is an important quality of successful people in life, not just graduated PhD students. If you are stuck at solving a problem, take a short break (e.g. several days) and come back to the problem later. Read the Health part above again!

Consistency

Perseverance and consistency are two different things, though they might be somewhat similar. Consistency means that I keep showing up at the office or lab every working day and get the tasks done. Sure, I may not be 100% productive every day but I still do the work. In the current pandemic, it means that you work at home every working day without taking weeks or months off. You should be consistent with your efforts. In other words, you can’t just start tackling a research problem for a week, and suddenly stop working for a month. Don’t get this wrong! It’s fine to take several days or a week off to avoid burnout and rest properly. But show up and work consistently.

Distractions

In today’s digital world, we get distracted quickly by our devices and gadgets (i.e. phones, computers, TVs, etc). A notification pops out of your smartphone and your focus is gone at work. As a knowledge worker, you need absolute focus and concentration. So, minimize all the distractions while working. It starts with silencing your smartphone and also managing notifications on your PC or laptop. I wish I could get rid of my smartphone forever! You cannot solve a hard problem or start a writing session when you constantly receive annoying notifications on your laptop or smartphone. Unfortunately, in the current pandemic, we have more distractions at home. You know what I mean if you have a family at home. Moreover, distractions aren’t just getting notifications from our devices. Playing a heavy metal song can be a great idea to distract yourself while working. :). You got the point! Find all the distractions in your life and try to eliminate them for work (except loved ones and family members 😀 ).

Imposter Syndrome

One day, you may say that why that guy at our lab (say John) has published 10 papers during his PhD. At the same time, you might be thinking why I can’t achieve the same, i.e. publishing 10 papers or more. Unfortunately, in this case, most students come to the conclusion that they aren’t good enough at what they do! On the contrary, their supervisor(s) believe they’re good students. This is usually known as “Imposter Syndrome”. If you ever experienced this, you need to realize that people have different qualities and traits, and also they may not work in the same research field that you do. In some research areas, it’s relatively easier to publish a paper. All in all, you shouldn’t compare yourself with your peers and other PhD students. Compare yourself with your previous version last year, i.e., see how much you learned and improved yourself over a year. Life can be viewed as an RPG game (told you I was a PC gamer 😀 ). You are at level 1 when you are just born! You level-up yourself each year by gaining experience and learning new things. Clearly, you get frustrated when you compare yourself with someone who’s at level 50 while you’re at level 20. Keep learning and improving yourself is key here.

 

That’s it, folks! thanks for reading my post. I really hope that these tips help you during your PhD. By the way, there are other tips regarding networking, career, etc, which you can read on the internet. I have tried to give tips about things that PhD students struggle with the most. Please share this post with your peers and other PhD students. Also, leave a comment below and let me know what you think about the given tips and your struggles as a PhD student.

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The above tips are based on my own personal experience and the following books that I read over the past couple of years:

  • Petre, M. (2010). The unwritten rules of PhD research. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
  • Glasman-Deal, H. (2009). Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English. IMPERIAL COLLEGE PRESS.

  • Wayne, C. B., Gregory, G. C., & Joseph, M. W. (2008). The craft of research.

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