Kristyn Jackson wrote this for PhD Peeps, a website we started together just before she escaped academia and headed to Melbourne. Although originally written for PhD students, I think it has validity for all of us who study and work independently, so I decided to copy it across before PhD Peeps shuts down for good. It’s a shame to waste all that effort!
You’re probably wondering what the PhD Peeps logo is all about. Meet Sisyphus, punished for eternity to push a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back downhill as he nears the top. An inexorable link to grad school, don’t you think? Let me borrow from sociologist Bruno Latour (who I unashamedly take out of context):
“[…] if we want to reach the top of the mountain, we need to take it one step at a time, right foot after left foot, with no jumping or running allowed, all the way to the bitter end!” (Latour 2005, p. 221).
Like Sisyphus, completing the PhD is all about momentum (and is seemingly endless). We all know research is slow – I mean, have you ever been stuck in a review process? Academics are not hares. No, we are tortoises, setting a steady and sustainable pace to reach long-term goals.
We’re also about as fashion forward as tortoises, but I digress.
I’m entering the final stretch of my PhD, or so I tell my supervisors and parents. When I squint, there it is: the white light of freedom gleaming from the mountain top. In all my time, one thing has kept me going: consciously maintaining and managing a sustainable work load with dogged persistence.
Below, I offer you some tips drawn from my own experiences in the PhD journey that will help maintain momentum and reach the top of that mountain.
Give yourself weekends
When I was an undergrad I worked 7 days a week, completing full-time uni and working retail to fund my caffeine addiction. When I started my PhD, I was free on weekends for the first time in a decade. I rejoice in my weekends. I embrace them. And they are never more important when there’s a lot of work to be done: they keeps me balanced and sane.
I recommend you designate weekends to Rest and Recreation (R&R), dedicating them to your family, partner, friends, and those pesky domestic things like groceries. By doing so you can hit Monday with a full battery, and persevere through marathon working weeks with a clear mind. Then there’s that sweet, sweet promise of Friday night. I live for Friday nights.
Working 10 to 12 hours a day can cause burn out. When you burn out, you lose time, wasting any extra gains you made by pushing yourself so hard in the first place, because you come to a grinding halt as you recover. It’s like racing past other cars on the highway, only to sit with those same cars at the traffic lights.
Active and creative hobbies removed from your research can recharge your batteries. Rock climbing, walking, riding… even rebuilding a car, or have you ever fancied sculpting? Whatever floats your boat. Don’t feel guilty lavishing in these things you love. Self-care is important, and you are a multi-dimensional person with (potentially untapped) capabilities outside the confines of your PhD research.
It’s okay to have a bad day
You can set yourself goals, you can tell yourself you’re going to “write this much”, “finish this review”, “read these papers” in any working day. But, sometimes, your mind is just having none of it. There’s a big “NOPE” plastered to your forehead.
As you sit, pen poised, fingers over keyboard, staring at the screen or article, your mind is blank. On this day, your chair is uncomfortable, your coffee doesn’t have its usual effect, and 5.30 is oh-so-slow to arrive.
Nalini: Nope, I’ve NEVER felt this way. No, not at all. And no, my nose is not growing, that’s your imagination.
Kristyn: Well, way to make me feel unproductive!
And you know what? It’s okay.
It’s okay to fluctuate, and it’s okay to throw in the towel some days and say: “It’s just not happening”. What is important, however, is that you always try again the next working day.
No one can function at 100% productivity every day. I’ve found the quality of work I produce when I push myself on a bad day is pretty rubbish, anyway. My supervisor will raise an eyebrow, questioning my basic grasp of English. And even worse, when I get home I’m all sourness and moodiness and generally no fun.
So, do set yourself goals. But don’t be discouraged when you can’t measure up some days. Carry on, and try again. Overtime, you’ll find you can write more, read more quickly (maybe even Rain Man fast!), and get more done in less time. But it’s a process: it’s a mountain you have to climb slowly. Sometimes you’ll trip or stuff up, and that’s fine. Just right yourself, grit your teeth, and continue with renewed determination.
You know you’re capable. You know you’ll get there. It’s okay to give yourself a breather.
Find your optimal training zone
I’m borrowing a metaphor from exercise, here. Your optimal training zone allows you to achieve more, more efficiently. Don’t you just love efficiency? It means you can do more in less time and get back to doing the things you live for, like lunch. Plus, lunch can help you concentrate!
Nalini: AND COFFEE. DON’T FORGET COFFEE.
Kristyn: I never forget coffee.
For now, let’s talk about optimal time of day. Experiment and see when works for you. Are you a night owl, and does 3am work for you? Or do you find your mind clearest in the mornings before 10am?
I’m cogent for 32 seconds in the afternoon. Move your work day around when you’re most alert.
Don’t schedule meetings around this time, cancel lunch plans or afternoon tea. Make sure that, as your optimal training zone time approaches, you’ve made yourself comfortable at your desk and have prepared the resources you need. Then set your phone to ‘do not disturb’, chuck on some invigorating music, and get writing.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.