Some Things I Learned From Taking a #DigitalDetox

Helloooooo internet! It’s weird being back after that little break I had. After a really hectic week back at work it almost feels like I never took the break at all, but I have kept up some of the habits I developed over the course of the week and I’ve felt much more able to deal with my workload. I figured it might be helpful to share those with you.
For anyone that is super stressed out, feeling a bit anxious or unmotivated (Katie’s most recent post is what triggered me to write this one..), these tips are really simple and should hopefully help.

Disclaimer: Some of these tips are embarrassingly simple, so much so that I’m shocked that I didn’t implement them earlier on in this PhD process. Still, if I wasn’t doing them before then I’d guess that lots of other PhD students aren’t doing them now.

1. Turn your notifications off

Before last week just about every app on my phone had notifications switched on; WhatsApp, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Goodreads, WordPress, Etsy, the news, even when Podcasts updated each week. I (naively) didn’t think that these notifications had much of an impact on me, but switching them off has cleared out a tonne of background noise that I didn’t even realise was there. Previously, there were always notifications waiting for me on my phone, always something to think about, catch up on, acknowledge. Now, there’s nothing. Obviously I get texts and calls like normal, but notifications from apps are strictly off. I check apps when I have time to deal with the stuff that they contain, rather than constantly being aware of what I need to deal with later on in the day. Terrifyingly simple, shockingly effective.

2. Stop checking your email all the time

As with notifications, my emails are on my iPhone (seriously, iPhones are the best and worst things ever), so with one quick click and swipe I’d have checked emails from my personal account, my work account, and the account I have that’s based with one of my freelance clients. It was pretty rare that there were no emails in any of those 3 accounts; now let’s be clear, I’m not saying I’m super popular or important, 80% of those emails were likely from mailing lists or companies trying to get me to buy stuff, but still. Not checking emails was the thing I found most difficult last week – I’m a big fan of getting, and staying, at inbox zero, and I knew in the back of my mind that when I went back that would not be the case. I stuck with it though, and I check them much less often now – I’m not important enough for the world to implode if someone needs to wait an extra hour or two to get a reply from me, and it clears up head space and helps me to stay focussed on what I’m actually doing.

3. If it takes less than 5 minutes, do it now

Previously, my to do list was clogged up with tiny, tiny things. ‘Book dentist appointment’, ‘sort laundry out’, ‘clear desk’, ‘go to the Post Office’, ‘print handouts for talk’, ‘make Doodle poll for meeting’ etc etc – these things are the easiest wins to make on a to do list, so I would allow them to build up and then do them as a form of ‘productive procrastination’. No longer! Holy cow, last week I got through all these tiny little things and my to do list is about a third of the length it once was – and it’s staying that way. If it takes less than 5 minutes, it gets done there and then. This not only means I’m getting more stuff done, but it removes the clutter from a to do list and enables me to focus on the stuff I actually have to do; i.e. write thesis.

I need this print from Sighh Designs.
4. Empty time is not wasted time
How could any of my time be wasted with this little pup around? (Note – that is the feeling of true joy you see on my face).

At this point I need to get this sentence tattooed on my arm. Or printed across my laptop screen, whatever. I was thinking about what I’d done with my week off, and I couldn’t remember what I’d done on Monday and Tuesday. All I could think was that I’d looked after Milo (excellent puppy that I’ve been borrowing), given myself a pedicure, got a hair cut, read my book and watched Netflix (if you haven’t watched Queer Eye yet then oh my god, it’s the best feel good TV ever, it totally didn’t make me cry, nope not at all). That small list of things was all that I did over 2 days, and it was bloody brilliant. I just had a slow few days, I wasn’t running around like a headless chicken trying to get emails sent or writing done – it was totally relaxed. This week when I came back to work I was able to work way more efficiently so that I could then take some time away at lunch, or finish work and not be glued to my laptop long into the evening.

So yep, that’s it! I’m back and feeling super motivated for the next 10 weeks or so. Yhere is so much happening, but I’m feeling excited for it rather than nervous or anxious, it looks like that little break did exactly what I needed it to do – hoorah!

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Organisation for PhD Success: Task Management

A few months ago I published a post on organisation to do with reading and referencing – that post was triggered by a conversation with my friend and fellow PhD student Lyuba (side-note, she’s started blogging – hoorah! Check out her blog here). This is the second post that came out of that conversation – how on Earth to keep track of all the things that you juggle as a PhD student?

Over the past 2 and a half years I’ve tried lots of different things, some have stuck, and others lasted little more than a week. Now I have a pretty set way to organise and keep track of everything; I’ve been using this method for about 18 months or so and it’s working well. I’m hoping that this post will help those of you who are struggling to keep track of multiple projects, and might encourage you to get a structured method of organisation in place going forward.

Working from a single, continual to do list

This is the thing that most people disagree with – but give me a chance. I work from one single to do list that never ends. It covers PhD work, other project work that I’m involved with, public engagement stuff, blog posts I want to write, Science On A Postcard work, household chores, self-care stuff, everything.

Previously, I’ve split tasks into different to do lists – one for work, one for home for example. That didn’t really work for me because I was spending too much time writing the lists, sorting tasks into lists, and then attempting to keep up with them all. One continual to do list means that everything I need to get done is written down in one place – granted, if I lose the list everything becomes a nightmare, but luckily that hasn’t happened yet! That list spans includes everything, at the moment it includes: ‘manicure before Thursday’, ‘book dentist appointment’, ‘drop dry cleaning off’, ‘finish systematic review chapter edits’, ‘review comments for journal manuscript’, ‘pay for writing retreat’, ‘upload new products to Etsy‘, ‘check interview location for Thursday’, ‘buy batteries for hallway clock’… I could go on.

I use a small To Do list pad I got from Paperchase last year  (left)- it’s nothing fancy, it was pretty cheap, and I don’t mind scribbling in it. It’s also got little boxes at the end of each line, meaning I can tick tasks off and easily see what’s done/needs doing. At the start of every year I used to spend so much money on stationery in an effort to get organised, none of those tools ever worked as well as this single list pad.

Long term tasks

When I spoke to Lyuba a few months ago, I explained the wonder of my single to do list, and she said ‘but what about really long term tasks?’. When she first asked I didn’t think that I had any one to keep track of these, but when I thought about it, I’m doing this without actively thinking about it. I use the desktop version of Outlook on my computer at work, and the Office 365 version at home – to track long term tasks that don’t fit on my single to do list, I use the ‘tasks’ function on Outlook.

For really long term tasks, I track these as ‘no date’ tasks – and the fact they’re on the list means that I’m still aware of them, but might not be actively be working on them. Other tasks get ‘next week’ or a custom date, which tends to be the following month. I check these tasks regularly because they’re right there when I’m writing and sending emails, which means that I don’t forget those tasks that I’ve said I’ll do months into the future.

Tracking your time

I’m aware that I’m in danger of looking like an organisation freak at this point, but my methods seem to be working so hopefully they’re helpful, rather than just something that people can mock.. Anyway, alongside my to do list and long term tasks list, I’ve started to block periods of time out of my calendar too. I use an Outlook calendar which is also on my iPhone too. At the start of each week I sit down and figure out when all my meetings are, what tasks need doing, and when I’m going to achieve each of those tasks.

An example week looks something like this:

This started because I was writing to do lists for each day, but I was finding it hard to strike the balance between lists that were too long (i.e. days when I had lots of meetings and not much time to get through work), or too short (i.e. days when I had no meetings, where I’d end up ‘finishing’ my daily to do list early on in the day). Blocking out pieces of time helps me to manage what I’m getting done and when, and also means that I’m more likely to say ‘no’ to things that aren’t working towards my goals for the day. Saying no isn’t something I like doing a lot a work, but with my thesis hand in date getting closer all the time, I’m finding that I really need to get my head down and write rather than helping out with this project and that. Blocking out a few hours to write makes me think twice about saying yes straight away – and that’s something I think a lot of postgraduate students need to do more often.

How do you keep track of everything that goes into your day-to-day life? Are you a fan of to do lists, or do you track everything through your phone? Leave a comment below – let’s share tips 🙂

Recruiting for One-To-One Interviews: Pitfalls & Solutions

Many PhD students require participants to enable them to conduct their research; myself included. This can throw up a whole host of hurdles, barriers and stressful days. Without participants, your entire project is at risk, this rarely happens, but recruiting participants more slowly than expected can mean your project doesn’t fit your planned timeline – that is much more common. My PhD project is split into 4 sections, and the 2 most substantial parts meant I was recruiting participants for one-to-one qualitative interviews, and user-testing. For me, the recruitment process was relatively straight forward, but I know for many PhD student that is not the case. Read on for some tips and tricks that I used to ensure that poor participant recruitment didn’t break my study.

Potential pitfall: Rushing your ethics application because you want to start the approvals process as quickly as possible, meaning that you don’t spend as much time or effort filling out the recruitment section as you really should, leading to amendments further down the line.

Solution: I will repeat this to every PhD student that’s recruiting participants that I ever meet – DO LOADS OF PLANNING, DON’T RUSH IT, GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME (yes, I am shouting, this is important). The ethics application is often something that people view as a hoop they need to go through before they can start their research; it’s really not just that. It’s a key part of the project, and it’s a brilliant way for you to focus your thoughts on what you’re going to be doing, and more importantly, how.

Spend time filling out the recruitment section – think about where you might find your participants, whether you’ll need to use social media, cold calling, or an email list, think about how you’ll access information, and who and how will then approach these potential participants. Talk to colleagues who have previously done studies in similar populations. Think of a back up. Think of a back up to your back up. Build in some level of flexibility that will allow you to have a Plan B (and potentially C and D) when recruitment inevitably doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped. Building in flexibility will prevent you from having to go back to ethics with an amendment later on; taking the extra time to think about your recruitment strategy will save time if that means you don’t need to submit amendment(s) later on.

Potential pitfall: You send out invites to your study, your inbox goes crazy and in the end you are left with very few people who are eligible to take part, meaning you’ve wasted time and resources, and you’re still struggling to recruit.

Solution: This solution fits nicely into my earlier point of: DO LOADS OF PLANNING, DON’T RUSH IT, GET IT RIGHT FIRST TIME (spoiler alert, planning can save a tonne of stress, reduce your caffeine intake, and make you a much nicer person to be around). So, you’ve started recruitment and you’ve sent out what feels like 4 squillion emails/leaflets etc. You get lots of responses, relatively quickly, and you’re suddenly feeling pretty smug. Then you start reading the responses and you begin to realise that hardly any of these people are eligible for your study.

This happens when you haven’t made your inclusion/exclusion criteria clear, and/or you haven’t targeted your recruitment strategy well enough. This is a hard balance to strike, but an important one.

  1. Ensure that your information sheets/leaflets are giving the right information in a clear and effective way, by running them by a representative from your target participant group before you send them out. You want to make sure that what you’re saying makes sense to the reader; often we are too close to our own research, and it takes someone else to point out when something isn’t clear.
  2. Put some effort into tailoring your recruitment strategies for this specific study – if you’re recruiting GPs into an interview study, it’s probably not a good idea to be standing in the middle of your local Tesco with a banner; it’d be much more efficient to approach your local Primary Care Research Network and ask them for help. Similarly, if you’re looking for members of the public who smoke, it might be a good idea to go with the banner idea. It all depends on your target population; the more homework you do on where there people can be found, the less time you’ll waste.

Potential pitfall: You need to recruit an additional 5 participants, you’re convinced it won’t take long, so you’ll just get this other work finished first. 3 months later every potentially eligible participant appears to have gone into hibernation and no one is answering your calls.

Right: Number of potential participants before you announce the start of recruitment. Left: Number of potential participants once you actually start recruiting. (Or Obama vs Trump inauguration crowds via Vox.com)

Solution: You guessed it, planning can save this one too. Always, always, build in more time for recruitment than you think you’ll need. You only need 10 participants, that should take a month, right? NOPE. Give yourself 2 months, 3 if you can.

Once you have all of your approvals in place, begin booking in appointments as quickly as you can – that way you have an idea of how things are going, how much time you have, and when you might need to start looking at Plan B (…and C and D). If you know of people that you are going to contact about taking part in your study, get their contact details put together in a list so that the minute your approvals are through, you can start. Do not leave recruitment to chance/hope/praying to whichever deity you believe in.

When I was first recruiting for my semi-structured interview study, I had a 3 month window that I planned to use for doing the interviews. That was just 3 months of work; it required a significant amount of work before that 3 month window began, for me to get times, dates and locations arranged with people from South Africa, Holland, Italy, the UK, Canada.. Lots of these interviews were done via Skype or over the telephone, which helped, but that still meant I needed to ensure I had private rooms booked for me to do the interviews in, and that the telephones in those rooms were enabled for international calling (lots of ‘phones at universities won’t do this by default and you’ll need to arrange it ahead of time). Those 3 months of interviews went pretty seamlessly in the end, I had a few no shows, but that’s to be expected – I managed to interview 23 participants in that 3-month period. Planning makes all the difference, and for me that meant getting to grips with various time zones, ensuring that I could do a series of face-to-face interviews over the course of one or two days, and always carrying a spare audio recorder (batteries will run out, your charger will break or get lost, and you cannot record audio using an app on your ‘phone because the ethics panel would have something to say about that).

Recruiting participants for your studies is no easy task; with PhD projects in particular, we often cannot offer incentives, and we are relying on altruism and interest in your work. Do your best to plan in advance, and make sure to build in flexibility for when things inevitably don’t go according to plan. For my study I used existing contacts, Twitter and LinkedIn; each strategy did help me to connect with participants, but the process was work-intensive and required much more time than I thought initially.

Organisation for PhD Success: Reading & Referencing

A few weeks ago my lovely friend Lyuba sent me a message on WhatsApp: “How do you manage a bucket of readings? Do you use mendeley?” The conversation that ensued after this initial message was a few days of absolute organisational-nerd filled glory. Lyuba has just started her PhD at McMaster University, and she’s not the first relatively new PhD student to ask me for advice on how to organise things.

This post will focus on how I track my academic reading, how I make sure I can find papers months later, and how I reference. Later on I have another post planned that will cover task management and to do lists, but I suspect that’s going to take a little while to pull together, so I’m starting with the easier one first!

Tracking your reading

Reading is a massive part of the PhD process. Throughout my first year and into the early part of my second year I read, probably not as often as I should, but wasn’t particularly good at keeping track of what I’d read or what I thought about the studies. That changed in January when I started the #365papers project. I knew I needed to get more organised with my reading, and this was a surefire way to make it happen.

To track my reading I use a simple Word document; the image below shows part of this year’s document.

The table you can just about make out in the image above, is made up of 4 columns; ‘Date’, ‘Number’, ‘Title, First Author, Link’, and ‘Notes’. The ‘Number’ column refers to the amount of papers I’ve read in that month, so that I can easily look back when putting together my #365papers blog posts. Another thing to note is that the ‘Link’ in the third column is always a hyperlink to a full text of the paper – this makes things much easier than if you accidentally link to an abstract and then have to waste time finding the full text again each time you want to refer to the study.

The ‘Notes’ section is the most important part of this document – in it I write comments about the paper, whether I think it’s useful, comments on the quality of it, what I would change if I did the study myself etc. I also include ‘tags’ in this section – these tags help me to re-find papers weeks after I’ve first read them. Tags I use regularly include; ‘recruitment research’, ‘public engagement’, ‘patient involvement’, ‘methodology’, ‘qualitative research’. These are so incredibly helpful when I want to go back and find the notes I’ve written about papers covering different topics.
In the ‘Notes’ section I also highlight sections of text – you can see the yellow areas in the image above. Again, these help to remind me of papers that I’ve read and know I’ll want to refer back to. Usually the highlighted areas are notes to myself, e.g. ‘useful for thesis introduction’, ‘check if this included in systematic review’, or ‘very clear writing style – refer back to when writing up qualitative findings’.

I’ve used this system since January, and I’ve found it so useful – I’m going to start a new Word document in January and keep the 2017 #365papers document for reference, so I’ll eventually have a big archive of all the papers I’ve read. For me, this is a really easy and simple way to track my reading; I have never used Mendeley because it’s not supported by my University, so if anything went wrong with it I’d freak out and not have anywhere to get help – seriously, the librarians at Aberdeen Medical Library are absolute superheroes, and have helped me tonnes in the past with various things. This brings me neatly on to referencing..

Referencing

Referencing is my least favourite part of academic writing – I don’t mean the whole finding information and referring to it thing, I mean the painful task of formatting the names of authors, papers, journals etc into a very specific format. What I find particularly infuriating about it is the time that it takes, and the fact that I know that no one reads reference lists with as much effort as it takes to write them.

As you might expect, referencing software is one of my favourite things about academic writing. I use RefWorks. It doesn’t allow me to store entire papers, just the reference for that paper (as far as I know anyway..), hence the big Word document of reading I talked about earlier. What it does have though, is folders. These enable me to make buckets of references that I know I’ll refer to in pieces of writing later on, speeding up the process of referencing whilst writing.

RefWorks is the reference software that Aberdeen University uses, so I’ve used the same account since I started my undergraduate degree – meaning that I can track references back throughout every assessment I’ve submitted for the last 7 years. The major perk of using the system that’s supported by the University is that the librarians know exactly how to do just about anything linked to RefWorks. On the very rare occasion that something goes wrong with RefWorks – it’s happened once in 7 years – the support team there are really good. I emailed the support desk a copy of my undergraduate thesis along with a very panicked email because the referencing just wasn’t working, and it was sent back to me the next day with the references exactly where I wanted them.

If your university doesn’t use RefWorks, check what they do support – and go with that. Lots of PhD students I know don’t use referencing software and honestly, I have no idea how they have got this far without being driven insane by the process. I can’t imagine trying to reference my entire thesis by hand; I’d probably need a 3 month extension and then time off afterwards to recover.

Taking a Break – Regret, Relax & Refresh

Last week I went on holiday; I went to Poland (Wroclaw and Krakow), saw friends get married, relaxed and spent some much needed quality time with my boyfriend. Most importantly, this was the first holiday where I didn’t bring my laptop with me since beginning my undergraduate degree 7 years ago. I still had my iPhone which meant I could access emails – but I didn’t reply to a single work email for the entire week.

The Regret Stage

To begin with, the sudden digital detox was much more of a shock than I thought it would be. At home, I take my laptop everywhere, I always have access to wifi and I am usually on top of my inbox with a digitised to do list. I didn’t have access to that list, any of my documents or PhD-related resources. Over the first few days of the trip I was a bit itchy – I felt like I was wasting time when I was at the airport doing nothing, on the flight doing nothing, or waiting around in the hotel, again, doing nothing. At first I viewed these snippets of time as opportunities where I could have been reading journal articles, abstract screening or writing parts of my literature review. I regretted not taking any work with me at all.

The Relaxation Stage

A few days after the regret stage – say around day 3 of the holiday, I was finally getting out of the habit of checking my work emails every hour or so, and I started to forget about the length of the to do list that would greet me when I got back to the UK. I had a really, really brilliant holiday. I saw my friends get married, made new friends with other guests, tried new foods, explored a new country, slept late (with no alarm!) and didn’t feel the pressure to wear a watch or check the time, because time really didn’t matter. It was bliss.

Sunset boat trip along the river, Wroclaw.
The Refreshment Stage

Towards the end of the holiday – around day 6 and 7, I started to think about work again, but in a totally different way. I started to think of really exciting and creative science communication projects that I could do in the future, I started to think about the structure of my literature review and how the big pile of papers I’ve gathered would fit together; but none of these ideas were forced. I wasn’t trying to think about work, in fact, I was consciously trying not to. I was just getting my motivation and enthusiasm back. We landed back in the UK on Friday morning, and on the drive back to Aberdeen I was reading through my work emails and jotting down things to do. I got home and unpacked, sorted out the mountain of laundry we’d acquired, and watched TV. I was completely relaxed, and looking forward to a weekend of getting back to blogging and scicomm projects, before PhD life kicks back in on Monday.

View from our hotel window, Krakow.

I guess what I’ve learned from the break, is that I wasn’t properly taking holidays before – I was switching my out of office on, and telling people I was going away, but I was sneaking work in the whole time. I’m sure there are lots of other PhD students and researchers that do that too; we’re expected to be on the go all the time and it’s so difficult to switch off. Next time you go on holiday, or have some annual leave left to take, just take a break. Force yourself out of the cycle doing bits of work here and there; you might just find that you come back refreshed and more motivated than before you left.

PhD Life and Depression

This is a much more personal post than any I’ve posted on this blog before, but I’m hoping that what I have to say will put things into perspective, and encourage other PhD students to speak up.

I have depression.

I think I’ve probably struggled with depression since the first year of my undergraduate degree (2010), but I didn’t tackle the issue and get help until January this year. Last year was a really difficult one for me personally, and after Christmas and New Year I decided that I was fed up of being mopey – to be quite honest I was boring myself, and I missed being excited about stuff. I went to see my GP and she was brilliant (yet another case of ‘I love the NHS’) – she gave me medication and arranged a follow-up appointment to check how I was doing in a month’s time. Since then I’ve doubled the dosage but stayed on the same medication, and things finally feel like they’re starting to get easier.

If you have never had depression, it’s difficult to get your head around – looking at it from the outside people can think you’re lazy or workshy when you become the textbook flakey friend/colleague who cancels more than usual. The only way I can describe it, is that it feels like you’ve got a really heavy blanket over you all the time, it’s so heavy that it’s tiring to drag around with you whilst you do normal tasks like go to work or go to the gym. For me, it’s been a constant source of frustration. I want to do loads of things, I’m still really excited about my PhD, but when I sit down and try to focus this big heavy blanket seems to cover everything. Motivation has been in short supply, but I’m just as stubborn as I am miserable (the fact I’ve maintained a sense of humour helps!) – so I’ve kept on going as much as I possibly can. That might mean going into the office on a Sunday purely because my motivation has come back and I want to make the most of it.

I’ve read a lot online about PhD students and the mental health problems that come with the pressure of academia – here, here and here are decent starting points. My depression has in no way been a result of my PhD. If anything, I think that doing the PhD has kept me going – so I wanted to add my two cents to the internet of ‘terrible things PhD students go through’, with a more balanced perspective. To be clear, I know lots of PhD students will have mental health issues that are linked to their studies; I’m not belittling their experience at all, I just want to even things out with my own experiences.

As I said earlier, I think I’ve had depression for about 7 years now, and I have no doubt that my PhD was the thing that made me get help. It wasn’t because I was under intense pressure, or that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write a thesis – the reason I finally said something to my GP was because I was so bloody annoyed that I couldn’t drag my ass to work each day and I wasn’t able to read papers or write coherently anymore. It was purely frustration – it felt like my PhD was slipping away from me, and I really love the work I do so I wasn’t willing to let that happen.

I don’t feel unsupported at work. Lots of posts I’ve read online say that PhD students are left alone, they suffer from isolation and they get lonely. Again, I don’t doubt that, but it’s not the case for me. The colleagues that surround me are brilliant – some are hilariously funny and mean I’m left smiling all day even after a 5-minute chat in the morning, others express surprise when I’m not myself and ask how I’m doing completely unprompted, some especially brilliant colleagues have been known to leave a little note or treat on my desk, my Supervisors are amazing and always seem to pick up on a down day before I’ve even mentioned it. It’s not that I’m lonely, it’s that I’ve got this heavy blanket weighing me down, and to be honest dragging it around is just too much hassle and it’s easier to stay at home for the day sometimes. Other days I get up and sort myself out as normal, go to work and have a totally normal day – whatever that is.

For now, my PhD work is on target. I’m working weird hours because I’m a bit rubbish in the mornings – I’m very much a night owl and whilst I’m in a bit of a funk it’s just better to roll with what my brain is willing to do. If that means abstract screening at 11pm after snoozing until after 9am that’s fine.

I’m aware that I’m very lucky with my PhD experiences, I genuinely wish I could remain a PhD student for at least another 3 years – I’ve never heard anyone else say that!

The world of academia isn’t all doom and gloom, there are research teams up and down the country that create the most brilliant learning environments for students. So if you’re considering doing a PhD bear that in mind, and make sure you find a team you click with before you start. If you’re already doing a PhD and you’re experiencing these kinds of problems, please do speak up and ask for help. 9 times out of 10 people are not actively isolating you, they’re just too busy to realise you need support – tell them, and then try your best to get rid of the British stiff upper lip and take the help when it’s offered. A PhD is not some sort of horrendous mental health journey, it’s supposed to be part of your career that allows you to learn and build your research experience; it’s meant to be (at least somewhat) fun.

I’m not really sure how to end this post, but I hope it’s showed the other side of the argument when it comes to PhDs and mental health. Mental health issues are so common, and I think it’s important that PhDs and academia are not blamed for those issues entirely – sometimes they’re just what’s needed to make someone realise they need a helping hand every now and again.

If you’re struggling – one of my earlier posts on academic self-care might have some useful tips.

Why PhDs and Perfectionism Doesn’t Mix

This post was originally written by me and published on the Let’s Talk Academia blog. Let’s Talk Academia is an open space on the internet, whereby advice, stories and experiences are shared about postgraduate life and academia. The process of working with Emily, who runs Let’s Talk Academia, was great too – so if you’re looking to get involved in blogging, I’d recommend getting in touch with her via the Let’s Talk Academia Facebook page.


Every PhD project is different, and every PhD student tackles a project in their own unique way. In my experience though, PhD students tend to have one thing in common; they’re high achievers.

When I was younger, I was always that kid that loved school. I was clearing out my old bedroom a few months ago and found diaries that we had to write at school when I was about seven years old. I’d written numerous times, ‘I had fun in Maths today’, ‘I did work at school, I like work’, or the line that makes me cringe the most, ‘I love work, work is easy.’ Please bear in mind I was 7 years old! I’m not that unbearable now at the age of 25, I promise.

I got good GCSE grades, and later on my A-level results got me into the University of Aberdeen to study Pharmacology. I worked hard to convert my Undergraduate BSc degree into an MSci when I took a year away from university for an industrial placement. In the end I graduated with a first class degree and won an academic prize for my final year dissertation; the results of which were then published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica and I was a named author.

I started my PhD in July 2015 and realised quickly that my usual high-achieving track-record wasn’t going to get me through this like it’d got me through exams and assessments before. I’ve always been a perfectionist, whether that’s manifested itself in redrafting and editing essays over and over again, or revising the same topic two or three times before an exam. That attitude simply does not work when you’re doing a PhD; realising that and having to adapt my mentality and working practices was difficult, and I think lots of other PhD students have experienced this too.

Why being a perfectionist simply does not work

A PhD is not an exam or assessment you can write in an evening and then forget about, it’s a really long process that involves literally years of work. If you try and make every single part of that process perfect, you’ll never, ever finish it. You’ll also likely hate the process, and your family and friends will want to strangle you because you’ll be no fun to be around.

Letting go of being a high achiever

After I’d started my PhD I learned pretty quickly that I couldn’t be the best at it. I’d get frustrated when I couldn’t do something, and my Supervisor would regularly remind me, ‘a PhD is a training degree, you’re not expected to know everything – you wouldn’t be here if you did’. That helped, and after repeating that to myself a few hundred times, it started to sink in.

I find it difficult to ask for help, and often I don’t find it easy to try new things; there’s a fear in me that I won’t be good at it so I’d rather not try than deal with the feeling of failure. (Side note – this is the reason why I can’t ride a bike…).

If you’re like me, I have some bad news for you. You are going to have to get used to dealing with perceived failures over the course of a PhD. Failures in PhD-land are common. Losing your memory stick with at least one month’s work on (I’m still not over this and it happened a year ago), software crashing and corrupting documents you’ve been working on for the entire day, missing out on funding, and not having abstracts accepted for conferences; it will all happen. You have to get used to it, learn to get over your defeats quickly and learn from them, otherwise you’ll drive yourself mad.

The intelligence myth

When telling people that I’m doing a PhD, more often than not I get the response ‘OMG you must be SO clever!’. I know this isn’t intentional, but it adds pressure. Every time someone says that, I feel a bit more stupid – know what I mean? Really though, a PhD isn’t about being smart. It’s about consistently learning from your mistakes, dusting yourself off and trying again. It’s a test of tenacity rather than intelligence.

Being able to let my perfectionist side ease off a little has undoubtedly made me a better student. I’m no longer afraid to ask questions, no matter how daft they might have seemed at first, and weirdly, I look forward to getting edits and comments back on my work because I know that’s just helping to improve it. Research is a big collaborative effort, we work in big teams across multiple projects at once, and making everything perfect is impossible. It’s also worth noting, if you’re the guy that wants everything to be ‘just right’, you’re probably a nightmare to work with.

Give yourself a break, and let yourself make mistakes – screwing up during your PhD is a really safe space to do so as well, you’ve got a supervisor who can help to get you out of sticky situations after all!