Track Your Progress and Not Your Word Count

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One of the most challenging aspects of completing a PhD is the difficulty of knowing whether you are on track. When you are pursuing a degree that lasts for several years, how do you really know if you are moving forward, particularly when you are working independently? For most students, the default mode for measuring progress is to either compare yourself to others or to add up the number of words you have written.

Although your word count may seem like the most obvious and reliable way to measure progress, there is so much more that goes into completing a thesis than simply producing a set number of words. There are days when you might not write very much, or anything at all, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress.

The setbacks, challenges, and frustrating days when you feel like you are going in circles are, to a certain extent, inevitable and something that every student will experience. In order to keep yourself moving forward, it’s important to allow for the fact that this is all part of the process. Even when you feel like you aren’t progressing, chances are you probably are.

So rather than tracking your progress on the basis of the words you write and how much closer you are to reaching your final word limit, try alternative strategies for tracking progress – like journaling or a time-management tool called the Pomodoro Technique. Another option to track your progress is to find an accountability partner– someone you can regularly check in with as you work towards your goals.

Alternative techniques such as these not only help you to acknowledge the progress you have made, they also serve as an important reminder that the PhD journey does not always follow a straight path.

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Beware of the Urge to Compare

compare-643305_1280How often do you compare yourself to those around you? In many ways, the competitive nature of academia encourages us to compare ourselves to others. With our work being constantly assessed and evaluated, measuring our progress in relation to others may start to feel very natural.

While the comparison game may seem to be a useful way for determining how well we are doing, there is also something deeply counterproductive about measuring ourselves in relation to others. This became particularly evident to me when I was completing my PhD.

During the PhD, there was no obvious basis for comparison between me and the students in my cohort. Although we had course work during our first year and yearly upgrade panels, these were not graded. We were all pursuing our own independent research projects over a four-year period, wherein the only requirement was to submit a 100 000 word thesis.

As our main task was to write, the default mode of comparison became how many chapters each of us had produced. I recall being asked several times throughout my PhD by other classmates: ‘how many chapters have you written?’ and feeling bad that it wasn’t enough in comparison to what some of the other students had managed to produce. It started to feed into the feeling that I was constantly behind and not performing as well as my colleagues.

Of course, this chapter counting took no notice of how unique each PhD project was, not to mention the different working patterns of each student, differences in methodology, and the resulting differences in terms of the timescales for completion. Given all of this, counting chapters – and draft chapters in particular – as a measure for comparison was pretty meaningless.

The futility of this metric became even more apparent as the time for submitting the thesis drew nearer. Interestingly, and to my surprise, those who had written the most in the initial stages of the PhD were by no means the first to submit. This really brought home to me how ridiculous the ‘chapter counting’ comparison was.

But my realization also applies to the more general comparisons we tend to draw between ourselves and others. Whether we are using academic benchmarks or another metric for comparison, we will always find people who seem to be doing better than us as well as people who may not be – it all depends on where we focus our attention.

Either way, we’d be much better off not to make the success or failure, progress or lack of progress of others, mean something about ourselves. As you go forward, try and beware of your own urge to compare and ask yourself whether the comparison is actually serving you.

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Sweet Dreams: Strategies for Cultivating a More Restful Sleep

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How much sleep do you tend to get throughout the night? Do you wake up feeling rested? According to the National Sleep Council, nearly 74% of those surveyed are not getting enough sleep. The top two reasons cited for this were worry and stress.

While most of us recognise the importance of getting a good night’s sleep and understand the toll that sleep deprivation can take on our physical and mental health, poor sleep is something that too many of us have come to accept as a fact of our busy lives.

In honour of World Sleep Day on March 15th, this post will be devoted to some of my favourite tips for cultivating a more restful sleep.

TIPS FOR FALLING ASLEEP

  • Wake up at the same time every day – even on weekends!
  • Get more natural light throughout the day
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day
  • If you tend to nap during the day, between 20-30 minutes is ideal according to National Sleep Foundation
  • Avoid eating dinner too late
  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants late in the day
  • Figure out your optimal sleep time by calculating it at sleepyti.me
  • Adopt a daily wind-down routine – think of the nighttime routines that parents have created for their children, which is something we lose as adults
  • Switch off devices a few hours before bed (including TV, tablets, laptops, IPhones), as blue light will disturb melatonin balance
  • Try and minimize the amount of work you do in the evening
  • Ensure your bedroom is a space for rest and relaxation
  • Take a warm bath or shower before bed to help regulate your body temperature
  • Have herbal teas (chamomile with honey, valerian and lemon balm are all good options)
  • Activate your right-brained creativity before bed (try an adult coloring book, drawing, reading something light or journaling)
  • Burn lavender oil in a diffuser to help stimulate relaxation
  • Listen to calming music like the National Sleep Council’s Nodcasts
  • Practice meditationbefore bed or Yoga Nidra
  • Beware of what Kenneth Lichstein has termed ‘Insomnia Identity’, which in itself can be a powerful inhibitor to sleep
  • Let go of the struggle and effort surrounding sleep – remember that sleep is something that should come naturally to us and sometimes the harder we try to force it, the more elusive it will be

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Having outlined some of my favourite tips for staying asleep, the following set of tips have been associated with helping insomnia sufferers to stay asleep.

  • If you are finding it difficult to sleep throughout the night, experiment with avoiding alcohol before bed
  • Minimize EMF exposure by removing electronic devices from the room
  • Regulate room temperature and lighting to further assist your body clock
  • If noise is an issue, try ear plugs or a white noise machine/app
  • Try and refrain from checking email before bed (this includes personal as well as work emails)
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night, resist the urge to check your clock – if it’s too close to your waking time you may talk yourself out of going back to sleep. Likewise, if you discover it’s early on in the night, you may start to worry about whether you will be able to get back to sleep
  • If you wake up with a particular worry, make a note of it and set a time for you to deal with it the following day
  • Start a practice of journaling before bed. This will give you a space to make note of any thoughts or anxieties
  • Consult with your health care provider about a magnesium supplement or a topical magnesium oil
  • If you have difficulty getting back to sleep, try going into another room and doing something else. For inspiration, have a look at Roger Ekirch’s fascinating study on how our pre-industrial ancestors experienced something he called ‘segmented sleep’
  • To further investigate your sleeping patterns and to help get to the bottom of what may be disrupting your sleep, try monitoring your sleep with a recommended app

Remember that the key to getting a restful sleep has a lot to do with how we approach stress during our waking hours. For further advice tailored to your specific sleep challenges, visit the Sleep Council UK sleepcouncil.org.uk/perfect-sleep-environment/

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A More Flexible Approach to Planning

calendar-660670_1280Before I used to start any task, whether it was completing a batch of marking, writing an article, or preparing for a lecture, I always spent some time in advance planning how long the task would take and how much time I would need to devote to it each day.

For instance, if I was aiming to complete an article within two weeks, I might set a goal of writing 750 words per day, or if my marking deadline was in 10 days and I had 70 scripts, I’d aim to complete 7 exams per day. This is the approach I had consistently taken over the years and at first glance, it does seem like a reasonable approach to planning.

There was, however, something very crucial that I had been overlooking in my planning process, or to be more specific, an incorrect assumption that I was making. I assumed not only that every day that I worked on that task would be the same, but also that it should be the same. After years and years of doing this, I can attest to the fact that this could not be further from the truth. What I encountered in reality was a much greater degree of variance between each day that I spent working on a task.

There were days when things just flowed and I ended up exceeding what I had hope to accomplish in that day. Then there were the days that I struggled to make any progress whatsoever. Sometimes the progress I made during the exceptionally good days would even out my lack of progress on the ‘off days’, and I would still hit my targeted deadline. Other times I was forced to go back to my initial schedule and amend my completion date. This never felt particularly good!

Despite knowing that my instinctual approach to planning doesn’t work, I still sometimes feel drawn to plan in this way. What this demonstrates is a reluctance to acknowledge that ‘off days’ are inevitable. Acknowledging this would not only lead to a messier schedule, it would also feel like I was somehow inviting more of those days in, which I definitely did not want.

After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to realize the value in taking a more flexible approach to planning by building in time for less productive days and unexpected delays. Now, on the days when I accomplish less than I would have hoped, I try not to make it a big deal. I can see that what I used to perceive as a ‘bad day’ was not really a bad day at all – it was simply an outcome of the fact that no two days will be exactly the same.

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What’s On Your Plate?

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Valentine’s Day is approaching and while we usually think of the day as a celebration of love between couples, we could also use it as an opportunity to practice some self-love. One way to go about this is to conduct an honest inventory of everything we have on our plate.

How often do we hear phrases like ‘my plate is full’ or ‘I have a lot on my plate’? What’s interesting about this is that although we evoke the imagery of food on our plate for the various tasks and things we do throughout our day, we don’t tend to think of the things on our plates as feeding us. As a consequence, we may end up doing many things that don’t really nourish or give us energy – these are the things we tend to do automatically, whether it’s out of obligation, habit or even a sense of guilt.

So, start by taking stock of everything on your plate and ask yourself – does this task, commitment, activity, or group of people actually fulfil me? Asking this question allows you to be more discerning about how you spend your time.

When it comes to activities that are not enjoyable, where are you saying yes where you would like to say no? Could you minimize the time spent on these things? If it doesn’t feed you in some way, it doesn’t really have a place on your plate (or at the very least, not as big a portion!)

There will of course be tasks you can’t avoid, but there are probably other items you could stand to remove, as well as items that you could add. For instance, how much time do you devote to things that are actually enjoyable? What activities do you do that energize or excite you? And how much time do you make for them on a daily basis?

Cultivating a more balanced plate requires not only an openness to ask the question: ‘does this truly feed me?’ but also a willingness to make the necessary changes once you have the answer.

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Managing Your Relationship with Your PhD Supervisor

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The relationship we have with our academic supervisors can make or break the experience of a PhD. So it is no surprise that supervisor relationships are often the number one issue students highlight to me when I ask them to identify their top frustrations with the PhD. There seems to be something in the nature of the supervisor-supervisee relationship that can feel inherently disempowering.

In the years that I’ve worked with PhD students, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories ranging from unresponsive supervisors to those who micromanage their students or give insulting feedback. But I’ve also heard more promising stories about supervisors who are available, encouraging and completely supportive of their students.

While it may seem as though it’s just the luck of the draw, I wouldn’t leave everything up to chance. There are things you can do to foster a better relationship with your academic supervisor. Below I will share some top tips for enhancing the supervisor-supervisee relationship.

  1. OWN YOUR PROJECT

Many students approach the relationship with their supervisors through the lens of an employer/employee dynamic. In reality, your supervisor should be working for you! Even though your supervisor is more senior than you, this is your project and it is highly likely that you are more of an expert on your specific topic than they are. Supervisors are there to guide you through the process, but at the end of the day, this is your project and it’s up to you to shape it the way that you want.

  1. COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS

Whether it’s more frequent contact, clearer feedback, or joint meetings if you have multiple supervisors, don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. While it’s not uncommon to hear students complaining about their supervisors, the truth is that your supervisor can’t read your mind and if something isn’t working well, it’s up to us to communicate what your needs are. This will first involve identifying your needs and then making a clear and direct request to your supervisor.

  1. SET EXPECTATIONS IN ADVANCE

Unfortunately, there is no guidebook on how supervisors and supervisees should interact. It is often down to the individuals involved to determine how this important relationship will function. As with any relationship, we have an opportunity to establish what the expectations are and set out how those expectations are going to be fulfilled. For instance, when it comes to constructing a timetable for completion, you might wish to jointly work on this with your supervisor. In setting out the timetable, you commit to specific dates for submitting individual chapters to your supervisor, while your supervisor commits to specific dates for returning their feedback to you. In this way, you set a mutually workable timetable that establishes what work needs to be done by each person and by what date.

  1. ADMIT WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

If there is something you don’t understand, don’t shy away from admitting to your supervisor that you are confused or unsure about it. Pursuing research at the doctoral level will necessarily involve probing into unfamiliar territory or even a particular methodology that is brand new for you. You don’t need to have all the answers, so let go of the expectation that you should be an expert on everything that is related to your research area.

  1. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

As I mentioned in my previous post, ‘Coping With Academic Criticism’ receiving a lot of negative feedback from a supervisor can feel extremely demoralising. Remember that it’s your supervisor’s job to spot potential holes in your research so try not to take it personally. Of course, it can be challenging not to take negative feedback to heart. What I encourage students to do is to sift through the feedback and ask yourself: ‘will this feedback ultimately strengthen the project?’ If the answer is yes, it may help you to view it more constructively.

  1. ASK FOR CLARITY

It could be that your supervisors’ feedback or comments to you are unclear or contradictory to something else they said to you previously. Not only does this often lead students to feel stuck and uncertain about how to proceed, it can also be incredibly frustrating. Don’t hesitate to ask your supervisor for more clarity. It could be that they have overlooked their previous advice to you or that they need to explain their feedback to you more fully. However awkward it may feel to ask for clarity on something, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the end by having this conversation.

  1. BROADEN YOUR NETWORK

It is not uncommon to see students becoming overly reliant on their supervisors throughout the PhD – depending on them not only for advice about their thesis, but advice more generally relating to job applications, publishing, teaching, funding opportunities and much more. While it’s great to draw on the experience and wisdom of your supervisor, it’s also important to broaden your circle of support throughout the PhD, beyond the tiny bubble of you and your supervisor. For this reason, I encourage students to make their own contacts and connections throughout the PhD, and to take advantage of opportunities to share their work with others. Expanding your connections in the field will not only enrich your research by exposing you to other viewpoints, it will also put less pressure on the relationship with your supervisor.

  1. REMEMBER THEIR EXPERIENCE IS NOT YOUR EXPERIENCE

Another reason to seek other avenues of support beyond your supervisor is because their experience is not your experience. The world may have changed a lot since they did their PhD and as a consequence, the advice they may be able to offer you about – for instance – job applications, may be quite limited. So graciously accept their advice when it is offered, but don’t treat everything they say as gospel. Talk to others and, above all, follow your own instincts.

 

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Coping With Academic Criticism

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Compliments can be hard to come by in the academic arena. This is particularly the case for PhD students. Criticism can come from a variety of differently places – your supervisor, colleagues, or other faculty members in your department.

Endless criticism can feel exhausting and become a major de-motivator. It can also be difficult not to take the criticism personally, particularly if you are used to excelling academically, as many doctoral students are. In this post I want to address how to cope with academic criticism throughout your PhD.

The first thing is to simply realize that the criticism of your project is normal and even to be expected. While you may have grown accustomed to receiving compliments on your work, it’s important to appreciate that the PhD is an entirely different ballgame and by its very nature, subject to a higher level of scrutiny. So as strange as it may sound, it is actually an indication of the more demanding level you are working at.

Since a higher amount of criticism is to be expected during the PhD, it’s also important to understand that it’s meant to help you. It may feel awful in the moment, but whenever I ask a student I’m coaching to reflect on the criticism they receive, they almost always acknowledge that it will make their project better in the long-term. The key question to ask yourself is – is this criticism constructive? If the answer is yes, try viewing the criticism as an opportunity to enhance or improve your project.

When the criticism isn’t particularly constructive or delivered in a respectful manner, it usually says more about the person delivering the criticism than you. Part of navigating the criticism surrounding your work is to decide which criticisms you want to take on board and which ones to disregard. It’s all part of taking ownership of your project.

If you are feeling weighed down by the volume of criticism you have received and are starting to seriously question the value of your project, don’t hesitate to request more balanced feedback. This may be something along the lines of: ‘thanks for your helpful feedback. I now have a sense of what the gaps are and what can be improved. To make sure I’m on the right track, it would be great to hear what aspects of the project you think are promising.’ People don’t always realize how their feedback is coming across, so there’s nothing to lose by asking for what you need.

The next point is to remember that the PhD is what you are doing and not who you are. With that in mind, try your best not to overidentify with your research or with the criticisms you receive of it. This can be challenging, as our projects are often deeply personal to us, but at the end of the day, the criticism of your work isn’t an attack on you or a reflection of your worth.

Finally, rather than seeking approval externally, remember that the main person who really needs to buy into your project is not your supervisor, your colleagues or anyone else – it’s you! What you think matters more than anything else. So instead of waiting to hear that you are doing ok, start to give yourself the validation you are seeking by keeping track of what aspects of the project you find valuable. Begin writing them down and come back to this list whenever you need a boost.

In my next post I’ll address a related topic of how to manage your relationship with your supervisor.

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It’s Not Just What You Eat, It’s How You Eat

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What are your New Year’s Resolutions this year? Unfortunately, statistics reveal that only 9.2% of people actually achieve their resolutions with 80% failing as early as February.

So how about selecting a more attainable resolution for the year ahead? Eating more healthily is often at the top of people’s resolution lists. Although we may not stick to our ideal nutritional plan throughout the year, we can still begin to make subtle improvements to our health by shifting the way we approach our meals.

It would be fair to say that mealtimes are not often prioritised in our society. With our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles and work driven culture, taking time to eat is seen as a luxury that most of us cannot afford. Whereas eating on the run (or at our desks) has become the norm. As a result, most of us eat so quickly that we aren’t really tasting our food.

A survey conducted by Conscious Food revealed that people spend an average of six minutes eating breakfast, eight on lunch and nine minutes for dinner. This amounts to a startling 23 minutes in total for all three meals.

This means we tend to spend more time cooking a meal and cleaning up than we devote to actually eating that meal. As Kristina Locke, the founder of Conscious Food has said: ‘We are constantly surprised by the lack of time and importance that people dedicate to eating.’

Today, select a snack and commit to consciously slowing down as you eat it. It can be a piece of fruit or a square of chocolate – whatever you prefer is fine. Before you begin eating, take your time to notice its texture and begin to smell the food. If it’s chocolate, let it melt in your mouth. If it’s something else, chew it slowly and deliberately and allow yourself to observe its flavours.

You may notice when you do this exercise that your mouth begins to salivate before you even begin eating and this is no accident. The digestive process begins in our brain before we start eating. When we eat too quickly and forget to chew, we neglect this important step. It is therefore not very surprising that a staggering 73% of those polled in the Conscious Food survey admitted to suffering from digestive issues.

Eating too quickly not only compromises our digestion, it also means that we end up robbing ourselves of one life’s greatest pleasures. How much more enjoyable would the experience of eating be if everyone made more time for their meals?

While there is no doubt that what we eat makes an impact on our health, how we eat is equally important. So, if the prospect of following a strict nutrition plan for 2019 feels a little daunting, perhaps introduce the more manageable resolution of cultivating a mindful eating practice this year.

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Setting Goals and Shifting Expectations

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For many people, the start of January is a time for taking stock and setting goals for the year ahead. So, what are your goals for 2019?

I’ve come to learn what a powerful role our words play when it comes to setting goals. For instance, whenever I set the goal of writing a ‘chapter’, my inner perfectionist automatically goes into high gear and starts to take over. I instantly feel the weight of what I’m working on and the expectations surrounding it. Who is going to read it? What if it isn’t any good? Why am I bothering with this in the first place? This is how I talk myself out of doing things before I’ve even started.

In order to quiet my inner perfectionist, one technique I’ve started to employ is to soften the language I use surrounding a specific task. So, whether it’s a lecture I’m preparing or a chapter I’m writing, I almost always refer to it as a ‘sketch’, outline’ or even a ‘blueprint’ and I preface whatever I produce as ‘preliminary.’ While it can feel heavy to expect myself to produce a full chapter, writing a preliminary sketch is something I can do.

With this very subtle shift in language, I begin to alleviate any pressure and anxiety associated with the task. It’s a way of tricking my mind into relaxing while I move closer to reaching my goal and in this way, the seemingly impossible task I would otherwise worry about gets completed without me really noticing.

As you start to plan for 2019, ask yourself whether you can shift the language around any of your goals for the year ahead.

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Do You Have Difficulty Switching Off?

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People talk about ‘switching off’ from work as though it were simply a question of flicking a button and going into relaxation mode. When it comes to longer-term projects, it can feel challenging – if not impossible – to draw a line between work and non-working time. This is because even if we don’t physically bring our work home, we often carry the mental weight of it with us.

I certainly found this to be the case when I was completing my PhD thesis. No matter where I was or what I was doing, some aspect of the work was always on my mind. I didn’t know what it meant to switch off or how to go about doing it. Not only did my inability to detach mean that I never had a proper break, it also made my work a lot less enjoyable.

As we approach the holiday season, I’ll share a few steps that have helped me learn how to switch off from work.

Step 1

Set an end to your work day in advance: The first step is to set an end to your work day before you even start working. Not only will this give you something to look forward to, having an end time set in advance will help you to make the most of your working hours. Most of us are taught the virtues of being a hard worker from a very young age, so the notion of consciously and deliberately taking time off work – rather than taking time off when we reach burnout or exhaustion – can feel quite alien. Yet the value of carving out some non-working time in your day and making this non-negotiable, will far outweigh any initial reluctance and discomfort with this step.

Step 2

Find an activity unrelated to your work: Now that you’ve set an end to your work day, it’s important to fill that space with something other than work. If we don’t fill that time, it is more likely that work will creep back into the space we’ve carved out. Try and select an activity that is completely unrelated to your work. It might be a long-lost hobby, a sport, a craft, a language or anything else that you’ve been interested in trying but haven’t managed to find the time for.  At this point, I hear a lot of people saying ‘I can’t afford to do a hobby or take time off each day… I have so much work to do’ which is something I’ll address in the next step.

Step 3

Give yourself permission: Much of the resistance to switching off stems from the fact that many of us don’t feel like we can afford the time off or that we even deserve it. With so much to do, the prospect of deliberately switching off can quickly develop into feelings of guilt. The next step I recommend is to actively give yourself permission by tackling the guilt head on. For this step I recommend something along the lines of a PhD process journal. This will enable you to work through any feelings of guilt and give yourself the permission you need to switch off.

Step 4

Adopt a transition activity: Sometimes the challenge with switching off relates directly to the type of work we are engaged in. This is a result of the fact that nearly all research projects involve expending a great deal of mental energy on tackling complex problems. The nature of PhD research makes it difficult to go directly from the lab, the library, or the office into relaxing. In order to give our brains some space to recalibrate, it can be helpful to try and adopt a transition activity between our work and our downtime. Exercising or even a brisk walk can be a great way to transition between work and downtime. Another good transition activity is grocery shopping, as it gives our brain another task to focus on as we start to wind down.

Step 5

Carry a notebook with you: Even if we were to strictly observe the above steps, our thoughts may still gravitate towards work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some of the best ideas I had during my PhD came to me when I wasn’t actively trying to work on it. This is why I often recommend that students carry an ideas notebook with them. That way, if an idea comes to you, you can quickly make a note of it and return to it the following day instead of getting caught up in that thought when you are trying to relax. This allows you to remain receptive to thoughts and ideas without having them derail your downtime.

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