Doing a PhD: Organising Yourself


Of course, the demands of engaging with academia and doing plenty of reading and writing, which were covered in the previous posts in this series, require a certain degree of organisation. This is something that I was confident about but, it turns out, I wasn’t prepared for the task of getting a PhD done on time and to a satisfactory standard. This is a different kettle of fish to a nine-to-five job (or, at least the ones I’ve had) and should be treated as such:


Set realistic goals, but be prepared to knacker yourself to achieve them

It might seem like you only need to do one of these things but even realistic goals can be knackering to achieve. The point is that you need to get a balance; stretch yourself without trying to reach an unattainable point. I tried to do far too much in my PhD; mixed-methods research, gathering original quantitative and qualitative data from scratch, undertaking an overly-complex analysis of the former (see the point in the final post relating to structural equation modelling), and expecting to have massive impact with all of it. I could have opted to focus on either a quantitative or a qualitative approach (though I’m theoretically committed to mixed methods), chosen to use secondary data for either element, or conducted simpler quantitative analysis. Alternatively, I could have worked a lot harder than I did for much of my PhD (see not treating it as a nine-to-five, below); after all, this is a topic that I chose to research and that I’m passionate about. However, having knackered myself in the two jobs that I’d done before returning to academia (both of which I cared about deeply), I was adamant that I’d have a better work-life balance. Alas, I still didn’t get it right, and can attest that not achieving most of what I set out to do in my PhD is much worse than being tired and having less time for extra-curricular activities. So, I could have set lower expectations (which, as I’ve discussed with fellow research students, feels like an admission of defeat from the outset) or put in more hours. As it is, the time-consuming nature of my quantitative analysis, and my unwillingness to power through evenings and weekends (until the end neared), meant that I ended up with a thesis that doesn’t refer to my qualitative data, and certainly hasn’t had any significant impact. Needless to say, this is pretty disappointing.


Don’t treat it as a nine-to-five

As outlined above, I was under the misapprehension that my organisational skills meant that I could achieve all my research goals without putting in any extra hours. Thus, I approached my PhD like a nine-to-five, with a workplan and a timesheet, and I usually clocked off at the same time each day. It didn’t matter whether I’d achieved what I’d set out to do; there was always tomorrow. This was often pretty counter-productive; in the worst cases it meant that I stopped work without the satisfaction of achieving a particular task (which might have only taken an additional hour). By contrast, I’m now in the thick of a busy period in my new job whilst fitting in a bit of research work in the evenings and at weekends (there’s nothing like realising all the stuff you’d wish you’d done to provide motivation!), and I feel more content (despite being tired) than I did for much of my PhD. So, I think being flexible with your time is key; put in extra hours when necessary, and take breaks when needed. In the former case, this means that if you’re in the groove with a piece of work, or have a particular problem that’s motivating you, you can capitalise on it (the productive power of both of these situations should not be underestimated). In the latter case, an advantage of not really having a boss is that if you’re knackered (intellectually, emotionally, or physically; all are possible in a PhD) then you can take time to recuperate. I think this is at least as likely to be productive as my more rigid approach.


Don’t be a reincarnated Soviet bureaucrat

Someone once accused me of having an ‘administrative mind’ in a tone that was laden with intended offence (I just thought ‘fair point’). Indeed, my fiancée and I agree that I was probably a Soviet bureaucrat in my past life. It’s not that I love forms or anything, but I’m a badass at filling them out, and I’m scrupulously organised with all digital and physical filing (both personal and professional). This is an asset, up to a point. Unfortunately, it also has a tendency to take over, especially to the extent that it provides the opportunity for virtuous procrastination (‘I’ll just update my timesheet and then file these papers, then I’ll get onto the proper work’). Ultimately, to the extent that you’re administratively efficient, this has to play second fiddle to your main research work. It’s a good thing to have in addition to, rather than instead of, a focus on the actually important tasks. So, if you find yourself mindlessly filling time with tidying your desk, or ensuring perfect formatting in your latest supervision meeting minutes, then snap out of it and get on with the work that’ll actually be rewarding.


Organising yourself, of course, doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and there are contextual factors that you need to account for, and which you will have make decisions about. Primary amongst these are time, money, and location





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