Although PGRs have many similar experiences, their individual work lives vary greatly. If you work in a lab or within a research team, you’ll have a completely different daily routine than if you work on your own without set office hours. As a PhD student in Sociology, I belong to the latter category. I meet my supervisors every other month, but in between I’m free to work according to my own schedule. Although this has many advantages, it also comes with some issues that I will outline in this blog. I started my PhD last September and looking back at my first year, I realised that finding my own work routine has been my biggest challenge in the past year. So, what were my biggest pitfalls and how am I trying to avoid these in the coming year?
Leaving everything to the very last minute
If you’re not expected to be somewhere at a specific time, waking up early can be tough on some people. I, for one, don’t have the natural wake up time of 7am, and sleeping in is one of my biggest hobbies! But in the past, this has left me working until late in the evening to keep up with my deadlines. Especially in Glaswegian winters, when the sun goes down around 4pm, it can be tough to spend most of your waking hours in the dark.
The solution to this could be to just set an early alarm. Sounds simple, right? I saw a slightly aggressive, yet motivational, quote on Instagram that was quite applicable to this situation: “Drink some coffee, put on some gangsta rap and handle it.” Yet this just didn’t work for me. When my alarm went off I simply didn’t feel the necessity to get out of bed, thinking I might as well sleep for one more hour and just work a bit longer in the evening. The same happened with working towards deadlines: if I still had twenty more days to work on something, surely one lazy morning wouldn’t hurt?! As a consequence, I ended up having to do all my work in just a few days, which was really stressful. Because I was still meeting all my deadlines, it took me a while to realise that this pattern wasn’t actually working so well for me. Though I still got my work done, I was also feeling unproductive, stressed, inefficient and lazy.
The lesson I learned for next year is to stick to regular office hours, even though it might not feel necessary every day. Rather than postponing your tasks with the thought that you will make up for it by working hard later, try it the other way around and reward yourself with a movie or night out after you’ve accomplished your tasks.
Finding your workspace
Another crucial factor in feeling productive and motivated is your work environment. I have the luxury of having a shared office with four other PhD students. Although it is great to have my own desk, computer and bookcase, the best aspect of our shared office is having other hard-working people around me! Not only do they motivate me, they are also available for a chat, to ask questions, and to exchange knowledge with. Going to my office means going to a place that is designed for working, which gives me an extra push to get some work done!
However, I rarely go to my office every single day of the week. Instead, alternating between several workspaces works best for me. I have learned to not work at home too much, because I feel too comfortable and get distracted. Going to the library or a café is a perfect alternative for my office! Some PGRs have told me that they prefer to work from home, but come up with routines to keep them concentrated. For example, they work for a few hours and plan breaks to walk their dog or go for a run. Others told me they never ever work from home because that results in binge-watching Netflix. My point is: it takes time to figure out where you work best, and I underestimated that at first. I felt guilty for not going to my office every day, but I learned that keeping yourself motivated and concentrated can require a change of workspace every now and then!
If you don’t have a shared office, or if you prefer to work from home, loneliness can creep up on you. Last year, while I was stressfully working from home to finish an essay, I had a strange sensation. I was sitting in my room behind a desk, thinking about what would be the quickest possible dinner to buy, when I realised I hadn’t interacted with another person all day. I hadn’t even spoken a word out loud all day. That freaked me out! Of course, it’s normal to feel isolated or lonely at times when you’re working on a PhD project on your own, but try to keep this to a minimum. Discuss your work with colleagues or a friend. Go to conferences, seminars and extracurricular activities and meet other PGRs to feel more part of a community. Always remember that yes, this is a job, but it’s not your entire life, even if it often feels like that!
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
The most important thing is to keep track of your overall progress. It’s okay to have an unproductive day, or even week. Make sure to meet your supervisors regularly to ensure you stay on track. My supervisors are great at giving me smaller tasks with deadlines for each meeting, so that I have specific goals to focus on.
I have this image in mind of the perfect PhD student and I’m not meeting these criteria. I don’t work as hard as I think I should, and I feel like the entire PhD track should be very difficult in order to be rewarding. Discussing these worries with other PGRs has taught me that everybody seems to think they don’t work hard enough, which is impossible! This made me realise that I need to let go of that idea of perfection. We should focus on the bigger picture and our overall progress. Our PhD journeys are very individual, so there is no use in comparing yourself to others: focus on your own timeline and don’t be too hard on yourself. But do drink that coffee and handle it!
Catherine Aitken recently wrote an excellent blog about distance learning in which she also touches upon isolation and workspace variation. Make sure to check it out for useful tips, even if you’re not a distance learner! Share your own via Twitter @UofG_PGRBlog.