How To Look After Your PhD Student

Our guest post today comes from Birdie, a part time PhD assistant. Birdie is supposed to be working on creating a healthy but constructive work/life balance, but spends most of her time trying to make the work environment as difficult as possible. When she isn’t “working”, Birdie’s main interests include tennis balls, snacks and shouting at stuff. For Birdie, the best part of the PhD experience is showing off when people come round for meetings.

Birdie 1

Introducing Birdie, the PhD assistant

I have been working as a PhD assistant for over two years, and in that time I like to think I have learned quite a lot about PhD life: the naps, the snacks, the need for occasional fresh air, the naps, and not biting the ankles of people that make you furious. When I was asked to write a post for this blog, I thought I’d share some of my wisdom for all you other PhD assistants (or support teams, if your student is a big deal). Think of this as a handy guide to caring for your new PhD student: office breaking, keeping them motivated, what to feed them, and how to avoid emotional breakdowns. PhD students, if you’re reading, feel free to share this with the assistants in your life. You’re welcome.

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Dog about campus (left), my temporary role as conference administrator earlier this year (right)


You really shouldn’t commit to looking after a PhD student unless you are 100% sure you can afford to keep them in biscuits and coffee for a minimum of three years. Not only will your PhD student need a constant supply of snacks, you will also have to remind them to eat a proper meal two or three times a day. Try and encourage them to not only fill up on writing snacks (mine likes popcorn, grapes, cereal bars, crisps, babybels and lots of chocolate) and maybe try cooking them a nice hot meal now and again, they really like that. (I’m not allowed because my primary goal in any kitchen is to find and eat all the cheese). PhD students love it when you offer to buy them dinner as a reward for a long day of writing. They may well drop hints, learn to listen out for them. They need vegetables to survive, and apparently chips do not count.

Birdie 3

Coffee and beer are two of the primary PhD food groups


This is a touchy subject with my PhD student, she really hates exercise. Luckily, she does like walking with me, and so I try and encourage her to do that lots of times a day. Walks are actually a very efficient way to exercise your PhD student – they often come back calmer, refreshed and ready to focus. Sometimes they get really good ideas when walking somewhere pretty and stop to write notes on their phones. I find this super annoying. Sometimes they just want to talk about Harry Potter for an hour and ignore the scenery. Whatever. If your student is freaking out, try and make them go for a walk. I don’t know why it works but it does. I think they just really like trees?

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Out on a walk (left), at a conference  for PhD assistants with some esteemed colleagues (right)


I have very strong opinions about the correct habitat for the PhD student. They should ideally have a desk by a window with a chair at the right height for me to see out the window so that I can supervise. The desk should have two large bowls to hold treats (one for them, one for me). If this set-up is not possible for your student, just make sure they have light, oxygen and a comfy seat. Gently suggest they open a window now again if it gets stuffy. If you share the space with your student, make sure they can work undisturbed and try not to make too much noise, it stresses them out. This is not my area of expertise. Do as I say, not as I do.

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The PhD habitat 



This is where I really come into my own, I am an excellent PhD distraction. Your PhD student will probably fall into one of two types: always distracted, or boringly focused. Distractions are really important and your job is to learn when they need them, and when they need them taken away. It is a risky game, and can get you into big trouble if you get it wrong. If in doubt, check the dates of any upcoming deadlines and then the word count on their computer. If the deadline is tomorrow and the word count is low, probably best keep a low profile. If they are weeping, staring into space, napping at their desk, throwing stuff or typing aggressively, a well timed distraction could go down very well. Offer them a large gin and tonic, a hug, a walk (see above), a trip to the cinema/shops/pub, cake, or a large gin and tonic. They also love a well time picture of a dog / cat / capybara / red panda. I give you a few ideas in the accompanying photo series I have tentatively titled, “A Master At Work”. 

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Spot the difference (capybara via Wikimedia Commons)


Treats: the difference between a good PhD assistant and a GREAT PhD assistant. I personally prefer the ‘drip feed’ method, but there is plenty of literature out there on the subject and you can do the research for yourselves. A treat can take many forms. Sometimes the treat is simply offering to return their overdue library books for them. Sometimes it is offering to walk the dog and leave them in peace. (I don’t get why this is a treat but I’m told it can be). If they’ve been working really hard, try running them a hot bath, buying them some new stationary, or, in extreme scenarios, taking them on a little holiday. They like to feel indulged. They like their PhD pain to be acknowledged. They just want you to know how busy they are. They like you to show this through the medium of a large gin and tonic.

Birdie 2

With my PhD student


Some basics. You probably know these already, but it bears repeating.

  • Remind them to back up their thesis. Some like hard drives, some like clouds
  • Remind them to breathe (this one is key)
  • Talk to them about their thesis (but don’t push it if they don’t reply)
  • Tell them to talk to another human about something other than their thesis
  • Don’t ask them how their Masters is going
  • Avoid asking them when they are going to finish or what they are going to do when they finish
  • Tell them every now and again that they are a great public speaker, an innovative researcher and a naturally gifted writer. Their work is pioneering and important, yet engaging and accessible. It will probably change lives and win prizes. It is all worth it.  (So. Needy.)
birdie 6

Supervising the student at work (even the best of us sometimes sleep on the job)

Well I think those are all the key points covered! I will leave you with one final thought. The PhD student may look a little unsure at times, they may even have the occasional freak out – but DON’T WORRY! It isn’t your fault. They are usually pretty tough underneath, they are just working it out as they go and they face some super weird road blocks along the way. Just try to keep them calm, warm, clean, well fed and happy. They’ll do the rest.

4 thoughts on “How To Look After Your PhD Student

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