PhD Routine: The Impossible Dream

When I took over as editor of this blog I had (what I thought was) a great idea for a series of posts: the PhD day  in pictures. I imagined arty shots from lots of different PhD students, showing their daily workplaces, tasks, research, etc. However, each week I have thought about writing this post I put it off, because I realised something: the average PhD day is (visually) quite boring, for me at least. And the days that are most visually interesting – when I’m working with garments or other historic material – I can’t share pictures because of copyright issues. The other problem is that I don’t really have an ‘average PhD day’. This is largely because, almost three years in, I am yet to establish a PhD routine.


A pretty dull photo of an average PhD day!

The PhD routine means something different for everyone. For those of us who work away from their university campus, and don’t have an office, it is perhaps harder to settle into a regular work pattern. I have tried many different set ups at various points of my PhD, but I have never properly settled into a consistent routine. I know it would do me good, but it has never worked out. The PhD routine is my PhD white whale.

I can break my three years of PhD experience into a number of phases, defined by changes in lifestyle (pre-dog, for example), what kind of work I was undertaking (reading / research / writing), and where I carried out the majority of work. For a while I turned my windowless box-room into an office, for a wonderful but brief spell last year I shared an actual office with three other office-less PhD friends, and recently I’ve been doing a lot of work in our moveable writing group. This is probably the same for most PhD students because life happens, and the PhD doesn’t stop that. People have babies, move house, get married, break up, start new jobs and get crazy dogs all while working on their PhDs. And so, it would be pretty unusual if your work habits were the same on day one as they were on the day of submission.

Despite all of this, I do slightly wish that I had worked harder, nearer the beginning, to establish a more consistent work routine. Because I’ve moved my desk so many times (in and out of the house, from room to room), my PhD files and notes are scattered across various boxes. I have no one place that feels like my work spot, and I find it hard sometimes to differentiate my work, from work admin, from procrastination. A lot of this is due to the fact that I chose to live away from my university, but I certainly could have been firmer with myself about setting a PhD routine. There are, however, a few things I have learned that have helped me, and, as I like to write a useful blog post, I’ll share these few tips for the other routine-less, PhD-wanderers:

  • If, like me, you have no one place to keep your PhD work and are prone to switching notebooks following stationary binges, digital note-taking is a lifesaver. I have mentioned before that I am a huge Evernote fan, but I really cannot stress enough how valuable it has been to my PhD. All my notes – from secondary literature and from primary research – are carefully stored and categorised, with dates and references. AND they are word searchable – what more could you want?
  • Lists are your friend. So are organisers. I confess to having a calendar, a year planner, a week planner, a pocket diary, a diary on my phone/computer AND making daily lists. If you don’t have a set routine it is easier to forget where you are supposed to be at any one time. A daily list helps me feel like I am progressing, and stay on top of all my extra-PhD activities.
  • Do not feel guilty when life gets in the way of work: this happens to everyone
  • Try also not to feel guilty about coffee money. If that cafe is the place that you are working best this week then it is worth the £5 spent on lattes.
  • If you don’t have one set place to work then find other ways to remind yourself you are in ‘work time’. I have certain music I always listen to, use apps like Forrest and Cold Turkey to block myself from distractions, and set clear tasks to complete.
  • Thinking time is work time. If I am having a bitty day where I can’t settle into any one task, I try and take notes, make lists, or just do some PhD thinking. These days have turned out to be really valuable in terms of shaping my content, and help me structure other days more carefully.
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Some of my Evernote PhD notebooks 

As I move into the fourth year of my PhD (how did this happen?!) I realise that I will probably never have a PhD routine. There is a part of me that wishes I did, as it might help me to picture the next few months more clearly as I head towards a full thesis draft. But maybe, if I really needed a routine, I would have worked that out earlier. I fit in a lot of other projects around my PhD and sometimes I just have to be flexible. It seems to have worked ok so far, and I know that I am giving my thesis the time it needs. Here’s hoping I have a calm and productive final stretch, and if every day is a little bit different at least it will keep me on my toes!

If you have a good PhD routine, please do share with me: @luciewhitmore on Twitter!

Next week is my last week as SGSAH blogger! Someone great is going to be taking over at the start of August and will be looking for guest blog posts. If you have an idea, get in touch with or check out the submission guidelines. You can also follow SGSAH on Twitter or like them on Facebook for regular updates on all the latest happenings and opportunities. 

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