Strict but Compassionate: Finding a Routine as a PhD Student

This week, Blogger Vesna Curlic grapples with what makes a good PhD routine and her journey towards finding a routine that works for her (for now, at least). Make sure to read until the end for some exciting happenings over on our SGSAH Instagram page!

One of the best and most challenging part of doing a PhD is the flexibility. There is usually no set schedule and you have a lot of power to choose how you spend your days. This is usually a great advantage, but it also means that it is quite easy to get into bad habits and routines. I’m in my third year of the PhD now and while it isn’t my final year, it is crunch time. To suit my busier-than-ever schedule, I’ve begun really thinking hard about my schedule and want to share some things I’ve learned, if you too could use some tips for creating what I call a ‘strict but self-compassionate schedule.’

Every day is different and that’s okay!

In academia more than in other fields, every day can be a radically different experience with different expectations. Many of us are simultaneously students, teachers, staff, and more. Wearing all these hats can be overwhelming. I find that these responsibilities call for a clear, reasonable to-do list.

Every morning, I sit down, and I write out a to-do list. If I were extremely organised, I would set up this to-do list the night before, but alas. Recently, I have begun noting down a length of time for the project. For example, if I write down ‘work on chapter 3,’ I will set myself two or three hours to work on this, because otherwise it could take over my whole day. I’ve then been trying to block out my day, using this tailor-made to-do list. I start with any immovable obligations, like meetings, classes, and talks I want to attend, and then I slot in the rest of the tasks for the day.

Account for ‘slumps’

This is probably the hardest lesson I had to learn. Every afternoon, usually between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, I find my brain just doesn’t work as well as it usually does. For years, I tried to convince myself that this was just a personal failing, and if I just ate more protein at lunch/ drank more coffee/ tried harder, I could overcome this daily slump and maximize my productivity. I have now come to accept that this is not true and have shifted my schedule accordingly.

In particular, this means I no longer answer emails and do admin first thing in the morning. I did this for years, but then found myself frustrated, because by the time I wrapped all the ‘easy’ stuff up for the day, I was in my afternoon slump and couldn’t work very effectively. Instead, I try to save this stuff for my afternoon slump. This has actually proven to be much more efficient, because I still feel like I’m getting stuff done, even when I don’t have the full brain capacity to do things like read critically or write.

A good planner is an essential for an organised week — I use mine religiously, to write my daily to-do lists, appointments, and deadlines.

Be flexible

Flexibility is the key to an enduring routine, because despite our best efforts, routines get upended all the time. Sometimes an urgent email comes through that takes over the day, or a simple errand takes much longer than expected.

This point also means ‘don’t over-schedule yourself.’ For example, I never schedule my days after 6 or so, whenever I finish working, unless I have specific plans with friends. The majority of days, I let myself do whatever I’m in the mood for in the evenings – go for a walk, play cards with my partner, watch a TV show or movie, go on my phone, or work on one of my hobbies.

I think one of my most unconventional pieces of advice when friends reach out to me at the start of their PhDs is ‘don’t forget the fact that flexibility is a great gift.’ It is easy to become so committed to a routine that you never leave time for spontaneity, but depending on your circumstances, it might be the last time you have the ability to rearrange your schedule at a moment’s notice. Make time for spontaneous adventures with your loved ones, even if it means you have to work on a weekend later in the week.

Don’t be afraid to abandon what doesn’t work for you

For a long time, I assumed there was a perfect routine for me and that I simply had to find it. In reality, there are many routines that will work and none of them will be perfect. I’m in a relatively good routine right now – I’m efficient, productive and still have a lot of time in my schedule for rest and fun. But I’m still working on parts of the routine, which I think will be an endless project!

When something stops working for me, I will gladly drop it from the routine and find something to replace it. For example, as I discussed before, I’m trying out time-blocking my day. It’s working for right now, but if in a few weeks I find the system too restrictive, I will gladly find another system. Just because something worked for you at a certain point, doesn’t mean it will work for you forever.

Though I am no expert on the perfect routine for PhD students, I do think seeing other people’s routines can be really helpful for finding new things that might work for you! If you find that helpful too, you can join me on the SGSAH Instagram account next week, where I will be doing a ‘week-in-my-life’ takeover! From Monday to Friday next week (24 to 28 January), I will be checking in a few times a day and sharing my schedule for the day.

Vesna Curlic is a PhD researcher in History at the University of Edinburgh and current SGSAH Blogger. Her thesis project considers the relationship between disease, disability, and the British immigration system in the early twentieth century. More broadly, her research interests include the history of medicine and science, modern immigration law, and public health policy. She splits her time between Edinburgh and her hometown of Toronto, Canada.

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