General life hacks for the PhD researcher

Embarking on PhD research can be daunting. This short guide is intended to offer you a broad introduction on how to hack your life and become a better researcher. We’re all different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all series of tips, apps and organisational methods, and I won’t tell you what to do. Instead, I’ll take a high-level overview, with tips on how you can boost various areas of your life. Try the things that leap out at you, build those into your PhD routine, and ditch anything that isn’t useful.


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

A real challenge in PhD life is time management. I tried to solve this by creating Gantt charts and reams of spreadsheets, but this didn’t work for me, and I soon found it was making time management harder. I changed my approach to keep an eye on reading, thesis writing, my practical component and engagement work. I did detailed planning for the work I was carrying out at any given time, re-scheduling on a daily and weekly basis instead of stretching too far out.

I come back to my overall PhD schedule regularly, so that I can stay on track, or identify where I am slipping. When it comes to time management, there are thousands of approaches, and people waste no time in telling you which you should use. I worked out the best approach for me; and you should do the same.

Take the best of every time management process you’ve used, and synthesise these into a system that is unique and designed specifically for you. If you’re going to operate a fluid, flexible system of time management, regularly re-orient yourself with your key milestones and deadlines. If you find you’re slipping, decide if you need to reassess how long it will take to carry out each specific piece of work or how you prioritise them. You’re only setting these milestones for yourself, so readjust regularly as you take on more work or become absorbed in one aspect of your research.

Many of us also struggle when it comes to academic reading –  the average thesis requires reading hundreds of texts, which is daunting. However, reading every page, line and word of those texts is impossible, so I‘d advise learning to skim read. Move swiftly through a text looking for key concepts you can use. Run your eyes across the page and dig in when something catches your eye – useful information will ‘pop’ out of the page, so trust that process.

Don’t highlight everything you see – there’s no way to identify key points when you’ve highlighted a full page. Put the article away and write out a short blurb from memory that describes it. This will help you to create more concise notes for reference, identify what areas you perhaps need to re-read, and also help those concepts to stick in your help for later on. I find that actually writing out quotes in full sometimes helps them to integrate into the rest of my thoughts on the piece, but again, this might be extraneous work for some

Health & Wellbeing

Regarding your health, no one can tell you what you need better than yourself. It’s important to get good sleep, eat well and exercise, but you need to work out the right balance of all these things for you.

Researching with a sleep debt is very difficult. You need to be sharp, and the muddy, foggy feeling that results from lack of sleep makes it difficult to manage your time and retain information. Get as much sleep as you need!

Diet is a broad topic so I’ll just say that the better forms of energy you put into your body, the more energy you’ll actually have. There’s no point feeding the machine with fuel that expends energy to process.

Exercise is a tricky topic, too – some people are born to run, while others (like me!) can’t run the length of themselves. I’d advise gentle walking, for at least 10 or 15 minutes every day. It will blow away the cobwebs, get you some exercise, and remind you that there is, indeed, still a world outside of your home and PhD research!


This is the most crucial section, for me anyway. Remember that study is not an end in itself. You’ve chosen to research because you want to better yourself, have opportunities for growth, to evolve. This is maybe our only real purpose in life.

Remember your passion. Hopefully, you’ve chosen a thesis topic you’re passionate about, but if not, get passionate about it. Your excitement carries you through the harder times, and makes it easier to discuss your work with others. This requires regular maintenance. There will, almost inevitably, be one or more slumps during your research, where you question why you’re doing it. As negative as these periods seem, they are part of the process. Don’t give in to doubt – re-affirm the reasons why you’re doing it in the first place.

Lastly, I want to leave you with a gift. You have an irrevocable right to daydream during your study, because it’s crucial to engage in divergent thinking. ’Thinking outside the box’ is where you allow disparate thought to come in from different directions. Before working on a specific topic or problem, allow your mind to swim. The brain is wonderfully efficient at slamming ideas together to see if they make anything new – and they often do.

This animated video of Ken Robinson explaining divergent thinking is a great primer!

Daydreaming is where you’ll make exciting, unique leaps of thought that only you, with your specific take on the subject, can come up with. This is where ‘genius’ emerges, and it’s important if you don’t want your work to feel derivative. There is plentiful information on this online, but if you want to engage in it, go for that walk, go for a swim, go for a quick nap (if anyone asks, tell them I gave you a ‘nap pass’), daydream and do what it is you’re tasked with doing – coming up with new and original thoughts and perspectives!

Uncredited images sourced from and used under CC0 non-attributable license

Garry (Mac) McLaughlin is a 4th year PhD researcher in Comic Studies at the University of Dundee with co-supervision at the University of St. Andrews. His project explores queer temporality in comics and graphic novels, researching trans-temporal narrative mechanics within the systems of comics. It is practice-based and he is currently working on the key output, a comic called PRAXIS. He is from and resides in Glasgow, UK and has lived here for most of his life. Find him on Instagram as @queertempo and see progress on the comic at @praxis_comic.

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