Life hacks for the PhD researcher

Doing a PhD can be hard sometimes. While undergraduate and taught postgraduate students have regular courses to attend, group assignments, clear milestones, and a cohort with whom they share many facets of their university experience, PhD students often find themselves rather isolated on their unique journeys. Thankfully there are blog posts with life hacks for every walk of life – like this one, specifically curated for the PhD experience.

Get a routine

One of the main upsides of the PhD is also its downside: Lack of routine. While I personally greatly appreciate not being tied to a 9-5 schedule, sometimes I found myself not starting my day until shortly before my first obligation came along, which was not necessarily the most carpe diem-y thing to do. After a couple of weeks, I realised that for me this lifestyle was not sustainable and that my productivity was reaching an all‑time‑low. Now, regardless of my schedule, I wake up at 7 am and start my day, be it by going to the gym, answering emails, or heading to the library. This change has helped me overcome my procrastination and by midday I tend to feel accomplished rather than guilty.

Academic guilt is your enemy

The to-do-list of an academic never turns into a done-list. The truth is, you will never reach the point where you can comfortably sit back and claim that there is nothing you could (or worse, should) be doing for your research. But if you find yourself reading yet another article during the holidays rather than spending the time doing something that brings you true joy, then this is your wake-up call. Give yourself some well‑deserved breaks regularly. Take off one day per week(end) and don’t feel guilty about it. Even God rested for a day after having worked for a week.

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Just write

As obvious as this sounds, just writing for a few minutes, without editing, backtracking, or deleting anything can help you get your thoughts on paper. When doing this you’re making a clear distinction between the times during which you’re a writer and the times when you’re an editor. Both roles are equally important but putting on two hats at once can be overwhelming and a lot of potential can be lost in the process. So just write, even if it isn’t exactly presentable, it’s a great way to overcome blank paper anxiety.

Stop the perfectionism

This might sound controversial at first but hear me out: If your perfectionism gets in the way of you applying for a research grant or submitting a paper for publication, then you know it’s no longer a beneficial quality. Take a moment and ask yourself, why you’re aiming for perfection. Is it a fear of failure? Then try again. Fail again and fail better but don’t let your insecurities take the upper hand. Is it a fear of rejection? Then learn to dissociate academic rejection from personal rejection. Try to build up the courage to pursue your endeavours. At best, you will succeed – at worst, you can make use of the feedback you receive to move into your desired direction.

Stay healthy physically

A healthy mind lives in a healthy body. However, when work piles up and life becomes a bit more stressful, it can be increasingly hard to maintain a healthy diet and get some exercise done. This shouldn’t give you a free pass to neglect your health though. On some days it can suffice to grab some fruit or veggies as snacks or getting some movement in by walking a few stations rather than taking the bus. Obviously, everyone has different physical and dietary restrictions and requirements, but it’s worth considering which small lifestyle changes can help keep you fit during stressful periods.

And mentally

Your PhD journey is unique, which can be exciting and frightening at the same time. These intense emotions can take a toll on your mental health, so make sure to check in with yourself regularly. Most universities offer resources for mental health support, so make sure to seek them out. Oftentimes the waiting lists can be rather long, which is why, the earlier you inform yourself, the better. And always be kind to yourself because the difficult days will be part of this formative and isolating experience.

Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Easier said than done, right? The good news is that imposter syndrome is particularly common in academia. And that’s quite normal when you think about it: PhD researchers are pushing themselves beyond the limits of human knowledge. Having self‑doubt is essentially a syndrome of you being your own critic. This however can be reframed for the better and considered as the heightened (and quite academia-specific) ability to critically analyse things. There is a reason, why you are where you currently are and sometimes it can be helpful to toot your own horn by owning and celebrating your achievements. Whichever lens you choose to view your accomplishments, don’t start attributing them to mere luck because if you’re truly this lucky, I urge you to buy a lottery ticket today (and share your prize money with me).

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Stay organised

A PhD is basically your (at least) three-year-long project and by the end of it when you’re writing the dissertation, you’re unlikely to remember the reference you read on that sunny afternoon in late June two years ago. The obvious solution is a reference manager such as EndNote, Zotero, or Mendeley. But you can always step up your game: Categorise your references into the themes they cover. This is particularly powerful when your research is interdisciplinary and you read across different research fields and try to find the intersections. And on a more granular level, colour‑code the way you highlight your literature. I personally use blue for theory, orange for methodology, red for gaps, green for results, purple for definitions, and yellow for general insights. This makes the literature quite literally easy to look at.

Anna Rezk is a 2nd year PhD researcher in Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the BBC R&D. Her research revolves around the implication of personalised and highly customisable public service media content and how it can be leveraged to promote inclusive and democratic civic participation. Due to her background in journalism and computer science, she is particularly interested in news, and how content can be algorithmically enhanced and curated without thwarting editorial intent. Find her on Twitter as @anna_rezk.

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