In the last post, we mentioned that the Ph.D. journey could be a rollercoaster on many levels. While there is no magic formula that can solve all individual challenges, there are a few tricks that can make our day-to-day life not only more bearable but also enriching, and most importantly, can help you making the most out of the process. Here are some tips that you can take advantage of!
1. What is your purpose with your Ph.D.?
Often, when the months go by, and specific complications appear (inconclusive results, disagreements with the supervisor, bureaucratic barriers, you name it), the current challenges blur the motivations that led us to start this academic endeavor. We even begin asking ourselves if we are on the right path, questioning and doubting our choices. If this is your case, and especially when things aren’t going as expected, remember why you started this journey. This could be a good strategy for sorting out our priorities, ideas, and purposes. As good researchers, it is better to have those reasons in writing, following TIP 1!
TIP 1: Write down at the beginning of your Ph.D. a list of reasons why you started it. This way, when in doubt, you can always return to them. Take similar notes when you feel your purpose changed.
2. How do you cope with impostor syndrome?
We already know that impostor syndrome appears when you least expect it, causing discomfort and suspicion. Trying to silence that inner voice may probably not help. It may even be counterproductive. But what we can do is listen and talk to this inner voice. The best thing we can tell our impostor syndrome is everything we have achieved to get here. Reminding ourselves of progress, breakthroughs, and small accomplishments can comfort us and make us feel more confident about facing our fears. This is what TIP 2 boils down to!
TIP 2: Remind your impostor syndrome of everything you have accomplished so far. Reflecting on previous accomplishments can give you a powerful feeling of self-efficacy.
3. Asking for help is a brave thing to do.
We know that asking for help can be challenging, even more so in a university context, where autonomy, self-demand, and excellence are paramount. However, there are support groups in many universities, as well as psychologists and specialists, that make this process much more pleasant and developmental. Fortunately, asking for help is less and less of a taboo subject, and many people take advantage of sharing their experiences with others. Plus, you can be the best example for others facing similar challenges. With these arguments on the table, here comes TIP 3!
TIP 3: Share and ask for help. A problem shared is a problem halved! Others’ experiences let us put our doubts into perspective.
4. Expectation vs Reality
Generally, when we start our Ph.D., there is the widespread belief that our dissertation will change the world. We are sorry to disappoint you by saying that most studies are not radical innovations but relatively small advances. Seeing the big picture comes from accepting that usually, no one will change the world during their Ph.D. Instead, the collective research effort leads to a few breathtaking moments. Eureka moments happen, and although they are very energizing, they are ephemeral. Rather, we are individual architects working on a gigantic common project. Having said that, TIP 4 is:
TIP 4: Don’t forget the big picture. Our work is a tiny drop in the middle of the ocean. Let this drop not go to waste, make it count.
5. What do we do with our emotions?
Emotions are the engine that drives us to act; they speak of our experiences and help us interact with the environment. But sometimes managing them properly is a real challenge. To help channel them effectively, it is important to follow three steps: 1) Become aware of our emotions. That is, to recognize and validate what we feel. 2) Label them and give a name to what we experience. 3) Express them. Listening to emotions is a way to hear, feel, and let them go. Usually, all of us get stuck in one of these three points. What tends to be your main challenge? Speaking of emotions, here comes TIP 5:
TIP 5: Repressed emotions never die. Validate, label, and express how you feel!
6. How do you deal with your fears?
Talking about emotions, we also come across coping strategies. These strategies consist of all the methods we use to try to feel better in a situation of discomfort. In a research context, the daily routine is characterized by analysis and reflection on any topic, and normally, this modus operandi falls to be integrated as a mental habit. However, excessive reflection on an issue can sometimes lead to ruminative behaviors that paralyze us and prevent us from moving forward. And in those cases, perhaps the attempted solution is part of the problem. If you feel identified at some point, don’t miss TIP 6.
TIP 6: Try to avoid paralysis by analysis. Look for effective coping strategies. They can be very individual. Try, test, evaluate, and find your war. Your mind will thank you in the long run!
All this advice is useful, but the most effective is when others share their experiences and shed light on fruitful strategies! Here you have the opportunity to check out which routines incorporated some students.
Maria Orero. Postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at Universitat Politécnica de València (Spain)
A technique that I have learned and that has been useful to me is to set up three weekly goals of a general nature. Then, each morning, I focus on two tasks per day. For example, a review, the writing of some part of the dissertation, the correction of some teaching task, preparation of teaching material, administrative activities, etc. Multitasking is undoubtedly a thief of time and concentration, so avoiding it is essential. In addition, I always tried to have Fridays “half free” so that I could finish some tasks if I had not had time during the week or if something unexpected came up.
Peter Trümmel. Ph.D. student at Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (Italy)
I am an opportunist with these techniques: I test, keep, or drop them as my needs come and go. For example, I wrote gratitude dairies on a daily basis in my 2nd and 3rd year of my Ph.D. (the heavier COVID years). Now I only use them when I feel the need for something useful, energizing, or interesting in adverse and difficult times.
My latest trick is to insist on one ‘treat’ a day that is exclusive to my pleasing. That can be a run, a hike, or just sitting in the sun for at least 10 minutes. It can be to read a few pages of a novel or to go out with friends to enjoy a cake, a drink, and/or a chat. Taking care of my dopamine intake has become a priority. I nice side effect is for me to get and keep in touch with people and have something to talk about that is not always related to work.