Do we need to suffer to succeed?

Originally posted on the EGU blog network

Last week the newly formed Bristol Doctoral College hosted a postgraduate seminar entitled “Surviving the stress of a PhD” by James Hayton, PhD.  My initial thoughts on attending a talk such as this were that it might be a little patronising (no one wants to hear about how someone’s PhD experience was a walk in the park) and would incorporate a re-hash of project management techniques such as Gantt charts, to-do lists and the like.

Luckily for my sanity, the speaker was incredibly honest about his tales of laboratory disasters (it all turned out well in the end it seemed) and he gave a refreshing approach to how to deal with the inevitable stress that a PhD entails.  The majority of his advice was a little too late for me, but I thought I would summarise his three main points:

  • Rigid linear structures do not work in research – it’s more about attention management

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a thesis plan to begin with, but suggests that something like research often has a life of its own, being more about attention management than time management.

How can you time manage this?! Image Credit: "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
How can you time manage this?! Image Credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Attention management is where you think of your brain power as being a finite resource.  The harder a task is to complete, the more this resource will be used up.  If you are juggling multiple difficult tasks there often isn’t enough attention to go around then this leads you to feel overwhelmed and stressed.  The difficulty level of a task is often related to your level of skill.  If you are a newcomer to a particular task, it will need more attention; however as your skill level increases, the amount of attention that is required decreases.  James’ suggestion was that if there was a task in your PhD which you can identify as being something that you will need again and again, spend some dedicated time on learning that skill early on and this will help with your attention management later on.

  • A PhD is fundamentally different from any other qualification

Ever explained to someone who isn’t doing a PhD what it actually is?  It can be pretty difficult to express, mostly because it is so far removed from previous academic pursuits.  I often use the analogue of being in an apprenticeship to train to become a researcher.  A PhD is completely different from undergraduate degrees where the courses are structured, and mistakes are seen as a negative thing.  In research, mistakes are common place and often this is when the really important discoveries happen!

Pencillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming by accident after a strange mold grew in one of his petri dishes. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming by accident after a strange mould grew in one of his petri dishes.  In PhD offices petri dishes are not common place, however the odd mouldy orange may be! Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you approach your PhD as learning a new and potentially useful skill set then this may relieve some self doubt and stress. There’s no need to beat yourself up about not being good at everything straight off the bat

  • In your final year, stop having new ideas!

This was James’ answer to my question about the advice he would give someone who is writing up.  He, in fact, eloquently answered via the medium of a graph which I have recreated for you below.  At the beginning of your PhD, you have lots of things to do and this only increases with time. But by the time you hand in, the number of things to do should be zero.  If that is the case there needs to be an inflexion point where the number of things to do flips from increasing to decreasing.  The longer the time between the inflexion point and hand in date, the less stressed you should be (theoretically).  So the earlier you stop having new ideas, the less stuff you will have left to do. This leaves you to concentrate on completing chapters and focus on how you want to present your final thesis document.

Illustration of how to have a stressless (green) write up by stopping having new ideas and a stressful (red) write up by keeping on keeping on! Image Credit: KT Cooper
Illustration of how to have a stressless (green) write up period by stopping having new ideas and a stressful (red) one by keeping on keeping on! Image Credit: KT Cooper

If this advice resonates with you and you want to find out more, I would recommend James’ website 3monththesis (yep, that’s right he wrote his thesis in 3 months!) as a good source of information and advice.

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About KT Cooper

I’m a carbonate biogeochemist. When I’m not in the Bahamas, I dabble in the world of computer modelling.

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