Running the PhD marathon? Pace yourself well!

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Running the PhD marathon? Pace yourself well!

The PhD program is extremely long and the path is anxiety-ridden, often painful and frustrating, and can take a toll on you physically and emotionally. What makes it even more difficult to stay motivated is that the interim rewards are few and far between and the end goal seems too distant. Much of the challenges of doing a PhD arise from the fact that the course is so long: the average time required to complete a PhD is 7.3 years. Of course, the duration varies by field: a PhD in the hard sciences can be completed in about 5-6 years, but in the social sciences, humanities, and education, it tends to take longer.

Why does a PhD take so long to complete?

Typically, the first 2-3 years are dedicated to coursework, at the end of which you are expected to develop a research proposal and appear for your doctoral comprehensive examinations, popularly known as comps. Often, students work as a teaching assistant (TA) or a research assistant (RA) during this phase, which also takes up some amount of time and effort. Once the comps are cleared, the research and dissertation process begins. This can take anywhere between 2-3 years or even longer, depending on the complexity of the study design and data analysis. In addition, some fields like psychology or education require internships to be completed as part of the graduation requirements. Much as many of us would hate to admit, completing all of this work in a shorter time is actually a tough ask. Throw in some personal issues and a diffcult supervisor, and the marathon might seem unending! But what is important is to pace it well, so that you maintain your motivation, overcome the hurdles, and complete your PhD successfully while maintaining your health and sanity as best as you can.

Prepare yourself in advance

As with any endurance training, the first step to successfully completing your PhD is readiness for the program. Readiness comes with acceptance. Accept the fact that this isn’t going to be easy. But also promise to make the best of it. Start preparing yourself as well as your family and friends even before you start the course. For many students, the PhD comes at a stage when personal responsibilities require attention as well. Discuss with your family and friends that your work may take up most of your time and you may not be able to give them as much time as you used to. If there is childcare or elderly care involved, find a support system that you can rely on when you are not available.

Make small changes towards a healthy and more disciplined lifestyle. If you’re joining your PhD directly after completing your Masters, you may still be at that stage of life where ready-to-eat meals and late nights are the norm. However, as you transition into the PhD life, you should try to switch to a more balanced and healthy life, be mindful of your diet, sleep, and exercise, so that you start the course with health on your side.

Invest in developing your skills early on

We often think that PhD is only about research, but in most programs, there is a coursework component as well. The courses not only help you to improve your knowledge of the topic or subject matter, but also equip you with the skills you will need to conduct research and write your thesis. If you invest in this time wisely, you will be much better off when you start your actual research. This is the time to develop skills that help increase your efficiency during your actual research. For example, Natascha Chtena in her extremely insightful article "PhD Coursework: Advice to My Younger Self" recommends that you learn speed reading during the early years of your PhD: “The point was to familiarize myself with authors and arguments and situate them within broader contexts, and for that I didn’t have to read 500+ pages a week line-by-line.” She also recommends using a reference management tool right from the first quarter so that you have a useful repository of notes and annotated PDFs by the time you start your research.

Align all your tasks to your research goal 

The more you invest in research-oriented activities during your courses, the richer the experience is for you. Treat each and every assignment that you get during your coursework as your final thesis. This will give you enough practice and will make you more confident when writing your actual thesis.

Additionally, if you have a choice, opt for an RA position rather than a TA position. This will give you greater exposure to actual research work and be beneficial for you once you start your own research. On the other hand, the role of a TA does not add much value in terms of learning. In a Times Higher Education article titled "The pragmatic road to a PhD," Tim Marler and Dean Young advise PhD students to minimize their teaching obligations: “Even if you aspire to a career in higher education, teaching while in graduate school can be a drain on time…Teaching well is only a tertiary criterion for success in academia, and it is all but unnecessary for success in industry,” they say.

Discover your own pace

There will always be a few people around you who seem to excel at anything and everything they do: they may be really smart, extremely proactive or just plain lucky, but everything seems to fall into place for them. You might inadvertently compare your progress to theirs and end up feeling low or guilty. Do not compare yourself to anyone; know that you’re good enough. It’s okay to find your own pace. As long as you’re getting tasks done, learning and improving steadily, you’ll be fine. Of course, you need to have a clear plan in place, with well-defined short-term goals and clear deadlines for every task. But don’t get unduly worked up if you see someone else making more progress than you are. Each person is different and has a different approach to work. Accept your uniqueness and keep modifying your plan to suit your style and pace.

Push yourself, but not too hard

The highly demanding nature of the PhD program will require you to constantly push your limits. While there is no alternative to hard work, remember that it is equally important to take care of yourself as you have to sustain this life for a good many years. Overworking consistently over a long period of time can be damaging to your physical and mental health and can lead to a burnout. This is especially true of the last leg of your PhD when tasks pile up, experiments fail, the thesis needs major rework, and your supervisor presses the pressure button. To avoid the stress from going out of hand, take care of yourself. While experiments can be unpredictable and deadlines can take over your life, ensure that you eat regular meals and sleep for a good seven to eight hours at least one or two days a week to ensure that your circadian rhythm does not go for a toss. Also, squeeze in a bit of exercise into your day and preferably let it take you outdoors, even if it means just a 15-minute jog: that way, at least your lungs get fresh oxygen and your mind clears up a bit.

While on the way…

Finally, always keep your goal in sight and, most importantly, never give up. Make time and space for personal issues when required. You might need to slow down for a while if your health or personal life takes priority. But remember that these are just roadblocks that will help you emerge stronger and keep going. Celebrate every win, big or small and keep your passion for research alive. The doctoral degree that you earn at the end of the program will make the bumpy road seem worth all the time and effort!

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Published on: Jan 29, 2020

Senior Editor, Editage Insights. Researcher coach since 2015
See more from Kakoli Majumder


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