How to make most of your PhD

From my personal point of view, becoming a researcher and succeeding in a PhD program can be one of the most rewarding experiences you will have in your life. You will have a lot of freedom in deciding who you want become, what you want to learn and what exactly you want to investigate. At the same time, it can be stressful, a lot of work, and – at times – be outright frustrating. Yet, much of what causes sorrow in the beginning turns out to be less problematic in later years. Although it is difficult to “prepare” someone for a PhD program and you will definitely make your own experiences, there are a couple of things that I think can help to succeed and to make most of your PhD.

The following list of recommendations is obviously aligned with my own experiences. Some aspects may work well for you, others may simply not be right for you. That being said, I do believe that it is worth to think a bit about all of them (even if it simply leads to dismissing some of them). Being a quantitative communication scholar, some recommendations are very much tailored to this particular type of research (e.g., my suggestion to learn a programming language and improve statistical skills). Most points on this list, however, are of a more general nature and should be interesting to anyone who starts an academic career.

Just as the PhD project itself, the following list can be a bit daunting. It is not my goal to make your life even more stressful. Instead, take these recommendations with a grain of salt and rather as an opportunity to reflect on your current way of working. Adapt those points that make sense to you, where you feel that they could help you. Feel free to discard others and definitely do not see them as criteria that you need to fulfil or succeed at.

Time Management and Self-Organization

One of the best things about being an academic scholar is that it never gets boring. One has the unique privilege to engage in diverse projects and activities. Doing a PhD often means teaching some classes, participating in larger research projects, writing several papers at the same time, presenting at conferences, participating in workshops, and – on top of everything – keeping up with your actual PhD project. Time management and organisation is hence an important basis to reduce stress and frustration. I believe it is important to note that one never gets perfect at this. So don’t strive for perfection, but constantly reflect on your workflow and aim to get better instead.

  1. Take notes and systematize your thoughts and projects. You will have a lot of meetings – whether with your supervisors, project partners, colleagues of fellow PhD students. Don’t think you will remember everything. Write everything down! Meetings notes, tasks, methods details, code annotations, thoughts that pop up at the most random times, summaries of important papers – you should create an archive of your thinking. Look into apps such as Evernote (my personal favorite) or OneNote. They allow to tag, search, and organize all of these notes in a meaningful manner, make them searchable, and can run on several devices.
  2. Rethink your workspace and back-up your work. You think your computer files and folders are well organized? Think again. The more structure and consistency you put into organizing your digital files, the better you will find anything you want to find. Create separate folders for different aspects of your work, create further separate folders for projects and classes and find a good way to sort and browse through them. A consistent file and folder naming policy might sound a bit strict, but it can be really helpful in the long run. Most importantly, find a good way to back up your work and do it frequently (at best automatically). If your current work is not backed up, do it now!
  3. Prioritize your PhD project. In the beginning, it can feel like it takes forever until you get invited to collaborative projects or until the first paper is published. Yet, stick to your project for the time being. Invitations and collaborations will eventually come and you will have more to do than you originally thought you would. Particularly in later stages of your PhD and beyond, learn to politely say no. Time management and self-organization also means to protect yourself against too much work.
  4. Use the SMART approach to break down larger projects. A PhD project usually takes several years and involves several studies, which, in turn, consists of several stages. To not get overwhelmed, break your thesis down into specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely (SMART) goals. “Draft first paragraph” is much easier to complete than “Write chapter 1”.
  5. Take breaks. Finally, I would like to suggest something seemingly paradoxical: The more you have to do, the more breaks you should take. Breaks will make you more and not less productive. They are important to recharge, to get re-motivated and simply enjoy working more. When you plan your day, don’t forget to plan breaks.

Staying Up-to-date and Organizing Your Knowledge

The following aspects are in a way still connected to self-organization, but focus a bit more on your actual scientific work. The scientific literature is growing at a fast pace. Even in subfields, one can hardly read all publications. It is hence very important to stay up-to-date and find ways to digest the large amount of information.

  1. Gain an overview of the most important theories and studies in your field. You may have studied a bachelor and master program in your field, but do you really know your field? Communication Science (as any other disciplines) has become a broad discipline and it doesn’t hurt to try to get at least an idea of all of its research areas and subfields. I am not saying that you should become an expert in all of them, rather get some knowledge of the broad themes, theories, and developments. A historical understanding of the discipline is also beneficial (see this handbook for example for communication science).
  2. Keep track of the literature and use a reference manager. You really need to make sure that you are aware of the latest publications in your field. Journals offer RSS feeds, google offers journal-specific alerts. Set up a system that keeps you updated with the most important journals in your field. And by all means,  use a reference manager to systematize the literature and to simplify your citing practice (my personal preference: zotero) .
  3. Consider joining (some) social media platforms. This is not for everyone, but specifically Twitter (to a minor degree platform such as ResearchGate) provide you with information about new developments, access to current debates, and simply a platform to engage with other scientists. Job offers, conference calls, the newest publications (and how they are perceived…) all of this is shared on Twitter. I personally benefitted a lot from joining Twitter.
  4. Engage in conversations. Don’t be shy to participate in conversations, whether in your department or on Twitter. Don’t brag, be respectful, and think before you speak, but otherwise, join the discussion! Science is about exchanging, defending and refuting ideas.
  5. Participate in workshops. Conferences, institutions, departments or simply your colleagues will offer workshops on various topics. These events are not only good opportunities to learn something new, they are likewise often a lot of fun and a great way to meet new people.

Refreshing Old and Learning New Skills

You know already a lot, but obviously you don’t know everything. A PhD should also be your chance to refresh and improve some skills as well as learn entirely new methods. You will of course specialize in certain areas, but I strongly recommend to get a good overview of the existing methods as well.

  1. Gain an overview of the most important methods. You think of yourself as a computational scientist and hence don’t feel like you should learn traditional survey methodology? You consider yourself an experimental researcher and don’t bother about machine learning? I guarantee that you will become a better scientist if you have a least a good understanding of what methods and areas of research exist. Never heard of eye tracking? Find out what it is about. Puzzled by people talking about Bayesian statistics? Well, don’ttry to excel at everything, but do get a grasp of what people are talking about.
  2. Familiarize yourself with open science principles. Don’t wait until after your PhD to do science the right way. More and more journals adopt open science principles, tenure-track programs include open science criteria and the general science community moves towards more open and transparent research. Familiarize yourself with preregistration, data sharing possibilities, reproducibility, and open access. This paper may be a good starting point to dive into the debate and definitely get acquainted with the Open Science Framework.
  3. Learn a programming language. Learning a programming language is not easy, but it is hard to get around now-a-days. Our field moves towards more and more computational methods and advanced statistics. You will want to be at the forefront of this movement. Which language you will want to learn depends on the type of research that you plan to conduct. If you are primarily interested in statistics, R might be your choice. If you want to dive deeper into machine learning, you will not get around python. If you plan to build web applications, you should look into javascript and react. This repository created by some colleagues and myself can be a great starting point for learning R for statistical analysis and text analysis. This open access book by my colleague Wouter van Atteveldt is further a great source for computational methods in both R and Python.
  4. Refresh your statistic skills. Related to learning R, take the time to refresh your statistic skills. Really try to understand frequentist inferences, get to know more advanced analysis approaches such as multilevel modelling, SEM, machine learning, to name just a few. Andy Field’s book – by now almost a classic – can be a good introduction, but consider taking online courses (e.g., this coursera course by Daniel Lakens) and consult more comprehensive books (e.g., Richard McElreath’s Rethinking Statistics).
  5. Explore alternatives to “standard” software. Although it might seem convenient to use a standard word processing software such as MS Word or the classic MS Powerpoint to create your presentations (and it often is!), be aware of alternatives. Latex is annoyingly techy, but has benefits in many cases (particularly for formatting a large PhD thesis). RMarkdown can offer an interesting approach to combine writing and analysis (in R) to make your work more reproducible (see this thesis by Amy Orben as an example). The book by Yihui is a great resource in this regard. Check out whether it works for you.

Doing Research

A major part of your work as PhD student is obviously doing research. You can of course simply start and see where it leads you, but I would suggest to think a bit more long-term. What type of researcher do you want to be? How do you want to be seen in the field? Don’t stress too much about these questions, but it can be beneficial to reflect a little bit on them at the start.

  1. Follow the highest standards, but don’t stress yourself if things don’t work out. Always value quality over quantity. This does not mean that you should not publish and also keep publishing, but rather continuously put out good work than publish a lot of rubbish. Try to make it right the first time, but then again don’t stress if things don’t work out.
  2. Get comfortable with rewriting, changing, and improving your work. It can be a bit frustrating if you just finished a draft, shared it with your colleague or supervisor, only to get it back with thousands of comments on how to improve it. Don’t be intimated or offended, instead get comfortable with rewriting and restructuring, sometimes even entirely overthrowing manuscripts, drafts or research project. The first thought is seldom gold, but nonetheless needs to be written down before one can think “the better thought”.
  3. Have a clear plan for each project. Plan ahead, define milestones, schedule meetings, and keep to your plan (remember the SMART approach). It will help you easily completing the most complex projects.
  4. Think about the argumentation first. Don’t just start to write. Develop a skeletal outline, sketch out your argumentation, change, restructure, fight with it, and get feedback. Only if you are happy with this outline, start to write your paper (obviously, you don’t have to be follow this rule every time, it can of course make sense to simply start writing and develop ideas simultaneously).
  5. Prepare yourself for failure and frustrating review processes. Things will go wrong, but the most frustrating thing can be a seemingly unfair review process. Don’t be offended, see the merit in a reviewer’s comments, get over with the nasty bit, and move on. Simple as that (I have to admit I am not particularly good at this).

Socializing, Networking, and Becoming Part of the Community

Although some people do a PhD and do not have the goal of staying in academia, I am assuming that you want to become and stay a researcher. In order to achieve that goal, you need to grow a network. I like to emphasize that I don’t refer to networking here in the classical sense. Don’t try to meet or befriend “great scholars” for the sake of gaining advantages. Rather, I want you to have a great community of scholars that help you out if you need support, that provide you with a lively exchange of information and ideas, and generally provide the informational, instrumental, and emotional support that every person – no matter what job – needs from time to time.

  1. Socialize with your lab and other colleagues, but don’t compare yourself with them. Don’t isolate yourself, but also don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right to you. Talk to colleagues, find friends, but don’t feel intimated by their success, CV, number of publications or whatever you might compare yourself on. Every career is different. Social comparison can be very detrimental and simply is not worth it.
  2. Meet and exchange ideas with other PhD students. Having lively conversations and exchanges with fellow PhD students is perhaps the most important recommendation. They will understand you and provide the social environment for your academic journey. Some of you will literally grow old together.
  3. Don’t struggle on your own. Don’t think that you need to figure everything out by yourself. Ask your supervisor and colleagues, be honest if you don’t know something. Don’t be shy to ask for help. A good mentor will help you tremendously.
  4. Present your research in your department and at conferences. It will take some courage in the beginning, and perhaps will be a little bit scary too, but be confident in your work and present it to colleagues and other scholars on conferences. Their feedback will be valuable and they will get to know you and what you are working on.
  5. Enjoy the ride together. Don’t compete, celebrate your achievements together, and have a good time. This is what this is all about.

Work-Life Balance and Mental Health

Just as any job, being an academic scholar can be very rewarding, but also be frustrating and overwhelming. Taking care of yourself is as important as having the feeling that you advance and progress. As a final advice, I would like to remind you that none of the recommendations above are requirements to succeed. You don’t need to fulfil all or any of them. Don’t be too hard on you. In the noisy confusion of life, keep true to yourself and don’t do anything that you don’t want to do.

  1. Recognize your own brilliance. Many early (as well as later) career researchers suffer from imposter syndrome. They believe they may not be as competent as others perceive them to be. Don’t make yourself smaller than you are. Of course, you don’t know as much as a senior scholar, and of course you are not as proficient in R as an older, more experienced colleague, and of course you may not be as fast in writing a section of a paper than your supervisors who have done this for years. But that does not mean that you are less bright, less smart, and less qualified for this job. Be patient and trust in yourself and trust in others’ belief in you.
  2. Success doesn’t come overnight. Know that you will get there eventually. Things take time and you don’t need to be faster than everybody else. In other words, be patient and beyond a healthy amount of self-discipline, be gentle with yourself.
  3. Supervisors and other seniors can be and often are wrong. If you feel you are right, tell them so and make them understand why you see things differently. A comment makes no sense to you? Explain why you think so. If they request unrealistic amounts of work from you in a short period of time, tell them that this doesn’t work and that it doesn’t fit your planned schedule. They should and will have respect for your plans and schedules.
  4. Enjoy and acknowledge your achievements. Take time to celebrate your achievements. You got accepted to your first conference? You should be proud! You finally got your first paper published? Celebrate with your colleagues and friends. Every step on the way is important and worth acknowledging. Take a day off and enjoy the results of your hard work.
  5. If things get crazy, talk to your supervisor(s). In any job, there will come a time where things get a bit overwhelming and where you may not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t be shy to tell your supervisor that you are struggling. They are there to help you out, to reduce your stress and make sure that you enjoy work again.


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