Sixteen strategies for a successful PhD

By Joern Fischer

With four of my PhD students having recently submitted their theses, and four new ones having started, I found myself thinking about the attributes of what makes a successful PhD student. But then I figured thinking about this in terms of personal attributes makes it somehow a fixed thing, and that’s not quite right – rather, students use certain strategies, some innately, and some may have to learn these strategies. And so I have compiled a list of the “strategies” that I believe are particularly useful for successfully getting through one’s PhD research.

  1. Know your natural talents and skills, and capitalize on them. People differ in their skills. For some it’s communication (written or oral), for some it’s quantitative analysis, for others it’s data collection. You should rejoice in your skills and build your success around them; most likely nobody can take these skills away from you.
  2. Know your weaknesses, and work on them – but don’t try to turn them into your biggest strengths. You will also have natural weaknesses, which can hinder progress. For example, if you’re not good at writing or analysis, this will need to improve for you to get through the PhD. But most likely, what is currently just “not your thing” never will be your greatest strength. So compensate your weaknesses, but don’t try to over-compensate and be someone or something you will never be. Build on your strengths (see above) instead of trying to build on your weaknesses.
  3. Don’t compare yourself to others, especially not fellow PhD students or more experienced scientists. Many PhD students suffer from self-esteem problems at one point or another because they feel less capable than those around them. This simply isn’t helpful. We can’t all be good at the same things, and the point is that ultimately, all seven billion of us have to find a niche where we are valuable. You don’t need to be like others, and shouldn’t try to be, either. Find your own way (though of course, you can learn from others).
  4. Don’t wait for little problems to turn into big ones – talk to people before things get bad. Having an attitude of “I can do this” is good, but many students waste large amounts of time and emotional energy on trying to prove to themselves or their supervisors that they need no help – when in fact they do. This applies to personal problems as much as to technical or scientific ones. I suggest you ask for help when you need help.
  5. Don’t expect others to fix your problems. While asking for help is valuable, it’s YOUR PhD, and you’re responsible for it. Be grateful if others help you, but don’t expect it or depend on it. To a minimum level, you should be able to cope with each task in your PhD on your own; though for many, things will work much better if you ask for help and collaborate with others.
  6. Set yourself timelines, planning for about 20% each of logistics, reading, analysis, writing and “other stuff”. If any of these go significantly above the 20% mark, most likely, you’ll not manage in the time you had allocated (because you allocated too little time for one of the others). People tend to do what they find fun or easy, and tend to avoid the rest. This is normal, but a bit of reality is in order. I suggest you write up your first two papers after a first field season. That way you have gone through the whole process of empirical science (all the way to publication) relatively early on, and you’ll most likely find the second half easier. When you need to step up to postdoc level, you’ll be ready for it.
  7. Monitor your own progress, and if you’re not making progress for weeks or months, be honest with yourself: it can’t go on like that. Sometimes people just don’t move forward. Things can be painfully slow at times. Mostly, such structural ineffectiveness is a strong sign that science – requiring a high degree of self-motivation and self-organisation – is just not going to work in the long term for some people. Be honest with yourself if you’re not progressing and talk to others about what can be done.
  8. Communicate clearly, and frequently, with those you work with. I highly value a workplace culture where people work at work, and not primarily form home or off-campus. This way there is frequent, informal communication, and lots of helping each other with bits and pieces. If you isolate yourself from such an environment, you will not receive help, and nobody will ask you for help or your opinion. To get the most out of your PhD, be an active member (not a consumer) of a group of peers and collaborators.
  9. Engage with the multiple sources of advice around you, even when you’re not desperate. You can ask many people for advice, not just your supervisor. You can ask other students. Often, postdocs are the best people to ask – they often have more time still, and often are close to the experience of being a PhD student still.
  10. Network enough, but don’t mix that up with doing your work. Personally, I find networking is over-rated. We’re so incredibly connected these days that a lack of connections is problematic far less often than it used to be. I would suggest to network when you have a genuine interest in other people, but not as a goal in its own right. I find networking for its own sake disingenuous and frankly, it can be a big waste of everybody’s time.
  11. Collaborate with others, but not at the expense of the work you’re leading. Opportunities to collaborate are great, but shouldn’t be used as a displacement activity to avoid your own (more difficult to face) work.
  12. Take breaks, lots of them, and don’t let the PhD take over your life. Contrary to what many think, many excellent students I have worked with have taken plenty of time off and worked something like “regular hours”. If you’re not making progress, increase your efficiency, not your work hours.
  13. When you’re working, work. Speaking of efficiency … set yourself tasks to achieve for a given day and do them. Don’t stuff around for hours on facebook and waste time. Focus when you do things: focus on people when you deal with people, on writing when you’re writing, and on analysis when you’re doing analysis.
  14. Know two key currencies of science: one, you must read to know where your field is at, and two, you must publish or none of your grand ideas count. You cannot compensate for these two, they are simply key. You must read, and you must publish, or you cannot be a scientist.
  15. Find self-esteem in something other than scientific success: your perceived worth as a person should not depend on doing well. Your PhD will have highs and lows, but you as a person, are not your PhD. Your self-esteem is worth gold, in that it is the basis of your functioning. Focus on healthy ways of building self-esteem (such as connecting with friends and family) and not on bean-counting how successful you are (or otherwise).
  16. Know that a research existence is not for everyone, and should that be the case for you – relax. You can either get through your PhD and then shift directions, or even drop the PhD. Many people have done this, and for some people, this is precisely the right thing to do.

Comments, including on other key strategies, are of course welcome!

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6 thoughts on “Sixteen strategies for a successful PhD

  1. I would add:

    17. Develop ‘decisiveness’, all research require continuous decision making, often in circumstances where there is no ‘correct’ answer (“when should I stop reading and start writing?”; “which of the 20 interesting questions should I focus on?”; “should I sacrifice depth of knowledge of breadth of knowledge?” etc.) . These choices can be debilitating. but making such decisions, and sticking to them, is crucial. I think this is a crucial skill not just for these big questions, but at ‘finer scales’ too (“how should I phrase this sentence?”; “should I write a comment on some blog or finish editing this paper?” etc.).

    There is a real danger in a PhD of spending more time thinking about what you should do (which is undoubtedly important) than on actually doing stuff (which is essential).

    • Hm… I totally agree Dave, though I probably wouldn’t phrase it as “decisiveness” (or would very conspicuously assure people that I’m not talking about a traditional conception of decisiveness), as my read on it from a US context is almost the opposite of what you advocate. Or rather, maybe 90 degrees from what you’re saying. (There I am, not being decisive 😉

      I associate “decisiveness” with “knowing quickly what the best option is and choosing it”, and at least personally, when someone says “Be decisive!” I feel even more pressure to choose the “right’ one. I tell mentees that, once you’ve determined there is no one correct path, embrace that and make what may seem like an arbitrary decision. I find people deeply resistant to this idea, and often obsessed with finding the best, or even admitting, “Ok, there is no one CORRECT answer, but there is still ‘a BEST’ answer.” NO! To be over-cute, it is called “re-search”, as they say — as in, “searching again.” It is less important that you choose “bestly” than that you choose. A use of the intuition Joern lauded in a previous post.

      I would also quickly say that I blanch a bit at offering the (true) perspective that science & research isn’t for everyone, because of Joern’s #3 — the impostor syndrome/fallacy. It is true that not everyone excels at everything, but I find students often then assume THIS MEANS THEM, PERSONALLY when one brings it up, and it preys on them as subtle confirmation that yes, THEY are the one who “doesn’t belong” because science isn’t for everybody. Joern’s last point — “You can get through your PhD and then shift directions” is an under-appreciated truth, too. Though I suppose it boils down to two pieces of advice from my mother that I found invaluable:

      1. Don’t decide to quit while in the middle of a daunting challenge. It will OFTEN feel “not worth it” when you’re at a low point or before an immense immediate undertaking. Get through the current crisis, however you can, THEN evaluate “is this right for me?” If, AFTER you have faced a big challenge, you feel like it is the “wrong” fit, then make the decision. “Don’t decide to quit while you’re in the middle of prelims” was her exact quote. “Everyone wants to quite in the middle of prelims; it’s not a good sign that this actually isn’t for you.”

      2. Ask yourself, “Even if this doesn’t feel completely right, right this second, am I gaining something valuable from this right now? Am I learning a skill or developing in an area that will set me up well for other paths? And is this detracting from other skills or paths I might take?” If you are gaining a skill of personal or professional importance, and you don’t have a ready alternative that you’re missing out on, it may be worth continuing as you develop your “new” path. On the other hand, if there is another path for you waiting in the wings, and you’re simply working on a skill (a weakness?) that you don’t see much value in, now or in the future, stopping may indeed be the thing to do.

      Of course, I don’t follow many of the items Joern outlined myself–including working at work, and working on appropriate priorities–because replying to this assuredly shouldn’t be my current highest priority! :-p Great post, though!

      • Hi Jahi,

        yes you are right decisiveness is probably not the best term, but I can’t think of a better antonym for indecision. It is not about making the best decision, but having the confidence to make a decision with full knowledge that this is a journey and sometimes you have to doubleback, or walk an unsure path because it might lead to interesting new directions.

        My personal exerience/observation is that it is not really intelligence that gets you through a PhD (I am clearly proof of that.. “Yorkshire born, Yorkshire bred, strong in t’arm thick in t’head” as we like to say), but a sort of rleflective confidence that you can make choices and learn from them whatever the outcome. All scientific research is a leap into the unknown and my observation is that those who thrive in their PhDs are usually people who enjoy the exerience of the ‘fall’ and worry about the landing when they get there. Which reminds me of a very poor joke, that I nevertheless like.

        Parachute drill instructor: “at 2,000 feet pull your main chute, if that fails at 1,000 pull your secondary chute, if that fails at 20 feet pull the emergency chute”.

        Nervous soldier: “what if the emergeny chute fails?”

        Drill instructor: “What is the matter with you? you can jump 20 feet can’t you?”

  2. Pingback: Ideas for a PhD defense | Ideas for Sustainability

  3. Hi Joern,

    As a PHD student, I would add that a student might try monitoring their hours of actual work each week. I tried writing down my hours and small goals accomplished each day for a summer, out of my own interest, and it motivated me to stay focused, all the while developing important work habits!

    Thanks for the advice!
    All the best,
    Dulcinea

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