The Ph.D Life- a guide to survive and thrive

Let me introduce you; world, my office – office, the world!

Have you ever seen the PhD Comics somewhere on Facebook or Buzzfeed? It’s a series of comics about PhD students and their daily struggles until graduation, and as sad as it sounds these stories are not far away from reality.

Doing a Ph.D (Doctor of Philosophy) is one of the most difficult challenges a person will have to deal in life; think of it as a multi/extra marathon where you run everyday with the hope to cross the line on time. Sounds fun, right?

As I was tweeting the other day, I received a couple of emails and Twitter messages from lovely readers who are also Ph.D patients  students and asked my point of view on the Ph.D life and possibly a survive and thrive guide. Funny thing to ask this guide as there’s no real magic to get you to the day you will become a Dr., but since this takes so much of my life I decided to commit and write down my thoughts on my current life situation with the hope to support others.

1. Be prepared

Oh Ryan, if only walking around sans make-up with 5 hours of sleep and the worst diet ever was sexy! The times I spent in the office starving because everything around was close and the venting machine sounded like a 5* restaurant…
Be prepared for these days, they are unexpected, you never know when the experiments will go wrong and you will have to stay overnight in the building or even worse, a deadline is closer than you expected! Stack up on bananas, apples, teabags, bread, noodles, anything that can last for a long time and keep it in your cupboard. The happiness when I see a packet of noodles left in my cupboard, if you only knew…

2. Be organised

Use your calendar to your benefit; plot in your part-time job (if you have one), the deadlines, conferences, anything that you cannot possibly miss. In my calendar I include everything, from meetings and lecturing, which are of high importance to going for a coffee with my friends, as embarrassing as it sounds…

Have folders with the protocols, methods you used and divide them according to section; I have Physics, Chemistry and Biology folders with all the papers I have used and a separate one for Meetings, including all the graphs I intend to present in my meetings.

my desk on a very tough day and an example of how your desk should not look like!

Keep your desk as humanly clean and organised as possibly. For me it is a great driving force to work everyday on a clean desk, but of course whatever works for you. I also like having flowers during the summer and a few pictures of my family around to get strength when times get tough.

3. On writing up

I am a fool when it comes to writing up reports or papers because I always underestimate the time it actually takes to read a paper, accumulate the information and write it down on your own words. I have a cheap notebook and write down thoughts/conclusions/ideas that might be of help in the future and that has been proven to be the best thing ever so far.

4. Meetings

Meetings can be hard, there are awkward moments of silence and times when I feel like the guy in the picture above. But it’s all part of the fun.
Something that has helped me is to circulate data and have my supervisors informed about any findings, prior our meetings. Gives them also sometime to think and get ready to answer my questions 🙂

5. On sleeping

When my friend Helena first met me she thought I was a magic, mysterious creature surviving on few hours of sleep. Even though there is time to sleep, sleep is not happening…and that’s because my brain is working so hard during the day, it is impossible to switch off and forget everything at nights. As a result I am restless and alerted most of the time. I cannot give any advice on it as it is still work in progress…
I guess after some point my body got used to it.

6. Working hours

Working hours can be long. There are no weekends, no 9-5, no holidays, but having said that a Ph.D is a project. A Ph.D student is a project manager so it is up to the individual how quickly and efficiently this project will be delivered. If it takes 9-9 working hours, including weekends then thats it. Also projects vary some are theoretical and require you to be in front a screen 9-5 and others (ahem) want you to be there 24/7 and run in between the labs and office. I have come in terms of not escaping this situation, so I try to take small 5′ breaks looking out of the window when my eyes are tired, go for a walk in the Botanical Gardens nearby, or talk on the phone with my boyfriend. Anything to take my mind away science.

7. Become a spider…

Go to conferences, meet people from other departments, be part of the community and build your network of contacts. Introduce yourself to others, talk about your project and throw yourself into this sea of like-minded people who want your opinion on matters.
Networking is also good for the soul. I am blessed to have some of my colleagues being real life friends too, so we share our struggles, we help each other and at the end of the day it is nice to have someone there to listen to you 🙂

8. Music

Headphones and playlists are my best friends! When I am in the lab I have the radio on and when I am in the office, music keeps me going. There’s nothing better than listening to Coldplay while trying to get your head around SPSS.
My favourite playlists are:
♫ Coldplay-Parachutes ♫
♫ Feeling Happy-Mix ♫
♫ Tame Impala-Innerspeaker ♫

9. You are almost there!

I tell this to myself everytime I feel this is impossible to. Nothing is impossible, take a deep breathe and think, the word itself say’s “I’m possible” (thanks Audrey).

10. Don’t forget to live

Most of the Ph.D students-including myself-we forget to live. We are science-absorbed creatures, mostly found in labs or sited in front of screens analysing data, while things happen in the real world. Despite the amount of work we have to put in this project though, it is nice to take a step back and remember that life is out there and not in our set of data or stack of papers. So dear Ph.D friends, don’t forget to breathe, look outside the window and smile.

Ph.D survivor


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