My Way of Living the Ph.D. Student Life

February 20, 2014

Working as a Ph.D. student is a little bit different from many other types of work. On the one hand, Ph.D. students to a large extent have the freedom to organize and plan their own work and time, and on the other hand they are responsible for pushing a research project forward, for conceptualizing and synthesizing new ideas and for analyzing results and data. Succeeding with all of this requires a flexible mindset, perseverance and a lot of hard work.

However, a Ph.D. project takes several years, and to be able to continue to learn and develop the project, it is important to do other things, to have hobbies, to see friends, to travel and a lot more.

In this post, I share some of the things that I do and that constitute my way of living the Ph.D. student life. Most of it is not directly related to my Ph.D. project and my research, but indirectly helps in my work, and I hope that present and future Ph.D. students will find it inspirational.

The points I will cover are the following:

Exercise Lightly Every Day – And Heavily Every Week

On top of being good for the health exercising gives me more energy and helps me disconnect from work, and I do it at least as much for the mental energy and for disconnecting as for my health. On a weekly basis, I go for runs and play football, and on a daily basis, morning and evening, I do light exercising such as push-ups and sit-ups which doesn’t require a lot of time or effort.

I don’t exercise and train religiously or with any particular goal in mind, but to maintain some routines and to stay fairly fit. This helps me, I believe, both mentally and physically in my Ph.D. work.

Read in a Book or Newspaper Every Day

I spend a lot of time on my work and on looking at computer, tablet and smartphone screens. And I do all of this happily. But to balance this and to do something else as well I have both a book and newspapers next to my bed, and during the week I will do a bit of reading before going to sleep. Every day.

Plan Food Shopping

Once a week, usually on Sundays, I find two or three recipes for dishes I will cook during the week, and afterwards I go and buy everything needed for these. This takes a bit of time and effort, but when I go to work on Monday morning, I know that I don’t need to spend time or energy on deciding what to cook and eat or to go and do food shopping.

Previously, before I started doing this, I would sometimes plan my food shopping and other times not. Whenever I didn’t plan it, but had to go and do the shopping after my lectures or after work, it felt a bit stressful; being tired and hungry is not the optimum situation for deciding what to eat and for doing the shopping. It’s a small thing, but it makes cooking and eating more enjoyable for me.

Travel Regularly

As with exercising and reading, traveling is a way to disconnect from work and to gather new energy and inspiration, and I try to always have at least a couple of travels planned ahead in time; last weekend, I visited friends in England, next week I will visit my parents, and next month I will visit my brother in Switzerland. In England, I even took a bit of time to visit a research group in my field, so traveling might also be an option for exploring your research elsewhere.

I have a carry-on size suitcase – you should get one, too! – and flight tickets to many places in Europe are ridiculously cheap. So I have come to appreciate traveling for just two or three days since traveling doesn’t need to be expensive or a big project, but rather something you just do.

Get a Tablet

Tablets are compact, practical and perfectly suited for the digital workflow you ought to establish at the beginning of your Ph.D. project. Additionally, tablets work well for bringing documents and taking notes at meetings, for taking notes at lectures and seminars and for reading and watching videos and podcasts.

There are plenty of worthwhile uses of tablets, and most likely you will find that it’s a great supplement for computers in your work.

Use a “Read It Later” Service

I find a lot of things that I would like to read online, but don’t always have the time to read them as I find them. Whenever this is the case, I send them to Pocket and read them later on my iPad or iPhone – for example, when I’m in a plane for a weekend trip somewhere.

Alternatives to Pocket include Readability and Instapaper, and I recommend any Ph.D. student to start using one of these services, to get a little less distracted by reading stuff online while working.

Finish a Small Project Every Week

I usually have several small projects that I would like to do “some day”, but didn’t previously allocate enough time to finish as many of these as I wanted to. But inspired by this Lifehacker post at the beginning of this year I decided to schedule one small project every week. I made a list of these small projects – some of which take as little as 15 minutes to accomplish – and put them in my calendar. So every Monday morning I receive a reminder of this week’s project which I then do sometime during the week.

This is an easy way of getting lots of small projects done and getting a sense of accomplishment every week.

Write a Blog

I write this blog and another one at Ingeniøren, and I enjoy this way of writing and expressing thoughts and ideas. Since writing is an important part of doing a Ph.D., writing regularly, for example on a blog, is good practice, and I have even found occasions to get ideas and input for my work from some of my blog posts.

Go For Walks

Especially in the summer, and as an alternative to going for a run, I go for walks and often bring a podcast to listen to while walking. As with exercising, going for a walk is a way of disconnecting from work and for thinking about something else. And for not looking at a screen.

Work at Work – And Do Something Else at Home

I rarely work at home and try to finish whatever needs to be finished before leaving my office. Then I relax, exercise, read, cook or work on private projects when I’m at home. When at home and doing other things, I still think about my work, and sometimes an idea pops up in my head, but I very rarely look into the details of this before I get to work the next day. As with many of the previous points, I believe it’s important to put away work and to do other things to be able to stay motivated and inspired about the Ph.D. work.

Structure Your Work Digitally

I like my own digital workflow, and as already mentioned I encourage any Ph.D. student to establish one at the beginning of the Ph.D. project. On top of that, writing a work log is a productive way of expressing thoughts and ideas in the day-to-day work. Previously, I would send long status e-mails to my supervisor, because I felt the need to express all my observations right away, but this fits better in my research diary than in my supervisor’s inbox. Also, at some point during the Ph.D. it is a good idea to organize and tag reference material and notes which will facilitate writing documents, articles and the dissertation.

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