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6 Essential Study Tips for the PhD Student

By Guest Writer

Updated April 2, 2021 Updated April 2, 2021

Guest post: Julio Peironcely

A PhD is definitely not a walk in the park. I know; I had my fair share of struggles as a PhD student. Productivity, motivation or coming up with scientifically sound ideas, you name it. 

Luckily I had good mentors and I read inspiring books. I got good advice and study tips from both of these sources, and I would like to share some of the most useful advice I came across. These PhD tips are based on my own experience. Some I learned early on during my struggle as a PhD student, and others I wish had had learned earlier. I hope they can help you. 

PhD study tip #1: Write early and write often

Obviously the more papers you write the better – but that’s not what I mean. I mean write as often as possible, even if you don’t have a paper on the horizon.

Start writing as early as possible in your PhD, and write regularly. Some people write daily, others once a week. The goal is to consistently document your progress, what you did, how, and the obstacles you encountered. 

Writing early will help you to develop and maintain your writing skills for when the time comes to write a full-fledged paper. By writing often you will accumulate content that you can reuse when you need to write abstracts, papers or proposals.

I didn’t follow this PhD study tip myself and I regret it. I think I could have written my papers in half the time if I had. Not only this, their quality would have been much higher.

PhD study tip #2: Read lots of papers

At the beginning of your PhD you have to read lots of papers. The goal is that you get a clear overview of your research field. You must understand all the important research already done. This is what people call the "state of the art”.

Once you know the state of the art in your field, you can see where your PhD fits in. How you are going to contribute and expand the scope of research? It also gives you a roadmap to avoid duplicating existing research and reinventing the wheel. 

Once you have done most of the reading, you will need to keep track of new developments in your field, by reading new papers and speaking to others about what research is underway.  

PhD study tip #3: Read other things

PhD students don’t just encounter academic problems; they also face challenges in time management, motivation or creativity. Reading papers may help you in some of these areas – but not always. That’s why you need to read other types of material. 

Productivity, personal skills and business books can help you grow as a PhD student. They provide practical advice, including study tips and also general guidance on how to develop essential skills applicable in all kinds of roles.

Following blogs such as Thesis Whisperer, Next Scientist or TopUniversities.com can also help you boost your motivation and show you inspiring stories from other PhD students. 

Remember that you must think creatively, and reading only one type of content (scientific papers in your specific field) may narrow your thoughts.

PhD study tip #4: Work in short sprints

Another study tip that boosted my productivity came from the world of software development. Some people call this agile development, others talk about fast prototyping, short sprints, or ‘ship it fast and get feedback’.

Have you ever waited a long time to show something until you felt it was perfect, only to find that, well, the other person disagreed? 

That waste of time is what you want to avoid. The idea here is to work very fast to produce something that is just good enough, show it, get feedback and improve it in another sprint. And iterate on and on.

One great time management technique based on the idea of working in short sprints is the Pomodoro Technique.

PhD study tip #5: Focus on small signs of progress

Halfway through my PhD I lost motivation because I felt I hadn’t produced anything substantial. My mistake was to bind my satisfaction to having reached important milestones like publishing a paper. 

Wrong. Those things take too long. I needed some small doses of sweet PhD love along the way.

Once I started focusing on smaller signs of progress, everything started to look brighter. I knew that if on a given day I finished three small tasks then I was on the right track, I was making enough progress.

Instead of thinking “Am I there yet?” you should ask yourself, “Am I closer than I was three months ago?”

PhD study tip #6: Don’t cut corners

So far we’ve focused on productivity study tips for the PhD student. These allow you to skip unnecessary tasks and focus on what really matters for your PhD. But there is one area where you cannot find shortcuts. That’s in your reputation.

During your PhD you may be tempted to do things that seem like a benefit in the short term, but that could harm your reputation in the long term. These shortcuts involve your credibility, your thoroughness and your accountability.

Imagine: after six months of preparing your paper, you are almost there. You find there’s a little mistake in the data, but you don’t think it will harm the overall outcome. So why waste your time fixing it? Or why cite all the relevant papers when with a few will do? Even worse, why not use somebody else’s method but not acknowledge that, so it looks like it was your own creation? 

This sloppiness will eventually come back to haunt you. Sooner or later people won’t trust you. They will not want to collaborate with you. They will not cite your papers. So, even it if means extra work, stay away from cutting corners!

 Julio Peironcely is the founder of NextScientist.com, a blog that aims to help PhD students succeed. He’s also the author of the free e-book 17 Simple Strategies to Survive Your PhD.





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This article was originally published in February 2014 . It was last updated in April 2021

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