Dr. Pei Qin (Sabrina) Ng, PhD

Previously "The Dataminer's Diary" | PhD in Plant Epigenetics and Bioinformatics |Bioinformatician| Did someone say coffee?

Tips and Tricks in managing your PhD

Photo by Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash

PhD management is probably the last thing new PhD candidates have in mind when they embark on their research journey. Similar to businesses and projects, a PhD needs to be well managed. This is because significant resources, time, money is invested into doing a PhD – personal, grant money, institution/university resources and facilities, manpower etc. Hence, it is essential to pick up management skills to promote input-output monitoring, mental and physical well being, and greater personal fulfilment while taking up this challenge.

I started off barely having any idea where to start managing all the incoming task and responsibilities when I started my Mphil-PhD. For those who have been working in a full time position before doing a PhD, I highly recommend tapping into your work management experience in doing your PhD. As for those who dived head in straight as a fresh graduate student like me, do not worry as management comes with experience. A quick hack is to definitely learn from your supervisors (who is technically managing the lab you are working in), lab managers, research fellows/postdocs, research assistants, and even senior PhD students. Of course, different roles have different levels of responsibilities and hence the management skills might vary across positions, but it is always good to learn from others what works and what doesn’t, and the reasons behind them.

After almost four years working full time in the lab as a PhD students, I classify management into the two essential categories:

  1. Project and Portfolio management
  2. Physical, Emotional and Mental health management
  1. Project and Portfolio management

I have chosen this as the first management aspects to write about because this will be one of the first things novice PhDs encounter when they first join a lab. A student will either have to propose their own research project, will be assisted by their supervisors to brain-storm for a project, or be assigned to a bigger project which the lab is already working on. Regardless how the PhD project came about, these becomes the PhD candidates portfolio. They are responsible for how the project turns out, and if the initial goals set for the project is met at the end of the timeline.

Once you have your project planned, I highly recommend starting your projects by first breaking it into smaller, “digestible” portions. Often , PhD candidates gets excited when they start, then finds everything overwhelming after a while. Compartmentalising your project(s) helps you to see what needs to be done to achieve the ultimate goal(s) of your research.

Another tip is to focus on one milestone at a time. This is because when you keep looking at the end-goal you will feel like there is still so much to do and that keeps you on your toes all the time, which is not ideal in a long run. Having milestones to a big project keeps you grounded. In addition, it is important to celebrate little wins when a milestone is achieved is definitely a motivation boost to keep striving to achieve your goals.

It is important to stay updated on the topics your are currently working on, but also keep an eye out for what is happening in other fields as well. Sometimes the inspirations or solutions to complex problems are often out there in unexpected places. One of my PhD projects requires me to analyse a very challenging set of data, and the first few months of reading papers in the plant research field did not lead me anywhere closer to the solution I was looking for. By quickly reading papers of other fields, such as cancer research, I decided to take a leap and repurpose some of their methods to my project in attempt to investigate some interesting questions I have about my plants.

Always set time to review your progress at the end of each work week. My supervisor does not require me to write a weekly report on my project. However, I find it useful to write down my progress at the end of the work week, and see what has been done for the week. Besides serving as a mini motivation booster, I tend to compare my mini weekly review to my initial to-do list, and quickly evaluate how am I progressing in terms of achieving my project aims. Some key questions I will ask myself during this thought process includes:

” Am I being overambitious?”

“Can I work smarter?”

“Will this allow me to achieve the goals I have set for the project?”

“Is this the best way forward?”

“If I were to do this again, what would I do differently?”

“What I have I learnt this week?”

I find it important to take note of mistakes made during your project. I was once told by my undergraduate mentor that “Mistakes and experiences are your best teachers.” Yes, I admit it takes longer to get where you need to be when mistakes happen, as long as you are learning from them, these mistakes can forge you into a better scientist/person. So take mistakes positively, rather than criticising yourself over it.

2. Physical, Emotional and Mental health management

In a disordered mind, as in a disordered body, soundness of health is impossible. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

You might be wondering why this comes under this blog post. Taking care of your health might sound trivial to some, but when often it’s the little things like this in life we take them for granted. PhD itself is a challenging journey, regardless your background and identity. Some might have it more challenging than others, but rarely it is a bed roses as this is one of the most challenging quest you can sign up for. To be at your optimum when you are continuously challenged mentally (problem solving, project designs, competition, politics etc.) and physically (long hour experiments, high stress, field work, heavy loads etc.), taking care of your health is as important as managing your projects.

I would recommend setting aside time weekly for some physical exercise. Having this “me time” helps you to break away from work for awhile. Doing any form of exercises, may it be gentle ones like yoga, Pilates, or even just 30 minutes stretching exercises, to more intense ones like soccer, running, weight lifting, and bouldering. I find that having time to exercise during my PhD helps a lot with stress management, as the stress can be channelled out as energy when exercising. Apart from relieving stress, exercise helps sharpen your mind and improves memory according to this article here. Often I come return to the lab feeling much refreshed after exercising. Let me share my personal story: when I first started my MPhil, my body stamina was not that great. I can’t walk too much, I get tired easily, and I can’t climb more than two flights of stairs. My supervisor suggested that I should take up some exercise as part of my “PhD life” and he would often organise “mini lab sports”, such as who can walk the fastest to the end of the lab’s corridor, or who can climb up the stairs the fastest to the fifth floor meeting room. Besides to boost our team morale, his motivations also serve as a reminder to us that our health is as important as our research.

Before I go to bed, I try to do some light reading or meditate for 10 minutes. Light reading takes my mind off on work, besides to improve my English proficiency as English is not my first language. Light reading also helps to keep my mind in and aware of the present – on what is happening around me outside my work, and on the other side of the World. This state of “being aware of the present” is known as mindfulness. It is important to stay mindful in life, whether you are doing a PhD or not, as dwelling in the past or being too anxious/worried about the future does more harm than good. Speaking from personal experience, it is much easier to let go of your worries and anxiety when you are being mindful. Besides light reading, a short 10-minute meditation is my go-to routine before bed. When I am too tired to read, I often just play some soft music, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing. There are apps like Headspace and others listed here that helps in practicing mindfulness.

It is important to set up a mental support group during your PhD. It can be having a mental health plan in place with your regular General Practitioner, whom you can touch base with if you are concerned about your stress levels during your candidature. Another way to provide yourself with good mental support is identify family and friends who are your greatest supporters in this PhD journey. Regularly catch-up with them as the support group is important to keep you going and grounded, whenever you need it especially difficult times. If you have to move to a new place to pursue your PhD, be sure to make friends and identify those who you can team up and support each other through the journey. Never stay isolated when you are doing your postgraduate study, especially if you are starting out in a new, unfamiliar place. I have a group of friends, both outside PhD and who are also doing PhDs that are part of my mental support group. It helps a lot knowing that there will be someone willing to lend their shoulder to you for you to cry on, or cheering you on when you are attempting something difficult in your PhD. I could not imagine how will I make it through my difficult PhD times without this fantastic support group I have. I would like to emphasise that it is important to seek help when you need to, especially in relation to your mental health. No one should struggle alone in circumstances like this.

There are more that I can write in terms of other aspects of management to a PhD training. Of all, these two are the ones I think that is the most important of all- as projects make up your PhD; your health makes you who you are.

Love this post? A coffee as a token of appreciation and motivation to keep writing for The Dataminer’s Diary would be awesome!
You can support by buying a coffee ☕️ here — https://www.buymeacoffee.com/sabrinaPQ

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