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Managing your time as a researcher

The demands of a PhD can often feel overwhelming, and it is not uncommon to hear of doctoral students being stressed and overworked. However, this does not have to be your experience. The PhD journey can also be an entirely manageable and pleasurable one if you plan well ahead of time. 

Below are six key steps for ensuring you get everything done on time, while enjoying your PhD. 

1. Accept that you cannot do everything

The first step is to understand and accept that there is no way you can possibly read everything you think you need to read, or do every experiment or piece of fieldwork that you think is essential. A PhD is a finite piece of work and you are not expected to create whole, perfect knowledge that will account for every eventuality. When you accept this and clearly define the parameters of your research, you will find that your reading list and research goals become much more manageable.

2. Establish key milestones 

Some universities schedule assessments (sometimes called progression points) for their doctoral students at specific times in their programme, for example at the end of each year or midway through the PhD. Speak to your supervisor or senior PhD colleagues in your department to find out approximately what needs to be done at each stage. 


For example, find out when you should be doing your fieldwork/data collection, performing analysis or writing your first chapter. Finding out these key points will clarify where you should be at each stage. You can then work backwards to decide what you need to be doing, and when, to meet those milestones. 

3. Break down your to-do list

Technically, what is expected of you in your PhD can be accomplished within the timeframe that you have. It seems like a huge amount of work, but you can begin to lighten the load for yourself by breaking down what needs to be done into smaller manageable chunks. 


Deal with tasks one stage at a time. For example, determine the tasks you need to do for your data collection/fieldwork and allocate specific periods of time for each task. You can then break down these tasks further into a monthly or weekly schedule. By doing this, you’ll feel more confident about what you can practically achieve on a day-to-day basis.


4. Steady wins the race

Know that you do not necessarily have to be working a crazy number of hours, all day every day, to do good research. Some academics recommend working approximately 40 hours a week, as you would for a normal job, but understand that each person has their own way of working and may require slightly more or less at different stages of the PhD. 


More important than trying to clock in a set number of working hours is to work steadily at a pace that suits you best. For example, you may accomplish more by working only four focused hours every weekday, than by trying to do everything at once or forcing yourself to work long hours at the last minute to meet a deadline. 


5. Be realistic

To ensure that you are able to work at a consistent, steady pace, be honest and realistic about your working habits and pace. If you know that it takes you a full day to write 500 words, don’t aim to write a 3000-word essay in two days! You will not only set yourself up to fail but will also create a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself. Your mental health will suffer and the PhD will become something you dread. 


Instead, when planning your working schedule, always give yourself more time than you think you need. This extra time can cover any unexpected issues that may arise and give you more space to work peacefully and steadily. If you finish ahead of time, give yourself some well-deserved time off! 


6. Find time for rest

Although this can often feel counterintuitive, taking time off is one of the best things you can do for yourself in the long term. Forcing yourself to keep working – whether it’s reading another journal or writing another few hundred words – may seem like you’re making progress, but if you are tired and burnt out, you may end up making mistakes or having to redo the work. 


Take a full, regular break from your PhD every evening or weekend to rest and recharge. You’ll find that when you’re rested, you will return to your work with clearer perspectives, more energy and ultimately will be able to accomplish more in less time.

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