Some tips on how to Ph.D. I've learned over the years.

5 Ph.D. Survival Tips

I recently had to give a short presentation on “survival tips” as a Ph.D. student [1]. I thought I’d summarize that presentation in written form, too.

Now, there’s a lot of material out there on how to succeed as an academic and as a professional. This post is going to be a rehashing of those general ideas sorted and filtered through my personal experiences. So, I don’t necessarily claim originality, here. But, you can at least be sure that these tips are what I, personally, find important.

1. Write throughout, not at once

In my personal experience and from my conversations with colleagues, the typical lifecycle of an academic paper appears to be: idea -> implementation -> evaluation -> write the whole paper. This flow can work, and does work, but it’s risky — especially for upstarts who have little experience with writing scientific articles.

The reason it’s risky is because before you concretize the logical flow of your paper by writing it down, it is easy overlook the broader fallacies in the vision. You might get so enmeshed in the nitty gritty details of implementation and evaluation that you forget your original motivation, and instead let daily, incremental concept drift drag you away from your vision. This is why you may read papers that are motivated by something broad and admirable (e.g., tools to help blind woodworkers in their craft), but deliver on something only tangentially related and less interesting (e.g., how to use a gyroscope to measure angles).

A better approach is to write throughout the entire research process: idea -> write -> implementation -> write -> evaluation -> write. When you start the project, write the motivation for the idea. Discretize this motivation into concrete research questions and sketch out a skeleton for the rest of the article. This skeleton *will* change. But, it’s not a waste of time. Your article will be much less prone to incremental drift — every time you make an implementation decision that pushes the work away from the initial skeleton, you will be conscious of the drift. Then, you can update the motivation or the implementation accordingly.

2. Ideate daily

I’ve asked many successful academics about their daily routines over the years. One common theme is regular ideating, and it is difficult to ignore — nearly everyone I spoke to independently told me about this habit. Some dedicate 20 minutes a day strictly to thinking of new ideas. Others carry around a notebook on their person at all times to archive spontaneous research ideas that would otherwise be lost.

Idea generation is a skill that you must train like a muscle. If you train it every day, you can strengthen it. If you go through weeks and months without training the muscle, you weaken it. I think many Ph.D. students only ideate when they’re at the culmination of a project and are searching for new directions. Don’t do that: make it a habit to think of new ideas everyday. In this muscle analogy that I’m clearly taking too far, you can think of papers you read and talks you attend as nourishment. Protein, maybe? Yeah, this is going too far.

To be an effective idea generator, keep reading (especially content outside of your field), don’t be too quick to judge and practice brainstorming every day. You’ll soon have a a large bank of great ideas that will set you apart.

Two more quick pieces of advice about this. First, ideating does not only have to be about research. You can brainstorm YouTube video ideas, recipes, new dance moves — you get the idea. Just make sure you’re exercising your creativity. Second, don’t judge your ideas while you’re ideating. It’s easy to get hyped up about what you think is a great idea when you first think of it. But, you’ll also be more prone to tunnel vision without thinking of the drawbacks. You’ll be more grounded once you’ve been removed from it for a few days. So, set a regular time to go back and sift through the ideas you’ve generated to pick out winners. I like to do this weekly, with at least two days in between when I generated an idea and when I am judging it.

3. Manage your time with time-boxing, planning, and saying no

Perfection is an admirable goal, but it is overrated for almost everything you do as Ph.D. student. As I’ve written about before, you have no one job as a Ph.D. student: you are a writer, a builder, an experimentalist, an observer, a speaker, a student, a teacher and a marketer all in one. There is not enough time to do all of these things perfectly, or even well. Still, it is difficult to reign it in and intentionally do less than your best effort.

One trick that helps is a combination of time-boxing and planning. Every day, pick 3 goals. Preferably, make them effort-based goals as opposed to results-based goals, but sometimes you have deadlines that require you to produce results. Then, time-box: make hard start and end times for those tasks. It is important that you never break the hard end-times once you set up a time-boxing pattern — you are developing a habit for yourself that will eventually force you to produce as much as possible given limited time. Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say about this because there is already a plethora of reading material on time management. I recommend Cal Newport’s blog.

Finally, say no. Especially to your adviser. Ultimately, your adviser wants you to be productive. If it seems like she’s putting too much on your plate, you’ll do both of yourselves a favor if you just let her know that. She doesn’t want to spread your attention too thin, and she may not know how much of a burden you’re bearing at any given moment. I say no to my advisers often, now, but it took me some time to figure it out.

4. Learn how to deal with rejection

Rejection is an ever-present-if-unpleasant part of the academic life. Every paper you author, grant you submit, fellowship you apply for, competition you compete in — all of them have a high risk of rejection. You will do yourself no favors by ignoring this reality. I’ve already written some tips on how to deal with rejection in academia, in form of a pretentious but raw letter to my younger self. If you find yourself in need of some advice on how to deal with rejection, especially after a particularly painful one, please read the letter. It has helped me many times and I hope it can do the same for you.

5. See the opportunity, not the obligation

I initially titled this point as “Have fun” in my presentation. I changed it for this blog post because I don’t want you to roll your eyes and glaze over this point. I happen to think it’s one of the most important.

There are many points in your time as a Ph.D. student where everything will seem like a drag. Qualifiers, conference presentations, re-writing rejected papers, and dealing with undergraduates who do not agree with the grades you recommended are just a few of these moments. But, remember the excitement you felt when you first got accepted into grad school? That excitement was you seeing the opportunity of doing science for a living. It is a privilege to be able to indulge your curiosity for a living. It may often not feel like it, but it is a hard-earned privilege.

Sometimes, the process will seem silly. For example, when a reviewer wants to reject your work because you forgot to cite a tangentially related paper that they probably authored themselves. But, in my opinion, these transient moments of (justifiable) frustration are a small price to pay for the opportunity to indulge your curiosity for the sake of it [2].

6. Bonus: Strike a chord

Here’s a little bonus that I thought up mid-presentation: do unforgettable work, even if people hate it. The worst reaction you can get is a neutral, ambivalent one. Don’t do work that is met with ambivalence. Do work that really gets to people: whether that is love or hate. People only have strong emotional reactions to things that they care about. At least work that is hated (but good) will drive the conversation further. Work that is forgettable will have no effect at all.

There are two caveats to this point. First, still do good work. The work should be sound and difficult to assail scientifically. If people hate your work because it is just bad science, then it will, again, have no effect. Second, don’t be contradictory just to get a reaction. Do good work that you believe in, even if there is a chance that some people might hate your idea. Don’t do work that you hate, yourself, just to get a strong reaction.

Parting Words

So, those are some of the tips I think are important to keep in mind. Do you have any that you would like to share? I’d love to hear them! I’m always looking for others perspective on the academic life.

You can also see the slides I created for the presentation by clicking here.


[1] I’m a visiting researcher at the IIS-Lab of the University of Tokyo this summer (more on that later). As many of my lab mates here are undergraduates or Master’s students who are doing Research, I was asked to give a brief presentation on “survival” tips as an academic. I thought I’d summarize that presentation.

[2] This is not entirely true, as I’ve written about before, but it’s the closest you’re going to get apart from being independently wealthy.

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