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Posted on 15 Feb '17

Staying Focussed During a PhD - Some Simple Tips

There's a good chance your PhD will be the longest academic qualification you complete. It'll certainly be the most demanding. So how do you stay focussed whilst working as an independent researcher? Gaia Cantelli is a current PhD candidate at King's College London. Here she shares some tips for new students.

One of the greatest things about being a PhD student is the independence that comes with it. After all, the chance to be an independent researcher is why talented young people choose to do PhDs in the first place.

However, in an ironic plot twist it turns out the best part about being a PhD student can easily turn into one of the biggest challenges you'll face during a doctorate.

Going for long periods of time without anyone telling you what to do, when to do it, and, most importantly, why you’re doing it can be challenging.

The variety that comes with a PhD can also be an issue. As you develop your subject expertise you'll have the chance to get involved in a range of other academic activities alongside your PhD: from teaching and publication to presentations and event organisation.

These are all great development opportunities, but they can distract you from your top priority: finishing that thesis!

And, no matter how organised you are, it can be difficult to focus without getting sidetracked by the many side-projects and errands that pop up every day.

So, here are a few ideas on how to set your goals and stick to them in the middle of academic mayhem.

#1 Talk to someone!

A PhD starts with good intentions, but the best of students get distracted.

If you find that your big-picture vision of what you need to get done in a given month, term or year is fading away, don't worry. This is a great time to have a chat with your supervisor to refocus you.

You can also consider chatting to other students and academics. Simply talking to a friend or a colleague in the field can be immensely helpful.

They might not be able to tell you exactly what to do, but listening to yourself talking will usually make things clearer in your own mind.

#2 Set yourself arbitrary deadlines - and stick to them!

While we all like to think we are much more productive in a relaxed, care-free environment, the truth is that some people don’t get anything done until it’s urgent.

If that's you, make it urgent. Don't always rely on deadlines to be set for you (they often won't be during a PhD). Set yourself a deadline instead!

If you keep a diary or a calendar, write your current goal down and treat it like any other important, unmoveable commitment. You may be surprised how well you shape up and knuckle down simply because 'it’s due!'

Is it really as simple as that?

If you are the sort of person who has mastered the art of self-discipline, having a deadline set will probably be enough for you.

If not, well, welcome to the club! You may need to find reinforcements.

An obvious approach is to discuss deadlines with your supervisor. After all, once he or she is expecting you to send through a piece of work on a certain date, it's quite embarrassing to simply not do it.

You can also consider asking friends. They may seem like a source of distraction, but, once they understand the challenges you're facing, they could be the opposite.

In fact, if you have really really good friends, you may be able to let them boss you around. The declaration that 'I can only come out if I’ve finished this' still lights a perverse gleam in the eyes of my closest friends.

#3 Have your key objectives written down somewhere you’ll see

To stay focussed on your PhD objectives, you need to keep them in mind. And to keep them in mind, you need to keep them in view.

The simplest way to do that is to write down your goals somewhere you'll see them regularly.

It may seem trivial, but a couple of visual reminders of what you’re trying to achieve can actually be surprisingly useful.

Whether it’s a couple of post-its in your diary or a digital note on your desktop, doesn't matter. Find a way to keep an eye on the big picture that works for you.

#4 Put time aside to work towards the goals you really care about

Chores and menial tasks have a habit of expanding to take up all the space that is available to them.

So make sure some space isn't available to them.

Schedule in time each week or each day for the things you really want to do:

  • If you want to get the introduction to your thesis written by the time you stop working in the lab, schedule in a certain time every week when you are unavailable to other tasks because you are writing your introduction.
  • If you want to have learnt a new technique or mastered a new piece of software before the end of the summer, set aside time every week when you focus on that.
  • If you've got a conference abstract (or poster) to put together, give yourself specific time to do it.

... and so on.

It doesn’t have to be the same time each week and it doesn’t even have to be the same length of time every week.

But make sure it happens every week and those large, non-urgent goals will almost take care of themselves.

Looking for more advice on managing your PhD? Check out Gaia's tips for beating procrastination. You can also keep up with Gaia's own research at her Time for Science blog.

Last Updated: 15 February 2017