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Posted on 4 Mar '24

Changing Plans and Learning to be Flexible in your PhD

As I start writing my 18-month progress report (and question where that time has gone!), I have been reflecting on the most challenging parts of my PhD so far. Whilst it is academically challenging, I think the hardest parts involve resilience, self-confidence and perseverance. As is true with a marathon, it’s a question of keeping going, that’s the hardest part!

The to-do list is always growing

Those of you who have read my previous posts will know that I am a list person at heart. If given a task to complete I will make a to-do list of all the smaller activities that need completing and work on ticking them off. It’s taken me time to realise that this doesn’t always work for a PhD as the tasks keep expanding: you can’t tick off “reading” when more literature keeps being released. This used to stress me but I am now taking a new approach by making overall goals on a monthly basis and then smaller to-do lists each week. This might include “spend two hours reading new papers” which I can tick off rather than “do all reading on a topic” which is unrealistic and will need to be added again later on. Switching your mindset to reframe the PhD as a training programme makes a big difference in approaching the to-do list.

The plans will change – and that’s good!

A PhD involves conducting research and contributing new ideas to your field. If you discover something exciting during your first year, it is completely logical for your plans to change for second and third year to explore this. I have had to learn to be flexible with my plans and to know that change can be a good thing. Changing gives you space to investigate an interesting finding, take up a new opportunity, or simply to redirect if the previous method isn’t working. An example in my research has been collecting microscopy images. I had planned a simple method and set aside one week to collect images. However, the machine was broken and would not be fixed for a few months. This led to me researching other methods and using a different technique that has led to a better final result. This was a small change but the message is the same, changing plans can lead to a better outcome and overall PhD experience. Being flexible is important to ensure you don’t miss things on the way!

It's important to say here that this is a work in progress. I am still learning that my plans are not set in stone - more like set in jelly, from my experience! It’s a learning process but one that I am sure I am not alone in experiencing. Speak to your supervisor if you are finding this stressful and they will be able to help you reassess your timelines, goals and reasoning for making decisions.

Things take longer than you expect

As your plans change so too do your timelines. It is important to have an overall timeline for your PhD to ensure you can cover everything you want to during your studies. However, things will come up that are outside your control: equipment breaks or isn’t available, delivery times are extended, methods don’t always work, illness, scheduling conflicts, training requirements, building works to name just a few! Part of accepting that plans can change is recognising that timelines are flexible. Being kind to yourself if something takes longer than planned is essential to protect your mental health during a PhD. Going forward I am trying to assign longer than I think will be necessary to do a task: it usually ends up being fairly accurate, and if it ever is quicker than expected (yet to happen!), I’ll have some extra time for reading and writing up! Over-estimating timelines also helps you feel on top of your work and means you’re less likely to feel guilty for taking a break.

Whilst flexibility is something I expected to learn in yoga rather than a PhD, I really believe being flexible to changing plans and evolving timelines is a crucial part of research. Learning to be kind to yourself as plans change will help protect your mental health and set you up for a career in this sector. Going forward I am trying to listen to my own advice and embrace the changes in the knowledge they will lead me to a better end result.


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Last Updated: 04 March 2024