Advice on How to Be an Effective PhD Researcher
Originally Posted: August 31, 2015
I've decided to take a page from Matt Might on "replying to public" and post emails I send to students who ask me for advice. I've edited the student's message for anonymity and clarity, as well as my response. I expect I will update my answer with additional content in the future.
A PhD student at another university wrote to me this week after reading my CV online. S/he was feeling overwhelmed:
Subject: How to be effective as a PhD researcher?
I try to work productively, but I feel overwhelmed and end each day with no achievements. I saw your CV on your website and am astonished at what you have achieved: you got at least one honor or prize every year, work as conference organizer, editorial reviewer, do research (publish papers), etc. How do you organize your life? What is your typical day?
I'm sorry you are feeling overwhelmed! Getting a PhD is an exercise in persistence and it tests you in many ways. My CV doesn't tell you all the days I felt frustrated and took multiple steps backward in my research instead of forward.
General advice is that you celebrate all victories. Every day doesn't bring a measurable accomplishment like a published paper or a solved proof. But setting and achieving realistic goals for your day can help the day feel more successful. For example, if a day has a lot of meetings or classes, I know it's unrealistic for me to dig into the methods development of a new estimator. I make sure to plan to only do "easy" tasks that day, like catching up on email or putting together an invited session for a conference. Then, if I accomplish that, the day gets marked off a victorious day.
Saying "No" and Overpromising
Organizing my life used to be much more difficult because I always said "yes" to things and also overpromised on existing projects (e.g., after discussing edits to a paper with a co-author, I'd instinctively say that I would send a revision the next day). This left me with not enough time in the day to get everything done, and, not wanting to miss my own self-imposed deadline, I'd end up pulling all-nighters, neglecting my well-being. This is not sustainable! I try not to volunteer deadlines anymore (although I still frequently fail here). If asked, try to overestimate.
These days I also don't say "yes" to everything, even sometimes when it's hard to say no. Depending on the task, you may have more or less freedom to turn it down based on who is asking. When presented with opportunities, I take a few minutes to think about whether I will actually enjoy completing the task or working on a project, and if not, whether I should consider doing it anyway if it will benefit the community or me professionally in other ways. Also, do I have the time? I often will email a fellow colleague to get their objective input. Having a peer group to bounce these types of issues off of has been crucial for me as an early-career researcher. For the opportunities where you feel you can say "yes" or "no," I have a secret for you: if you aren't going to enjoy it, you aren't likely to do it well, and therefore the professional benefits will probably be relatively minor, or worse, it could hurt your reputation.
You mentioned all the things that I do besides research. I think contributing to the broad statistics, academic, and university communities is important, but I also enjoy these activities a lot. At Berkeley, I loved working with prospective students and advocating for great candidates on the admission committee. It didn't feel like work. Likewise, I'm on the ASA Committee on Meetings now. It's not a tremendous time commitment, and it helps me advocate for changes at JSM so the conferences are better for everyone. I like doing this as I had ideas about improving JSM, and this gave me an avenue to share them and potentially implement them. Thus, some of the service activities on my CV could also be partially considered my hobbies.
On a day-to-day basis…actually, I organize my life on a roughly weekly basis. Before the next week starts, I look at any deadlines for the coming week to see if I have something pressing I need to get to and put that at the top of my list with a red flag. I'll flip ahead a few weeks to make sure that if I have a presentation coming up that I also keep in mind any uncompleted work for that presentation needs to get done as well. I know that having more than two major projects that I am leading (not a collaborator or trainee) that need many hours of my deep attention for the week is too many and I will feel overwhelmed. Projects almost always take longer than you expect, and I will have numerous tasks for other research projects to attend to as well. Better yet is just one lead project that needs my heavy attention, and I move that project to the top of my list.
I assign day labels to each item on my to-do list, so that I know exactly what I'm doing every day. I like to stack my meetings with trainees and collaborators on two days of the week. These are my days that I don't plan to get lots of research done (sometimes none), because I know I'll be too swamped. Two other days are set aside for paper revisions or starting new research projects. These days may end up getting scheduled over with meetings if important matters come up, but I try to protect them as much as possible. The remaining weekday I either write, do analyses, work on grants, review preliminary results from trainees, and generally make progress on projects or have some meetings, it is variable.
Thus, before the week starts, I do this organization, and then my week goes off on semi-autopilot. I know what has to get done for the week and what I want to get done for the week. It frees up space in my mind to know that I only need to attack the list for the week, not the never-ending overall to-do list. It makes triaging urgent queries and unexpected needs easier too when you are pushing fewer balls around. When I'm teaching I get less work done, but I do not have a heavy teaching load. I will then stack my meetings on the days that I teach. I often work on the weekends, but not always, and I usually try to pick things that I'm really excited about, so that it is more relaxed and fun. It's also better if it is not something due on Monday, so all progress on the project is a net positive, and does not involve a stressful rushed Sunday evening trying to finish it. I usually have at least 1-2 days a week where I do absolutely no work, try not to think about work (this is important!), and recharge.
Graduate Student Caveat and Side Projects
As a grad student it is much harder because you are often working on one big project. When you hit a wall, there is nothing else to work on to make progress and have a "victory" for the day. Having side projects or applied collaborations that don't add to your feeling of being overwhelmed can add a nice balance to your plate. Then you get to have more days that feel like they have tangible successes. I also benefited from having a wonderful PhD advisor who mentored me. A mentor doesn't have to be your dissertation advisor. If there are other faculty members who you feel comfortable with, reach out to them and ask to meet and discuss professional development.
As far as productivity tools, I like using Evernote to keep lists of my ongoing projects and papers organized, iCal for scheduling, and descriptive email folder names to get myself down to inbox zero without losing or not being able to easily find important messages.
Regarding student awards, there are many student paper awards for the different conferences and sections. Receiving a student paper award helps disseminate your work, is a nice addition to your CV, and also can give you a sense of accomplishment. They have these for JSM, ENAR, and most statistics conferences. There are also often internal (i.e., specific to your university) awards to consider applying for as well. I discuss grants and awards under the graduate students section on my Resources page with other options to consider. I'll also make another remark about awards: there are many incredibly successful people with PhDs who do not have a long list of awards. The quality of your work is generally much more important than having awards, especially as a graduate student. Focusing on work that excites you and is contributing to your field is the key.
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