PhD reflections 2.0: let’s reboot

By Ralitsa Madsen, University of Cambridge

“Software Update. iOS 8.0 is ready to install. To install the update, make sure your iPhone is connected to its charger.”

Every iPhone user gets this notification on a regular basis. I am sure other smartphone systems have similar setups. These updates ensure that our phones run smoothly, they correct previous bugs, and aim to improve the user experience. Note how important it is that the hardware is charged. If it is not, the software can’t be installed. In fact, a completely dead battery means that not even the old software will be running.

I recently learned the importance of hardware recharging. But it was not my phone’s hardware; it was my own. In a previous post, I shared with you some advice on how to get the most out of your PhD. Looking at it once again, I have missed a key point: “strategic recharging”. Perhaps the most important one. Yes, I mentioned that elite athletes have hard-core training schedules. Yet, even elite athletes know that their muscles need rest and recovery to perform at their best.  Yes, hard work is necessary for a good PhD. Yet, my previous training schedule won’t last long without some strategic recovery. With dead batteries, the software does not run.

Time out is essential for long-term productivity.

To outsiders, it might come as a surprise that I am a true PhD worrier! In fact, this is one of the main reasons for writing this post. To many, I am confident on the outside and seem to know my stuff well. However, ask a psychologist, and he/she would easily diagnose me with imposter syndrome and worries/anxiety.

Luckily for me, I talk a lot. I talk when I am not happy, and I tell people why I am not happy (within reason). I share my worries with them. I also look for resources on the internet, a sort of bibliotherapy – learning how to deal with my weaknesses by understanding more about them. In this process, I realised that many people – even the most successful ones – can be plagued by similar demons. Yet, far too often people keep it to themselves, thinking that they are weak and that others are much stronger.

A bit like the P-value problem in science: there is a bias to only publish positive results that are statistically significant. Ask any scientist, and they will all tell you that most of their data are negative! Graduate students are among the most vulnerable when it comes to stress and anxiety. However, we create a false picture of perfect success when we fail to acknowledge our inner struggles. Instead, by being more open about them, we can create empathy and help each other discover useful coping mechanisms.

I am lucky to have an amazing PhD project, lovely colleagues and a very humane supervisor. Despite these benefits, a few months ago, my worries started to get the better of me. What if there is a mistake in my data processing, and I have not noticed? What if my mind wanders (as it tends to do!) during routine cell culturing, and I do something stupid without noticing? And then everything is wrong, and I publish wrong results, and DISASTER!

You get the gist of it. It got to a point that the worry about making a mistake turned into a worry that I would make a mistake simply because I was worrying too much about it! I would doubt all my actions, focus on minor flaws and waste a lot of time ruminating about them. Have you experienced something similar? If yes, read further. If not, read further still. You might learn some useful tips to prevent this from happening to you.

Real productivity

As a graduate student, you should be working hard. However, excessive hard work is not always productive. Why not? Because if you don’t work smart, then it is not enough to do it hard. Often, we focus on short-term productivity. I can squeeze another 2 experiments in this week, and get more data. Well, I might have to stay in the lab late several days in a row, not getting proper dinner, and not exercising, but that’s fine. I’ll sort it out later. Ah yes, I will also have to get up earlier than usual, bye sleep. I can handle that! But remember those batteries? At some point they will run out; usually at a time when you least need it, and you might find your productivity short-circuited both short-term, and possibly even long-term.

The key point here is: focus on long-term productivity and work smart! As I wrote in my previous post, you have got to stay organised and focused. Focus on a couple of experiments at a time and do them well. Take good notes, manage the data sensibly and analyse it as soon as it comes out. Prepare figures suitable for publication on the spot. Then move on to the next thing. Doing 10 experiments at a time is not useful because mistakes become far more likely when you are rushed. Then you have to repeat something all over again. Did you work hard? Hell, yes. How productive were you? That’s a whole different story…

You can easily get yourself into a vicious cycle by pushing harder, because you think working even longer hours and doing even more experiments is the solution when you have mucked something up. I would argue that you have to do the exact opposite. It took me a while to realise! Perhaps, you also won’t realise it until a certain point in your PhD, once you have been through some stormy weather. I used to think: “Yeah, right, it won’t happen to me – I will be fine, keep going, keep pushing.”

Going back to the analogy with elite athletes, this behaviour would not be compatible with their success. Elite athletes know that lack of rest eventually leads to what exercise scientists describe as overtraining syndrome. Not working is an essential part of the work!

Hints and tips

Based on lots of reading and some self-experimentation (I am still trying hard!), my hints and tips for how to be truly productive are:

  • Get enough sleep (7-8h) – this is crucial!
  • Stop any work minimum 1h before sleep, ideally earlier.
  • Develop healthy eating habits and cut down on caffeine.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Work hard at work, then switch off once you are at home unless you have something urgent to complete.
  • Have a reasonable to-do list: ask yourself what you would tell someone else with a similar to-do list? It might also help to think about it as a ‘work-in-progress’ list instead.
  • Try to avoid constant email checking (this was hard!); switch off the automatic alert and schedule times during the day when you check your emails – perhaps only 3-4 times during the day, and do not check again after 8 pm! You will realise that nothing is really THAT urgent.
  • Have some me-time. Perhaps try mindfulness (it really works)!
  • Spend time with people you care about.

Be careful not to expect change to happen from one day to the other. It will take time, and you will experience internal resistance to these (possibly) unfamiliar behaviours. On average, it takes about two months to form a new habit, so be patient with yourself! Reward the effort and not the immediate result.

Check your beliefs

The following beliefs increase your risk of ending up in the unhealthy burnout zone. I have included some advice on how to tackle them – it is not easy, but you have got to let them go.

Perfectionism is one of them. It describes an unhealthy strive for excellence that may ultimately lead to the exact opposite. Let’s say you have been analysing a dataset for several days now, and you keep going over it again and again in fear of having typed a formula wrong or made a copy-paste mistake. The worry that something is not error-free forces you to keep looking at it. As a consequence, you are slower at completing this task, and you don’t make any progress on other projects that require your attention. You end up feeling overwhelmed, and it causes you to worry even more.

If it sounds familiar, take a step back and perform a reality check. A life without mistakes is impossible! After all, you are just another human being.  You have to teach yourself to be happy with ‘good enough’. You can’t treat every single task as super important. Instead, you have to identify those tasks where ‘good enough’ would be more than sufficient. If in doubt, check with others and see what they think. Once you have done that, complete these tasks accordingly and move on (despite internal distress).

We all learn from our mistakes. They are part of our success.

Catastrophizing is another extreme, where you believe in the worst possible scenario, while in reality there are others which are far more benign and usually far more likely. Approach such thinking as a scientist. Think about times when you have imagined the worst, and how often it turned into reality. Chances are that the worst is the most unlikely outcome. So why spend time worrying about it? Generally, you need to practice cognitive flexibility. This is very useful in dealing with worries as well as in science as a whole. Get rid of tunnel vision, accept multiple solutions and be open to different ways of doing things.

Finally, if you treat worries as real dangers, you are more likely to feel miserable when faced with struggles. Worries are not dangers. They are just signals that you are nervous, just like sweaty palms or a pounding heartbeat. Worries only become a problem when you treat them as predictions of the future, or when you equate them to actions. Any sentence that starts with “What if…” or “Suppose that…” is basically the same as saying “I am currently pretending that…”; in other words, whatever you are thinking is not happening here and now. You can pretend that it either did or did not happen (say, you are worrying about a potential mistake), but you can never be 100 % sure of either.

The best way to deal with a worry is to acknowledge it is there, humour it and move on to do whatever you were supposed to be doing. It is not an easy task, but with practice you learn how to do it. Mindfulness techniques will help you achieve this. Note that it is essential that you don’t try to stop the thoughts, but just let them be in the background. Attempts at thought suppression have the exact opposite effect. You might also be experiencing strong emotions, but they are just responses to your thoughts, whether or not these are anchored in reality. Because the physiology of fear and excitement is quite similar, you can actually use this stress response to your advantage – to enhance your performance.

Reframe challenges as interesting problems and let curiosity fuel your drive. Don’t let fear define your boundaries and limit your opportunities; face the fear, let it energise you and aim for limitless opportunities. Most importantly, rather than being your own enemy, be your own best friend.

Acknowledge your worries and fears, humour them and move on to deal with the task at hand.

Taking back control

Luckily, my ‘black hole’ experience was short, partly because of an extensive support network. I am once again enjoying my work. I know I can’t do everything at once, and I don’t want to. I still have the worries, but I understand that mistakes are part of being human. Mistakes are actually stepping stones to success. In fact, you learn best from mistakes. That’s exactly what I did. Forgetting to charge my batteries was a mistake. My new batteries require more frequent charging, but they will last. The new software has been installed. While some bugs are to be expected, it is bound to be better than the previous version.

Additional resources (please comment if you know of others)

(NB: if your fear becomes excessive and disturbs your day-to-day life, it is also important to seek help from a mental health professional)

  1. The Worry Trick: How Worry Controls You and What You Can Do to Take Back your Life (by David A. Carbonell)
    • I bought this as an audiobook; it is extremely helpful and a lot of my tips come from here.
  2. High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (by Sherrie Bourg Carter)
  3. Various online articles:

    4. Inspirational TED talks

    5. Mindfulness

RM1bAbout me:

I am a 3rd year Wellcome Trust PhD Student in Metabolic and Cardiovascular Disease at the Institute of Metabolic Science in Cambridge. You can follow me on Twitter (@RalitsaMadsen) or via my science blog




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