Seven Secrets of Highly Successful PhD Students


The conference “The 7 secrets of highly successful PhD students” given by Hugh Kearns, who works at Flinders University in Australia, introduced psychological and educational research to develop workshops and materials to help PhD students, academic staffs to be more effective in their daily life.

I was fascinated of how well he describes our daily routine and the tips he gave to us in order to improve the quality of our working life. So, I want to share some of his ideas.

Did someone ever ask you “What’s your PhD about? I guess the answer is YES. This is a question that almost every person that we meet asks us. And our common response takes like one hour explaining the justification of our research area and some of the background work that was performed and then like one minute to say what you really do.  Please, keep it brief!! The only part that people cares is that last minute, but they don’t event hear it because after the first 15min they are like him.

 As you see 90% of our brain has self-sabotaging behaviors. That means that although we are thinking all day in our thesis that doesn’t mean that we are doing something to finish it. First thing to do is recognize if we are self-sabotaging. For example, is it just life getting in the way? I need read my email and facebook/twitter (that usually takes us two hours because we have to reply some messages, put some meetings in our agenda, open all the chain presentations attachments, forward them, view some videos, etc.), I need to clean my apartment, I have to wash my cloth, my friends and family needs time, the dog needs a walk, does it sound familiar? Well when he start taking about this I realized that I was doing self-sabotaging to my thesis. Did you felt identify? Ok, that’s good! Identifying what specifically is stopping you from getting your thesis finished was the first step. Now the hard part is what we can do about it? As the 1st Newton’s law of Graduation says:
A grad student in procastination tends to stay in procastination unless an external force is applied to it”.
Here are some tips: take control of your time and prioritize, stop procrastinating and stay motivated, plan your day (set specific times to research and write, don’t make a long list of things to do remember the day have 24 hours) and avoid distractions, balance competing demands and, most important, identify the next thing you need to do and when you are going to do it.
Now that you are ready to finish with your self-sabotaging, the secrets can be revealed.
1. Advisor
We need to have in mind that people have different preferences. In our agenda we have one list in which the second priority (the first one is emails/facebook/twitter) is our dissertation. In our advisors agenda he have no less than 3 lists and our dissertation is the last point of the third one.  For me, at first, this sounds dramatic but is true. In order to put our dissertation on his first list we need to keep in touch constantly with them. Remember Newton’s 2nd law:
The age, a, of a doctoral process is directly proportional to the flexibility, f, given by the advisor and inversely proportional to the student’s motivation m.”
Some of the advices that Kearns gave are propose individual meetings to show him the work done, ask for feedbacks, send him emails to remember the things that both agree on the meetings to do, if meetings are not always possible wait for him after his class and talk to him in the way to his office. As he says: “They are the only ones that can help us to follow the right path”.
2. Write
Usually we wait until we are ready to start writing. The truth is that we will never be completely ready to do so. The key is assuming the position of writing (in front of a keyboard) and start before you are ready, even if you don’t feel like it. Write smalls chunks but regularly. Most productive researchers write regularly even if it is only in small amounts – research shows that even 30 minute blocks increase writing productivity. Then, ask people for feedbacks or show it to your advisor. Is what I’ve written good enough? If you are not sure, put the word DRAFT before the title.
3. Be realistic!
It’s not a Nobel Prize! We are trying to make an original contribution that never will be finished; there is always more to do and people that disagree.
4. Saying NO!
photosaddict, phda, distraction
There are a lot of external activities that requires us to say NO. Here is where Newton’s 3th law applies.
“For every action towards graduation there is an equal and opposite distraction.”

For most of us saying NO is not easy. But there are some alternatives. A good one is to learn how not to say YES so readily. When someone asks you to take on a new commitment you might answer “That sounds interesting. Can I get back to you?” or “I’ll just need to check my diary and I’ll give you a call back”. This gives you time to think about whether you really want to take on the task or to come up with some alternatives. The goal is that if you already plan your day with specific times for your tasks, do them first. Then (after doing them) say yes or have a reward like check the email J. A good tip is to break your tasks in small pieces, each one at different times. For example, from 9-10am sit down and read one research article, after that you can go for a coffee.
5. It’s a Job!
Work nine to five but respect the holidays. Work in the right place at the right hours. If you don’t get things done during the day it’s tempting to tell yourself that you can finish it off at home later. The internet has made this much easier. You can check your emails from home, search for references and resources and be in contact with anyone at any time. The problem with this is that you might start off just finishing off some urgent task but this then grows into responding to emails. Because it’s quieter at home we think that we actually get more done. This can lead to a blurring of when you are working and when you’re not. And it’s good to be off duty sometimes. That’s when you recharge, catch up with family and friends and attend to the other parts of your life.
6. Get help!
Ask people to help you with editing and formatting. They will probably not know about your area but they can tell you what they understand about your area with your write.
7. You can DO IT!!!do it, photosaddict, phda
It is easier to fail on elementary school than in grad school. Less that 1% failed on their PhD, and the reason is for not writing their thesis.

It is proved that these habits can greatly reduce the stress and increase the pleasure involved in completing a PhD