My top eight tips for surviving a PhD

Posted by Jamie Stavert @jamiestavert

I’m sure this has probably been done a millions times before, but here’s my top eight top tips for surviving a PhD (I was aiming for the classic “top 10 tips” but I could only think of eight). Please keep in mind these are things that have helped me through my PhD and they may not work for everyone. Another disclaimer: I haven’t officially handed in my thesis which means i) these top tips haven’t actually got me over the line yet and ii) I’m still deep in the throes of writing, so my ability to clearly communicate ideas is somewhat diminished. Anyway, here they are:

  1. Remember your mum. Mums can be of great use, as can dads, brothers, sisters and other family members. At the lowest point of my PhD, somewhere in the midst of potting 8,000 plants for a ridiculous experiment that seemed doomed to fail, it was my mum who saved the day. She took time out of her busy schedule, drove to Hamilton (if you don’t know it, Google it…) and helped me pot plants. That got me through a super tough period and it’s fair to say I couldn’t have done it without her. So make a special effort to give your family time. Keep them in the loop and communicate regularly. I know for international students this can be tough, but there’s Skype etc. Sometimes a chat is all you need.
  2. Get physical. I’m of the firm belief that too many “academic type” people consider their bodies solely as a vehicle for their brains. Also, this guy who has way more credibility than me, thinks the same (watch from 9:40). Physical exercise releases feel good hormones, such as endorphins, and reduces nasty stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. I find exercise helps me come up with new ideas and solve problems. I’m astounded at how often I find solutions to problems while running or at the gym. I don’t know anyone who is creative or productive when sitting at their coffee stained desk, with adrenaline coursing through their veins.
  3. Care for your brain. The only thing worse than neglecting your body is neglecting your brain (I’m often guilty of this)! As an academic, your brain is your most important asset. It’s where ideas come from. It’s what writes papers and grant proposals and R code. But if it ain’t working properly, it makes PhD life tough. Meditation is a great tool for keeping your brain healthy. It helps you to centre yourself, clear thoughts and momentarily vacate your intellectual mind. You’ll start smiling for no reason! If you don’t believe me, then check out this guy. He’s living proof that a biologist can also be the happiest person in the world. Give it a go – 20 minutes a day will make a huge difference.
  4. Compartmentalize. A PhD is a massive undertaking. It’s often difficult to “see the light at the end of the tunnel”, as wise supervisors often say. I can now see the light. But when you’re one or two years in, all you can see is a steaming river of shit, somewhere deep in the sewer. In this case, you need to compartmentalize. Break the big thing down into smaller manageable things. Make a plan – what do you need to do in the short-term to achieve the long-term goal? This will help you stay in the present moment and be mindful.
  5. Confide in your peers. Yes, you might think that your struggle is unique and no one truly understands what you’re going through. Many of us PhD folk are after all, millennials. But guess what? Your PhD peers are usually confronted with the same barriers/problems/issues as you. So take no shame indulging with them in complaining about supervisors, reviewer number two and ridiculous university bureaucracies.
  6. Have a beer. Or something else that fires up your reward system. For me it’s a tasty double IPA on a Friday night. It’s super important to have something to look forward to. A reward will give you impetus to trudge on through debugging that nasty code or counting those last 100 seeds.
  7. Do something else. Yes your PhD is important but it shouldn’t be your everything. There will be times when you have to make sacrifices but don’t let a PhD get in the way of doing other things you enjoy. Prioritize and make time for the other stuff.
  8. Don’t be too stiff. It’s easy to become too serious in academia. I often cringe at my seriousness. Being a competitive person in a competitive environment will make you serious. But try to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Have fun with your research. Embrace your childish curiosity and try not to focus too much on the end game.

So that’s my eight top tips for surviving a PhD. Remember, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but embrace the journey.


Jamie Stavert is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is interested in how functional traits influence ecosystem function and species’ responses to environmental change in pollination systems. He is supervised by Jacqueline BeggsAnne GaskettDavid Pattemore and Nacho Bartomeus.



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