Peers for PhDs: Advice for Surviving the PhD AND Covid-19

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Natasha Bradley, Psychology, University of Liverpool

Peers for PhDs is a student-led group to support wellbeing of PhD students at the University of Liverpool. It was initially started by three postgraduate researchers from different parts of the university (including Natasha Bradley, an ESRC funded student). We initially met at personal development workshops and wanted to provide more opportunities for PhD students to network outside of their department. We hosted focus groups with other students, who often described a PhD as a lonely experience. Looking at the published evidence on postgraduate student mental health, it seemed to us that increasing opportunities for PhD students to support each other would be beneficial.

We began during researcher development week, holding a workshop to gather ideas for how the group should run and what themes we might discuss. Until recently, we have been aiming for monthly group meetings, with a different theme to discuss, or something social. Ideas are chosen by the group members and a small team of project leaders facilitate each group. With the chaos of 2020, we’ve moved onto zoom, and we’re meeting more often and more informally, to allow opportunities for PhD students to have a morning coffee together during this strange time.

As Peers for PhDs project leaders, we wanted to collect some tips for managing this time. Most of these regard project management and opportunities to make some progress if you are stuck. But it’s important that you look after yourself as priority to your project – if you are struggling, speak to someone, whether your supervisor, a colleague, fellow PhD students or friends and family. Many junior researchers remember life during their PhD, and will have empathy for you if you reach out to them.

We’ve included some advice on work-life balance and recognising stress, and hope you find them useful.

 Our top 10 tips… 

  1. Build a comfortable working environment

First things first, are you working in a suitable environment? Is there anything that you can do to make it better? A tidy desk, an appropriate office chair, a scented candle – little touches can make all the difference to the feel of your work. If you can separate your workspace from the rest of your home, that’s even better.

  1. Set your working hours

Your plan can include non-negotiable core focus hours and some fun or treats. I find I’m more likely to stick to it if there are perks as well as work in the schedule. Define your ‘off-time’ – you’re not expected to be on call continuously – and consider what notifications you might want to turn off over the weekend.

  1. Prioritisation

To do lists are your friends, but keep them approachable – i.e. what do you have to do this month? If you’re not sure, try using the Eisenhower matrix to identify your urgent, important tasks and break down large work into smaller chunks.

  1. Keep a record

It can be helpful to record what you are doing each week, and you can archive these to look back and see how much you have done over the passing weeks. You might want to record one good thing each day, or note how you’re feeling, as a way of checking in with yourself too.

  1. Let yourself off the hook

The productivity pressure is real! Avoid comparing yourself to imaginary others. Everyone has a different way of responding to these circumstances, it really is unprecedented, so it’s okay if all you’re doing right now is surviving. Don’t put more pressure on yourself than there already is.

  1. Approachable goals

It’s too easy, throughout the PhD, to set ourselves unattainable productivity goals and then beat ourselves up when we don’t manage it. Scale back your expectations – try to take baby steps in the right direction rather than a leap towards the finishing line!  

  1. Pomodoro technique

Set a limited time for a task you’ve been struggling to do and set a timer – eg. 25 minutes. It’s an old trick but it’s a surprisingly effective way to make progress.

  1. Connect with others

Keep in contact with people, whether this is your supervisor, peers, friends, family, neighbours. Having a chat to break up the day is great for productivity and keeping connecting is really important for your mental health. Peers for PhDs has just started coffee mornings, which is an opportunity to meet other PhD students once a week.

  1. Use technology

There are so many productivity apps and hacks around – searching through them becomes procrastination in itself! I would recommend Mindful Browsing, which gives you gentle nudges away from distracting websites. There might be a new technical skill you’d like to learn or understand, and haven’t had time before.

  1. Take a screen break

It’s important – not just for our eyesight – that we take some time away from the screens too. Can you mark some separation between work, play and sleep? Taking a whole day away from technology is an interesting challenge at the moment – but you might be surprised at the difference it makes.

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