Straight up, writing a PhD is hard. Throughout the process, most tips and tricks people passed my way tended to focus on themes like imposter syndrome, writer’s block, and how to get published. Now I’m on the other side, I thought I’d share the smaller, almost inconsequential things I discovered along the way which saved time, cash, and occasionally brought great satisfaction after a long day in the library.
- Find Free books
Books are pretty crucial for us. Or, they are for those of us doing literature degrees, but I assume folk in STEM crack spines on books occasionally. They’re also often expensive and if it’s a new title, chances are the library doesn’t have it yet.
There are two options here that I found pretty handy here. The first is to use your university’s Inter Library Loans service and request it. I found that if the ILL services couldn’t find the book I requested, they’d occasionally be super generous and order me a copy “for your retention” – i.e I got to keep it! So keep an eye on new and upcoming titles and get your requests in. You never know!
The second option? Check out journals in your field and see what books they have up for review. It’s a win-win situation here as you’ll get a book and a publication in one go. Again, keep an eye on up-coming publications as sometimes, book review editors are open to suggestions and requests. Following them on Twitter can also be handy as they’re likely to share new books for review, and it’s an opportunity to create a connection.
- Select your champion
Find out and make a note of the people specialising in issues such as research integrity, plagiarism, data management – basically all that stuff with small print most people don’t read until it’s too late. It may seem like work now and chances are you won’t necessarily need them, but it’s good to have their email noted down just in case. Knowing who to turn to when some of my research was distributed without my consent made life infinitely less stressful. That’s not to say these experts and champions are only there for the scary stuff . They’re specialists in these areas for a reason and there to help with the more benign too; even if it’s just establishing best practice for storing data (e.g. should you share a thesis Dropbox with your supervisors? Hint: no) or if you can publish your thesis chapters as articles prior to submission.
- Acquire L33t Hacker Skillz
This requires you to spend some precious time now, but it’s a huge saver in the long run. You may think you know Microsoft Office, but do you know how to write and format a thesis using Word? Sure, you could download oodles of software suggested on Twitter, but most university IT services offer courses for staff and students. Some are even specifically aimed at PhDs and theses. Even if you consider yourself well-versed in Microsoft Office (or other programmes used by your subject), attending these courses can still allow you the chance to pick up handy tips and tricks which will come in useful long after submission. Plus it’s technically free, and did I mention the “saving time later” bit?
- Write everything down
Pretty basic and not necessarily a hack per se, but it’s a good one. Make sure you have at least one notebook near you at all times. Ideas will usually strike at the most inconvenient time possible, and trust me, you will not remember them when you wake up/once you’re dressed/after lunch/whenever you open up a Word document. Having a notebook and pen in your bag or by your bed (and a notebook app on your phone) means you won’t lose possible exciting developments and changes in chapter direction later. It’s excruciating settling down to work only to realise you’ve completely forgotten the amazing thought you had in the shower. It’s also pretty handy having one in your bag for supervisions; again, there’s no guarantee you or your supervisor will necessarily remember everything you discussed in detail, and your notes could even spark more ideas later. Do yourself and your stress-levels a favour – write everything down in the moment.
- Repurpose, Reuse, Recyle
You know those drafts that your supervisor may have totally slaughtered? You may not want to look at them now, but don’t delete them. Keep a file somewhere on a hard-drive or USB with old drafts. There’s still the chance you may be able to polish them up later for a conference, or publication. Even if those words don’t make their way into your thesis, they’re never a waste of time. Plus, once you’re done, you can go back and see how much your writing has improved!
Attending conferences, much like a holiday, can also be pretty pricey. Obviously applying for funding is a must – and your College/School/Department/PGR Office might all have separate wee pots to help fund travel to conferences worth checking out. When I was looking for suitable conferences to send abstracts to, I was lucky in that most stuff in my field was UK-based, but as my partner is Canadian, I looked for conferences near/in his province so we could tack on a holiday to his family. It cut our costs down significantly, and saved us doing 2 trips. As an aside, your university might even have travel insurance/conference attending insurance and I 100% recommend looking into it as it’s a huge weight off your shoulders having that sorted too!
Obviously starting a PhD in 2020 is going to be dramatically different to the the Before Covid-19 times I was writing through. But these things are still worth keeping in mind. You never know when a free book or a handy tweet may come your way, or who might prove an amazing connection or help later down the line. Small wins and time-savers add up, and can make the difference on the days when PhD Life is getting you down.
Images copyright Cia Jackson 2020