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How to find your best work rhythm as a PhD student


For many doctoral students, working on a PhD will be unlike any other academic or professional experience. Many PhDs lack the same structure that degree courses or jobs will involve, and many students often feel unmoored or even a little lost when they first begin their doctoral research. 


Even for research students who have certain set working hours in a laboratory or with their department/supervisor, a substantial part of the thesis will still need to be completed independently in your own time, at your own pace of work. 


One of the most valuable things you can do for yourself when you start your PhD is to establish your own work rhythm. This can vary tremendously between individuals – some prefer to maintain regular, scheduled working hours like they would in a 9-to-5 job; others may prefer to work more sporadically, whenever the mood takes them. Students with families or caring responsibilities, or part-time doctoral students, who are working while also completing their PhDs, find ways to fit in their PhD work alongside other daily responsibilities, often working to unpredictable schedules.  


The most important thing to remember is that there is no one right way of working. PhD work can be demanding and often ‘spill over’, requiring more time and attention at various stages of the PhD. It is important to find a work routine that is most comfortable for you and which will keep you motivated and productive. 


In this article, we look at three aspects of finding your own work rhythm during your PhD journey. Whether you’re doing your PhD full-time, or you’re juggling other commitments while doing the PhD part-time, we hope these tips will help you make the most of your time, and enable you to conduct effective, excellent research. 


Establishing a daily work rhythm 

Start with finding a daily work rhythm that will suit you. While some people work best with fixed working hours, others find it useful to set a daily or weekly target instead – for example, you might aim to do a total of five hours of work a day, or to work four days a week. This allows you more flexibility and will leave room for other commitments. 


If you struggle to find any regular routine that works for you, try setting milestones or mini-deadlines instead. If you have something to work towards – for example, writing 5,000 words by the end of the month, or completing 20% of your experiments within three months – you will still have something to keep you loosely on track. Having a time-specific work target will help you to consistently progress in your work without tying you down to a daily work schedule. 


Being flexible and changing your work rhythm

Understand that your working patterns and rhythms are likely to change throughout your PhD. The workflow is not as constant as it would be in most jobs or degree courses, and will vary between PhD candidates and disciplines. 


For example, when you begin fieldwork or data collection – such as going out to conduct interviews, conducting lab experiments, or travelling to archives – you will likely have to adapt your working hours to accommodate other factors (e.g. research participants, lab and archive opening hours).


As you progress through your PhD, you may also take on other responsibilities, such as teaching, writing journal articles or participating in or organising events such as workshops and conferences. Academic life does often require and encourage doctoral students to get involved in other activities, which can sometimes cut into time that you would otherwise spend on your thesis. Part-time PhD researchers will already know the challenges of juggling multiple commitments and the importance of planning ahead. 


Know that these changes in your working patterns are normal, and to be expected. You can get it all done – you just need to manage your time effectively and be flexible with adapting your work rhythms. Even if your schedule becomes very changeable and unpredictable, setting daily, weekly or monthly targets, or work milestones as outlined above, can still be helpful for keeping you on track. 


Learning to set your boundaries is also crucial. Understand how much work you can realistically do in a week, and be prepared to turn down additional requests from colleagues or friends. Fellow academics should understand that there are many demands when completing a PhD and respect your right to decline invitations to participate in activities if you cannot afford the time. 


Building in time for rest 

Whatever work rhythm you land on, it is important to remember that any routine will be ineffective if it does not include time for adequate rest and relaxation. As you work out what routine serves you best, remember to consciously build in time for rest as well. 


It can sometimes be tempting to plough ahead and work as much and as frequently as possible. In the long term, this is not sustainable and will not do your thesis any favours – you risk burning out and you will not perform at your best. Instead, having enough rest, time and distance away from your thesis will give you sustained energy, clarity and motivation to keep working productively and to a high standard.


Some people are able to naturally take breaks and stop when they realise they are no longer working effectively. For others, who may tend to overwork, we recommend scheduling your rest time and sticking to it as ardently as you would with your work schedules. For example, you could schedule in 15-minute breaks throughout the working day (using a work timer, like the Pomodoro method, can be very helpful); or ensure you keep all evenings and weekends completely free of work. 


If you find it difficult to ‘do nothing’, use this time to recharge and find new motivation by pursuing your other hobbies or getting involved in extra-curricular or non-academic activities. Think of it like this: doing the things you love will give you much-needed rest and, ultimately, also benefit your PhD. So, go for coffee with friends, watch your favourite TV show, or go dancing… all in the name of work! 


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