Wednesday, 17 December 2014


Two nights ago, at 2am, the peaceful village of Prebbleton was shaken by a blast of rock music roaring from the windows of a bashed up Toyota Levin. Houses shook with the racket, dogs barked, and people probably woke up a little bit annoyed.

Sorry, Prebbleton. It was me. I was trying to keep myself awake, because for the first time in my PhD I had to work into the night. I'm not very good at working into the night.

PhD students are expected to work pretty much constantly, including nights and weekends. Most of my friends do that; they wake up some time in the late morning or afternoon, then do science until the wee hours the next morning. They procrastinate during this time too - go for coffee, check facebook, check email, look at the news, go for coffee, chat to friends, check facebook, go for coffee. Their day is homogenous - they spend the entire time doing a mixture of work and procrastination. As they work more, they procrastinate more - it's an even mixture.

I tried that during my masters and undergrad, and it works ok. Unfortunately though, it doesn't leave much time for anything else. If you are constantly doing a low level of work, you need to make sure you keep it up or you won't get much done. Long lunches, trips away, and movie nights with friends are inadvisable except on special occasions. It also frazzles your brain and makes work a bit mundane - going for coffee is a good break from work, because you have to walk around and get away from your desk, but checking facebook and email are terrible ways to take a breather. You're taking a break from staring at words on a screen to stare at different words on the same screen. However, nothing makes you feel like a dedicated student more than working late at night.

During my undergrad, I started making little changes in the way I studied and took breaks. Whenever I took a break, I wasn't allowed to think of anything sciencey. The same applied when I shut my computer down, or when I took a day off. I distracted myself by talking to people, having a change of scenery, or popping out for a walk. I found that having proper breaks concentrated my work a little more and stopped me from procrastinating so much during work time. It also meant I felt less fatigued, because my brain wasn't constantly doing the same thing and had a bit of variety.

This time last year, I went to a conference which had a workshop attached. At the workshop, one of the best tips that I heard was to guard your work time, and your spare time - i.e. don't let people distract you with meaningless conversation while you're trying to write, and don't do work-related things when you're on a break. At the same time, my advisor told me that he recommends treating your PhD like a full-time job: work 9-5 on weekdays, and have evenings and weekends off.

I have mostly stuck to the 9-5 schedule. It really works. If you work in 45 minute increments, with a 15 minute break after each one, and during work time don't check email or facebook or use your computer for anything other than work, you end up pretty exhausted at the end of the day. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you worked hard and could not possibly have worked any harder. Also, treating your office as a work space and your home as a relaxing space helps me to sleep at night and work during the day. However, it's very difficult when others around you don't have the same routine. For a while I tried car pooling, but gave up when the other person couldn't get out of bed earlier than 10am and always wanted to leave work around 4 to work from home. I also find that social events usually last until late at night, which isn't great when you have to wake up at 7. Finally, there is always that twinge of guilt when I leave the office at 5, but my office mates will be slaving away until much later (although this is somewhat made up for by the smug feeling I get when I'm the first one in every morning). I also feel guilty when I see that in their free time, my friends read scientific literature for fun. Lately I have been doing more sciencey stuff in my free time, which makes me feel less guilty but also makes me less able to work to my full potential during work time.

Working 9-5 frees up time for hobbies, too, and gives me enough time to have a life. However, it's very difficult to break away from this routine if I want to do a bit of extra work - like pulling my all-nighter the other night. I had to go to Illustration Club at 5, then go home and feed the chickens and rabbits and do some falcon training, then hang out with friends for a bit because that's what we're all used to, and then finally when my flatmate was going to bed I headed back into uni to finish some DNA sequencing in time for the sequencing machine's last run before its holiday. The next day I got up early to do some more work, but ended up leaving work at 1 to sleep for a bit because I was so tired. Your body gets used to a particular routine, and breaking it is very hard!

If I had planned a bit better, I wouldn't have had to work late. I think in the future I will just be a bit more organised and stick to what seems to work for me.

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