Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Clean lines and organisation

I haven't posted here for a couple of months, mostly because this blog has been helping me to write consistently even when I had no thesis writing to do. Now, I am writing every day anyway, so I don't need to write for the sake of writing. However, this blog has been so useful to me in terms of tracking my progress and realising how insignificant most seemingly catastrophic events have turned out to be, that I cannot abandon it. I would definitely recommend any new PhD student to write a blog, even if nobody ever reads it.

Every PhD blog has at least one post about advice for new students. New students get a LOT of advice. Much of it is useful, but much of it is also useless. Each student and project is unique, and they need to figure most stuff out on their own. The generic advice often given by universities (write a little every day, find a good work-life balance, talk to your supervisors etc) usually holds true and is good to stick to.

However, there are two things that I would add to the university spiel. Firstly, get some bloody exercise. The bodies of PhD students become stagnant, decrepit, and downright unhealthy from three years of sitting at a desk indoors and prioritising study over everything else. Exercise helps you to avoid health issues that can stem from this lifestyle. It helps you to integrate yourself back into society if and when that time should come. But your body also houses your brain, which needs looking after if it is to remain sharp and useful. Yes, study is the most important thing in your life right now, but you can't study without taking care of the things that help you study, like your brain. Taking time out to exercise makes you feel good, helps you sleep well, and forces your brain to divert its attention away from how best to compoverise the distribution of the arcbenders in R. It forces you to focus on yourself.

The second important thing that I have learned is about organisation. I have a diary, a to-do list, and a three-month plan in addition to the mandatory PhD timetable that I constructed for my proposal (and the slightly less naiive one that I made for my 18-month report). To start with, I figured each task would take a small amount of time and I could progress in a modular way. However, over the time I have been here, things have tended to not work or blend into each other, and it all took a lot of time. To start with, this really panicked me and I thought I was not working hard enough. But that is a self-centred view and one that entirely disregards the nature of science and the universe. It is all new stuff that I am doing, and some of it will go wrong. I would encourage new students to be as organised as you can possibly be, and more organised than you have ever been in their lives - you need to know what you have done, what is left to do, and each little step leading up to completion. You need to know exactly what the next steps are. Every PhD is composed of data collection, data analysis, and writing; these steps tend to bleed into each other and that is ok. In fact, it is vital for the PhD to work - when you start analysis you will realise there is a bit more data to collect. You also need to be writing the entire time, not just after you've done the analysis. So although you need to be extremely organised, you also need to be aware that stuff goes wrong and just because you say you will have a completed phylogeny in two weeks does not mean that it will be so. Everything takes a lot longer than you expect.

Right, on to finishing the calibration of my phylogeny (something I meant to complete about a year ago). Wish me luck ;)

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