A PhD is a very individual experience; everyone works in different ways, and finds different aspects challenging. For me, one of the hardest things has been keeping myself motivated. Doing a PhD, it is largely up to you how you spend your time. You might get guidance from your supervisors, you might have work, family or other commitments that you have to work around, but ultimately it comes down to you. Self-motivation is a really important part of doing a PhD!
When I started my PhD, I had 3-4 years to write 100000 words, a mammoth task that seemed both hard to comprehend and far away. It was difficult to know how much work I needed to do each day, week, month, in order to get it done. I tried to stick to a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday schedule, but it was easy enough to talk myself into an afternoon or a day off if I got a more appealing offer, or even if I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. My favourite argument I used on myself was “well, 9-5 Monday to Friday is a social construct anyway, so why should I stick to it?”- I wonder if that one works on employers? Now, as I approach the end of my third year, the panic has set in but I still find it hard to motivate myself to work on occasion.
Something that I have found useful in recent months is timetables. I never used to find them helpful, I was never one of those people who made revision timetables in the run up to exams, for example. At Royal Holloway, PhD students have to undertake Annual Reviews to make sure they are still on track. One of the materials you have to produce for the annual review is a timetable of the work you plan to do over the next year. I must admit that for the first few years, I made the timetable then promptly forgot all about it. However, as the end of my PhD started to loom, I decided to try and make a timetable and actually stick to it.
I planned out every week until the end of my PhD, including conferences, teaching, and time off. I included self-imposed deadlines, on which I have to send pieces of writing to my supervisors, so I have concrete objectives to work towards. And for the most part, I have found it very helpful. I know what I need to get done by the end of each week, and from that I can work out what I need to do each day. It is helping to keep me focused and motivated, as well as breaking down the PhD into chucks that are more manageable.
I have also discovered one important caveat, however. Timetables are only helpful for as long as they are actually helping. There is a fine line between good pressure, which forces you to get on with things, and bad pressure, which puts your mental health at risk. Sometimes things happen which you didn’t predict, and sometimes specific tasks take longer than you anticipated, despite your best efforts. When I was writing up my most recent case study, it became obvious that I just didn’t have the material to analyse the issues convincingly. I had to spend another two weeks doing more research. It put me behind schedule, but it was necessary to ensure I come out with a good quality PhD. In fact, I have revised my timetable several times since I decided to take it seriously. I have even moved my self-imposed final deadline back by a month, because it was becoming clear that my previous date was unrealistic (I was aiming for December, I am now hoping to submit by the end of January. Royal Holloway requires me to submit by the end of September 2017, so I still have some wiggle room). My timetable isn’t set in stone; it is there to help me, and if it’s not helping me, then I can change it.
As I have said, the process of doing a PhD is different for everyone, and what I find useful might not be helpful for everyone, or even anyone, else. However, I think its important for PhD students to talk openly about our experiences, and discuss what works and what doesn’t. So please let me know if you’ve tried timetables, and if so, whether or not they’ve been useful to you.