PhDLife. How to get your focus back.

Hello science lovers!

I am back 🙂 But firstly I want to say a HUGE thank you to my awesome guest bloggers Heidi GBri LAlice G and Laura M for holding down the Soph talks science fort whilst I was away on holiday. If you missed their blogs, then please do catch up on them – they are so varied featuring some PhD advice, a day in the life of a PhD student, a cellfie and some science you can do at home with a little Fantastic Beasts treasure hunt – so there is something for everyone! Also, I am always open to collaborate with people on scicomm projects and always looking for guest bloggers so please do not hesitate to get in contact.

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Anyway, back to today’s blog! So, there’s been a bit of radio silence on the blog front recently from me due to my holiday, then getting over jet lag plus it was bank holiday here in the UK so I gave myself that day off too! I was back in the lab for 2 weeks where I was furiously trying to get those last few results for my first ever manuscript and then I had another week off for a friend’s hen weekend in Spain plus the Pint of Science festival last week! All in all – it has been a bit of a hectic few months really with no routine in place. But that is just life! Sometimes it gets in the way of science hah! and you just need to embrace the time out of the lab and enjoy yourself!

Today marks the start of a new phase for me where I can get back into my routine and set aside my writing time to keep up to date with all my blogs and my Instagram posts and a new science vlog venture that I want to experiment with – plus all my actual lab work of course! But sometimes not having that routine for a while makes getting back into the saddle more complicated than perhaps it should be!

Now you’re up to date on what has been happening in Soph’s Science World – it’s time to get back to it and introduce why I’m writing about getting your focus back in the lab – which you can probably already guess considering I’ve barely been in the lab over the last 6 weeks!

Anyway…

The path to the top of the PhD mountain is not a straight forward easy one. Instead it is full of peaks and gullys combined with episodes of increased pressure from the increasing altitude as you crawl towards the summit! I know – not painting doing a PhD in very good light with that description! But this is unfortunately the case! Sometimes along this journey, you take the wrong turn and have to re-trace your steps or you simply choose the wrong path and get completely lost. This is completely normal for PhD life – in fact I would be in utter shock if someone managed to stay along the same path with no hiccups for four whole years in the UK, or even up to seven years if you are studying for your PhD in the US! So there is no need to panic if you are feeling confused or completely unmotivated whilst studying for your PhD at any point along the trek and it is perfectly okay to need to stop for a while as you climb that mountain! All you need to do is learnt the best ways for you to get back on track and regain that focus again afterwards!

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Recently, I have found myself just staring at my To Do Lists (yes lists!) at my desk trying to plan this week’s and next week’s experiments. It was all there in front of me, but I was so confused about what I had done, what needed prioritising and even what needed doing for my paper and for my final thesis that my thoughts just became a complete muddled mess.

It was driving me insane! I felt like I had lost track of where I was with different ideas and experiments piling up and it gave me an idea for this blog post – How to get your focus back! I needed the advice myself and made a mini plan of action that might help me and it worked for me so I thought I would share in case any of you are suffering with the same issues.

So when we have lost track of our PhD path, how can we get motivated and focused again? Here are my 5 top tips for regaining your PhD motivation and focus:

  1. Organise a meeting with your supervisor

This was the first thing I did! I’ve written and passed my PhD transfer 6 months ago now. In that thesis, I had a plan for the rest of time as a PhD student which I am on track for 🙂 but sometimes the results you get in science take you in a different direction to what you thought – which is partially my case. Some of my results have revealed something quite interesting that we didn’t expect and I’m trying to get to the bottom of that on top of the other plans I had. So, I just wanted to sit down with my supervisor and tell them what results I do have, and what results are in the  process of being finalised so we can work out what needs to come first and what we can do after that has been completed.

I love these little meetings we have because its not just talking about each individual experiment, but it’s discussing what my results could mean and how I can go about proving that. We sit and work out what the bigger picture is too and where my research fits into this big wide world of science – which I love doing! I find this really helps me to focus again and makes you realise why you are doing this!

At the end of these meetings, there is usually a huge whiteboard full of drawings and arrows and notes until we have that final picture – which I then make a note of in my notebooks before it gets rubbed off and I’m back to square one! The picture where we know where each result fits with the other one and what gaps there still are to fill in! I don’t know why but it gives me a huge buzz and inspires me and motivates me to want to fill in those gaps ASAP. So that’s why whenever I get a little lost, this is my first port of call to regain focus!

2. Keep lab book up to date

I’m usually quite good at this but being super busy and working long lab days one after the other just results in me getting further and further behind sometimes. It is probably one of the reasons I lost my focus to begin with – all those Western blots I was doing were merging into one and I couldn’t for the life of me remember which ones I had done, which I had samples for and had not got round to yet and ones that I just needed more samples for.

It was all a bit of a mess and my results were piling up without actually having written them in my lab book! Plus I had all the other experiments I was doing to complicate it even further. It eventually reaches a point where you have to spend the whole working day and sometimes even longer just writing up your lab book – and then you are not getting any experiments done!

My best advice is taking that 10-20 minutes at the end of each day to write it all in! Even if it does mean you’ll be home closer to 7pm than 6pm. This is always what I have tried to do but as you can tell sometimes it just isn’t what you want to do at the end of the day – but it definitely is the best way to do it!

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3. Plan a break or a holiday

Okay so I’ve told a tiny little lie. I was feeling like I had lost my focus about a month or two ago and actually wanted to get a plan sorted before I went away on my planned holidays so I wouldn’t be thinking about it whilst I was away. I know most people probably would want to get away and then deal with what they left upon their return. But whichever way is best for you, taking a holiday or just simply taking a day or week off work will work wonders!

Unfortunately though I don’t think I can use this advice right now 😦 Although I would love to get away again and have already been looking at flight prices for my next destination. I might have to wait a while for that next adventure though.

But with the amount of time I have had out of the lab recently, I have been able to complete recharge my batteries and this morning (if you can believe me) I was actually excited and keen to get into the lab and finish off those results for my manuscript. I’m keeping everything crossed that it will all be done my the end of this week – but it is science at the end of the day and it might take me a little bit longer – but I’m keeping my hopes up! The break away has given me a clear mind on what experiments to prioritise and just re-energised my love for what I do! So if you need a break – the best thing to do is just take one!

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4. Make a list of the experiments you need to do next

For me – it is 10 times easier to get your focus back if everything you need to do is written out in front of you. I usually make these lists after the meeting with my supervisor so I know what they want me to do and so I have a feel for which ones are more important and so need prioritising.

My life gets a little bit more complicated as I’m currently working with 3 different cell lines so I have a list for each one. On my list is the result I need and then under it all the experiments I need to do to complete that including Bradford assays and how many more samples I need to collect for that particular experiment.

If you haven’t noticed already, I’m a bit of a organisation freak and so they are colour coordinated for experiments were I need to image my cells, experiments that are just for my thesis and experiments that need prioritising to put in the paper and so on. If you looked at my list, it probably looks a mess – but it is my organised chaos of lab life!

That is obviously what works best for me, but making a simple list and maybe then ordering them so you know which ones need to be done first may be the way for you! It also shows you that it can all be broken down into small manageable chunks too that are not overwhelming anymore! But I would definitely recommend having that list so you can see what you need to do, but more importantly you get the satisfaction of ticking it off once you’ve done it!

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5. Ask yourself two very important questions.

My final piece of advice for getting your motivation back is more of a reflection where I want you to ask yourself:

What do I want to achieve?

And why am I doing this?

For me, reviewing your long term goals and aspirations every so often along this PhD journey is a real motivator. You actually realise what you have accomplished so far and how you can achieve your goals! Knowing that in about 18 months I will (hopefully!) be Dr Arthur and I would have placed one or maybe two pieces into the jigsaw that is the biological world will be more than worth it that all those low moments with zero motivation will be long forgotten! Plus just think of all the doors that will be open to you once you have reached the top of that PhD mountain!

So just sit there and think for a few minutes! Reflect on what you have achieved so far during your PhD study and then use that to inspire what you can achieve in the time you have left on this journey. I assure you that all those little experiments in the lab do mount up into a much bigger picture and they will not be time wasted!

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I hope after reading that you feel a little bit more inspired and motivated to head back to the lab tomorrow and just crack on! I know I am!

Some of you must be studying or have finished your PhD and lost your way a little bit at some point! How did you get back on track? Please share your advice in the comments below so we can all make this PhD journey a little easier for each other.

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Science love.

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2 thoughts on “PhDLife. How to get your focus back.

  1. These are excellent suggestions!

    Everybody is different. Here are some things that worked for me:

    1. Writing every day – setting aside 30 minutes a day to work on writing. Whether it is working on writing papers, writing out plans / ideas, or writing about my goals, I find having that structured time scheduled to write helps to keep me on track.

    2. Get into the lab – provided you are doing a lab science, get into the lab and do something! For me, this was sometimes setting up the next experiment, sometimes just washing glassware, but I found that actually being in the lab doing something helped me to push forward and motivate me to do more.

    3. Focus on getting one thing accomplished – sometimes I had lists of things to do and I got overwhelmed. Pick one thing and do it. Then do the next thing. Start with something easy that does not take much time and work your way up to the more complicated, multi-part tasks.

    4. Keep track of what you accomplish – when you accomplish something, write it down! (Or cross it of the list, if you made a list). At the end of every day, review what you’ve accomplished. This helped motivate me to keep the progress going and accomplish more the next day.

    5. Self-care – do something you love outside of your research / work. Take a walk, go to the gym or do some yoga, listen to music, watch a favorite TV show, go dancing, even just take a bath – something to help you stay balanced and grounded.

    Do not be too hard on yourself – you will get there. It just takes time sometimes.

    1. Thank you!
      They are some great suggestions too. Ill definitely try some of these out too! I have just got back in the lab this week and got on with it which has made me feel so much better but now im home binge watvhing Netflix to chill out and balance my life out! 😛

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