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Reflecting on my PhD

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Tomorrow Today, I start my first job as a postdoctoral researcher. Before I get sucked into the whirlpool of stress that is infamously associated with my new role, I’d like to document some of my experiences as a graduate student for others. A few of you have asked me for my tips on the PhD process… Well, here they are!

Over the last few years, I’ve received a lot of advice from many PhD-holders, both young and old, who’ve selflessly shared with me their experiences, stresses, and solutions. Here is the advice that stuck with me, including some of my own takes sprinkled-in. If you know someone who is thinking about starting, or is in the middle of, graduate school then this article might be worth a share.

Disclaimer: I am by no means an exceptional student, nor an expert on doing a PhD, so take or leave this advice as you wish.

The job

Across disciplines, your job as a PhD student is to identify a problem, develop a pathway to a solution, and do your best to solve it. That is it. This is the task that you have assigned yourself, and it will likely multiple years to accomplish this. Your advisor, classes, conferences, and meetings, are all at your disposal to to help you complete this task, not distract you from it. If you don’t find them helpful, ask yourself this: what can I do to make them more helpful? Can I pick better classes, or mingle more at conferences? Can I excuse myself from meetings that are not productive or suggest changes to their structure? Prioritize your main task first, and use the available tools to help you achieve your goals.


It’s time to start planning. If you don’t use a calendar yet, start now! It’s shocking how many people think they can effectively juggle many tasks without offloading much of the required brain-power onto helpful tools, e.g., a calendar, or timers (pomodoro techniques, alarm for the next meeting…). These can help you focus. You should be spending most of your working hours thinking about your research, or doing tasks that move you towards your goal of publishing good papers and completing your thesis, not storing information in your brain about who you are going to have lunch with today, when your classes are, or when the next session at the conference begins.

Get up to speed, fast

This one comes from my dad: during the first year of your research, chase the forefront of your field. It is much easier to remain up-to-date than to periodically play catch-up. Academic platforms are immensely helpful for this. If you are in the physical sciences, an arXiv subscription notifying you when open-access articles related to your specified keywords is a useful daily/weekly reminder of your discipline’s movements. Google Scholar has similar features, and allows you to “follow” influential authors in your field, your colleagues/collaborators, or whomever you wish.

So long as you remain aware of the current state your field, you are able to have richer conversations with others about the status of knowledge in your discipline, identify where there is room for development, and discover your own research niche.

Measure output, not hours, and take breaks!

It takes time and mental effort to complete tasks that involve solving complex problems, i.e. your job. There is so much that needs to be loaded into your brain’s “RAM” for you to think about your current problem holistically. You need to account for this load time, whether it be 45 minutes or two full hours, if you’re interrupted every hour or so you’re probably not getting much done that day, so might as well pack up and leave if your next meal is soon.

You can also start using to-do lists to break down your tasks into bite-sized chunks, each requiring, say, 20 minutes to do. This is what I did throughout my PhD and it kept me sane. Inevitably, there will be days where you slog through 10 hours of work and have no shareable results, but at least you have a smaller to-do list for tomorrow.

Having a productive work environment is very important. Grad student offices can deteriorate into a chillaxed lounge very quickly. You need to safeguard against this. I find the offices great to check a bunch of small items off my to-do list, but terrible for deep work sessions involving writing code, or writing papers. For those, I hid away alone at a nearby library and lost track of time.

Urgency and importance

I would stress the difference between the above two words. If you have a massive sense of urgency it is either your group / PI mismanaging priorities, or you have obviously been procrastinating… Both of which you should address carefully.

Importance on the other hand is more subtle to decipher. Is your current task important or not?
It’s hard to answer this question without more context. Is the task required to be done by you, can it be done by others? Is there a deadline, or not? I started using something like the 80/20 rule to help manage my tasks, and it seemed to work pretty well.

Trust your intuition, follow your interests

Your PI is smart, and so are you. If all goes well then you should outpace them on the day-to-day associated with your research project in a couple of years. Take advice, but don’t blindly listen to those more senior than you regarding your specific project.

You can easily waste months of your time on a method that does not work. If you can’t convince yourself that a particular research method makes sense, why would you expect it to work? Are you not the expert on your own project? Moreover, motivationally this is a horrible situation to be in. If possible, always try to explain, and even demonstrate, to your colleagues and seniors your methods and your plans. Ask for advice, and if you do not have a solid answer to their chiming-in, take some time to review your plan of action before executing it.

Believe in your work as best you can, and if you end up in a scenario where another, more interesting, avenue of exploration is opened then explore it but don’t fall into the trap! You do need to wrap up projects nicely and document them well, and it’s easier to do so while ideas are fresh in your mind rather than a few months stale.

Professional Development

Keep your CV & website up to date

This one is more generic, and I haven’t done it well myself. But, as much as it seems like your whole life, your PhD will eventually become a small fraction of it. You will start looking for a job at some point, academic or not, and you will need to have a record of your skills. As academics these skills are usually quite broad, including technical work, analysis, statistics, communication, etc… You don’t have to list them all, but even having a current CV always on hand where you can comment/uncomment particular sections will help you summarize to potential employers what you have to offer. I use Overleaf for a LaTeX-based CV template.

Workshops and hackathons

There are loads of awesome professional development opportunities available to you. Take them. I did several hackathons, and in each one I learned a lot from my team. I also have a bunch of cool projects to demonstrate the non-academic but still technical skills — some of these projects are still going! I would highly recommend giving a few hackathons and workshops a go.

(Almost) always apply

You aren’t going to get all the fellowships and awards you apply for, but any that you do get will make a big difference to your future applications. Whether it be applying for conferences and travel awards, or submitting a large funding application to secure your next few years, these written documents provide opportunities to refocus and remotivate your research regardless of if you are awarded them.
If you don’t ask to submit an application, no one will force you and you will be rejecting yourself from the opportunity. You have to be proactive about getting your funding, recommendation letters, and submitting conference abstracts.


Collaborations are an important part of graduate school. Nobody is perfect and there is always someone out there who can outperform you on some task, so why not ask for help?

Meet your academic community

Go out of your way to meet people you don’t already know at conferences. It’s a waste of time to sit with friends from the same institution while you’re there, both during the day events and in the evening. Either meet new folks or connect with people you only see while at conferences. Collaborations start from conversations and the cross-pollination of ideas that result.

Play to your strengths and share them

Recognize what you’re good at and optimize your PhD for that. Are you a better coder or hardware guru? Are you a good public speaker or prefer written communication? Are your math chops better than others? In general, figure out where best you can help your field and consider sharing your unique skills and findings in a seminar, even one you organize yourself. We all learn from each other after all. So choose your research projects and collaborators with this in mind, and learn from your peers the skills which you feel you lack.

Self care

Find your support group(s)

Who do you call when shit hits the fan?

It’s worth investing in building a meaningful relationship with small group of people locally that you can rely on for help — they may end up being your lifelong friends. These can be fellow graduate students, or folks you meet at an event or club. In any case, you need this safety net.

Accept that you are not in total control

Accept that at some point you will fail, and even if you don’t, there may be a traumatic/personal shock that will affect you (e.g., I lost my dad and a nephew in my second and third year). You need to recognize that a lot of life is out of your control and doing a PhD is a long term project. Life doesn’t get in the way, life is the way! Your PhD is a part of your life, not the other way around. Knowing when you need a break, and actually taking that break, gives a massive return on investment. Burnout is real, you can read countless accounts of it, so try to avoid it.

Know when to stop

Don’t bang your head against a wall when stuck on a single task for multiple hours. Clearly, you’re not thinking effectively or creatively. Go home and enjoy the rest of the day, sleep well, and return fresh and awake to the problem first thing in the morning.

Identify your cruxes

This one didn’t come to me during graduate school but occurred to me when working on student events in undergrad. Although, the lesson was so impactful in my life I feel the need to share it here. During one of our team building exercises, we were asked to explain what we do when we are stressed, and what makes us stressed. Some people are not themselves when they are sleepy, hungry, or otherwise distracted. Some people react to stress by shutting down, becoming irritable, or panicking. What do you do? For me, stress builds up when I am hungry and until I recognize that and have a bite I am:

  1. Not productive
  2. Not fun to be around.

So what do I do now that I know this about myself? I go have a snack before resuming my task.


Don’t bullshit

“I am not sure” is a perfectly valid response. It allows for wiggle room in the conversation, either you will learn from the person asking you the question later, or they have just learned from you that the answer is not so obvious.

Keep it short & sweet

Stick to your time! Always practice with a timer before you present.

Give people some | s p a c e |

When presenting, leave some breathing room in between slides to clearly separate ideas. Do the same after your presentation is over to allow folks to ask questions and share their thoughts. This is also true the other way around, when someone is presenting and you ask a question, give them time to think and respond before you jump in again.

The greatest poster presentation doesn’t exi-

I happened to discover the #betterposter movement early, and I think of the people I’ve shared it with all but one have received a best poster award at their next conference. I would highly recommend watching the video, and pushing back against super-dense posters. A poster should be thought of as an advertisement to the start of a conversation, as oposed to a self-contained and thorough representation of a research project.

The Write Up

Writing is hard, but having a writing buddy makes things easier. Find that person when the time comes. Chill at cafes, libraries, etc… our office was too fun and filled with friends to be a place of focus. Take your writing buddy and go somewhere quite — MIL UdeM library was my main spot. If you can, consider going away on a writing retreat for a few weeks, e.g., I went to Lunenberg, NS and stayed with my sister’s family, away from the city.

What got me to the finish line was realizing I needed 100 pages in a month and I had exactly 30 days. My family kept me on track, not allowing me to hangout or do anything fun until my 5 pages/day were done. Writing 5 shitty pages a day was better than a few perfect paragraphs. I cut everything down and polished it later but the bulk of the text was already there by the time I left Lunenburg.

Outlining, and writing the introduction

This was probably my favourite part of writing for me. Outlining what my thesis was going to say, and then outlining what I needed people to understand. I spent probably 2 weeks on writing the introduction but a couple of months building an intuition and a solid understanding of the physics I needed to include in it.

Once I had a good sketch of ideas, and I could explain the necessary background information to my peers (I gave a seminar-like presentation at our group meeting on my introduction), I focused on making figures. I thought long and hard about what figures I needed to illustrate the story I wanted to tell. Then, I made rough versions of these figures (or even sketched them by hand) and used them as placeholders in my thesis document. Next, I wrote all my chapter and section headings. I then started from the intro and bullet-pointed paragraphs, fleshed out the intro and moved on sequentially to the conclusion.

The Deadline

This one came from a colleague and friend from Yale, Ako. I caught him working on his thesis during one of our collaboration meetings a couple of years ago and I asked him how he got to that stage. His response was: “Once you’re ready to start writing, start applying for jobs”. He was right, and that’s exactly what I did. Once you have a job offer in hand, that sets a “hard” deadline of when your defense needs to be, and hence when your initial thesis submission needs to happen — this changes how you treat your time while writing significantly. I started cold emailing and applying for jobs 9 months before I defended my thesis.

Random Tidbits

Say it with me: doc-u-men-tation

If you didn’t write it down, you didn’t do it. — Thomas Brunner

This can’t be stressed enough. I use a variety of note-taking tools. Obsidian for fleshing out ideas, and connecting them together (I backed up my vault to a git repo for all my PhD work). I also use Google Keep a lot for notes on-the-fly. I used a lab book when I was in the lab, and colour-coded issues red, solutions blue, and general logging of information in black. All three note taking methods were extremely helpful in the long run.

For code: always have a file set up in your repo and use it. Oh yeah, and always make a git repo for any code!! Similarly for meetings, always have an agenda, and always have someone take minutes! It will save everyone countless hours in future of unnecessary communication. Oh, and if there are any action items then they have to be assigned to someone, and a deadline needs to be set to specify, e.g., when the item will be revisited.

Cite as you go!

I screwed this one up terribly and never kept a running log of papers I’ve read. What I did was re-use an every growing .bibtex file for all of my internal reports and technical documents. I wish I had gotten Zotero set up early, and used it to generate the .bibtex file, take notes, and categorize papers accordingly.

Link your Overleaf to GitHub #

You can link your Overleaf to your GitHub account and backup your thesis to its own dedicated GitHub repo. You can probably even get a free pro version of Overleaf from IEEE/your institution which allows you to compile larger documents, i.e., your thesis.

Kevin, a senior PhD student in our group gave me this piece of advice: make a git repo just for the figures in your thesis, and boy was he right! I split up the repo into directories of chapters, and each plot had its own dedicated script to generate it. That way, during the review process, I could go back-and-forth between various versions of the figure with ease and even substitute new data in easily while keeping the style. I’m definitely using this hack for all my papers from now on. Thanks Kevin!

But… What if I-?

The dreaded “what if I also did X or Y?” questions really hit hard toward the end of a research project. But, there comes a time when every project must end, even though it is difficult to see that when you’re in the thick of it.

If it is really so important to you then solve it. If it isn’t, then someone else will solve it, or it isn’t that important to begin with. — Daryl Haggard

Academia is a long game, and if you’re sticking with it you’ll have time to prioritize and do more of those “end” tasks. If you are leaving academia, who cares? If it’s an important academic question then someone else will address it so long as you document your findings and suggest a continuing study appropriately.


Academics are proud creatures that like to be cited and like to be thanked. You should always thank the people helping you genuinely and personally.
Nobody will be annoyed if you’re spreading positivity in the environment, and doing this well will help you when you eventually need their expertise again later.

If you read this far down, thank you for your interest! I hope it was somewhat helpful.

Final remarks: have fun

Life is short and a PhD is usually a significant fraction of your current age. Have fun, don’t sweat too much. Take your time, be proud of your work, and constantly try to learn new things. Meet people outside your group/field and mix with other departments — the most interesting conversations I had in grad school came from interactions with folks with no expertise in my discipline and vice-versa. I’m actually quite worried about losing those conversations in the coming stage of my life.

PS: I’ve been asked many times over about the purpose of my research. In fact, the last question at my PhD defense was asked by the public — and it came from my own brother-in-law, Mark, nonetheless!

Although I can give an answer along the lines of “technological developments, cancer detection, treatment…” that is not the real reason I continue to work in this field. Below is the answer I gave in that moment, and I am still quite happy with it.

I truly believe that if everyone is happy, healthy, and well-fed, we will all, at one point or another, ask some variation of the same fundamental question: “who are we and how did we get here?”

I am extremely grateful to have been able to study glimpses of some of the potential answers. I hope that by sharing these bits of knowledge, we will bring humanity closer together.

That is what kept me going. What keeps you going?