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Working to our limits

workinghardThe work required to complete a PhD is considerable. When I first started I always knew that things were going to get harder and more intense as the months and years flew by. But nothing can really prepare you for the sudden stress that can sometimes take over. Stress that I am feeling right this minute.

Recently my trip to America to work with a modelling team at CSU in Fort Collins, CO, was moved 6 weeks earlier than originally planned; I leave the UK on January 4th instead of mid February. At that point, I had approximately 10 weeks of work left to do to prepare myself for this month-long trip...and only 8 weeks before I left the country. And 2 of those weeks I hoped to take off over Christmas and New Year. I feel that in a normal job there would be a few acceptable and quite common ways of dealing with such a situation:

  1. Explain to all colleagues and collaborators that less work will be completed before I head to America, and re-organise the work schedule according to more achievable targets.
  2. Explain the situation to your line manager or boss(es) and see what they can do about it - maybe they have heard of a helper who wants some work experience.
  3. Ask your colleagues and team memebers to help out and compress that 10 weeks of work into 6 weeks without having to work unreasonable hours.

In a PhD, however, the only one who really suffers from the project taking a hit, is the student. And although good supervisors (and I am incredibly lucky to have 3) will do their best to help a student out, their PhD is only one of countless projects they're involved in, and it's probably one of the smaller ones too! As for team members and colleagues, every student's situation varies greatly, but if you work in a small department, are the only PhD student and your work isn't part of a larger project, you're probably stuck doing everything yourself.

All in all, this left me with 10 weeks of work to do in 6 weeks. Fortunately, though, I am now on target to be done within those 6 weeks and with luck on my side I can have Christmas and New Year 'off' (as the PhD progresses, so does my ongoing realisation that the end of a PhD incurs very little time truly 'off' from work)! How have I done it? Well, prodominantly I've upped my productivity without having to work ridiculous hours.

Every day since I started this PhD I've kept a track of the total number of hours I spend in the office as well as giving a subjective measure to my level of producitivity that day. This measure of productivity is essentially a way of me quantifying how much work I thought was possible that day and how much I actually achieved. If I had a long lunch break and play football during work hours that day then I've immediately lost those hours, but it may improve my work rate during the other hours of the day. I think we all have this kind of mental process going on in our head and many of us come away from work each day feeling like we were particularly productive, or not so. My tracking this productivity simply allows me to identify extensive periods of 'slacking off' or overworking myself. This has been incredibly useful during my PhD and given how I work I would never be able to achieve 400 hours* of work in 240 hours without reminding myself that I'm not working ridiculously long days, but simply working harder for those hours at work.

Remember, you are where you are because of who you are. And if you're going to get somewhere else, you're going to have to change something

At the end of this calendar year, I will have to my achievements down to motivation by focussing on the future. Having the vision and focus to remain optimistic and motivated during times of stress like the one I'm currently going through is always going to be difficult but at the end of the day imagination is the key. We can work to our limits as much as we want, and everyone's limits are going to be vastly different, but I think what really matters, is that you have the imagination to put yourself in that place you want to be. Forget the hardships of now; imagine that day, your day, the day you're working towards, and get there.

* 400 hours (10 weeks work) was a value I estimated assuming a 75% work efficiency based on data I collected during my first 2 years of PhD.

 

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