PhDs have been known for their nightmarish effects on students’ psychological wellbeing, to the point that the acronym PhD has also been dubbed ‘Permanent Head Damage’, ‘Philosophically Disturbed’ or ‘Please Help. Desperate’. Doing a PhD is an emotionally exhausting experience rather than being physically challenging. Here are some tips on how to survive the PhD years while maintaining your sanity…

1. Make a plan for the next week

On the day before your weekend break (if you have any), write down what you plan to do on the first day of the following week. I have the habit of forgetting what I did on Friday and end up wasting my time on Monday morning trying to figure out what I am supposed to be doing after the weekend. Blame it on the Monday blues!

2. Scribble your feelings into your lab book

There will be times when everything just seems to go wrong. Instead of snapping your expensive pipette in two, why don’t you try to scribble whatever you are feeling into your lab book? Writing down how you are feeling at that time, like “I am sad as my PCR failed for the third time this week. Someone stole my TBE buffer” etc. can be surprisingly helpful. You may feel down for a little while, but since the feeling is already tucked away somewhere else, it is easier to get your motivation back.

3. Begin drafting your thesis as soon as you start

For me, thesis writing can be very boring, especially the literature reviews part. There are times when I feel so sick of reading scientific papers that I wish they were fashion magazines or even comics. Not to mention that reading these papers make me hungry, so it can result in easy weight gain for me! There is no escaping the need to read these important scientific papers, but I have noticed that the biggest challenge arose when it came time to start. Once you have begun, you will definitely be in the ‘zone’ and ideas start to flow easily. Beginning a rough draft of your introduction by reviewing the literature as you start in the lab will also help familiarize you with your new field of study which will definitely benefit you in the long run. Another way to get started on your thesis is to begin with the methods section by compiling your protocols into a rough methods chapter draft.

4. Find the easiest protocol to work with

Like many others, I am not fond of excessively long protocols when I can get a similar result using a shorter one. Usually before I start using a new technique, I will spend some time searching for a working protocol that has fewer steps, uses less reagents and which saves time. For example, I came across a denaturing agarose gel recipe that uses bleach instead of formaldehyde for RNA analysis. Not only does it work beautifully, stocks of this bleach gel can be prepared for continuous usage and it is also safer to work with than formaldehyde.

5. Be paranoid when it comes to keeping records of your results

Take my advice and be paranoid when it comes to your results. Don’t just trust that your laptop or your lab computer will be faithful to you for those five years. According to Murphy’s law, your computer is most likely to crash and burn just after you finish the first draft of your thesis (I’ve been there and done that). Keep all you illustrations, figures, tables, copies of the raw data and thesis chapter drafts in as many storage devices as you can lay your hands on e.g. Dropbox, Google cloud, emails, external hard drive, your brother’s laptop, CDs (…you get the idea!) and keep these updated. You really don’t want to be in the position of having to retype your whole PhD thesis word-by-word ….again!

6. Brighten up your workspace

Your workspace will be a huge a part of your life for many, many years to come. So, lighten it up with some colors, be it your lab notebook, some colorful pens & sticky notes or even labels. So many aspects of the lab have to remain colorless and dull by default, but brightening it up with these added colors will enhance your mood.

7. Use citation manager

Develop the habit of using a citation manager right from the start. Find out whether your university uses a particular citation manager e.g. EndNote, Papers, Readcube etc., as licensed software can sometimes be provided for free for students, if it isn’t there are also plenty of freely available options online such as Zotero and Mendeley. Using a citation manager will make the thesis writing process much easier both for including citations in the text, and for the references chapter at the end – checking each citation manually when you have hundreds of them in your thesis would be a total nightmare!

8. Take a break

We are not robots, we are just normal human beings. When lab stress gets too much to handle, take a break to recharge. Splurge on good food, treat yourself with a day-long movie marathon, pamper yourself by getting a massage or a new haircut, or go for an unplanned getaway with your family or friends. Sometimes, we live too much in a world full of worries that we don’t have time to appreciate what beautiful things that life has to offer.

Do you have any tips for avoiding PhD nightmares? Let us know in the comments below!

Featured image by Peter Jackson


Aranda, P.S., LaJoie, D.M., Jorcyk, C.L., 2012. Bleach Gel: A Simple Agarose Gel for Analyzing RNA Quality. Electrophoresis 33, 366–369. doi:10.1002/elps.201100335

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One Comment

  1. On point #2: There may have been pages in my grad notebooks that were basically just the f-word written really huge over the whole page… 😉

    Other advice: Remember that you are more than your career and your career is more than your graduate work; use your university’s mental health services (ours even had an accountability/support group for dissertation writers); find at least one mentor you like and check in with them frequently (hopefully your advisor is one); make a list of your marketable skills, to remind yourself that you’ll be employable after your PhD.

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