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Things I wish I had known as a doctoral student...

When I started my doctoral thesis, I always hoped that someone would eventually explain to me how everything works here. I began with my topic, knowing that I needed three scientific publications to complete my work. But everything in between felt somewhat vague. In my undergraduate studies, everything had more structure, and even during my master's thesis, the tasks were quite clearly defined. However, at the beginning of the doctoral thesis... I felt quite lost. I kept thinking, 'Someone has to come and explain to me how to do all this.' But no one came... So, I wanted to summarize a few things I learned during my dissertation that I wish I had known earlier.

1. Prepare for Meetings with Supervisors

I used to think, 'Professors should know what my project is about, and they'll remember what we discussed last time. They're intelligent people, after all.' Wrong! Not about the intelligence part, but about remembering. Often, your supervisors have a lot on their plates, and your project can easily slip through the cracks, especially when they're going from one meeting to another. You may need to catch them up on the topic first. I've learned that the better prepared I was and the clearer my questions were, the more I could get out of these meetings. It's actually quite logical, but I had to learn it. So, I tried to make it as easy as possible for my supervisors: a brief summary at the beginning of what the meeting should be about, a quick recap of what we discussed last time, and what progress I've made, or more often than not, what new problems have arisen. And I can't stress this enough: formulate your questions as precisely as possible, put thought into them beforehand. Because there's often not much time for the meeting, and that's how you get the most out of it.

2. Pomodoro technique

As a doctoral student, I had a lot of freedom. When I came to work, when I took breaks – nothing was precisely prescribed, except that I should get my work done, because at some point, the funding runs out, and you're unemployed with the doctoral thesis still unfinished.

In terms of productivity, the Pomodoro Technique was a game-changer for me. It was developed by Italian Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. With this technique, you break your tasks into 25-minute units and set a timer. Originally, it was a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (in Italian, 'Pomodoro'), which gave the method its name. You work fully focused on a task for 25 minutes, without checking your phone, going to the bathroom, or quickly checking emails in between. After each interval, you then have a 5-minute break to make tea or quickly check your WhatsApp messages because you also set a 5-minute timer for the break. With this method, I procrastinated much less, and over time, I became better at estimating the effort required for tasks. I also remained productive for longer periods because I could recharge better during those many short breaks compared to taking a long break after 3 hours of work. I think every doctoral student should give this method a try.

More information about the pomodoro technique:

Pomodoro-Timer online:

3. Work-Life Balance

At the beginning of my doctoral studies, I felt like I wasn't allowed to have a personal life as a doctoral student. It was as if my entire existence should revolve around the doctoral thesis from that point on. Before my summer vacation, I heard comments like, 'Oh, during your vacation, you'll have time to work on the materials and methods section.' And then, I felt guilty for taking a REAL vacation for two weeks. I also felt guilty for using all my vacation days while my colleagues were reminded that their vacation days were about to expire. I even felt guilty for needing the weekend to recharge and not responding to emails. Now, I see things differently... Essentially, it's about how productive you are, not how much time you spend at work. A happy brain works 31% more productively*. When I regularly make time for sports and yoga, I feel more balanced and sleep better, which makes me more productive. I've also noticed that after a weekend filled with enjoyable activities, I start the week with a whole new level of energy. That's why I would recommend every doctoral student to take enough time for regeneration. Don't let the pressure to perform lead you to neglect everything in favor of work. Working more doesn't necessarily mean accomplishing more."

* Shawn Achor: The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Virgin Books 2011

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