Advice for the inexperienced PhD: Productivity

This is the second post in the Advice for the inexperienced PhD series – about getting things done and help with day-to-day activities. Much of this post is compiled of quotes that I have found helpful, linked to the original sources within subheadings.


Keeping track of your ideas

“As you get going in the PhD you’ll feel the need to get down the thoughts that just pop into your mind, you might want to experiment with an idea or try out a few versions of your question – so put these notes into one place. [M]aybe with sub-files if you’re super-orderly. This ideas file might be in a note-book, or it might be on your computer. Whatever format, keeping  these research ‘working-out’ ideas together is a good idea. [I]t’s easier to look back through your file to find an idea you once had, rather than go hunting around for that odd scrap of paper. You might also record in this file questions for your supervisor, and questions you might ask other PhDs.”

Similarly, keep detailed notes of what you are actually doing

“Of everything. All the time. Whether this is a lab book, a diary, or a note book with model edits and useful computing commands, write everything down. Keeping it chronological with dated entires is also very useful. This is one of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started. It will make getting back into your research after a holiday, conference, or workshop etc., much simpler. Even after a weekend, it will allow you to pick up where you left off.”

Have a system for saving articles

trust me, very quickly you’re going to have hundreds of PDFs…Imagine how awful it’d be to navigate them if they were all saved 0459r5.pdf. I save each one by author name, publication year, and a couple of key words of what the paper’s about.”

Calendars, diaries, reminders, to-do lists

Find a system that works for you and integrates with your universities pre-existing software. Most PhD students I know prefer paper-based systems and just use the university’s online calendar system for uni-specific scheduling. It took some experimenting before I found what works best for me; a combination of digital and paper systems.

Setting goals

“Expect everything to take longer than expected”

I can most definitely say this is true!

Am I making it harder than I should be?

This is from a podcast episode that was recommended to me. The full quote is “What would this look like if it were easy? Am I making it harder than I should be?” The short answer for me is that I do this ALL the time.

Is performance anxiety stopping you from achieving your goals?

This is from the same podcast as the above advice. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and anxious over the sheer volume of work required in a PhD, sometimes to the point of an inability to work. The idea behind this is that you set a very small, easily achievable goal that you can overshoot. When you keep succeeding at not only achieving, but also overshooting your goals, you start to build momentum. With momentum you can keep going. Even if you meet the goal but don’t overshoot it, you will know that you haven’t failed. This has helped me get by when I’ve realised that I’m making things much harder than they should be.

Allocate tasks to specific times

One of my supervisors blocked specific times out for specific tasks in the few months before she finished her PhD. If she didn’t achieve the goals she set, she had to keep going until she did. This highlights the importance of realistic goal-setting, as it would not be otherwise sustainable. I found this really helpful when finishing my proposal, by setting realistic and simple goals (see above).


Write. And then write some more. Then keep writing.

Many PhD students are initially very poor at writing but they get better with practice. Blogging can help, but you might want to do it pseudonymously at first. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of letting your PhD thesis be the first thing you ever seriously write.”

Writing a paper

I love the first point on the below tweet from neuroscientist Micha Allen. I’m not sure that my skills are adequate to achieve points 2 and 3 just yet!

Other productivity advice

Need more help?

Be nice to the lab managers, technicians, and administrators. They will be the most helpful people you will meet during your PhD. Labs, research centres and schools could not function without them, and neither can you. They are often overworked and under appreciated. Don’t be one of those people that dismisses their amazing talents.


“If you share an office, buy a set of beefy noise-cancellation headphones and stock up your music collection. Don’t be afraid to shut the world out when you need to think, read, and write.”

Prepare your workspace

Whether you work at university, home, or both, make sure you have a dedicated workspace, preferably in an area with minimal distractions. You are going to spend a significant proportion of the next few years in this space, so within any workplace restrictions, decorate your space and make sure you have access to all the stationary you need. Make it comfortable and make it yours!

Regularly update your CV

This was advice from another PhD student. You will have lots of opportunities for other courses, community engagement, conferences, papers, etc. during a PhD. Keep a copy of your CV handy and update it each time you complete something CV-worthy. This will save you scrambling for memories of past events when you actually need a CV in the future.

What helpful advice have you been given about managing day-to-day PhD activities?

Other articles in this series

Helpful applications

Self development & promotion

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