How To Be PhD-Productive When You’re Just Not Feeling It

Some PhD-Productivity tips from Nicola, EACR member and author of the blog 'Fresh Science'

by Nicola Faramarzi

We all have those days during a PhD where getting into the lab is a major struggle. Life as a cancer researcher is hard, and it is easy to run out of steam. Maybe you’re feeling a bit wiped out and under the weather, or sometimes everything in the wet-lab appears to be working against you – equipment is fully booked, deliveries are late, cells are not ready, or worse… contaminated. However, PhD life doesn’t just revolve around the lab and churning out data. In fact, there is a whole infrastructure of work that needs to be done to keep lab work ticking away.

On those days where you feel like you are dragging your heels to the lab, or when there are unexpected delays with your main experiments, here are a few tips to help you to be productive and do SOMETHING when you feel like doing NOTHING.

1Catch up on your admin

Now is the time to get through your to do list and complete any orders you have to do, work through your emails, book conferences, finish your ethics reports etc. These are the things that are likely to be forgotten about on busy days, but are still important for progression in your PhD!

2Read, read, read

Being up to date with current publications and literature is at the heart of being a researcher, yet it often goes on the back burner. When you can’t/don’t want to be in the lab, read around your subject area to help you shape your own research. You might find that reading can help you to find solutions to any pesky problems you’re having with experiments.

3Write, write, write

If you are nearing your write-up period, or you have some paper deadlines to complete, use these times away from the lab to chip away at your writing. You could start writing parts of your literature review or even methods; maybe try to write short notes on papers that you will eventually use in your literature review. I am sure you will thank yourself at a later date and avoid some coffee-fueled all-nighters.

4Data analysis

Being busy in the lab can result in a build-up of mountains of raw data. When you’ve got a desk day, analyse these as you go! Also, investing time to learn how to analyse your data using various programmes can be very helpful for generating some amazing figures.

5Plan ahead

Not being in the lab can feel so unproductive. So plan your next set of experiments, get some calculations done, and get equipment booked. Alternatively, you could even prepare for your next supervisory meeting or devise yourself and your supervisor a rough time plan for the next few months.

6Sort ‘lab chores’ ready for your experiments

For lab work to run smoothly there is a plethora of things to think about, for instance, are your stock solutions and media made up, are your consumables autoclaved, are your tips even racked??? Get these things done when you have the chance so nothing is delaying you when starting an experiment.

Don’t underestimate the small productive things…

There is literally ALWAYS something you could be doing, however small, that will contribute to your project, and more often than not, it is the small things that form the backbone of your PhD. Don’t underestimate these things as they can be of equal value to generating good quality data and lay the foundation for being efficient in the lab.

Nicola FaramarziAbout the author

Nicola is a final year PhD student at the University of Westminster, investigating the underlying genetics of breast cancer. She holds an MSc in Biomedical Sciences and has also gained clinical experience as a Biomedical Scientist. As well as completing her doctoral study, Nicola is a science writer and blogger.

Contact: Fresh Science blog | Twitter