If you have not already, you will probably get two weeks hiatus in the coming days. For most, this will be in response to COVID-19. Across the world, organisations, countries, cities, and states are encouraging or enforcing two weeks of isolation as a way to reduce the impact of this virus.
Of course, in the absence of COVID-19 unexpected hiatus’ happen. Think equipment failure, ethics delay or lack of reagents. So, what can you do? How can you ensure this time is useful, if not productive? These are important considerations as a PhD student, where every delay impacts completing your thesis in a timely fashion.
So, in response to spending more time at home (less time collecting data), I thought I’d create a list of things you could do. A list that goes beyond the obvious of watching Netflix.
1. Analyse data: Even if you’ve only got a small amount. Take the time to analyse what you have. It might give you new insight or lead you in new directions.
2. Make figures: One of the most time consuming thing during my PhD was the creation of figures. Not just the ones with data but the conceptualisations too. The figures that showed how things would be different or changed based on the evidence found. But there are others too. Such as flow charts or decision trees. They can be relatively quick to draw but putting that into something electronic can take time. So use the hiatus to put them together.
3. Get to inbox zero: Everyone loves zero emails in the inbox. And I reckon there are hundreds – if not thousands – of emails in the average academic inbox. Use the two weeks to clear that stuff out. Better yet, read Smart Work, and implement a process that gets you to inbox zero on a regular and frequent basis.
4. Relax: Okay, this is more a COVID-19 thing than if you’re in your PhD and the equipment or similar, fails. Enjoy the time you’ve been given to take a break. So much of academic life is fast-paced. Annual leave is spent writing grants or papers. Holidays are actually overseas conference trips. Weekends are spent marking or writing grants and papers too. So, use the time off to actually take a break. You might even find that it was not so bad to disconnect and schedule something similar in your normal work week/month/year.
5. Tidy: Maybe it’s time to clear out the study? Many days and nights spent working on papers, grants, and marking mean there is stuff everywhere. Highlighted articles, Post-it notes. Cups of coffee that look more like something from the lab than something that belongs in the kitchen. Now’s a time you could clear space in your work area in order to help clear space in your mind.
6. Try not to stress: I realise telling people to stay calm or don’t worry immediately starts those processes off. However, it is important to realise that if you are forced into a two week break it is not your fault. Regardless of the cause – equipment, access, or health – these things are out of your control. Treat yourself with empathy, and compassion.
7. Update your literature review: As a PhD student, your literature review will be an essential part of your thesis. So, take the two weeks to review what you have already written, and update it based on newly published work and/or changes to your own thinking.
8. Read a book: Building on item 2, pick a few books to read. Choose some for pleasure, but also choose some that are focused on self-improvement. That could be productivity, it could be a new skill, it could be leadership or management, or perhaps it’s a new software package. And, it could include mine ?.
9. Do an online course: There are heaps of online courses out there aimed at all manner of things. Pick a topic of interest and take it from there. You could build skills in MS Office, social media (I’d recommend my LinkedIn Course), accounting, project management, people management, and research management. The list is endless. But focusing on something that will help save time might be a good option. For example, if you were able to use MS Word more effectively by using style sheets to set layouts, and automatically build tables of contents and figures that might save you time on your thesis and every article you write. Or you could learn about using formulas to automatically analyse numerical data in MS Excel. Or perhaps learning to code will remove the bottleneck of data visualisation.
10. Finish that article: Most academics I know have several unwritten articles laying around the place. Pick one and finish it off. Do the necessary writing, thinking or analysis to be able to send it to a journal or onto potential collaborators for their review.
11. Review your social media: Chances are you’ll spend a lot of time scrolling through social media when you’re in hiatus. But, why not use the time to review your strategy. Think about (and perhaps document) why your using each channel. Maybe even develop content that you could share when the hiatus lifts? Or perhaps join a new channel?
12. Update your LinkedIn: LinkedIn has seen a resurgence of late. But even if it had not, I’d still be recommending you review, and update your profile. Check there are no missed or unread connection requests. Update your education, projects, and publications. Make sure your summary is still an accurate reflection of you.
13. Look into a social media scheduling tool: So if you have done the two above, then you might want to look into a social media management and scheduling tool. There are lots out there. I use Hootsuite.
14. Review your habits: In his March 12 newsletter, James Clear provides two ideas that I think you could use to devote time to. The first is that your habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results. The second is that needless commitments are more wasteful than needless possessions. Possessions can be ignored, but commitments are recurring, and must be attended too. Take the hiatus as a time to review your commitments. At the very least, your enforced time away might challenge your thinking about when, and where work needs to take place.
15. Check in with your goals: Many of us create goals for the year. Or perhaps words or new year resolutions. But few of us take the time to review them throughout the year. Use this time to dust them off and see where you are at. Do you even remember what they are? Have you implemented changes in your life to make them easier or harder to achieve (as the case may be)? Do they need to change?
Forced out of the lab, clinic
or field? Why not use that
time to get to in-box zero?
16. Begin a daily meditation practice: There’s lots of evidence to suggest daily meditation helps improve thinking, reduce stress, and may delay onset of dementias. There are many apps that can provide guided mindfulness meditations. Starting a practice now could be the change you need to relieve the stress of failed experiments, rejected grants, and reviewer 2 comments.
17. Set a plan: For the next week (the time you’re on hiatus) and then the next month, semester, year, PhD or whatever. It’ll allow you to make the most of the time you are away as well as ensure you get straight into action on your return.
18. Write that grant: I’m yet to meet a researcher who does not want or need additional funds. So, take a look at the various grants that have imminent opening or closing dates, and make a start on writing the next proposal.
19. Read grants: If there aren’t grants to write or you don’t write them at the moment, read some. Ask the research office for successful ones. Look online for successful ones. Read them and see what you think. Read widely – not just the topics or schemes you are interested in. Learn what makes a grant easier to review (and therefore fund). Think about readability, layout, colours, images, and pages not just the words used.
20. Seek out industry partners: Research is rooted in the real world. Yet, so much of what we now think of as research seems to be divorced of real world problems. Taking the time to think about your end user can help better plan and execute your research. And, don’t make the mistake of distancing yourself from (say) cancer survivors if you’re a bench-based biomedical researcher. Get to know them, and their lives. You’ll be surprised how much it will change your perspective.
21. Check out a podcast or three: Maybe it’s time to review your listening habits/playlist. Scour we web for new or interesting things to listen too. Don’t limit yourself to your hobbies. Think about what might help you. As a researcher you’re doing things like social media, financial management, leadership, and productivity. So podcast in those areas (as well as within your research field) could hold value for you. Of course, you could also listen to mine ?.
22. Review your data management strategy: Is your data backed up? Can you retrieve information from your backups? Could you operate in a way that makes backup automatic (e.g. always using cloud systems)? What about data sharing? Have you sent your raw data to relevant national, and international repositories? What are you doing to ensure your data are secure? Is that in keeping with the relevant standards or policies (e.g. ethics, university, national, and funding)?
23. Conduct a strategy session: Test the bounds of your thinking and technology and conduct an entirely remote strategy session. I can hear people recoiling at the thought of this but giving it a go will help you determine what the real limits are, rather than assuming it is not possible. Or that the meeting will be substandard.
24. Meet with your peers: Maybe having a strategy session is a bit much? In which case, why not try to meet your fellow students/staff/researchers? Have a chat about what you’re up to. What you are learning. What you’ll do when you get back in the office/lab/clinic/field.
25. Meet with your staff/students: In my experience there are too few proper discussion about performance, and career development between students/staff, and their bosses. Most often these discussions centre around bad performance, and often when it is too late to fix. Use the time away to meet with your staff/students and discuss their goals in the context of building their strengths rather than addressing their deficits.
26. Review your project load: What’s on your long-term project list? Does everything need to be there, or are some less worthy than others? Could some things be removed? Do other things need to take greater priority? What about your role in each? Could you delegate, or perhaps promote someone to a more senior role?
27. Call someone: Don’t get lonely in the hiatus call or talk to people. Real people. Not just social media. It could be your mum – but it doesn’t need to be. Or your dad. Anyone. Just have a chat.
28. Design your conference poster: There’s been a bit of a revolution with conference poster design recently. However, I still see many that are full of tiny text. So, maybe have a go at creating something that is intellectually and visually appealing.
29. Write some blogs: There are many ways you can share your research. Most people think a tweet with a link to a pay-walled article works. Why not test that, and blog about the article. Or several. And not just your work, but other great work that’s out there. You can start doing a microblog (i.e. just a tweet) or something longer. Write a few. That way when you’re back into the swing of things you can still release them.
30. Record some videos: Talking about your work is another effective way to share it. So, get out the selfie stick, and hit record. A 90 second piece to camera is easy for others to watch and quick to create. It will also develop your communication skills. And, if you’re doing zoom meetings you might also choose to do a multi-person discussion of pertinent research work.
31. Watch some 3MT: PhD student or not, watch some three minute thesis (3MT) videos. You’ll learn a lot – not just about research, but also about what makes a good presentation and how it is possible to convey lots in a short amount of time.
32. Write your thesis: Just do it. There’s no excuse. Write.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research, and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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