How to deal with the quiet times in the PhD

general phd May 08, 2023
descriptive, person holding coffee mug

I believe it will come to many students’ relief that the PhD does have lull times. Perhaps you have to wait for some papers to be processed by the admin office, waiting for feedback on your work or just simply waiting for stuff to start or happen. But knowing myself and some other PhD students, this lull comes with a certain fear that we are not doing enough, or we are some how wasting time by sitting around. Here are some ways I have dealt with these lull times, in order of decreasing productivity, and increasing guilt levels.


Start a new project

This is something I am quite known for. Death by taking on too much. Some of these projects I have done are organise 3 conferences, supervised a research, planned and organised a seminar series, write a publication etc. The thought process here is that these projects contribute to greater long term goal of developing new skills. Was I productive? Yes. Did I regret it, sometimes. Just a warning, while it is great to keep busy, I sometimes found myself at a point where I was constantly going from projects to projects that I couldn’t appreciate the things that I have accomplished. I was constantly thinking about what I have not yet done rather than what have resulted from my work on these various projects. Just another word of caution, note the deadlines for these things they might come bite you in the behind if they start clashing with your main work.

Of course by projects I don’t mean that you have to only do stuff unrelated to your PhD work. What I found very useful and rewarding was planning and getting ready for the next step of the PhD. This was particularly useful when I was writing up my thesis. While waiting for feedback from my supervisors, I started planning the next few chapters that I was going to write. Since I had the time, I started writing the next few chapters before I had feedback from my supervisors. This really sped up the rate at which I worked and the rate at which my supervisors received work. It kinda got to a point where my first supervisor said, “Ken go enjoy the Christmas break, stop sending me work”. Well the PhD sometimes progresses as quickly as you can get stuff done like in the writing up phase. So, putting the pedal to the metal can really help in certain stages.


Faff about with less important stuff

These are stuff that people sometimes refer to as displacement activities, except they aren’t displacement activities if you actually have some time on your hands.

Go to a workshop, learn something new about your field or… sort out your references. Urgh, such a pain. But I certainly wished I spent more time on tidying up my references so I didn’t have to spend so much time on it later.

The point of getting into these less important stuff is that since they are indirectly related to your work, there remains a level of productivity. But also, because they are so usually light, and require less mental processing power, its a great way to catch your breath while still keeping in the work zone. Additionally, you can drop them anytime when you have to get back to work or pick it up again later.


Take a Guitar Hero day

This was coined by a friend of a friend of mine. As you can imagine, for Guitar Hero to be relevant enough to be reference, it has been a few years. So taking a Guitar Hero day really meant take a day off and actually go crazy with whatever you want to do. Go for a spa day, geek out on games, have a cup of tea with a good book, play Guitar Hero. The basic idea is to power down. You have done well so it is time to celebrate and reward yourself.

I wish I did more of this to be honest but I was too anxious a person to allow myself that so instead I ended up working on new projects. Don’t be like me, because it can really wear you down. Reward yourself, be kind to yourself. When I get the opportunity, I go blow some zombie brains on Left for Dead 2 with some friends from home.

Lull times happen now and again. It really depends on how much time you have and whether you are in the right head space for the above activities. I find that I was starting new projects more often than not, sometimes it paid off, sometimes it did not and I wished I took a Guitar Hero day instead. You don’t to feel guilty about powering down, you do need to so that you can come back better and stronger.