14 September 2017 / New Researchers Network

NRN Blog: Top Tips – 5 PhD practices you’ll thank yourself for later

Kate Holmes gives the top 5 tips that helped her through her PhD.

Her research explores the celebrity of aerial stars of the 1920s and early 1930s using approaches that range from examining spatial performance practices to female physical culture, and draws upon her experience as an amateur aerialist.


Completing a PhD requires focus, concentration and determination especially when life has a habit of getting in the way. If you’re starting a PhD or an MA, this post is most especially for you.

Here are five tips that could make your life a little easier. I am certain future-you will thank present-you for reading this post.

1. Reading Summaries

I owe my supervisor credit for this one: the day before every meeting I’d send a reading summary through to her which formed the basis of our early discussions.

It really is as simple as it sounds: write a summary of everything you read. Note down the core argument and what you agreed or disagreed with. Make clear in your summary what is their thought/argument and what is your response.

Why is this so helpful? Reading is a huge part of research, and I challenge you to remember every argument of everything you read in your first year, three years later.

So, what happens when you need to write or edit your literature review? Well, if you have a reading summary you can use rely on this and be sure you’ve incorporated everything you’ve read. Studies have also shown that reflection increases your engagement with, and recall of, materials.

You may already have heard the tip that you should write every day to increase your productivity. This is because your brain is like a muscle that needs regular exercise. The good news is that this counts towards that everyday writing. It is also a great place to practice because it is pretty low-risk writing as it is for your eyes only!

Sub-tip: Now I’ve finished my PhD I still want to draw from this material on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, it is locked up in separate word documents but I need this to be accessible and searchable. My current solution is a spreadsheet that includes column’s listing keywords and fields as well as the description. Ctrl F and filters are now my friend.

Reading summary spreadsheet
My new reading summary spreadsheet.

2. Reading Fiction

You are reading so much in the day, how can you possibly think about picking up another book for fun and how can it help? I initially felt this way but felt the urge to read for enjoyment, so I started deliberately picking up the type of fiction that was easy to consume or enjoyably escapist. For me, this was anything from urban fantasy to youth fiction or a good crime thriller. Picking something that didn’t require any kind of pressure to ‘analyse’ was key.

Academic writing is frequently dense and unwieldy. This type of commercial fiction has to engage the reader and take them on a journey or it doesn’t sell. Your examiner, or someone reading an article you write, would enjoy the experience more if your writing mimicked some of the attributes of commercial fiction. One of my examiners remarked on how readable my PhD was and emphasised that this wasn’t always the case when reading PhD theses. Some might argue the popular nature of my topic helped, but I think reading fiction helped me too.

3. Reference Management Software

Reference Management Software
Reference Management Software

I won’t be the first or the last person to recommend this one. Every time I read something I put it into the reference management software. Every time I referenced an archival source it went in. Although, you’ll notice most software doesn’t do archival sources well. It doesn’t really matter. You can normally fudge it using a generic form.

What you’re doing is giving yourself the ability to create reliable bibliographies at the click of a button. You are saving time and off-loading that particular mental labour. This means that when your thesis is one big document that every reference will be in there. So what if you need to edit some of the formatting? Hurray! You have a comprehensive list to start from.

It is a bit of an old one, but the thesiswhisperer has a great post on reference management software.

4. Invest in a Whiteboard

I love my whiteboard. I’m a planner and it helps me plan. For me, it predominantly helped me with writing and keeping track of big deadlines. (Don’t worry if you’re just starting your PhD, you shouldn’t really be expecting to generate that much writing for a few months.)

The whiteboard helped me see how writing such a big document could be reduced to manageable tasks. I worked out I could write approximately 500 words a day and would plan out when I thought I’d have a written chunk ready for my supervisor. I would always build in contingency (we all have bad days) and days for editing. As things progressed I’d put the chapter plan on the left and include a tally of words. That way it always felt like I was chipping away at the beast. It really helped me keep motivated because 200 words is always 200 words closer to the bottom threshold for a PhD thesis.

Sub-tip: for you, the beauty in a whiteboard might be in brainstorming and visualising difficult concepts. For me, a notebook did this job…

5. Harness the Power of Social Media

I completely understand if you want to keep professional life separate from all the other stuff. But, for me, social media was a way into some great resources.

For one, there are the fantastic blogs from the thesiswhisperer and Pat Thomson. I found these really helpful in picking up writing tips or even ideas that helped with teaching. These people are doing pedagogical research and offer advice on all the aspects of writing a thesis that you are going to encounter.

Social media also helped me establish a network and put me in touch with people before attending conferences. Through Twitter I found out about a new network being set up to bring together people working on circus. My field is pretty disparate, so being part of this network has been a great resource. Through the network I even got the opportunity to interview a circus performer I wouldn’t have encountered any other way.

Sub-tip: most universities offer some kind of online researcher profile that you can keep up-to-date throughout your studies. Having a link on Twitter or in your email signature that describes you and your research helps you make the most of those online connections. (And, if you keep it up to date from the start, it can help you generate an academic CV easily.)

I’m hoping this post might prompt other people to share a few of their tips, as I certainly haven’t done everything right…email us at if you’d like to write for us!