starting the PhD – setting up your routine

At the start of the PhD you need to sort out how you will accomplish the necessary reading, and the writing that relates to the reading.

You may have to write a much larger PhD proposal than the one that gained you entry – this proposal is called different things in different places – but basically it’s the rationale for your project, a review of the literature and the project design. There may be a quite formal process around this expanded proposal, a kind of local mini viva. If you pass the viva, you get to continue on the PhD programme. You will be told about this requirement at the introductory sessions your university organises.

However, whether you have to write this text to do or not, you will want to set up some reading and writing routines that work for you now. The thing to understand is that there is no right or wrong routine. It’s just important to have one, a routine that is, and not leave things to chance. You have to set aside a good amount of time to read, and write. At the beginning of the PhD you can experiment with different kinds of time-task organisation, and work out what suits you best.

The key thing to understand is that the PhD routine is always a mix of different things. I like to think of this as an interleaving of activities – some reading, some writing, some getting things organised for writing or reading, some filing, some going to talk with people, some seminars… You might think of this as multi-tasking – but I prefer the rather more bookish metaphor of inter-leaving as it draws attention to the juxtaposition of activities – to what comes between things, and what order should they be in. However, you don’t need a metaphor at all to sort out your routine, just make sure that the one you sort out includes several kinds of activities.

Some questions that are helpful to think about are:

Time – When do you write best? I’m a morning writer and I can’t write anything but administrivia after about 2 in the afternoon. But I know plenty of people who are night writers. Experiment with writing at different times if you don’t already have a favorite. And ditto for reading. When do you read best? You are going to read some pretty weighty tomes during the PhD so you might want to set aside times for different kinds of reading – the hard stuff, and then scoping and skimming. There is also note taking and filing your reading too, so don’t forget to factor those in. You might also want to allow a regular time for thinking – time when you let your mind wander or when you focus hard on a particular issue. This might be associated with an activity such as walking, gardening, doing the housework and so on.

Writing helped by a list of things to remember, with dictionaries and style guides to hand.

My book writing is supported by a list of things to remember, with dictionaries and style guides to hand.

Place – where do you best write, read, and think? These may always be in the same place or you might be one of those people who like variety in your scholarly sites. You might choose a different place for writing than for reading. And there might be accompaniments that make the activity time-space go well – music, headphones to shut out the noise, being with others or being by yourself…

Structure – different people like different kinds of work structure. To complicate things further, these structures may not be the same for each activity – so some people like to impose word limits and deadlines on themselves for writing, others for reading. Some people like to write for as long as they can, others prefer set times. Sometimes the time and approach differs within one activity, according to the nature of the task. It’s not what structure works for everyone else, but to important to understand is that structures can help or hinder you and it’s therefore helpful to find out what works for you.

Amid book writing squalor, my bicycle, music and chair for reading - with natural light

Amid the current book writing squalor, my bicycle, music and chair for reading – with natural light over my shoulder

Support – What will make your work easier? Structures can be domestic and/or academic. @MsFloraPoste swears by online shopping, and I’d probably do this too if I didn’t have a semi-retired partner who does the weekly run to the supermarket. I religiously do my laundry on the same day each week when I do intensive writing, because it makes me get out of my office. I also swear by ten minutes bicycling for every hour or so of writing. Some advice suggests shutting off social media for a set number of hours, and there are apps that help you to do this. Other people use everyday tasks like travel and housework to make time – they take their reading to the Laundromat, read on the train, or regularly attend a shut up and write session. There are now lots of apps to help you keep track of tasks – or you might just like to make lists. And of course it’s important to eat properly – so cooking can equate to think time – and you have to make sure you don’t become entirely sedentary – gyms, walking dogs etc. all require some kind of regular scheduling and provide another leaf in the interleaved scholarly day/week. There are lots of structures that can help you keep your focus.

So – to sum up – use the start of the PhD to find the routines that work best for you. It’s not easy balancing structure and flexibility, honouring commitments and the need to be open to serendipitous invitations and ideas. However it’s crucial to establish some kind of pattern for yourself because it will underpin the next three years of hard work.

Thanks to Sarah Burton for help with this post. 

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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5 Responses to starting the PhD – setting up your routine

  1. Claire says:

    I agree with figuring out when you write best – I am also a morning person so I try to keep my mornings very free and restrict appointments (and even teaching if I can manage it) to the afternoon. I find I work best when I am not at home, and the time travelling to and from uni is really helpful for thinking, reading and planning.
    One thing I have struggled with is momentum – I was finding it hard to get myself ‘on task’ straight away as I have small children so some days I am researching all day, other days I have my kids and can only squeeze in an hour or so here and there. One thing that has really helped with this is to keep a bit of a process journal of where I’m at, what I’ve done and what I would like to do next. I use evernote for this so I can jot down ideas wherever I am, and then when I do get a spare moment to work, I’ve left myself some directions so I know where I’m going next.


  2. swipel says:

    What makes me feel better with this post is the comment: ‘no right or wrong routine’. May be a routine is just what works for you, and with a young family, full time work etc., I gave up on routine as a non negotiable pattern except for a simple wish list of dates by which to get this or that done. Luckily, I’m on a part time programme which takes the heat off a little. If you are in my situation, the only routine advice I can share is ‘take advantage of some free time that you can find’.


  3. mandrakecito says:

    In my first year doing my PhD I thought that a routine was utterly unnecessary. Albeit, in this second year, when readings and writing have become heavier, I do need one before I finish reclused in a loony bin. Thank you for sharing interesting ideas such as those above.

    Greetings from Mexico City 🙂


  4. Pingback: starting the PhD – tech matters | patter

  5. Kat says:

    This is definitely something I have learnt recently! Routine is very important, especially in a PhD because there is a lot of uncertain things at the start!


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