Making the most of your PhD #1

Image of a desk piled high with reports and papers and right hand side is green with text of making the most of you


Dr Jan Peters has been working with the Engineering and Science Doctoral Training College at UCL helping PhD students explore their self-awareness. In this series of posts she explores techniques and thinking to help you grow your self-awareness and start to notice when things are at their best for you. There will be times in the future when you will want to be able to look back.

PhD challenges: networking and isolation

A PhD student, let’s call him Stefan, was working on his PhD and burning the midnight oil. As were others in his lab. He couldn’t help but look across to the other desks and see the piles of experimental results waiting to be analyzed; the organized papers, tidily thematized, ready to be digested and integrated into literature reviews. His PhD supervisor was a rising star, traveling the world, speaking at prestigious conferences and telling the world about her groundbreaking work.

Stefan yearned for contact with others, to interact and chat. Everyone else seemed content to bury themselves in their own world. Desolate he started to look for a job. He was going to quit. He didn’t fit.

What Stefan didn’t know was that I’d been working with his lab mate who was overwhelmed with their desire to keep looking for new research and papers and in fact was drowning in too much literature. We created a system to help her limit her desire to find new information and to start sharing information with others. They had #Input from #CliftonStrengths.

Rather than bale out, after arguably one of the toughest phases, at the end of year 2 when doubt and lack of motivation seep into every pore, start to notice how you work best, what motivates you, and who to go to when you feel lost or out of control.

What can you do from day one to grow that sense of who you are?

The UCL Doctoral Training College (DTC) introduced the CliftonStrengths tool as part of a residential core skills retreat at Cumberland Lodge. CliftonStrengths offers personal insights into natural talents and is based on 40 years of research with successful managers and leaders. While a full profile of 34 is best, accessing the cost-effective Top 5 offers a great starting point for exploring your talents.

Having helped over 500 PhD students explore their Top 5 profiles here are three tips for exploring your natural way of thinking, feeling, and doing central to your success post-PhD.

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others, it’s pointless.

You are unique and special. Figuring out your uniqueness and what makes you ‘you’ early in your career can really help you take a short cut to success. Not only can it help you understand how to meet deadlines for example, it can help you figure out how you can be useful to others. Taking the CliftonStrengths helps pinpoint what makes you unique. For Stefan it’s #WOO.

  1. Build your network

Networking is important for researchers. But it can be daunting. Hideous even.
Stefan loves meeting new people and when he recognised this in himself it motivated him to get out of the lab and meet other researchers and scientists. He took a student affiliate membership of the IMechE so he could go to alsorts of meetings and events. He also takes the opportunity to go to seminars in other departments and has built quite a network.

Using the thinking in point one, Stefan started to take members in his lab, who aren’t as comfortable with meeting new people, with him to events and seminars. Win-win. #WOO

  1. Know where you draw your energy from

Notice as you go through the early days of your PhD what gives you energy and what drains you. Keep notes in an online journaling tool such as . This means when you face lean times you can remind yourself how you gain energy. For Stefan he draws much of his energy from interacting with others. He started a study group to review papers and discuss new areas. In this way it keeps him focused and up to date with discussing papers and is expanding his knowledge while connecting him with other.

Gallup Theme Thursday live Woo (start at 4:30minutes)

The next article will discuss information overload – just how do you cut your way through all that literature? #Input


If you’re the kind of person who has a love of collecting bits of information and knowledge and has piles of papers, links and links and overflowing knowledge banks. But when distilling information into a literature review and your transfer thesis deadline is looming what do you do? Follow me to make sure you don’t miss it.