post#9…PhD & daily tasks : my personal tips & tricks

First of all, I would like to say that what I am going to propose in this article is helpful for me and could be for someone else. First, I thought I’d list all the little tips & tricks I’ve put in place since my master’s degree. These little tips make my life easier and save me a lot of time daily. I am a very active person, I hardly stay idle, but I like to save time on tasks to be allocated to something else. I must say that I am a very organized person (since I can remember). I think I “always needed a plan” because otherwise, I could not do everything I wanted to do (work, sport, outings, vacations, personal or professional projects).

I would also like to point out that despite all these “organization tips,” I also go through busy work periods, not always very pleasant but from which I manage to keep my head above water.

When I talk with my friends or colleagues over a coffee,

I often hear :

“How do you manage all this?”

“It must take you a lot of time to do this or that…”

“…Supervising a master’s student is a waste of time!”

or “… nobody asks you to do it, why do you do it anyway?”

Well, I will try to give some answers in this article by categories:

Time management & calendar

Agenda grouping:

  • Personnal calendar
  • Professional calendar
  • Academic calendar
  • Shared calendar: family/partner
  • BSc & MSc student’s calendar

Since the beginning of my master I have worked with Google Calendar. It is easy to use, available on several supports, and it allows me to access my personal and professional calendar at any time.

1) I can look at my schedule differently. I prefer the “whole month” display to the weekly or daily format because it gives me an overview of the weeks to come and the time each thing takes. However, I often consult my schedule in a “full-day” format to have the day’s meetings/things to do in mind during my working day.

2) It helps me plan for extensive field or lab work periods, as I’m confronted with the time I thought I would allocate to XYZ task and the time I have available.

3) The color code helps me differentiate/prioritize the different tasks (ok…my agenda looks like a rainbow). Still, as I am a visual person, I appreciate the shortcuts that the colors allow. For example, green is for lab work, red/orange is for urgent things, pink is for vacation, yellow is for sports, and blue is for routine tasks.

4) I check my agenda at the end of each day for the next day so that if I have to prepare/send something or forget a meeting, I still have time to act or plan to plan B… In general, at the beginning/end of each academic year, I take note of all the important dates in the university’s academic calendar (start/end of classes, university vacations, bachelor/master’s degree deadlines, exam periods, thesis submission deadlines (official or unofficial), course dates (if already available) or publication dates of timetables, etc.). Then I add the appointments, my sports lessons, vacation/weekend dates, and personal meetings.

5) I ask the student to fill out a monthly calendar (see templates from Microsoft Excel). Doing this helps them plan the critical steps of their project and write down their project’s deadlines (evaluation, handing in the final manuscript, oral presentation, etc.). In addition, doing this allows them to take a step back and realize how much time they will finally have available for their project. Indeed, between courses, vacation periods, and the exam sessions…the year is already eaten up!

Workspace management:

  • Personal working environment
  • Professional working environment
  • Common server
  • Teaching platform
  • Shared online
Photo by Sarah Semeraro

From the beginning of my master’s project, I understood that I would have to juggle different tasks, documents, protocols, articles to read, etc..… So imagine when you are doing a Ph.D.! That is why I quickly started to organize my work environment better.

1) I prioritize my emails to avoid “missing something”… For example, I generally answer quickly to someone who asks for my availability for an appointment or deadline. It prevents me from adding an item on my TO DO LIST that says “call back Mr. X about the appointment…“. In the long run, this saves me time, and I avoid forgetting to remind Mr. X about the meeting.

2) I began to use a personal server more wisely. I created different folders (I have many of them, but this way, I can find everything relatively quickly, even several years later). As a result, I permanently saved several times (we all experienced the OUPSI moment when the computer crashed…).

2) Many software can make our life easier. So I tried to get the “classical” editing software on my computers. I also looked for vocabulary, translation, and grammar correction software to speed up the proofreading process of my different manuscripts (I’m not an English speaker).

3) I quickly started to familiarize myself with the teaching platform before teaching the course. This way, I would be comfortable when the time came for me to teach (this helped me a lot during the lockdown when we had to spend all the classes ONLINE).

4) I created a shared file for the master students working with me to facilitate sharing documents (literature, protocols, datasheet, etc.) and not send a thousand emails…

Management of working groups:

  • Thesis supervisors
  • Laboratory technicians
  • Colleagues
  • Bachelor & master students
  • Extra-muros collaborations

Defining dDefining different working groups generally helps me a lot. I like to work with people, particularly when it goes well (like everybody, no?). Thus, I prefer defining objectives and ” setting a working framework” with each group. I also try to keep in touch with the different groups to stay on track.

1) Good professional relationships with my supervisors are essential to me. Even though I am an autonomous person and work regularly, I update my project from time to time to keep them informed. I consider communication as the most efficient way to avoid misunderstandings or problems. I also enjoy discussing changes I need to make to the project or issues I face (in an experiment or life in general). It often reminds me that they, too, have been through it, doing a thesis, having their ups and downs… and that is good to hear. It’s very enriching to have a different look at your work or choices; it allows you to question yourself and bring new ideas. I always leave these discussions satisfied with a sense of accomplishment.

2) Lab technicians are fantastic. We are fortunate to have an extraordinary laboratory technician and apprentices in the laboratory where I work. These members are the core around which all other lab members gravitate. Without them, we would lose a lot of time…for everything! They know where the equipment is, who is using it, or if a particular protocol already exists. Observing these people working in the lab helped me a lot in my daily life and avoided many mistakes when I started. Besides, I apply a lot of their advice to work, as simple as they are. For example, I knew that a protocol had to be read in detail before being applied, but I didn’t realize that many things had to be checked beforehand: “are the solutions your protocol talks about available? do we have to order them?”, or “is there enough glassware to experiment or do you run out of vials?”, “in the total number of samples, did you count the control samples?” or “annotate your protocol so that someone else can rerun the experiment.” How helpful this was! Since then, I meticulously annotate all my protocols, and when I create new ones with additional information…Since my master’s, I may have been asked 6-7 times for one of my protocols. They maybe have been optimized afterward; they could be used as a basis for other colleagues/students. Communicating and collaborating with them is essential to work in a friendly environment during the long days in the lab.

3) Colleagues often help me out of inspiration or get stuck with an experiment/analysis. Never underestimate the power of a good coffee break between colleagues where we discuss work or less severe things. Moreover, I particularly appreciate speaking with someone who understands me and lives or has lived the same thing as me; the discussion is facilitated and sometimes even gives birth to new collaborations! Finally, I think it is essential to create a “brainstorming” environment with my colleagues.

4) Students ask for more supervision if they have not been well oriented from the beginning. Indeed, it is necessary to “bring the students up to speed” when they join my project. I know that I will have to dedicate time to them, but I also know that I don’t have that much time. Therefore, I try during the semester to plan a weekly remote meeting where all the students under my supervision participate. It is an excellent way for my supervisors and me to follow their progress and review the work in progress; for the students, it is a dedicated time where they can ask any questions they may have. To optimize our sessions, I make available (as a drive doc) a brief “agenda” containing the points discuss all along the year. It’s very enriching and allows all students to hear the questions/answers given during the meeting and integrate them into their respective work. My supervisors advised me to do this when I agreed to supervise several students simultaneously. I continue to apply it, even with fewer students to care, because it allows me to isolate a moment in the week for the students and avoids countless daily meetings.

5) Extra-Muros collaborations can be the real danger in the thesis process. Indeed, if they are poorly managed, or the objectives are not entirely defined, they can bring many stress and problems. However, if the collaborations are chosen carefully and the ones imposed are well framed, it can propel the thesis and give a second meaning to the Ph.D. If a collaboration takes a wrong turn, I try to open a dialogue, see the project from a different perspective, and keep a positive mindset. If this doesn’t change anything, I don’t hesitate to ask for help or advice elsewhere.

Administrative follow-up

  • Emails
  • Datasets
  • Protocols
  • MSc & Bsc Supervision

The mailbox, the monster that never stops growing…who feeds it?

1) Joke aside, emails are still a big problem for me; I try to discipline myself by checking my emails and taking 1 hour at the beginning of the day and a moment in the early afternoon to read and answer some emails.

But I have to admit that my mailbox is a tool that I quite enjoy. Writing and sending an email is practical, fast, and you can add a document; it also allows you to record various written exchanges. Indeed, it will enable me to periodically send reminders with a standard email template that is always ready to go or categorize the emails to be treated in priority. Thanks to the “automatic replies,” I can also let people know that I will be away on vacation or challenging to reach because in the field, for me, it’s a way to let people know that if I don’t reply, it’s not an oversight but that I’m elsewhere. Writing the automatic reply represents a concrete step that allows me to transition from office to elsewhere (vacation of fieldwork). However, during more or less intense periods, I sometimes find myself submerged by emails… who isn’t today? When this happens, I always try to keep in mind the benefits my mailbox and emails bring me.

2) I’m doing my Ph.D. thesis on soil-vegetation interactions, so I have somewhat “block periods” during which I either collect data, process them, or think about the experimental design that will allow me to obtain a type of data. I often wish I had more time to analyze my data or manage to rearrange my time to do that. Depending on what I need to do, I find it hard to move forward if I am interrupted too often. So, as time went by, I tried different ways of working to take advantage of the few hours I managed to work. Sometimes working at home is efficient; I’m not disturbed by colleagues, or I work at the office because I need inspiration like “coffee break with colleagues” to help me move forward and see my data differently. Honestly, I haven’t found a strategy that works 100% because it depends a lot on my state of mind, physical form, the mood of the moment, and the different tasks I have in parallel. To progress and succeed in showing new results, I set “unofficial deadlines” in the diary (1-3 days in a row in general) to motivate myself and analyze my data. Even if I don’t work 8 hours in a row on a dataset, I often make a lot of progress in 3 days, whereas sometimes, when I plan more time, I get lost in my analysis without getting anything out. And if I have trouble getting started, I go for 2-3 hours of sport, which allows me to clear my head and start again with new energy!

3) Protocols, documents that I particularly appreciate if they are well written! I already told you that I pay particular attention to the writing of protocols when I do my experiments in the lab or the field; here is why:

  1. Writing the protocols of what I did for my projects allows me to synthesize and underline the crucial points of the task.
  2. Writing a protocol clearly for my projects makes it possible for someone else to repeat the experiment if the results are interesting.
  3. If I have to repeat an experiment in my project even two years later, I have all the essential elements at a glance.
  4. It sometimes allows me to highlight biases with other similar protocols.
  5. It could be part of my “material and method” section or appendices, depending on the importance of the protocol used.
  6. It allows me to quickly transmit the protocol to a colleague, student, supervisor without being consulted 20 times for the same thing.

The only drawback is that you have to be convinced of the usefulness of writing these protocols (rarely more than one double-sided page for me); otherwise, writing protocols will be considered “non-profitable.”

4) Supervising students is usually a lot of work, so I invest time approaching something that both parties can benefit from. I often hear that master’s supervision wastes time and hinders or slows down the thesis writing process. I strongly disagree; without students collaborating on my project, I would never have been able to do all that I did (or even planned to do) for my thesis. However, we have to be realistic. There are many different profiles of students, from the most demanding working to the laziest, but our role as a supervisor is to guide them so that they progress to succeed in giving the best of themselves for their master project. Therefore, I like to meet the students beforehand, discuss a little with them, and define what they expect and want from this collaboration and what they do not want. In this way, we create a master project that looks like him but fits into my thesis project.

Moreover, I specify my expectations concerning a possible collaboration by answering the student’s questions. On the supervisor’s side, it allows to quickly identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses to better understand the next steps by adapting the supervision of the students. On the supervisor’s side, it allows to quickly identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses to better understand the next steps by adapting the supervision of the students. Of course, this does not always end as planned, but it often avoids many misunderstandings or problems related to the project or the supervisor.

Thesis work

  • Doctoral programm & course planning
  • Fieldwork & lab work
  • Sample & data processing
  • Writing
Photo by Jess Bailey Designs on

Your P.hD. thesis is not a sprint but a marathon

1) Joining a doctoral program (for me, the DPOB) is an excellent opportunity to discover new courses (knowledge), to train (skills), and to put into practice what you have learned (competencies). Therefore, to avoid overloading my schedule, I consult the different courses offered (Ateliers REGARD, UniFrDoctoral Program in Ecology and EvolutionCUSO & many others) and choose the courses I can take according to my agenda. If the course registration is not available, I note the opening date for registration in my calendar. These courses allowed me to get free training on subjects parallel to the thesis and create a network outside my laboratory!

2) The fieldwork & lab analysis organization is easier if you use a yearly calendar! Taking a step back (on the whole year) allows you to realize better the time you have at your disposal (after having written down vacations, vacations, teaching hours, etc.). One of my supervisors advised me to count 1/3 more time than I would need to do something to have a slight margin in case of bad weather, lack of material, or other minor glitches; I always follow this advice! It is sometimes too much or too little, but it has saved me from a catastrophe. Of course, it’s not always possible but doing it for big projects is still lovely! In addition to defining how much time a task can take, it is also necessary to consider using the laboratory by colleagues (who all come back from fieldwork at the same time).

3) Samples & data processing: collecting samples is not always the most challenging thing (for me), but finding the time to analyze them in depth is another story. Starting with the compilation of the “raw dataset,” which, before being correctly adjusted for any statistical analysis, requires quite a lot of work: building the suitable template, correcting the laboratory data, noting the field surveys, etc.). Once the raw dataset is finished, we can finally start the analysis until the next obstacle: R, a great and powerful tool that can lead to a headache… My only advice is not to give up and ask for help if necessary to move forward (even slowly) but indeed in the analysis of the data 🙂

4) When it comes to writing, there is no magic formula…YOU MUST GET ON WITH IT! Easier said than done, but over time I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I’ve also discovered a few tricks: setting unofficial deadlines with your supervisor has helped you to move forward and correct errors if needed; it also allows you to reevaluate the project in a global way (1), don’t underestimate the mid thesis report, because even if you feel like you haven’t accomplished anything, in reality, you have a lot of things to write about, so if you take the time, some sections can be reused in the final manuscript (2), write a little, often/every day even if it is not top quality (3), determine the environment in which you write best to be more efficient and focused (4), use the Pomodoro technique (4).