I’m about to make a small confession I’ve had it in my diary to write this blog post for longer than I care to admit. The reason I’m making such an, admittedly risky, confession is to show that self-discipline is hard to achieve. I’m sure we all procrastinate from time to time, but when you’re an independent researcher there isn’t really anyone to tell you not to.  The beginning of a PhD is an incredibly exciting time. But the self-directed nature the process means that structure we once enjoyed during our undergraduate days, or our time in the workplace, are a thing of the past.

So, what can be done when the inevitable motivational lulls come, or we find ourselves spending more time scrolling through twitter than the latest issues of journals? Well, here are some thoughts and reflections on my own experiences of self-discipline in my PhD journey so far.

1) Structure your day (and stick to it!)

The early stages of a doctorate can feel a little vague. We haven’t got heaps of data to wade our way through, no conference presentations to prepare or chapters to write up. This is a necessary part of the process, but it doesn’t change the fact that the task of ‘learning the literature’ doesn’t necessarily have an obvious starting point, and is certainly easy to feel lost when faced with such an amorphous task.

What, then, can be done to add a bit of structure to those first few months of PhD life? Creating a weekly and daily ‘to do’ list and setting myself reasonable goals helped me get to grips with the self-directed nature of doctoral study. Got a piece of writing I want to finish up? Or maybe a number of articles I want to read each day? Or a book to finish? Breaking down your broader goals into smaller, more attainable tasks can make the process less daunting and help add a degree of structure to the process. Of course, this only works if you actually stick to your plan, and this takes some practice. So, don’t be too hard on yourself if there’s a few things on your to-do list which seem to keep appearing!

2) Take some time to explore other opportunities

Of course, it is incredibly important to take the time to lay the foundations of your research. But there’s also so much more the PhD experience, and your first year can be a great time to explore the plethora of exiting opportunities that we now have access to as PhD students. There is a seemingly infinite amounts events, seminars and conferences taking place. You don’t have to be presenting your research at an international conference to start building a network of researches and practitioners in your field!

I was fortunate enough gain my first bit of teaching experience last semester. Though this might have been time consuming it was an incredibly rewarding experience and one which I feel has given me heaps of transferable skills, and confidence, which I can take into my PhD journey and beyond.

3) Take a break!

Yes, even PhD students take time off! However, scrolling through my Twitter feed, it would certainly seem as though we’re all constantly working. There is certainly no shortage of posts from academics asserting how busy we all are. This can compound the pressure to feel like you’ve always got to be working. But it is important to use the early stages of your research to establish a healthy work-life balance and a sustainable working pattern – we all want to avoid the dreaded burnout down the line!

Self-discipline is an important part of the PhD process, and the ability manage a project on this scale is one of the most valuable transferable skills doctoral study equips us with. But it is important to remember that this is a learning curve, and the art of self-discipline is one that takes practice to perfect. Maybe next time, this task won’t be in my diary so quite as long!

Follow Conor on Twitter – @conor_w96