‘How to write a PhD’ with Eva Lantsoght

Eva LantsoghtDr. Eva Lantsoght received her PhD in civil engineering at TU Delft, the Netherlands, last summer. She talks about her PhD experience, and about how PhD productivity and self-care relate to each other.

I am excited to introduce to you dr. Eva Lantsoght. Excited, because she very much lives what I like to call the ‘new’ academic lifestyle. That is, she is an academic who takes very good care of herself, her energy and her time. She practices yoga, she meditates, and if you follow her on twitter you know she is productive and prolific. Her blog PhDTalk, which she started at the beginning of the 2nd year of her PhD programme, is an excellent resource for anyone writing a PhD. Go over and have a look. I was interested to hear from Eva about her routines and practices, and how they affected her PhD experience. Let’s hear it.

Eva’s top 10 tips for writing a PhD:

    1. Your life does not depend on your PhD. It’s the other way around: the quality of your PhD depends on how much of a life you are having.
    2. Take care of yourself: a tired brain won’t move science forward.
    3. Feeling stuck? Take a break. Don’t keep working harder and harder until you hit rock bottom.
    4. Plan a weekend away from the PhD: relax, refocus and replenish.
    5. Own your work!
    6. Plan for success. Use time-management techniques to keep yourself on track.
    7. Start work early, finish early. Take breaks. (Listen to lab guys).
    8. Sleep well, eat well, journal, do yoga and meditate!
    9. Focus on the positive: add love and record gratitude.
    10. Connect, get informed and get inspired online #phdchat.

AD: Eva, what is your top tip to improve your PhD experience?
EL:
Realize that your life does not depend on your PhD. In fact, your PhD and the quality of your focus, will depend pretty much on how much of a life you are having. Simply put: a tired brain won’t come up with novel ideas that push your field of study forward. I’m a terrible perfectionist, and I wanted to do so well on my PhD. At a certain point, I was pushing myself beyond measure, trying to stay on top of my experiments
while working on cases for my funding body. I was in the lab from 8am to 4pm, and then making calculations from 4pm to 10pm. I started making mistakes… That’s when I realized that my brain is not a 24/7 machine. I started to make appointments with myself to go to the gym, and to go home on time to play with my cat, and to make sure I’d get enough hours of sleep. My productivity and number of good ideas started to increase when I made that change.

AD: And what would you advise PhD students who are feeling stuck or lost? PhDs come with rough patches.
EL: Be gentle with yourself. If you have a good relationship with your supervisor(s), let them know that you have hit a rough patch. During the final months of writing my dissertation, I’d plan “refresh and refocus” weekends every now and then: I’d go to the gym, go to read a book in a coffee place in the beautiful city center of Delft, watch a number of TED talks or online lectures, catch up on sleep, cook a big stew or big pot of chili (to freeze portions for whenever I’d need it), etc. Don’t keep working harder and harder until you hit rock bottom. Instead, take a break from your worries and try to refresh your mind.

AD: Was there anything else you wish you’d known that you know now, when you were writing your PhD?
EL:
What I learned in my first year, is that doing research is different from doing homework. Suddenly, you are the one in charge of the entire project. It took me some time to realize that I had to take ownership of my project, and determine the direction. And, as I mentioned earlier, I wish I realized from the beginning the value of enough sleep and enough time for exercise and self-care.

AD: You seem to be very prolific. What were your working habits during the PhD? Do you have any productivity tips to share?
EL: I always showed up at my office at 8am in the morning. While that might not be typical behaviour for PhD students, I followed the example of the staff members, and the schedule of the tech guys in the lab. I took a lunch break at noon to go “upstairs” with the other PhD students and lab guys. Whenever I tried to skip lunch to keep on working, they convinced me of the benefit of taking a break and sharing some good laughs. I tried to leave my office between 5pm and 6pm every day as well, and then spend the evening doing things I enjoy…

Early on during my PhD, I attended a 3-day course in which I learned all about planning. Since then, I’ve been making time monthly and weekly to go over my planning, assess my progress, and course-correct where needed. I started to use time-tracking tools (I like ManicTime a lot), to know exactly how much time certain tasks take me – information I used to improve my planning. When I was doing “boring” stuff (plug-and-chuck numbers around in spreadsheets, for example), I’d often blast some music into my earphones, and use the Pomodoro method to get the task done in 25-minute chunks.

AD: Could you tell me a bit about what I call the ‘new’ academic lifestyle. Could you tell me about your self-care practices?
EL: Sure, I really think these habits were crucial to my staying sane throughout my PhD days (and now my freshly-appointed-assistant-professor-days).

AD: Let’s start somewhere- I know you are into yoga: when did you become interested in it, what is your practice like, and how does it benefit your work?
EL:
I started practicing yoga at the end of my PhD, while I was working on the comments of my committee and revisions of my dissertation. I felt the need to take “stretching” breaks and I started practicing standing yoga sequences full of balancing poses to train my focus. I also started to follow YouTube yoga classes. As I ended my gym membership and moved away from Delft (and spent some time in the USA, Belgium and then Ecuador), I bought a subscription to a paid online yoga website, and I’ve been using it a lot since then to practice yoga first thing in the morning.

AD: What about meditation? I read your blog on mindfulness, which is the tradition that got me into meditation. What is your practice like?
EL:
I used to have a very good meditation habit, sitting on my pillow first thing in the morning, but somehow in the process of moving countries, I lost the habit. I’m trying to bring it back in my daily schedule, but so far with mixed success. So I’ve been on and off with meditation, but I know it’s essential to the well-being of my brain – I really need to strengthen that habit again.

AD: You wrote a wonderful blog on little things you can do to boost your mood. Two of your tips are ‘Love’ and ‘Gratitude’. I believe they are essential muscles that academics in particular need to train. Can you tell me a little about how that works in your own life?
EL:
It might sound idealistic, but I think our world is deprived of love, and I try to radiate a bit of love to all beings I encounter (which doesn’t mean I never lose my patience or snap at anyone, but my intentions are loving). Loving-kindness is an essential part of my meditation practice, and I try to bring some of that into my everyday life. In my journal, I keep a gratitude list, and I write down 10 positive experiences I had every single day to focus on the positive in my life. Even when I think life is horrible, I try to bring a smile to my face and count my blessings, and very often it’s the simple things in life: having been able to have dinner together with my husband, seeing my cat run around in a funny way through the house, etc.

AD: Let’s talk food. I myself have been eating an ever-healthier diet the past years. For me, now, it has to do with my health issues, and my current diet would probably be too extreme for most, even though I try and keep it delicious within the restrictions. That said, if there is one habit that I would have changed when I was working on my PhD, it would have been cutting back on sugar and carbs (though, easier said than done when you’re writing a PhD in Italy: The spaghetti! The ice cream! Italy is carb heaven). In the past I often relied on sugar highs to give me productivity highs. But I used to crash afterwards. I find eating a no-sugar low-carb diet keeps my energy levels and mood far more stable. What about you?
EL: I’ve always been rather picky about food. My mom is an excellent cook, and for that reason I turn away in horror from most food court / university cantina food. I always cooked as a student (although most often limited to veggie burgers with frozen veggies – as my friends like to recall), and during my PhD, I became more organized: I learned to cook batches of stews and chilies, used to shop for food once a week, and right after that, chop and cook a few days’ worth of vegetables. I’m not vegetarian, although I mostly eat plants – I’ve learned that these give me and my brain the best imaginable fuel. Sugar and greasy fare typically make me drowsy and sleepy (although that doesn’t mean I can always stay clear of these temptations).

AD: You sound quite busy. Are you someone who can work late? I myself am not. In the early years of writing my PhD my cut-off point would be 6 pm, or in the extreme case 7.30 pm. Any later than that and I couldn’t sleep. Now, I try to stay away from the computer after 4pm. Not that I am managing at the moment. But in an ideal world I wouldn’t be on my computer/ online in the evening.
EL:
I usually have a quiet evening routine, that leaves me time for journaling and reading in bed before I go to sleep. I can’t stay working on my computer until 10pm, then roll into bed, close my eyes and fall asleep – I need to zone out at the end of the day to enjoy a good night’s rest.

AD: Finally, completely different topic: you are very active on twitter and social media. How can PhD students use these media to their advantage?
EL:
When using the internet, there’s always a risk of getting “sucked in” and waste a lot of time. That said, however, I think PhD students can use social media platforms to their advantage: by learning from people in the same field, or by reaching out to PhD students worldwide who might be experiencing just the same feelings/struggles/joys as you (for that reason, I love the #phdchat hashtag on Twitter). There’s a ton of information on the internet, in blogs of fellow PhD students or academics, and much of that gets shared on these social media platforms – so you can browse the “headlines” and see what might be of interest to you (an article about writing, maybe, or a blog post about someone’s experiences in the lab?). In my experience, Twitter is also a great platform to reach out to the industry – by reading information that companies in your field post, and then interacting with them.

Thanks Eva!

If you are inspired to give yoga a try, following our yogi lead, but can’t find a local yoga school, or if you travel a lot, give online classes a go. Eva likes http://www.myyogaonline.com, while I have used www.yogaglo.com in the past. Two very good places to start.

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