Best PhD advice
While studying for my PhD, my supervisor gave me plenty of great advice that helped me go beyond merely surviving the process, to getting the most from this once in a lifetime opportunity. One suggestion in particular, not only served me well during my PhD, it continues to serve me well over fifteen years later.
How’s that for value?
I believe this suggestion can work for you too and, what’s more, you don’t have to start a PhD to benefit from it.
Actually, it’s no big secret, but done regularly, it is tremendously powerful. And that is to keep a reflective learning journal or diary. By journal, I mean writing down your thoughts, observations, learning, feelings, tribulations and, hopefully, triumphs.
Why keep a reflective journal?
Research has shown that journaling has a surprising number of benefits that include boosting memory, comprehension and IQ, increasing self-discipline and relieving anxiety and stress. (Hands up anybody who doesn’t want those.)
It works because of the unique connection between the hand and the brain. Writing makes us focus and pay attention to the words we use. Writing signals to the brain that something is important, activating other parts of the brain, including the areas we need to extract meaning and interpret context.
How often should you write?
Yes, you need to journal regularly to reap these benefits, but how often you do so is entirely up to you.
Daily is probably the best option, particularly if you’re trying to build journaling into your routine.
When I started my PhD, I fully intended to keep a daily learning journal, but as a part-time student working four days each week, my study time was pretty much condensed to Mondays and weekends. Keeping a daily journal wasn’t helping me achieve my goals. Missing the occasional entry is no big deal, but missing four or five every week felt like a failure.
The problem was I wasted an awful lot of time trying to get my brain back into study mode once the work week ended. Something needed to change.
So, I decided to try weekly rather than daily journal entries and something remarkable happened. I became more productive. Literally, within a week. I spent an hour each Monday evening reflecting on what I had learned during my recent study time. Then, before I began my next study session several days later, I read my most recent journal entry and was immediately reminded where I had left off, what my thoughts were at the time and what my next step should be.
Once you realise the benefits of keeping a journal far outweigh the benefits of NOT keeping one, the question really becomes ‘what’s the best method for me?’
Digital or physical?
With so much portable digital technology in our lives, is there still a case for recording your thoughts in a handwritten journal?
After all, many of us can type, key in, or even dictate, much faster than we write.
Here are three reasons why I believe keeping a physical journal is still the best.
One, writing something by hand slows the pace, enabling those areas of our brain needed to derive the full benefits of reflection, interpretation and sense-making, chance to engage.
Two, there’s the journal itself. Keeping a separate physical object, dedicated to only one thing, reminds us that what we’re doing is important. Important enough to keep and treasure. Like these beautiful notebooks, sprinkled with inspirational quotes.
Three, a physical journal removes the countless temptations and distractions all too accessible on computers and phones. Technology makes it way too easy not to think and reflect. A journal whispers one thing: write me!
If pen and paper journaling isn’t your thing, here are two digital alternatives that may interest you.
Evernote is not a dedicated journaling tool, but it is free to use and if you already use it to keep notes, it’s easy to create a separate notebook file as your learning journal. It syncs with most phones and computers, so you can make entries anywhere and store them in one place. You can also tag entries for retrieval at a later date. The premium version supports offline access, email forwarding to Evernote and browsing of previous entries.
If the thought of keeping such an important reflective tool alongside items like your daily shopping list reminders doesn’t appeal to you, you might wish to try a dedicated online journaling tool, such as Penzu.
Penzu has a free option that should be enough to get anyone started and includes a choice of typefaces. Sign up on the website to receive a daily ‘How is your day going?’ email prompt to make an entry. Personally, I like this implication that the day is not yet over, no matter how late it may be, which immediately puts me in a more positive frame of mind, whatever my mood.
Respond to the email and it will automatically add your response to your journal. With Penzu, you can also add pictures, tags and comments to previous entries. However, if you want secure encryption, the ability to sync and save your data to other devices, multiple journals, or a wider choice of fonts, you will need to upgrade to one of the paid versions.
If you’re already journaling, don’t stop. If you aren’t, why not give it a try?