Study Tips for Successful Researchers

University of Northampton PhD student Kerry Love shares her top tips for successful studying. 

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It might not feel like it, but I’ve been studying for 6 years now and in the process have developed some fairly useful habits. As a former serial procrastinator who would turn her nose up at the idea of planning a piece before writing, I have faith that with some practice and encouragement even the most disorganized person can become a little more efficient. We live in a world obsessed hyper-productivity and competing over who works the most on the least sleep. Talking about efficiency and productivity stirs up the same kind of discussion, therefore I think it’s really important to schedule in time for all aspects of your life. I’ve worked and studied at the same time for most of my academic career so have certainly fell victim to working too much, but when I learnt to manage my time properly I found that I was more than capable of doing both and staying sane. Whether you’re an undergraduate, postgraduate, or anyone else balancing life- I hope you find these useful!

  1. Time blocking

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re going through a busy few months, this can really help. You can do it as much or as little as you like- electronically or on paper- on a Sunday, take 30 minutes to ‘block’ out how you’re spending your time for the following week.

I use google calendars for everything- if I get an appointment, seminar or a date come through I add it there and then to my calendar. You can colour code certain calendars- I have one for my job, one for my teaching job, one for personal appointments, one for research seminars at various seminars I might want to attend at different universities and one for social events.

Then at the start of the week, I transfer these into a paper diary and block out time for researching. I try to designate articles or tasks to a block of study time, so that when I sit down to work, I don’t spend time figuring out what to study. It also helps with feeling like you’re focused. I’ll add everything from walking my dog to grabbing a coffee with a friend. This can balance the feeling like all your diary is full of is work, and helps you see things to look forward to in you week and break it up.

If you have a whole free day- try to treat it like a working day. If you aren’t a morning person then obviously don’t aim to start at 8- be realistic- but 10-6 with a few breaks and some lunch breaks works really well. When you do have a break or lunch- get away from the desk. Even going to eat in a library or café helps to give you that mental break, so when you come back to it, you’re back to work.

If it’s not for you, you can still only block out study days- decide when you will try to work and on which days you will complete certain tasks- it really does help you to feel organized which can really help with motivation.

Colour coding your notes as you write them up into themes can be really helpful when it comes to essay planning. They’re already grouped, so you can then easily divide them up in to points for a quick and easy plan.

Planning image by Felipe Furtado at
  1. Stay away from social media

Scrolling endlessly is the enemy of progress. There’s a really great app called Forest that you can set a timer on and it will kick you off every time you try to open an app or send a message. As you work, a little tree grows and if you end the timer, you’re reminded that the tree will die. You can add friends to introduce a competitive aspect if you’re that way inclined, and the coins you accumulate after not stopping the timer can be spent on planting real trees. A cute idea that really works to stop mindless scrolling!

  1. Be realistic!

A good piece of advice I was told at the start of my PhD was to have realistic discussions about how much work you can do in a certain amount of time. If you know that reading takes you longer, but you can type up really quickly, and you won’t have much time to read this week but will have spare time next week- tell your supervisor! It’s easy to worry and build up an idea that as you’re behind staff might be hostile, but they’re in their job because they want you to do as best you can. On the flipside, communicating goals and targets can hold you accountable- telling a colleague or friend you’re going to have started the chapter by the end of the week can be motivating.

  1. Be open to change!

Writing and researching on a large scale certainly doesn’t follow a straight trajectory. You’ll chop and change and re-direct where you’re going just as you thought you were getting somewhere. Whilst it can be frustrating, it’s a part of the process. No work or thoughts are wasted, because they’re part of what gets you to the final product.

  1. Finally- sometimes you just need to get it done.

Everyone struggles with motivation. Everyone has days when they really feel ‘done’ with whatever they’re working on. Just write something! It can be difficult to put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard when the blank white page of doom is staring back at you but remembering that drafts are just that- meant to be drafted and re-drafted. Your first work doesn’t have to be perfect- it just needs to be written. Sometimes, it’s just a case of reminding yourself that you’re hopefully working on something you ultimately feel passionate about, and that once you get it done and completed you can treat yourself to whatever drink, food or hobby you love! It’s not a case of being motivated everyday but pulling yourself together and getting on with the task at hand.

Happy studying!

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