We can all learn some lessons on self-direction from graduate student and TPW listener Maria Bengtson, who shares how she keeps herself on track to finish her dissertation while still living her life.
Self-direction, self-discipline, and self-care
The process of earning a Ph.D. is a challenging one that requires focus, discipline, and a variety of skills over the multi-year period it takes to complete the coursework, teaching, research, and writing. Even those of us who aren’t seeking an advanced degree can learn some things about productivity from those who do. Those same characteristics and skills are important to achieving the goals we set for ourselves.
Pursuing a Ph.D.
Maria Bengtson determined she wanted to be a biomedical engineer when she went to a college meet-and-greet event and watched a biomedical engineering presentation. She did her undergraduate studies in bioengineering at Arizona State University and started working in a lab because she was interested in the project. She then participated in the study and eventually took it over. By the time she was done, she was excited about graduate school and started toward her Ph.D. at Marquette University.
In her research, Maria has worked with stroke survivors and learned how coordination of muscles affects their functional paths such as reaching or grasping. In addition to the required classes for her degree and teaching duties as a graduate assistant, Maria has had to design experiments, build equipment, find people to participate in the research, run the experiments, and then analyze and write about it. Maria said, “Until you start to get results you don’t know whether the hypothesis you’re testing is on track.” As a result, she’s had some changes in direction and her research project ended up being different than what she started with.
It’s been a long and winding process, but the end is in sight. Maria is finishing up her dissertation revisions now.
A typical day
In earlier phases of her Ph.D. studies, Maria’s days were more hectic and less predictable, so she likes having a typical daily routine now that she’s in the final stages, spending most of her time writing.
Her morning routine includes self-care — reading, yoga, meditation, and a morning walk. After she dresses and has breakfast, she tidies her office, sweeps her apartment (because she has cats), sorts her email inbox, and does a morning journal in Evernote. She spends time preparing for the day, asking herself, “What was the last thing that was bothering me yesterday?” and “What do I know about today? How can I make the best use of the time I have today?”
She then works in 30-60-minute blocks, with breaks in between. She uses a timer to tell her when to stop working for a break; she finds that periodic breaks give her brain time and rest to help her solve problems. During her break time, she might take a walk or get some tea, but she avoids doing anything that’s more interesting than the work she needs to do. She doesn’t need any distractions so she can get her work done. She spends most of the day that way.
In the evening, she clears off her desk and lists her priorities for the next day in her bullet journal. She then eats dinner, preps her clothes for the next day, and tidies the house.
Keeping her space tidy is important to Maria; clutter makes her feel overwhelmed. She said, “I think more clearly when I don’t have a lot of distractions around me.”
Then she’ll spend some time doing some leisure such as reading, yoga, playing her violin, painting, riding her bike, and getting some social time in.
She tries to keep weekends free so she can do things she just wants to do.
Right now the biggest challenge for Maria is that no one is looking over her shoulder, so there’s no immediate incentive to stick with the hard work. She uses a timer to make herself do the hard work that is hard to get started. She tricks herself by setting the timer for small amounts of time at first and then gradually increases the time to be spent on the tough task.
She’s also learning to use her time wisely, disciplining herself to work for focused periods of time interspersed with the breaks she needs. “Self-direction is not an easy game,” says Maria.
Tools Maria recommends
For anyone who’s writing a book or research papers, there is a free software program called Mendeley that allows her to store research articles. It helps her keep track of all of her papers she’s cited in her research, and it works well with Word.
For project and task management, she uses a couple of tools. She really likes using Omnifocus for really large projects, such as figuring out her edits for her dissertation. For day-to-day, she likes using a Bullet Journal that has her next few steps in it.
For time-sensitive appointments and tasks, Maria uses her calendar and alerts on her phone.
Maria also loves Dropbox as the primary depository of all her documents and information.
Maria also likes to keep track of what she actually did each week. She uses Gretchen Rubin’s idea of a ta-da list, which is a list of everything she got done the past week. Maria notes that sometimes the amount of work you are putting in and the outcomes are not the same, especially when doing research.
What happens on a day you feel gets away from you?
When things don’t go as they should, Maria chooses to disengage. She might go make some tea, take a walk, and get away from whatever she is doing at that moment. She might call a friend or get out of the office. Once she has had some time and space then she will tidy up. If she has time to organize she will do that; if not, she will just set things aside and end the day. If the work has to be done even if she is fried, she will use her timer to get started and just spend small amounts of time doing her work.
What’s on the horizon for Maria?
After graduation, Maria hopes to get into industrial management consulting. She’d like to get a broad view of business and learn how case interviews work. She may do research at a biomedical company. She will also be preparing some papers for a conference coming up.
Last words on making a life that matters
Maria just read a book by Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton. The main character talks about her childhood and says, “Work gets done if you simply do it.” Maria says that when you sit down and start working on whatever you need to do, it gets done.
Maria also quotes Gretchen Rubin, “It’s easier to demand a lot from yourself when you’re giving a lot to yourself.” She says to figure out what boundaries you need, what leisure you need, and what counts as leisure for you. And if you need someone to be accountable to so you actually take time for leisure, then find someone!
What do you think?
Connect with Maria:
Maria Bengtson is finishing her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at Marquette University. In addition to being a card-carrying neuroscientist, Maria has a not-so-secret love of English literature, yoga, and asking “why?” more times than a three-year-old.
Resources and Links:
Learning and managing ideas:
- For each project or class: Plastic envelope, spiral notebook, folder: color-coded by project, allows me to keep all materials for a project together easily.
- Pen and paper (small pad always handy, larger sheets if I need to sketch out ideas)
- Whiteboard and sticky notes
Keeping on track:
Announcements & Reminders
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