This guest post is by Eva Lantsoght who is a PhD student at Delft University of Technology. Here Eva reflects on how knowing yourself is an integral part of developing effective working habits

This post is inspired by a course for PhD students which I am doing, in which a small group of PhD students gets together for workshops (time management, dealing with stress, giving and receiving feedback, …) with a coach. The focus of the workshops is on what lies behind our behavioral strategies. Today, I’d like to focus on research itself, and the valuable lessons for life it can teach you.

Regardless of the field in which you are doing your PhD, you will need to spend a lot of time thinking. Thinking about how to allot your time, analyzing data or other results, critically reading published material, and reflecting on your overall progress. I’ll be zooming in on the last item of this list. If you reflect on your progress every now and then, you will learn about your way of working and about yourself. In my opinion, getting confronted with yourself is a key parts of doing a PhD.

1. Behavior patterns

When you reflect on your overall progress, you will discover your typical behavioral strategies with regard to the way you work:

  • Do you only start working very hard when the deadline is getting very close?
  • Do you tend to do small tasks first before you tackle the real problem?
  • Do you  prefer to postpone meeting your supervisors?
  • Do you make a complete draft, which your proofread until it is free of all typing errors before you send it out to someone else, or do you prefer to leave it with comments in it to ask for the other’s input?

To help you getting to know your way of working, you can track your time for a while and see when you are most productive (close to a deadline, early/late hours when campus is quiet, …).

2. Behind the patterns

Once you have determined your typical behavioral strategies, you might start to realize what is behind this. Most of these strategies are the result of some emotion:

  • fear of disturbing or upsetting someone,
  • feeling as if you need to prove your value before you can be accepted in your research group,
  • sensitivity to your surroundings, or
  • fear of disappointing your supervisors.

In the course I took, we spent some time determining what are the reasons behind our coping mechanisms. Perfectionism, my vice for example, can be rooted in the fear of making mistakes and being laughed at. I’m now challenging myself to send out draft documents which are not entirely polished, to avoid spending 80% of my energy on the last 20% of improvement.

Surprisingly, we discovered in this course that procrastination in some cases can be rooted in the same emotional background as perfectionism, while the results of it are entirely opposite. Once you learn to determine what lies behind your actions (for example by making a “ladder of inference”), it becomes easier to point out what actions you can undertake to avoid falling in the same patterns over and over again, and improving your way of working.

3. Getting to know yourself

Just as with research, one question leads to another question. What is the origin of these fears? How is this related to my character or past experiences?

I myself am still chewing on these questions to understand the deeper reasons behind my ways of working. Trying to understand why I make certain decisions and work in certain ways, has become part of the entire process of doing a PhD for me. Somehow, this part of doing a PhD, feels like growing up and becoming a more mature and centered version of myself.

Even though I’m through and through into the engineering sciences, I’ve started to realize that force equilibriums and mathematical equations are not the only tools I need for doing a PhD. In fact, those tools I already had when I entered my doctoral program, while now, I seem to need a whole additional set of skills. These skills are more personal, and self-reflection in order to grow seems for me to be a much needed attribute for fine-tuning my working mechanisms and getting the most out of my years in the doctoral program of my choice.

4. Getting to know how you interact with others

When you’ve gained a thorough insight in how you work, you automatically learn about how you interact with others.

Understanding your ways of interacting with others and improving these to make sure your communication is clear and adjusted to the other person, is a key feature for good leadership. Going through the process of doing a PhD, and as result, growing as a person, seems to me to be somehow undervalued in business.

This is especially true from my European point of view, in which doing a PhD is sometimes seen as just staying in school to avoid the scary outside world and a waste of years which you could have spent on gaining experience in your field.

5. Workshops?

I’ve followed quite a number of workshops for PhD students during my first year in doctoral school. Most of them provided me with a few nice tricks, but most of the advice was forgotten after a few days. On the other hand, the PhD course which I am taking has taken me to a deeper level and was of incredible value to me.

There are many coaches which offer their services to PhD students. However, in my case, getting an explanation on – for example – how to make a plan was never what I needed. In the end, I won’t make that plan as long as I feel inner resistance to it. Learning why I feel inner resistance against certain actions, was what I needed more.

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