Monday, 17 August 2015

Tips from a first-year PhD researcher (Georgia Atkin-Smith)

Photo by William Iven | unsplash.com
Some people might tell you that doing a PhD is all work and that no play is allowed, but I say it’s possible to be dedicated to study, work, and maintain a good social life.

I’m a first year PhD student here at La Trobe. I originally moved from a tiny farm outside to Horsham to Melbourne and La Trobe University in 2011 to start a Bachelor of Biotechnology and Cell Biology.

After my 3-year degree, I completed my Honours in Biochemistry and was awarded a scholarship to undertake a PhD.

My study and research experiences so far have been very challenging and extremely rewarding. I’ve had the opportunity to present my research at multiple conferences, and recently published in the prestigious journal, Nature Communications.

One of the reasons why I’ve been able to achieve as much as I have, and stay happy, are my time management skills.


My Honours year was the most confronting, challenging, and stressful years of study to date. It was very important for me to work hard and reach my targets because I was aiming for a PhD scholarship. This Honours year coincided with the first year I’ve ever paid rent and financially supported my own living expenses. In the past, I’d lived in college and taken on coordinator roles that covered my living fees. Throughout my Honours year, I worked casually at The Eagle Bar, umpired netball, worked at a club in Crown Casino (a job which generally didn’t finish up until about 6am on weekend mornings), frequently went to the gym, socialised with friends, and maintained my relationship with my partner.

As well as living a busy, well-rounded life, I studied hard and managed to secure an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship, coming second in my class.

The secret is good time management, and I’d like to share my top tips with you:

1) Prioritising

While studying or researching, you need to be aware of what things are the most important to you. During the early stages of our degrees, I think most of us had that little voice in the back of our minds saying, ‘I probably should be studying right now, not partying / procrastinating / playing’, and usually this voice was right. If you can recognise early on what your priorities are, and what is most important to you (especially what’s important for the longer term), you’ll find it easier to accomplish tasks and plan ahead.

2) Planning

Planning a schedule is something that I highly recommend. Whether you’re planning a study routine, experiments to perform, practice exams to complete, or chapters to write, planning and sticking to the plan is essential. It’s a way not only to organise your time better, but also to keep track of how you’re going.

Planning your tasks is like a personal trainer or Fitbit for study. It allows you to see if you’re slacking off and, most importantly, it gives you that feeling of success when you have completed everything you set to do. This sense of achievement can be a great motivator. Currently, I have a daily (most of the time hourly) plan, a weekly plan, a list of priority experiments, and one of longer term goals (6 months, 1 year, etc). I’m well aware that, right now, experiments are my priority, so plan them out, then fit my social life and work availability around it.

3) Mornings are your friend

This tip may not work for everyone, but I strongly recommend it! Turning into a morning person can bring many benefits. First, if you get up early, you can go to the gym, have breakfast, do two hours of work, have a coffee break, do another two hours, then it’s lunch time. By setting out your day to achieve so much in the morning, this frees up the evening to kick back, relax, go to work, and socialise.

4) ‘You’ time

Whether you think you have free time or not, you MUST allow yourself to do your hobbies. For example, if you are in the middle of thesis writing and under the pump all day, there’s no harm in taking an hour off to go for a walk, play on the Playstation, or have a jam session. Doing things you enjoy will refresh your mind and, if anything, help you work better and achieve more.

I hope my experiences have shown that it doesn’t have to be one or the other when it comes to dedication to study or doing other things in your life.

It’s possible to have the best of all worlds. The key is managing your time well, persistence, planning (and following the plan!), and loving what you do.

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In 2013, Georgia Atkin-Smith completed her degree in Biotechnology and Cell Biology at La Trobe University. 

Georgia is now undertaking her PhD with the research group of Drs Ivan Poon and Mark Hulett at La Trobe's Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS), after receiving First Class Honours and an Australian Postgraduate Award. 

Recently, her research on cell biology was published in Nature Communications. 

When she completes her PhD, Georgia is aiming for an academic research career. 

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