The Happy PhD Toolkit
Over the years, in the “A Happy PhD” blog, we have talked about different exercises, structures and templates to support doctoral students in facing multiple challenges along the doctoral journey: from defining the PhD topic to understanding what is important in the doctoral process, or defining the co-author team for a new publication. We are now centralizing all these tools and exercises in a single place, categorized by the problem or need they aim to help with.
This will be a live repository that we will update regularly with new tools and exercises, past and future. The best way to stay up to date about this catalogue of tools? Join the Happy PhD Newsletter, if you have not done so already.
NB: Many of the editable templates are in Google Drive format, so they will require a Google login to make copies of it.
Conceptualizing your dissertation
- I have been asked what is my research question, and I did not know what to answer.
- I am not clear on my dissertation’s scientific contribution(s).
- I don’t know how to summarize my doctoral thesis in one glance (including, in my dissertation’s introduction)
- I have made a series of studies, but I am not sure they make up for something coherent, a single PhD project.
- I have the impression my supervisor(s) and I have different ideas of what my thesis is about.
- When we come to the meetings, my supervisor(s) don’t seem to remember what my thesis was about.
The CQOCE diagram is a classic conceptualization exercise that originated in the field of technology-enhanced learning, but is applicable to dissertations in many other research fields (especially, if they have an empirical element). Basically, it is a diagram in which we detail what is the research context/area and gaps we have detected in the literature, the core research question and objectives of the thesis, the contributions to knowledge that we propose as an answer to the aforementioned question(s), and the evidence (e.g., evaluation studies) supporting the novelty and usefulness of those contributions. You can read a more detailed description of how to do it, and you can use this editable diagram template (or good-old pen and paper!).
- Among so many tasks in my PhD, I am not sure which ones are critical to my progress and which are just nice-to-have
- I don’t know which are the most important pitfalls to avoid during my doctoral process
- My progress and morale are very uneven – at times it’s great but then long lumps of time feeling blocked follow
- I don’t really know if I’m going forward in my dissertation, or just going in circles
- I have the impression that my supervisor(s) and I don’t share a common picture of what’s critical in my PhD, or what are the most important obstacles we are facing
The map of the thesis is a classic conceptualization exercise about the process (not the content) of your dissertation. In this exercise we aim to cut through the noise and map out the key milestones of the thesis, particular internal or external obstacles that are likely to hamper our progress, and day-to-day habits or indicators that can help us make progress and keep a good morale. Make a copy of this editable diagram template or this other one (or good-old pen and paper!) and map your journey out! This exercise is especially useful if discussed with supervisors or other more experienced colleagues (as our perception of these critical elements may be incomplete).
Writing, publishing and communication
- I don’t know what elements I should include in my conference presentations
- Presentations about my research always take too long, because I get lost in the details
- An external professor came to our lab and asked me to describe my latest study (or my whole PhD), and I blanked out
- I don’t know if I have a coherent, clear research idea or there are critical holes in it
- From conference presentations to informal chats with the odd visiting professor, it is quite common that a doctoral student needs to synthesize all their research into a short and simple “elevator pitch”. The NABC technique provides a simple way to create such pitches, which we have adapted for your doctoral (or later) research (calling it NQABC). Create a copy of this simple canvas (requires a Google account) to brainstorm your pitch following this method, or use good-old pen and paper!
- I don’t know how to approach potential co-authors for my papers, to set clear expectations about participation in a new paper
- I have received help from some people for my paper, but I don’t know if they deserve (or expect!) to be co-authors
- I am afraid to ask my collaborators to do tasks like revising the manuscript
Our authorship post tries to help you understand typical criteria for co-authorship, emphasizing clear communication with potential collaborators so that everyone has their expectations met. This example form for co-authors can help you do that, be it after the collaboration or in the middle of the process (or, even better, at the outset of the joint work). Of course, you can also just go and talk to them face-to-face!
NB: I found no way to make copies of a form in Google Drive without giving editing rights, so you will have to copy the form linked above by hand. Sorry!
Mental health and wellbeing
- The idea of working on my dissertation fills me with anxiety, fear and/or discomfort
- I often fall into a rut of procrastination and fail to advance in stuff that is important for me (like my thesis)
- I dread certain activities related to my PhD, like sitting down to write my papers or asking my supervisor(s) for feedback
- Oftentimes, I don’t feel like working on my thesis, and end up doing other stuff (meetings, email) to keep myself busy
In our post on avoidance we saw how our attempts to suppress difficult thoughts or emotions are at the center of many mental health issues (e.g., anxiety, depression) and lack of productivity. In that post, we also shared strategies to fight this kind of avoidant behaviors and do more of what we think is important (like our dissertation). The final reflection exercise on that post can help you make a plan for how you will face such mental self-sabotage and do more of such important stuff. Copy this whiteboard template to develop the plan, or just use pen and paper!
- I have been offered a PhD position, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea for my career
- I think I’d like to start a PhD, but I’m not sure
In our “Should I do a PhD?” post we laid out two paths for deciding whether one should start a PhD or not: a quick decision path looking at the role of the PhD in our future career, and a more complex one looking at important aspects of the PhD position and our own qualities. We have now transformed the post into a checklist you can download and print when making this important decision… or you can make a copy and customize our base checklist to add or remove elements that are particularly important in your specific situation.