Tips for (external) PhD researchers

When I started as an external PhD researcher, I searched for some tips, but I could hardly find any. Therefore I decided to put some things I learned during my journey on paper (I will add new ones if I have them). Please note that what works for me may not work for you, as every person is different. But maybe you find something that helps you.

Work, life, PhD: practical tips

  1. Work-PhD-life integration. As an external PhD researcher, you probably do it next to your job, and next to your social life. The biggest challenge you will face is how to integrate the three. I decided to work 4 days, write on my PhD for 2 days and keep the evenings and 1 day a week free as spare time.
  2. Setting boundaries. This helped me a lot in finding a productive way to work. I treat my PhD days like my office days, meaning that I have the same routine: I work from 9 to 5, have my regular breaks, etc. It also means that my evenings are time for myself, during which I do not work on my PhD.
  3. Managing your agenda. My PhD days are sacred, I put those in my agenda as appointments with myself, during which I am not available for other activities. This may seem harsh (it probably is a little), but it actually helps a lot, and friends normally also have time when I have do time.
  4. Work or hobby? Writing a PhD is hard work. Yes, it is work. But I also see it as my long-term hobby project, and this mindset actually helps me deal with it. Doing research is fun, and I should have fun doing my PhD, so I keep reminding myself of this, and I try to find the fun in it.
  5. Planning and the deadline. I have written the text “Deadline: 1 juni 2028” on my whiteboard. This reminder keeps me focused that there is a goal towards which I am working, that there will be an end to this PhD and that there is a date that I want my dissertation to be finished. In order to reach it, I have made a planning for my chapters, including time to revise the dissertation, and I check every year whether I am still on track.

The hard times

  1. Start with the end. Before you start, think about what you want to achieve and what your long-term goals with the PhD are. Of course having a title is nice, but you probably will have more ideas about why you are embarking on this journey; do reflect on this.
  2. Motivation. In many ways connected to the previous one is thinking about what motivates you to do research, why you want to do a PhD and why you are working on your project, but also what you like about your project and your PhD trajectory. Write it down for yourself. You can revisit this later, when you are less motivated or asking yourself the question why you are actually doing this, reminding yourself of your motivation.
  3. Network. Find people who know what it is to go through a PhD, either people who are also working on one right now or who have done one. They will know the struggles, the problems, and they can help you through the times you are having a hard time. It is worth investing in your network, finding people who also like your research, and have a coffee with them once in a while. Trust me: you need them.
  4. Be kind to yourself. I tend to forget it myself, but doing a PhD is just a big challenge, and you can be your biggest enemy. So go easy on yourself if things do not work out the way you want it. As John Lennon put it: ‘Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.’


  1. Goals. At the start of each writing day, I set myself goals. What do I want to do today? These help me keep focus in my work. At the end of the day, I evaluate whether I reached the goals (yeah!) or whether there is anything that I could not do, and why. Sometimes I was too ambitious, sometimes there were unexpected problems, sometimes I just was not productive. No problem – adjust the goals for the next writing day accordingly.
  2. Celebrate successes! I have a planner of Leuchtturm 1917, with a project plan in the front. Here I color the box of the day green if I worked on my dissertation for 15 minutes. At a certain point, you have a streak that you do not want to break, and seeing all that green is immensely rewarding, because in the moments that you feel you are not getting any further, this actually shows you the opposite.
  3. Keep it small. Writing a dissertation is a daunting task, a chapter is immense. But a paragraph is doable. If you do not know where to start, just set yourself the goal of writing a paragraph (or if this is too much, a sentence). Finished? Writing the next paragraph can be the next goal. And so on. Eventually you will have written a chapter.
  4. Every minute counts. Here I do not mean that you need to get the most out of every minute, but there is always something that you can do in a minute, or in the time that you do not feel like writing. Maybe there is an article to read, or you can work on the references, or lay-out, or whatever… Every small thing that you do will bring you closer to the goal, and you can achieve a lot in just 10-15 minutes.
  5. Time to think. Allow yourself to think through things sometimes. If you have limited time, it may very easily be the case that you feel you have to produce and write every minute you have. But sometimes it is better to take a step back and just think through your project/chapter for a day. It will allow you to go twice as fast in the long run.
  6. Structure is everything. If you are writing a monograph, like me, you have to get used to the idea that you have a complete book to explain your thoughts. It took me some time to figure this out, but try to think of the structure. What will you be doing in each chapter, how does this amount to the bigger whole, and in the same way plan out your chapters: what will you say in each section, how do they contribute to the answer of the question? And the same on paragraph level, and on sentence level.
  7. Use a reference manager. It will save you a lot of time, and if you use it well, you can turn it into a very good place to organize your literature and thoughts. I use Zotero, which is free and open-source, but you can also choose another, like Mendeley or EndNote. It mainly depends on what you want and need, so compare between them before starting.
  8. Find out what works for you. Try out different things, and find out what works and what does not work. I got annoyed by the pages in Word, because it seemed like I was not getting anywhere, so I searched for a way to turn that off. You may have other distractions. I have compiled some tips for digital tools that may help you (including how to turn off the pages).