How to excel in PhD: EXPERT ADVICE

Hi all, welcome back to scienceIQ! This is the first guest blog post of scienceIQ. We have Dr. Saurab Sharma as our guest, and today we will be discussing – how to get through the #Phdlife effectively. Here are some handy and inspiring tips from Dr. Saurab Sharma.

Dr. Saurab Sharma is a pain scientist and an Assistant Professor at Kathmandu University School of Medical Sciences, Nepal. He completed his PhD, which aimed to improve pain assessment, management, and research in Nepal from the University of Otago, New Zealand. His PhD was considered a thesis of exceptional quality unanimously by all examiners. During his PhD, he published 26 peer-reviewed papers in international journals. He also presented his research in 10 countries and received nine research and travel grants during his PhD. He speaks internationally on pain-related topics, evidence-based practice and research methods, and outcome assessment, among others. You may follow Saurab on Twitter (link_physio) and Facebook (, and LinkedIn (Saurab Sharma).

Question 1. What was the motivation behind getting a PhD?

The primary motivation behind this PhD was to improve the way we manage pain in a way that is clinically effective but not expensive for my people with low-socioeconomic status in Nepal. As a musculoskeletal physiotherapist and an evidence-based practice preacher, I noticed how clinical care of people with musculoskeletal conditions do not align with contemporary practice guidelines. I thought we could do better.

Every clinical encounter with my patients taught me many things, the most important of these knowledge/research gaps informed my research questions. I developed a program of research that would address the existing gaps in knowledge, with an overarching aim of improving pain research and management in Nepal.  

Question 2. How did you cope up with the stressful Ph.D. journey?

I did not take PhD as a stressor. I loved every bit of it because I was passionate about what I was doing. I enjoyed the overall process thoroughly.

This does not mean that it as stress-free. I can hardly remember stresses during the Ph.D. Some that I remember were self-imposed pressure to perform well in international conferences. Other challenges that many people in developed countries do not face are struggles related to visa applications and collecting necessary documents while continuing to do research.

If you think of your PhD research a  way of contributing to science and improving patient care and think of broader perspective of why you are doing your PhD, you will love it. If the research topic is aligned with your interest, is meaningful to a broader audience, and you work in a pleasant research environment (university, supervisors, research team), PhD is not as bad as many tell us. Unfortunately, such an optimal PhD environment is rare. When you don’t have ideal circumstances, accepting what you have, taking the situation, and focusing on the broader objective of contributing to mankind will keep you going. Smaller day-to-day challenges will be meaningless. In fact, they teach you to be stronger. I took all of these challenges as opportunities to bounce-back and grow.   

Question 3. What is the secret behind your exceptional numbers of publications?

The first and most important key to this “planning.” As I planned my research project before my PhD enrolment, I knew what projects I will do, when I will do, and how I will do. I knew the submission date of my thesis before I started, meaning I did not give myself an unlimited time to complete it. I started with the deadline in mind and worked during my three years sensibly. On day 1 of my PhD, I created a three-year work plan and scheduled each project in the time table. The time table was so detailed that I knew what exactly I would do on a weekly basis. This was the foundation of my success.

Second, sticking to the plan! As simple as that. I worked sincerely “for” myself. I wrote to train myself to be better writing, not to complete the PhD. I gave myself deadlines, which I respected (if I don’t, no one else will). I revised my weekly schedule with some objectives of the week. Some examples of the objectives are completing data analysis, completing the first draft of the paper for supervisors’ review, or submitting the paper for publication.

Once you do things, you get better at it. If you see the list of papers I published during my PhD, it took me 1 year to publish the first one (although I wrote 4 during year 1), and I had 9 or more in the second and third year. I led about half of these papers (as the first author), and later I was invited to co-author papers, which is an important opportunity to collaborate and learn from outside the core PhD supervisory team. The point I am going to say next could be controversial, not many people will take this as a good idea, but I always considered others’ work more important than mine. This helped me clear my desk from coauthored work and allowed time to focus on my own work. This reciprocates, and others’ will start taking your work as their priority.  

My advice would be to do things right away. If you keep holding things and procrastinating, it increases stress and anxiety, which is detrimental to learning. Clear your “to do list” as early as you can. Focus on things that are important but not urgent before they become urgent. This helps improve the quality of your work.

Question 4. Do you have any tips (do’s and don’ts) for PhD students and those undertaking research in times of COVID-19?

Some tips and advice for PhD students which will also apply outside of the COVID-19 crisis. Some relates to my previous points.

  1. Don’t rush to do a PhD (it may be too late for some of the readers). It is better to do a PhD late than doing it with a wrong team, on an unimportant question (or sometimes wrong question).
  2. Don’t do PhD just because everyone is doing it. An analogy is “marriage.” If you marry a random person just because all of your friends are marrying, married life can be disastrous. So can PhD.
  3. Don’t procrastinate. Do it now.
  4. Plan you PhD, if you don’t know how, start by learning how to plan. There are plenty of online resources. Read books on how to do PhD. Read that is available online or in your library or you can purchase.
  5. Plan your weeks and days and hours. Have a weekly schedule.
  6. Take the lead in your PhD. It’s your PhD, no one else’s.
  7. Have your PhD learning objectives. Learn what you think you should learn. This may evolve overtime.
  8. Be a proactive learner. Don’t wait for others to teach you what/how you should do (or learn).
  9. Connect with “good” people in your area of research. It can be by following them on social media. I learned so much from Twitter, just by following researchers whose work I admire. Learning should not be limited geographically (or within a team). Embrace the technology we have sensibly.
  10. Establish good relationships with your supervisors and research group/team.
  11. Have timely meetings with supervisors to discuss your problems.
  12. Have clear expectations from each member of the team. Example, when will the supervisors provide comments or feedback for your work, or the role of each authors in the paper before you start writing them.
  13. When there is a problem, discuss and solve it before it gets complicated.  
  14. Invest in good books, including books on writing. Before starting to write, learn key principles of writing. Which you can then use when writing your manuscripts/thesis. If you start writing without knowing how best to write, you will only get better at writing poorly.
  15. Don’t start too many things at one time. Two or three is fine. Invest your time on the ones that are closer to completion. 
  16. Learn how to read. Reading differs for different purposes. Identify differences.
  17. Read critically! Learn critical appraisal skills. Read “good work” based on critical appraisal of the papers, discard poor ones. Read papers from good writers. You should know who good writers and researchers are in your area of research.  Reviewing papers for reputed pain, rehabilitation, and physiotherapy journals helped me with the critical appraisal skills during the later stages of my PhD. I was able to critique my own paper after I did it on others.
  18. Speak about your research passionately with others. Both who understand or don’t understand research. Speaking to lay audience teaches you so much more about your research.
  19. Learn when to stop reading and start writing. To me, the best form of reading was writing. It is quite philosophical, but try it, you will know what I mean. The gist is that, when you write (following the principles of writing), you will learn what lacks in your understanding in the topic, give them a place-holder (e.g., xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx), then go back and read what key information you require to fill that gap.
  20. Give back twice as much as you take from others.
  21. Lastly, even if your PhD was arranged (like an arranged marriage), try loving what you are doing. Focus on positive aspects. Follow the above advice. Despite all your effort, if it does not work; maybe it is better to find another one!

That was it. I thank Dr. Saurab for taking out time to write this wonderful post. Hope you all enjoyed reading it. Good luck with your PhDs.



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