Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mastering your PhD by P. Gosling and B. Noordam - Book Review

Mastering your PhD was the very first book I read about the process of doing a PhD. After one month into my PhD, I went to my university's annual PhD event, and there all participants received a free copy of the book. It took me until last February to actually read it, and since I was new to this material, there were a lot of good thoughts in it for me. A fair amount of the book's content can be found here

What I like about the book, is that it is a very entertaining piece of reading. It offers short, well-structured chapters, a lot of bulleted lists (I like lists, in case you didn't notice yet), and at the end of each chapter a story about 3 PhD students is told so it's very easy to relate to the material.

Here is a list of topics which I found most useful from this book:

1. Setting goals

I especially liked the description of the action plan as you an see in the article:
1. clarify your goals and objectives
2. write down a list of actions
3. prioritize
4. organize your actions into a plan
5. monitor and measure your progress
and of course, you need to have SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-related) goals.
Further down the article they discuss the 80/20 rule: 20% of your efforts produce 80% of your results.

2. The monthly progress monitor

The idea of the monthly progress monitor has been the basis for my different levels of to do lists.
The progress monitor has 4 questions:

1. Of the results I obtained last month, which are the most important?
2. Did I deviate from last month’s planning? If so, why?
3. What are my most important goals for the upcoming month?
4. How do I overcome potential hurdles?

Although I don't write out all these questions, I do reflect on it when making my monthly to do list. By now, I'm able to estimate very well how much I can get done in one month's time.

3. Celebrate your success

This concept was totally new to me. I usually just think "well that's nice" after a success and then I just keep on going. However, finding the joy of little successes has given me much more satisfaction in what I do, and it works very motivational. It gets even better when others come to celebrate your success! Last week, my lab technician brought me flowers to celebrate my large-scale experiment number 100.

4. The final year

This material is not really covered in the online series.
In the book, you can see an overview of the schedule of a last year of a PhD. Before I read this book, I didn't realize that there are so many extra things that take up a fair amount of time which need to happen before you can defend your thesis. Some of this is typical for the Netherlands, but this chapter was a good wake-up call for me to make me realize that I need to save probably the entire last year for writing.

5. Lessons learned

At the very end of the book, two phrases are highlighted:
1. Planning is essential
2. Communication creates harmony.
As for now, I've already learned to appreciate this first comment. Even though a PhD is all about unknowns, planning is indeed essential and will help you not to loose your way when you're out there in the woods.
I can as well relate to the second statement. I might have beautiful results in the lab, but in order to pass this knowledge on to the scientific community, I need to be able to write about my results, and to present them to an audience of peers.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book a lot. I hope you will take some time to look at the online series of articles, there might be some good thoughts in there for you too.


  1. Thanks for the link! I guess I'd like to read it. For now my favourite is Phil Dee's "Building a successful career..." which you wrote about as well.

  2. Most of the chapters from this book are online, so you might like to spend some time going through them; I found these very good. The book "The unwritten rules of PhD research" is also very good.