Twenty Questions for Humans (Who Are Studying A PhD)

This post is inspired by the book 20 Questions for Humans (by Craig Harper). You can read my thoughts on the book in the book section of my website.

1. What is my life telling me? In particular, how is your focus on study impacting the rest of your life? Are you working too hard? Is it time to take a break? Is it time to change your routine? For many researchers (PhD students in particular) there are times when research becomes all encompassing. For better (but often for worse) we can prioritise the PhD over all else. So, we work longer hours; starting earlier, finishing later, skipping lunch. Then, after a while that becomes the norm. You forgot there was a reason for those hours or that effort and now you’ve got no life. It’s just PhD. So, as a PhD student or researcher, every few months or so, do a diary audit. What have you done that’s not your PhD? What have you done that is not research? Does your diary look balanced? If not, make a change the next day. Limit work hours to 9-5. Meet up with friends. Call your mum. See a movie (not a show on Netflix). Go for a long walk or run. Play or listen to music. Read a book – in one sitting.

2. What are my core values & how do I “live in alignment?” For researchers and PhD students this might relate to things like working with animals. Working with certain agents. Working or certain compounds. Working with certain partners. Do you know what your research values are? And are they being compromised? I did my PhD in a group that also did research using animals. There were people who did not want to be involved in that kind of research. There were others who saw the value in specific or strategic use of animals. And there were others who did not have a strong view at all. For the most part that all worked well. However, there were definitely times when people who did not want to work with animals compromised their values and collaborated with those who did use animals. Or ended up using animals themselves. These were the times when those students were at some of the least motivated, least content in the lab.

3. Why do I self-sabotage? Craig talks about fear being a driver of self-sabotage. And if we take that as true, I think PhD students and researchers can be fearful of failing. And failing is hard because of the potential impact on your degree or career. But it is also a case of feeling like you look bad in front of your peers. However, I’d say the latter is not true – you don’t matter, they’re not listening, and no one cares.1 The former is hard to directly address, but I reckon risk taking is key to success in research. Small incremental steps are easy and fundable, but transformational progress attracts better thinkers to your work.

4. What’s the best question I can ask? A great question for PhD students to regularly ask themselves. Am I asking the best question of the data? Am I asking the best question of my supervisor? Don’t let asking a better question get in the way of progress or asking questions – but always be thinking about the best question. Think about questions that can lead to action. So, why is this experiment failing? Is better than Why are they doing better than me?

5. How does the other person see this? Of all of the questions in the book, this is the best for PhD students to ask. I think it is a great question to ask for anyone anytime too. But awesome for PhD students. Why? Because there is so much perceive or actual conflict in the PhD student -supervisor relationship. It could be massively improved by seeing the other side. For example, although you applied to do a PhD and chose your supervisor. Your supervisor also chose you. You chose them for a set of reasons – expertise, personality, location, and many others I am sure. They chose you for a set of reasons – work ethic, experience, focus, desire and many others I am sure. So, when you tell your supervisor you’d like to change topics, focus or leave research they are processing that in the context of why they accepted you as a student, and perhaps why they turned down someone else. Or their experience of being scooped. Or working with someone similar to you. Or the last time they performed that experiment.

6. What’s my why? Is very similar to Q2. And perhaps might be a precursor question for some. But why a PhD? Why research? Why academic research? These are all good things to consider as you start a PhD or as you look to your future and what you might do next. Sometimes, you might find there are multiple pathways through. For example, doing a PhD because you want to be a researcher is not a fool proof strategy. Indeed, most jobs in research DON’T require a PhD. However, if you want a job in academic research doing a PhD is an awesome thing to do. In fact, it is essential for a long-term academic career. BUT you can also get an idea of academic research (to determine if you like it) in lots of ways other than a PhD. For example, you could become a research assistant or a laboratory technician. So, have a good idea of your why before you start a PhD. Of course, is also applies to parts of your PhD or research. Why this technique over another? Why this topic? Why this grant? Craig calls this the “goal behind the goal.”

7. What’s my plan? If your goal is to get the PhD done in three years. The PLAN might be to write a literature review in year one, collect data in year two, and write it all up in year three. And then even those plans need more plans. Writing the literature review needs plans relating to finding, reading, reviewing and writing. Data collection needs experimental plans etc. etc. I’ve written heaps on plans and planning.

8. Why do I think the way I do? A good question for thinkers to consider. Particularly in the context of the student-supervisor relationship. And it that respect it relates to question 5. Beyond that, we know that you’re thinking creates your experiences. And that your experiences modify your thinking. And that the same experience will result in different thinking for different people. Craig uses the example of being an audience member at a talk. Everything is the same for all – seat, words, visuals, temperature. But all have a different experience. That’s essentially why do we think that way?

9. How can I change the way I think? So, if you’ve followed Q8 you might now want to change your thinking… So what next? Craig gives five ideas:

Get new information through reading, listening or watching different stuff to usual.

Note what you’re happy with through a gratitude journal. I do this. And it’s a simple as noting one thing that I was happy with in the day.

Try new things. It’s simple. Do something you haven’t done before.

Do the thing your avoiding. It’s also simple. But not easy.

Find solutions. Focus on finding solutions. You could even keep a daily  note/journal/list of what solutions you found or offered as a way of remembering to find solutions.

10. What is reality? Craig builds on the idea of the science talk here and how we’re all creators of our reality and that it is different despite inhabiting the same time and space as others in the audience. For a PhD student you can turn your negative experiences of research into a negative and/or lonely reality. Thus, for a PhD student the goal here is to compare your reality to others. This could be chatting to peers, engaging on social media or talking at a conference.

20 Questions for PhD

students – Q14 Am I

ready to do the work?

11. What is it like being around me? I don’t think enough academics ask this question of themselves. Indeed, many academics mock reviewer 2 as if they are never reviewer 2.2 Yet, in order for the academic system to operate as it does all academics need to be a reviewer (and therefore reviewer 2) at some point. Beyond this, knowing what it is like to be around you would certainly improve supervisor-student relationships. I also think students have a role to play in asking themselves the same question.

12. Am I efficient or just busy? Continuing my theme of using meme’s to prove my point, there are many focused on how much time a research assistant, Post-Doc and PhD students spend in the lab and their relative success. Here’s one from Sketching Science on Instagram. Sometimes, the nature of the way we start an academic career – as a student managing ourselves – means we don’t keep strict times on work hours. That has a knock on effect of allowing ourselves to get distracted with other ideas or projects. Whereas, for many people I have coached, encouraging them to keep to a stricter 9-5, Monday to Friday schedule sees them getting more done, and in less time. So, asking yourself, as you efficient or busy is a very useful question for a researcher. Craig poses seven questions that are worth looking into.

13. What is success for me? As academics we have a vague notion that success is papers and grants. But I think we need to delve deeper than that. In this section of the book Craig encourages the reader to think beyond stuff and things and to look into yourself. Considering your emotional, mental and physical self. I agree these are essential for academics. Particularly at a time in history when PhD students and ECRs are increasingly feeling disillusioned with the opportunities apparently available to them.

14. Am I ready to do the work? Academia is a long hard slog. That’s not to say that other jobs or roles are not. But there are very few jobs – perhaps other than being self-employed – where no matter how successful you are today, tomorrow things could see all of that change. Not to mention working for months on an idea (grant), then waiting a year for it to be assessed only to find it was a near miss, or unfunded. Although not the same financially. The hard slog is evident within a PhD. Unlike anything else in life, it is something that you’ll need to focus on for 4 years or more. Day in. Day out. There is nothing like it. Anywhere. Even your degree the focus changed every six months as you changed subjects. Had a few weeks or months off, and then started studying again. In a PhD it’s all the same. For a long time. Even as a full-fledged researcher you have the capacity to take on side projects. If you do that too much in your PhD, you’ll end up taking even longer. Perhaps disillusioned with the process, your supervisor or research all together. Or, your supervisor will find working with you hard – you’ll be changing direction or focus too often. There are other projects that go longer than a PhD. Bridges, roads, rail – they all take long times. But rarely (if ever) is the same person responsible for design, delivery, conduct, quality etc. and they’ll never be responsible for all of those things all on their own. So, yeah having your eyes open as you take on a PhD or dive into your research career – is essential. Asking yourself “am I ready to do the work?” is important. And I’d advise against simply dismissing this as “it’ll be different for me.”

15. What is my body telling me? Our body is an emotional and physical feed-back system and we need to understand how one part of our life or physical/emotional/mental state impacts the others. As academics we can often overlook the obvious in search of “the evidence”. I know that I have often neglected what my body was telling me. Taking physical problems as purely physical and not recognising the role stress (for example) plays in my physical condition has led me to having back, shoulder and neck problems. So, as well as listening to family and friends, listen to your body.

16. Why do I say yes, when I should say no? Knowing what to stop is a key part of switching from being busy, to being efficient. In the unequal power relationship that is a PhD, students can often find themselves saying “yes” to more or different work; when they should be saying “no.” You’ll find yourself in these kinds of positions in third year and beyond. When your supervisor is asking you for one more experiment or one more trial. “it’ll make your thesis better/stronger” is often the justification. Or “it’ll go in the paper.” Think critically and deeply and work out a way to say no.

17. What do I need to stop doing? Craig provides a useful list of seven things to sop. All are good for a researcher to think about. I’m not going to repeat them here. But as a researcher I think the kinds of things to think about stopping include being overly critical of yourself and others; working long hours without reason; expecting others to behave or think like you.

18. What happens when I lose motivation? Embarking on a PhD probably means you’re full of motivation. But I think you’ll find it tough at some point. So, the question is not what happens IF, but what happens WHEN I lose motivation. Whatever your answer here, I don’t think it is a reason to not do a PhD. BUT I do think you need to plan for it. In my case, that means systems and processes that ensure work gets done and progress is made in the absence of motivation. Craig (and many others) use the metaphor of brushing teeth. That’s not something we need motivation for, yet it is essential to maintaining good oral hygiene not to mention a range of other health conditions. Furthermore, the payoff is well out of synch with the activity. That is, brushing your teeth does not immediately lead to better oral hygiene or good general health. But over time, it helps. So what are the equivalent things to brushing your teeth that you can do in research to ensure you continue to progress. And things can be as simple as brushing your teeth. Breaking brushing teeth down. It is quick – less than 5 minutes including flossing and mouthwash. The tools are always laid out for you to see. You always have the raw ingredients at the ready. So, what could be a research thing that is quick and always ready when you are? I’d argue writing, reading, and analysis. Too many people feel like they need to do these things for many minutes or hours on end. However, if you allow them to take place when you’re ready and for short periods of time, you can still get stuff done in the absence of motivation.

19. What will my life look like in one year? For a PhD student, I think it is more valuable to ask “what will my life look like a year after I finish my PhD. So, if you are just starting out, that might be four to five years from now. That might seem a long time into the future, but it’s really not. For one, you already have a PhD project plan (or will do). That will cover three years. But what’s the plan after that? What’s the plan for getting a job? How will you transition from student to staff – in any company or industry? If you don’t know these answers, that’s okay, but not knowing where you want to be will mean you won’t even be able to find the answers. So, where will you be living? What about work? And lifestyle? Focus? Health? Mental health?

20. What’s the meaning of life? Not sure why Craig decided to ask this chestnut – and even he says the same… With that in mind I put forward the following. First, read his response. Second, I agree with him. Third, ask the question in the context of your study – what is the meaning of this? Why am I studying a PhD? Maybe your PhD gives your life meaning. Maybe the PhD give you a purpose. Maybe it helps feel like you are contributing to society. Maybe it is all about getting a job. Whatever it is – know the answer to “what does a PhD mean to me?”. Or – what is the meaning of this PhD life?


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@drrichardhuysmans.com) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).


1A quote from a mentor of mine, Matt Church.

2If you’re not sure what I am talking about just check these memes out.