This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Learn more

James Hayton: How to get through your PhD without going insane (complete lecture), Edinburgh 2013


James Hayton: How to get through your PhD without going insane (complete lecture), Edinburgh 2013


There is no shortage of PhD advice out there; how to be more organised, how to procrastinate less, how to sort your data and so on... And yet there is no shortage of stressed PhD students either.

Is the advice flawed? Or are the students just not working hard enough? Neither; the problem is that the advice generally given consists of tactics, while most students are still trying to figure out the rules of the game.

If you don't know how the system works or what you have to achieve, then being more organised or working harder simply won't work... you'll just end up going insane!

In this talk, you will learn the fundamental principles every PhD student needs to know in order to succeed.

Dr. James Hayton: How to get through your PhD without going insane

Stress is so common among PhD students that it's often seen as an inevitable or necessary part of the process. It's true that some stress is inevitable - because it's a near-universal truth that research never goes exactly according to plan - and it's true that some stress can be beneficial, because it's only by stepping out of your comfort zone that you can improve as a researcher.

But what if your stress grows to the point of despair; To the point where you can't think straight, where no matter how hard you work you don't seem to make progress? In that situation, saying that stress is inevitable, that it's something all PhD students go through and that you have to just get through it, is not helpful.

So what can you do to stop stress becoming desperation? In this I'll share my own experience as a struggling PhD student, why I almost quit, and how I changed both the way I worked and the way I thought about the work. We will also cover some general principles developed through working with PhD students worldwide, including:

- Some common misconceptions about PhD research, and how they can add to your stress
- Why productivity and time management techniques don't always work (and why they sometimes do)
- Why creativity and skill are crucial, and how to develop them
- How to plan your work, and how to respond when things go wrong

James Hayton is a former physicist and author of PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life

This talk was organised by the Saudi Students Society in Leeds.

How to get through your PhD without going insane by James Hayton (PART 1)

5 things every PhD student needs to know.

How to get through your PhD without going insane by James Hayton (PART 2)

5 things every PhD student needs to know.

How to get through your PhD without going insane by James Hayton (PART 3)

5 things every PhD student needs to know.

How to get through your PhD without going insane by James Hayton (PART 4)

5 things every PhD student needs to know.

PhD Essentials Episode 11: Just get words down

If you spend enough time on PhD advice sites, you will eventually come across a typical piece of writing advice, which goes something like this, just get words down on the page, turn off your internal critic, don't worry about the details, don't worry about references, just write

The idea is that you can then sort out the detail and edit the writing once you have something to work with.

This advice is so common, and has been repeated so many times that it's almost heresy to question it, but I've seen so many students end up in a horrible mess after generating thousands upon thousands of words which they then somehow have to sort out.

There are many, many reasons why I think this common advice is flawed, but I'm just going to give one example here.

In academic writing, details are important. A single assumption, a single observation, a single fact or a single claim can have extremely important consequences which are crucial to your argument. If you neglect these details, it can be very difficult to add them in later because they change everything that follows.
So if for example you start writing based on a particular assumption, but you don't check that that assumption is true and that you have the references to back it up, the rest of your argument might fall apart when you come back to it later.

Sometimes, writing fast might have some advantages, but sometimes you have to take a little care over the details, take the time to check that what you are saying is accurate, take the time to understand the consequences of what you are saying, and then take the time to express it clearly.

Sometimes you have to slow down. Your writing will never be perfect, but that doesn't mean you can't take some care and do it well.

How to get through your PhD without going insane by James Hayton (PART 5)

5 things every PhD student needs to know

Building your PhD skills

How to survive your PhD: Five lessons I've learned in my first year

Discover five tips I've learned this year on what it takes to survive your PhD - one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding things you'll ever do! This is by no means a comprehensive guide - write your own tips in the comments below :)

Santo Rico by Twin Musicom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (

Merry Christmas - By Celebratemerrychristmas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons
Light bulb - By Tito Dutta - File:Cuerpo humano jaqaru.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Stingray: Rainer von Brandis


I am Chantel Elston, a first year marine biology PhD student. Join me on my journey as I discover our wonderful oceans and try to survive PhD life.

twitter: @chantel3474


Day 6/60: I almost didn't publish this video

Today I made a mistake, recording a video in 4k instead of standard HD, which means I won't be able to edit it fast enough to publish today.

I was tempted to skip a day, but this is the same old perfectionist trap! Sometimes things get screwed up and you just have to do what you can in the circumstances.

Day 29: Don't make the reader do the work

Day 17: Don't worry about what the examiner wants to see

When you're writing, it's only natural to worry about what the examiner wants to see. But this puts you in a defensive, fear-based position, focusing on what you don't know instead of what you do.

The examiner doesn't have a pre-determined list of expectations, and they would rather read about what you want to show (not what you think they want to see).

If you focus on what you're good at and interested in, then it's easier to write, nicer to read and easier to defend (because choosing what to write about is the same as choosing what you defend).

5 Mistakes PhD Candidates Make!

Professor James Arvanitakis talks to us about 5 common mistakes that PhD candidates make during their study.

1. PhDs waste too much time in their first year of study.
2. PhDs forget about important administration matters.
3. PhDs don't start planning for their future careers.
4. PhDs cancel meetings with their supervisors.
5. PhDs don't take good notes during their time with supervisors.

Do you agree with these points? What mistakes do you think research students make? Let us know in the comments below!

Professor James Arvanitakis is the Dean of the Graduate Research School. For more information about studying a research degree at Western Sydney University, visit our website:

The (brief) Story of My PhD

How to Stay Motivated During Your PhD Studies

This is the video about conducting effective meetings with
your supervisor using Bob's Minutes of Meeting Protocol.

Here is another lecture on the Meeting Protocol:

Here is the link to the Power of Now Audiobook:

Randy Pausch's Last Lecture:

Connect with DataVis Bob on Facebook:

What is a PhD, anyway?

Day 9: The narrative of a literature review

Over the next few videos, I'm going to focus exclusively on writing (because this is one of the most common things academics struggle with).

Taking literature reviews, for example, just trying to summarize a huge mountain of literature won't work. But if you have an understanding of some basic principles of narrative then it becomes much easier.

It's not about summarizing individual papers and what people did or said, but about understanding what the literature is responding to and using that to set up a context.

The literature responds to two main things; the specific research problem or question and the existing literature around that problem.

When you set up that context, everything else can find it's place (though of course there's a bit more to it than that)

How to get a PhD in 5 easy steps (UK)

Ok so maybe the steps aren't that easy, but they are what you need to do to get a PhD!

1. Get a degree in a relevant subject. Most people also study a masters.
2. Find a supervisor and project (and funding...)
3. You must perform original research (easier said than done)
4. Write a thesis
5. Defend your thesis in a viva

A week as a PhD student:

Obviously this is all very hand wavy and approximate as I'm trying to cover all kinds of subjects, but these are the approximate steps that every PhD student goes through. Also some of the steps are someone more complex than others, with step 3 basically being the entire degree! If you'd like to learn more about my PhD then please check out videos on my channel where I talk about it in great detail, and if you have further questions about the process of applying for a PhD ask in the comments (though remember I am NOT an expert at this).

I also apologise if I got stuff wrong about humanities PhDs - my understanding is based on talking to a few friends and so is not comprehensive. I was trying my best as a mere scientist guys!

Filmed on my Canon G7X:
Editing done in Premiere.

---------- II ----------

I am Simon, a fourth year PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. I upload videos on bits of science which are relevant to what I do, and sometimes just because they're really cool.

Vlogs from Oxford students -
My twitter -
My facebook -
My insta -

Thanks to Vlogbrothers for their sponsorship of this video. Money from the Foundation to Decrease Worldsuck contributed to equipment used in this video.