Good daily work habits for early career researchers

A collection of good daily work habits that will help early career researchers flourish, based on insight from a number of academics

Kelly Louise Preece's avatar
10 Mar 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Colleagues laughing and having a chat over coffee

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Exeter

You may also like

Transitioning to a PhD: common struggles and how to overcome them
Advice from a doctoral student on overcoming common challenges while studying for your PhD

There is no one answer or solution to the questions of how to be an effective researcher, to future-proof yourself and your career or get started with your literature review. But there are some good daily work habits that will benefit any early career researcher – and indeed any academic or faculty member.

These top tips do, however, come with a couple of caveats. The first is that I am not perfect, and although I know I should be doing all of these things, I don’t always do them. Having contributed to a Guardian article about study habits, I recognise the irony of some of my advice as I have a tendency to overwork. I’m human, you’re human. If you think you have bad work habits, or you don’t always do the things you know you should, don’t beat yourself up about it.

The second is that these tips are 100 per cent borrowed from other people and sources. I have credited the individuals upon whose wisdom this advice is based at the end.

  • Treat your research degree like a job. Do nine-to-five hours (or an eight-hour day at times that work for you) and protect your evenings and weekends as much as you can. You and your research will be better for it.
  • Adopt the mantra #takebreaksmakebreakthroughs – this is all about making sure you have regular breaks, throughout your day, week and academic year. Try to take a five-minute break at least every hour. Go and get a cup of tea and speak to your colleagues. Lots of our departments have weekly coffee mornings – if yours doesn’t, why not set one up?
  • Have lunch away from your desk. You are more likely to have those “aha” moments when you are not focusing on the problem at hand. It’s how we process information.
  • Always take your annual leave allowance – yes, you have one.
  • Take up a hobby or a regular self-care activity. They really help with work-life balance. I sew and read a copious amount of fiction, both of which keep my brain engaged but on something other than work. And sometimes if I need to de-stress at the end of the day, I take my brother’s dogs for a walk. Nature and fresh air can do you the world of good. As, of course, can a puppy.
  • If you don’t have immediate access to a puppy, BorrowMyDoggy is a great way to fill the animal void in your life, or head to a local animal sanctuary, city farm or equivalent. One of our postgraduate researchers likes to take relaxing walks around the nearby donkey sanctuary in Sidmouth.
  • Sport can also be a great way to de-stress, boost your energy and mood and make friends. One of our PhD students was awarded a grant by the University of Exeter Annual Fund to set up weekly indoor hockey sessions to enhance mental well-being for Exeter’s postgraduate researcher community.
  • No one can be 100 per cent focused and productive all the time. It’s not how we are made. When making to-do lists, list creative and mundane tasks – those that require our best thinking, and those that are glorified admin (or Gradmin). That way, you can focus on ticking off tasks that move your project forward when you’re feeling highly focused and motivated, then turn to less mentally taxing work when you’re feeling a little bit sleepy after lunch.
  • Talk to your peers, learn from each other, create support networks and communities to get you out of the office or help you procrastinate, cast away your worries and laugh on a Wednesday afternoon – just like a group of our humanities doctoral students who created PhD: The Musical!

I’d like to thank the following people for their input into these recommendations: Gemma Delafield, postdoctoral researcher in the University of Exeter Business School; Kay Guccione, head of researcher development and research culture at the University of Glasgow; Rebecca Millard, a PhD student in biosciences at the University of Exeter; Edward Mills, a lecturer in medieval studies at the University of Exeter; and Imogene Dudley, alumni engagement officer at the University of Exeter.

Kelly Louise Preece is head of academic development and skills at the University of Exeter.

This advice is adapted from her blogWorking Well”, originally written for the University of Exeter Doctoral College.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site