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The Buddy System for Your Ph.D.

By Sofia Kousi

Most people who have tried to stick to a new diet or exercise regiment have probably heard the advice to use the buddy system: team up with a friend who shares the same goal, and help keep each other on track. It turns out that this system can be very helpful in completing your Ph.D. as well.

How it works: Ideally, your Ph.D. buddy should be a colleague who is roughly in the same stage in their Ph.D. as you, and shares your work ethic. This way, both can relate to what the other is going through, contribute equally, and benefit mutually from the collaboration. It is not necessary for your buddy to be working on the same academic area as you. In fact, partnering with someone from a different discipline can offer you a fresh perspective. Schedule weekly meetings to set intermediate goals of what you want to accomplish, and discuss your progress from the previous week. Be as specific as possible in describing your goals and deliverables. It is important that you actually write down what you want to accomplish for the week, so that you can prioritize your work and make it easier for your buddy to track your progress. Meetings should start by checking each other’s progress against the weekly goals. Rewarding good performance usually helps too!

Instead of having one buddy, an alternative suggestion is to create a support group. This would work in a similar fashion, although it can be administratively more complex to maintain. The added benefit of having a group is the breadth of the perspectives and feedback you can get.

In either case, this system is simple, but requires commitment from both sides.

Why it works: The Ph.D. is a very slow and solitary process. It is easy to get lost on the way and get stuck for weeks, progressively becoming more isolated and demotivated. Feeling accountable to another person makes it more likely that you will stick to your commitment. It is easy to fall back on your progress when you are the only one who is aware of it. This becomes slightly harder when you have to admit it to someone else who is checking up on you weekly. By agreeing to share and track your progress, you create an obligation that you want to fulfill.

More importantly, the weekly goal-setting process is useful in itself, as it sets you in motion with immediate, achievable deadlines. Discussing what to prioritize for the coming week with someone knowledgeable helps bring clarity and focus. Your buddy can offer suggestions for alternative ways to complete something, or point out if the goal is not realistic in the given timeframe.

Throughout the process the Ph.D. buddies exchange practical and emotional support, and learn from each other’s experience. You can exchange ideas, strategies, tips and resources. You can read and critique each other’s papers. Discussing obstacles with your Ph.D. buddy can also make them easier to overcome. Since they are going through the same process as you, they understand exactly what you are experiencing, and can offer advice and encouragement. Finally, your Ph.D. buddy follows your progress weekly and knows your effort and struggles, so they can genuinely share the joy of your achievements and success.

The best way to see if this is something that would work for you is to give it a try for a couple of weeks. The key is in finding the right person, and then adjusting the system to fit your style and preferences. If you have already tried this, feel free to share your stories on what worked and what didn’t. I would love to hear your feedback and your experiences with this system.