Minimising the misery and pain: tips for completing a Doctoral Thesis

Long time readers  know that I’m a relatively freshly minted PhD graduate (2010 vintage) and a quick browse through some of my earlier posts here or on twitter would no doubt reveal some of the anguish and horror that I went through during my candidature. So, it is a rather strange turn of events for me now to be offering advice to PhD candidates who are setting out on that unique and harrowing journey. Nevertheless, I’m about to go and offer  some general tips on ‘success in a PhD program’ to new PhD candidates in my Faculty. Why they asked me I’m not sure, but I thought it worth posting those tips here because I think they’re more generally applicable to anyone starting a thesis.

As a brief prelude to those tips, I should note that my PhD was very messy and I suspect I was far from being the role model PhD student. I disappeared into remote areas for months at a time, took around 6 years to complete and for a whole lot of that time I was working full time. I did finish and I did get a job, but I would  do a PhD very differently were I to start another one tomorrow.

(Warning, longish read!)

1. Planning Planning Planning!

I didn’t plan my PhD studies at all well. You should. A carefully thought through PhD project will result in a much better thesis and you will emerge with a more rounded set of skills, knowledge and experience. There are two points I think are of special importance:

  • Make sure you know why you are here. All theses have a question. Write yours up early and develop it through detailed literature reviews. What is your question? What gaps will it fill? What literature do you need to read? What contribution will you make? You can’t really begin to write or carry out your research until you understand why you are doing it. Do you really know what you’re doing? Find out by writing it up sooner, not later.
  • Develop a thesis structure as soon as you can (but know it will change). Writing up a thesis structure and even a timeline of when you will complete key chapters will help you to organise your time and to think through in detail what specifically you need to do. Consult with your advisor(s) and prioritise/organise your time. Ideally, by the end of year 2 (in a 3 year program), you should have nothing more to do other than to finish writing.

2. Treat it like a job!

You have 3 years, maybe 3.5. For the first 1-2 years it’ll be very smooth and enjoyable.  You’ll make friends, you’ll feel important and privileged. However, I’m here to tell you that if you do not work in the first 1-2 years your last 1-2 years will be misery and pain.

Getting to your office/cubicle by 10 am, having coffee and socialising until 11, followed by an hour or two of catching up on email and then ‘doing lunch’ ahead of an afternoon of photocopying is not a day of work: it’s a day of messing about and avoiding work.

So, treat your PhD like a job. It’s a 3 year contract where you are expected to do 40 hours per week. The social life of a PhD candidate is important, as I outline below, but it’s only part of the reason you are here. You are here to learn, think, engage,  contribute and write.  Balance those things. You just look silly otherwise (and did I mention the potential misery and pain?).

3. Identify key skills and learn them quickly.

This is a simple point. Identify any critical skills you need to master in order to complete your research, such as new analytical techniques or how to use  new software, and learn them as quickly as you can. Take advantage of any professional development courses in your University. Focus on this in the first year if you can, but it’s never to late to learn.

4. Organise your research

The ‘data’ and materials you are analysing in your thesis will vary depending on your project so it’s difficult to generalise about how best to deal with that. Seek advice in your field: is there a particular system you need to be using? Find out quickly and master it.

We all use literature. Use a reference manager such as Zotero or Mendeley. They will save you time and help to organise your reference lists when you are writing your final draft.

Photocopying is old school and uncool. Scan things and use OCR to make them text searchable. If you use the reference managers above, you can search across a whole database (including inside the PDFS) for terms. That’s a very powerful and useful tool if you have 1500 PDFs.

Finally, take good notes when you read. Copy quotes and include page numbers, or summarise key points. Include those notes in your database: it becomes very useful over time. In my current teaching role I regularly rely on my notes to remind myself of what people said or of key results.

5. Always write

Of all the skills I gained in a PhD, learning to write was the most important. My writing style is far from perfect and that is one of the reasons I write a blog. You can always write better and so you need to start developing that skill now. Write paper summaries or blog posts (see below) and start writing chapters as soon as you can. You’re here to write a thesis and so the sooner you can start writing the better.

There’s a twitter meme, #200words I think, and I don’t remember who said it first, but the basic idea is to write 200 words a day on something. Every single day. Do that, rinse and repeat for 3 years and you have yourself a thesis.

6. Start building networks

I am not a fan of the word ‘network’ but everyone will tell you that these are what you need to get on in academic or professional life. This is true to some extent: your time as a PhD student is when you begin to develop the relationships that might ultimately lead to professional opportunities like jobs or grants. That’s important, but professional relationships are perhaps more important because they provide opportunities to engage with others: to learn, to share your ideas and to influence debate.Focus on that, not on building vapid ‘contact lists’.

Personally, I won’t bother to engage with new people at conferences unless they’re interested in discussing ideas or debating  important issues. You don’t go to conferences for speed-dating style ‘networking’, you want to build intellectual relationships and to converse, listen and learn. There are a a few ways to do this:

  • Get to know others in your local research environment. Go to social events, join local organisations and if no such networks exist then start one. Even just a ‘coffee club’ or reading group to meet now and again can be really stimulating and helpful for all involved.
  • Focus on meeting PhD students working on similar issues in other locations. Writing a thesis is very competitive, but that shouldn’t mean you ignore other people doing similar work. That reeks of arrogance.
  • Identify the established people that you would like to meet. Don’t stalk them, but having a vague list of people you would like to meet can help you to focus your efforts.

7. Attend conferences, seminars and symposiums.

These are very critical to professional life and can be very valuable for students to participate in.  I would question the value of the ‘networking’ you might think you are doing at a dingy conference afterparty at 2 am in the morning. I revel in conference parties as much as the next person, but they’re not the primary reason you attend: you attend conferences to learn and meet people and you make a better impression when sober.

Go to events and present if you can. It’s daunting, but the best way to meet people is to stand up and tell them what you’re doing!  Be modest if you’re starting out, focus on the work and not on promoting yourself. The quality of the work is the evidence of your ability as a researcher. If you’re new to presenting papers, start out in your own research environment or ask a group of friends or colleagues to listen to your presentation. Whatever you do, don’t write your presentation the night before you are supposed to present. That always looks sloppy.

Listen and ask questions. If you’re interested in someone’s work in particular, read up on their work beforehand and then corner them and ask questions. You might even be able to arrange a short meeting with them over a coffee or breakfast. (once again though, stalking is not cool!)

8. Have you heard about the internets?

Ok, well you made it this far so I know you’re on top of that particular technology. I include this because I’m frequently confronted by people who have limited knowledge of the potential role of web-based media for scholarly discussion and broader engagement. I could go on at length about this, but let me make several critical points:

  • Facebook is not social media. It’s a silo and in my view it’s not at all about professional networking and communication. Most of the Facebook interactions I see are people posting personal commentary and rarely anything that I could be bothered to read. That’s ok, and Facebook is good for keeping in touch with friends, but you need more than that as a researcher.
  • Read blogs. There are some very good people writing on the web in your field. Find them, read what they say and learn from their style. They’re a great space for discussion and asking questions as well.
  • Own your own space. Start a professional blog. Share things and write for others. You want to let the world know that you are trying to make a contribution. Make a long-term commitment to this and build up a portfolio of work.
  • Use twitter. It’s fairly open and is a great way to share information or to see what like-minded people are doing. If you are following people who are not posting useful material, drop them like a stone! (It’s the internet you can do that!)

There might be other useful networks, but I have found Twitter to be most valuable for meeting others both in my own field and beyond. I like that fact that non-professionals sometimes read what I say on Twitter, and that’s an important part of what we do: communicating and reaching out beyond our conferences and lecture theatres.

9. Find some work-life balance

A PhD is a long and potentially very lonely road: 3 years, maybe 4. Don’t wear yourself out too quickly.

Make sure you do your 40 hrs per week. If you can do a few more that’s ok, but stay healthy and happy. A thesis will eat into your life until you’re nothing more than a hollowed and burnt out shell, hunched over a keyboard talking to yourself until 3 am in the morning. That’s unavoidable if you want to finish, but by trying to achieve some work-life balance early you will set yourself up for a final year with a touch less pain and misery.

Also, take holidays – you’re allowed (usually) – and make time for your friends and family.  Their support is what you need to get through.

So good luck!

I’d love to hear if anyone has any other ideas or thoughts on what I’ve outlined here and I am, of course, happy to answer any questions.

6 comments on “Minimising the misery and pain: tips for completing a Doctoral Thesis

  • Michael, this is all extremely good advice, and I will be sharing it, but I would add another suggestion: candidates should consult an academic editor before they commence writing. PhD candidates are often advised by their supervisors to have their theses edited, usually at the last hour. Of course, this is positive for professional academic editors such as myself (i.e. it means work and therefore money); however, I can’t help thinking that this advice occurs at the ‘wrong end’ of the process. PhD candidates (and universities) could save both time and money if they were advised to consult an editor much earlier in the process: before the candidate commences writing would be ideal. When I edit theses, I expend (and therefore invoice for) many hours of corrections that the candidates could easily (yes, easily!) have avoided if I’d had the opportunity to communicate with them much earlier.

  • Andrew Wilkinson says:

    Great advice there Mick. Some of my thoughts below:
    1. Start considering Mick’s tips while as an undergraduate, although it is never too late.
    2. Treat everything you do as a job interview. Volunteer experience, related social clubs, lesson time, seminars and conferences. Discover the characters of those people you would like to work with, work for, or even employ one day. People are always looking at what others do, the skills they have, and how they act.
    3. Look for transferable skill opportunities. Volunteer organisations can provide great training, and at their expense. CFS/CFA/SES, for example, teach First Aid, 4WD, Land Search, Map and Navigation skills, as well as teamwork, leadership, arduous condition training…..
    4. With organisation, remember to backup, backup again, and backup regularly… or find out the importance of this the hard way.
    5. I try and get to all the seminars, conferences, symposiums and workshops I can (within my planned timetable). Even if not directly interested in the material I have never been to something I haven’t learnt from or thought to myself, ‘There is a concept I should consider in my own studies.’ You may not be interested in Icelandic fish skin tanning, but there may be methodology or theory worth investigating.
    6. When attending things try and do a little background research into the presenter(s), it helps when you eventually meet them. It gives you something to talk about at least.
    7. I think everyone is guilty at one point of an Internet faux pas, like an errant email, but if used properly can be a powerful tool.
    8. Work life balance is important, and friends and family can be critical to your success.

  • Caroline Bird says:

    Some great advice here! I would add that the PhD doesn’t have to be perfect – but it has to be finished! There are a lot of unfinished theses out there ….  And echoing Andrew’s comment – some of this advice applies to undergraduates too – one of the best pieces of advice I was given when I started my first degree was to treat it like a job.

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