Writing a PhD thesis – “words of wisdom”

For those of you doing PhDs, whether your thesis submission is a few years away or a few months away, I thought I’d pass on some “wisdom” about the whole process (most of which is just how to avoid my mistakes…!) – from planning to mindset to little technical things. I read a lot of advice which sounded great but seemed very idealistic and sometimes just scared me – I’m hoping this is a bit more grounded and reassuring. Some of these tips may be broadly useful to other projects or pieces of academic work or writing, but it is quite focused on writing a PhD thesis, which I found a very different process to any previous academic writing  – partly just due to the length!

A few disclaimers before diving in – firstly, each PhD experience varies so greatly, and is influenced by your research topic, university department, supervisor, personality, health, luck and so on. I’m only basing this on my experience so I doubt that anyone will find every single tip helpful for them – but I’m hoping everyone will be able to find at least one helpful message to take away! Secondly, while these tips come from a few different angles, they’re (mostly) focused on the thesis aspect of a PhD specifically. Finally, I’ve yet to have my viva! So take my advice with a pinch of salt?! I’ll do an update afterwards…

Planning and timings

  • If you’re early on in your PhD, plan to finish months early. If your PhD goes anything like mine that’ll mean finishing just on time. I’m usually pretty good at estimating the time I need to finish work but this was a whole new scale. Give yourself time for procrastination, for delays due to bureaucracy, for delays in your research, for health issues, for massive amounts of editing, for extra analysis you decide to do etc etc. Whatever stage you’re at and whatever time-frame you’re working in, make a plan that gives you excess time for everything you can predict and more.
  • Never underestimate how long “finishing touches” will take. This isn’t a five page essay where you can make a quick push one evening to do all those niggly tasks. I realised far too close to the deadline that there was no way I could insert individual captions for my 80+ figures in the 2 hours I had allocated and simply had to go without.
  • Similarly, don’t leave your abstract and acknowledgements to the last 24 hours. But if you do, it’ll be okay.
  • Check the formatting for submission early – margin sizes, line spacing etc. And if you need to merge documents or convert to a different file format, factor in some time for that to inevitably go wrong!
  • If you have a section where you phrase something in a certain way, presenting information in a certain order and repeat this numerous times (such as your results section), decide exactly what you want to report and how you want to phrase it EARLY. Don’t waste hours changing countless paragraphs after realising “hmm, it’s a lot clearer when I phrase it like this”.
  • Similarly, figure out how you want to format tables or diagrams early on.
  • Plan ahead for your last month or two if you can. Pay your bills early (or set up payments in advance). Buy a big food shop to stock your cupboards (or desk drawers). If you have any trips, figure out your itinerary and book everything in advance.

If you’re nearing the last few weeks and thinking SHIT I haven’t done any of this – don’t worry, you’ll make it work! I did (just about)!

  • Oh and maybe don’t plan to move house and start a new job within 3 days after you submitted…? (Just me? Okay…) But if you do, eh you’ll survive and there’ll be something exciting about a new adventure immediately!

 Software/statistics

  • Make back-ups. MAKE ALL THE BACK UPS. Email yourself versions. Have versions on USB sticks and external hard drives. Save it in Dropbox/OneDrive/Google folders. Make back-ups. Losing one day of work was painful enough for me. And not just for your thesis, but any critical data or notes, find ways to back this up. Do not rely on your university servers…
  • Similar to some of the planning tips above, figure out what statistics you’ll need to do, what training you’ll need for that and who around your university can help you ASAP. Same applies for any specialised skill! Seek out help early.
    • General point – remember you can get help outside of your supervisors. If they don’t have the expertise you need, it’s not ideal but you have options. Explore your department/other departments/other universities/the internet for academics you can email for advice or chat to.
  • Keep good records of the analysis you’ve done – ones that will make sense months later. Keep nice clean scripts. It’s never too late to go back and tidy things up and spending some time now will save you time and stress later when you realise you need to redo some analysis.
  • Similarly, title your documents and images sensibly.
  • Learn how to use Microsoft Word (or Latex or whatever programme you want to use) well. Figuring out how to make one individual page horizontal, how to properly number my headers, how to easily create contents pages, how to use Styles etc made my life so much easier.
  • On this note – take the course everyone says to take, even if it sounds a bit naff. I thought I was above taking a Word course because I knew everything I needed to know. I was not and I did not.
  • If you’re using an automatic contents pages in Word, update your fields before submission. Avoid having to send an awkward email the day afterwards….
  • If you’re using a regression model, order your variables in the most sensible way! Don’t order them so you get effect sizes for the lack of an event outcome…
  • Check how your reference manager formats your references and citations early on. I thought I had been super prepared with all my references input into the reference manager in plenty of time so all I had to do was go through inserting them at the placeholders I’d left. So I left it to the last week. Well, turns out the in-text citations weren’t quite right and I had to go through manually changing each one. Unnecessary stress!
  • (You’re using a reference manager right?? USE A REFERENCE MANAGER)
  • One specific productivity app I’ll recommend for phone and/or desktop– the Forest app. You set a timer between 15-120 minutes and during that period a plant grows on your phone – in that time you cannot use your phone/access certain websites on your desktop or you’ll kill the plant. I found this oddly dis-incentivising and it completely put me off getting distracted – it also felt nice to look and see the forest of trees you’d grown by the end of the day/week/month! This was also great for motivation, because if I was really struggling, I could tell myself “I’ll just do 20 minutes” – and usually this was enough to get me started on a nice chunk of work. You can break up your days work into chunks and make it seem a lot more manageable.

Mindset/looking after yourself

Throughout the PhD
  • Big one – Talk to other PhD students. Meet for lunch or coffee. Rant together. Realise everyone is struggling. Make the time – it’s 100% worth it.
  • Stop comparing your progress and your thesis to everyone else. They might have ten studies and you might have one – that’s fine. They might have super complex stats and yours might be simple – that’s fine. Theirs might be on the lower end of the word limit and yours might be on the higher end – THAT’S FINE. Go scan through some theses in the library. See how much they vary and remember – all of these passed! Note that there’s nothing magical about them, no super-secret thing all previous PhD students have done because they were geniuses and you are not (shh but a thesis is really just a super extended research paper, with all the detail and explanation and discussion you usually can’t include).
  • Ideally, do all the obvious sensible things everyone says to do: do as much reading and writing as you can as early as possible. Take notes on papers you read as you go. Write up for publication as you go. Everyone says these things for a reason. It will help. You know this.
  • … and yet you probably won’t do this. You’ll spend nights lying awake towards the end wondering why you didn’t do the obviously sensible things, kicking yourself for making it so much harder than it needed to be. You’ll feel like an idiot. Don’t be too hard on yourself. If everyone always took this advice, it wouldn’t be repeated so often.
In the last few months especially
  • Unless everything goes like a dream and you have the organisation and self-discipline of an angel throughout, accept that for the last month or two before your deadline you will be completely thesis focused and give yourself permission to be rubbish at everything else. Let yourself be terrible at chores, be a terrible friend, don’t reply to messages, buy ready meals, let the laundry pile up – for a few weeks it’s okay if you’re irresponsible and flaky about everything except your thesis. Warn your friends and family and people you live with. Promise them you’ll celebrate their birthdays after. Disconnect from all social media. Obviously in an ideal world you’d function perfectly throughout your whole PhD but, realistically, this is probably the more intense deadline you’ve experienced, it’s one chunk of your life that hopefully you won’t return to, and accepting that “work life” balance just ain’t gonna happen for a month is okay. I hated this – I pride myself on being there for friends and keeping up with various responsibilities – but I would have never met my deadline if I’d tried to do anything except my thesis for the last four weeks. Most advice says to be the paragon of health and self-care and sure, if you can, great! But if you need to forget your exercise routine, develop a bizarre sleep schedule and/or eat ice cream for dinner to get through this time, go for it.
  • BUT do pick a couple of ways to look after yourself and don’t become utterly isolated. Pick a couple of people you keep in contact with to keep you sane – schedule a lunch or phone call with a friend here and there, and a couple of social things you can’t get out of (e.g. tickets to a show). Do at least one thing to look after yourself a day. I used to go for a swim half way through my work if I could, but you could choose to cook yourself a nice breakfast or go for a walk in the park at lunch or have a long bath when you go home or listen to your favourite playlist when getting ready or even just light a nice candle at bedtime. And if you are going into thesis-obsessed mode, I wouldn’t recommend working at home for more than a few days – if you can walk to an office/library/some external space you’ll at least get a bit of movement, some time for your mind to rest a little and some human contact.
  • Trust me – you can do more than you probably think you can and you can survive on less sleep than you realise…. however impossible it seems. I have faith in you!
  • But also, acknowledge that sometimes you just really need a long sleep or a night off. If you really can’t think or concentrate, your best use of time is rest.
  • Try to trust your judgement about how much work vs rest you need. It’s easy to spend far too long going back and forth beating yourself up for not working hard enough OR for not looking after yourself. Do what you feel you need to do, and if you misjudge slightly, you can balance it out later. And remember everyone is different – some people have physical or mental health issues they’re facing, some people have other responsibilities which take away from work, some people don’t work effectively in large chunks of time, some people simply need more sleep. Those are all valid reasons to work different or rest more!
  • Accept that in the last couple of weeks you’ll notice about fifty things you wish you could change: other perspectives you could discuss, other papers you could include, new analysis you could run, bits of formatting that could do with being sorted out… all of which would cumulatively take months and are simply not possible. Prioritise the things with the biggest impact for the smallest time and effort. Forget about the rest and don’t look back!
  • You will probably lose all perspective. I honestly had no idea whether my thesis was genius or complete trash by the last week. Right now you’ll probably be preoccupied with all the things you could improve, all the flaws you’re acutely aware of. A few months later you’ll look back and think “this is all right actually”!
  • However hellish some parts of the process are, however much you might doubt yourself, submitting and knowing you survived and did it is an incredible feeling.
  • FYI you’ll probably be way too tired to actually enjoy any celebrating the night of your submission. But plan something fun anyway.
  • Finally, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s a time to learn. You’re not meant to know everything. It’s only one part of who you are. It’s just a PhD thesis.

Feel free to discuss or add more advice in the comments!

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