Everything I know about completing a PhD

I’ve recently been talking to a friend who is in the later stages of her PhD. It’s been almost four years since I handed mine in, but hearing her talk through her concerns prompted a strong emotional recall to my own experiences of the final 4-6 months. The lack of motivation. Boredom. Regret about how the data-gathering process turned out. The feeling that it ought to be coming together by now. Boredom. Distraction. Feeling insignificant. Feeling self-indulgent. Loneliness. An abiding fixation on the idea that maybe you’re literally just not capable of getting it done. An abiding fixation on the idea that you would rather be doing literally anything else.

Mentally, and perhaps even physically, completing my PhD was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The entire process is designed to undermine your self-belief, but it is doable. I’ve often said a PhD student never has more intellectual confidence than on their first day – but hand-in day comes a very close second.

1. Know your genre.

You are writing a text in a well-established genre of writing, so – at least once – read a finished PhD thesis. It’ll give you a sense of what type of finished product you’re aiming for, what you want to avoid in your own work, and where the bar for passing sits (hint: it’s lower than you think). Every discipline has its idiosyncracies and a lot of them are bullshit, so read something you could actually imagine wanting to write/research yourself. Recall that interesting seminar tutor from your undergrad days? Their PhD will be in the university library. Go and have a look at it. For everyone else (me included) there’s British Libary EThOS.

2. Demystify the ‘creative process’.

Your PhD will be many things but unless you’re Wittgenstein it will not be your greatest creative contribution to the world. It might be your greatest creative endeavour so far, but stop putting pressure on yourself to make it your life’s work. It won’t be. When it exists, it will be the end product of the process you are currently undertaking – a valuable artefact in itself – but it will not arrive through sheer ingenuity and it will not define you either.

Here’s a hard fact: ‘waves of inspiration’ emerge from a sea of words on the page, not from the mists of contemplation. However shit you think your stream of consciousness looks on the page in the first instance, it’s going to be much easier to work with – and will prompt more genuine bursts of inspiration – than the unwritten ideas you are trying to put into sequence within the confines of your own mind.

Buy the book ‘How to Write A Lot’ by Paul Silvia. Do it now, read it once, read it twice, and get used to the idea that writing a lot only happens by writing a lot.

Really struggling to articulate a point? Change form. I used to write an email to my supervisor explaining what I was struggling with at a given point in time. I never had to send it, because in the process of writing up my problems in email-form I would magically unlock the academic formulation I had been grasping for. Writing breeds writing.

3. Stop reading.

There comes a point when reading is essentially procrastination. You’ve read a lot. You’ve read enough. You don’t need to read everything, and in any case if you try to cram every interesting thought someone else has written into your thesis you won’t have enough room for your own. If you really can’t live without including something you’ve only just read, give it a paragraph but no more.

4. Find the pomodoro technique for you.

The principle of the pomodoro technique – measuring productive time rather than abstract time – is sound, but I never got on with the traditional 25 mins-on, 5 mins-off regime. Wtf am I supposed to do inside 5 minutes? I settled on 45 mins-on, 15 mins-off. After four or sometimes five cycles I would take an hour off and begin again. Much better.

5. Track your work.

I measured my pomodoros using a ridiculous app the USP of which was a Stakhanovite workerist aesthetic and humiliating insults devised to lure you into self-competition. But it worked, because you can’t see consistency unless you measure it. Sounds anal, but it’s less anxiety-inducing than not being able to account for your time after a full day at your laptop.

6. Know all the steps in the plan.

The thing people who don’t make lists misunderstand about people who make lists is that listing is a methodology for sequencing, not accumulating. The list already exists – it’s just the things you will have to do, whether you realise it yet or not. The point of writing lists down is not to overwhelm yourself with all the things you will have to do, but the opposite: it lays out a sequence of events and presents you – there at the top – with just one thing to focus on, and then one thing, and then one thing. If it’s not at the top of the list yet, it’s not the top of your list. You don’t have a million things to do: you have one thing to do. Freedom!

Don’t be afraid of lists that operate at different levels of abstraction, but make sure you are listing the small things as well as the big things. ‘Sort Chapter 4’ is not a helpful list item because you will be stuck on it for a long time without direction. Much better to have ten instructive things to do under the banner ‘Sort Chapter 4’ that you can tick off as you go.

Btw. At the end you will need a good few days to tick some very mundane but time-consuming things off a list. Page numbers. Quote indentations. Figure numbers. Double spaces. I have told you; remember it.

7. Give your head one thing at a time.

Following from the previous point, the tasks you give yourself should be pegged to a point in time. Some people say to give yourself one thing to do a day. Personally I stepped this up to a maximum of three or four things per day with about two months to go, and by the end it was a lot more. If that’s the case, break the day down into half/quarter-days or even blocks based around your pomodoros. The important thing is knowing what you have to to now – not least because it parks from your mind a lot of other stuff you don’t have to do now. If you don’t know what to do now, it’s because you haven’t made a list.

8. Make sure your supervisors know what you want.

Supervisors come in all flavours, but whatever your experience of your supervisors up until this point, make sure they know what you want from them with each new piece of writing you put in front of them. If there are things it’s not helpful for them to comment on, tell them. If it’s really one aspect – a bumpy segue, the structure or a section, a tricky ‘conversation’ you’re trying to stage between some empirical reflection and a broader theory – then tell them. Don’t just hand them something and say, “what do you reckon?”

9. Know what ‘good enough’ looks like.

Perfectionism is not your friend. Don’t dwell on sentences at the expense of paragraphs; bash it out and move on, you can come back to it later. If you’re not sure what ‘good enough’ looks like, ask your supervisor or read someone else’s PhD thesis – then remember that unless you’re in the final month nothing you have on the page needs to be 100% tight just yet (and to tell the truth theses are rarely 100% tight by the time they get to a viva – yet most pass. Take comfort from that!)

10. Use Scrivener.

Other long-form writing software is available, but I couldn’t have written – and organised, and reorganised – my PhD without Scrivener. It cost about £30 and was worth every penny. It’s actually been designed with proper book-length long-form writing in mind (which Word hasn’t…) and has lots of features to help that process. Also the customer support and community around it are great.

11. Plan every paragraph.

Unsure what to write next? Remember the paragraph is the building block of all long-form writing.

Start with a chapter outline where the idea for each chapter is summed up in three sentences. Then take each chapter summary and write four or five sentences that sum up the key points in the journey from beginning to end. These are your section summaries.

Now work out what single sentences you need to write to get from each section summary to the next – you might need two, you might need five. These are your paragraph summaries.

Now aim to write just 200 words in place of each paragraph summary. (If you can’t hit 200 words, there isn’t a paragraph in the idea.) Repeat.

Congratulations you have written a thesis.

12. Take your fuel seriously.

Mental energy is real. Don’t diet while you’re writing – you need calories, and especially carbs and fats. Don’t cane coffee – switch it up with green tea or non-caffeinated teas. Drink plenty of water. If you take intoxicants while you work, be strategic about it.

13. Retreat.

If you can afford to, book a short trip to somewhere remote with no phone signal and preferably no wifi. Take your laptop and lots of books. Print journal articles before you go. Take music. Take food. Write without restraint. It will feel very uncomfortable at first. You will feel bored and self-indulgent and like it’s pointless. But by the mid-point of the second or third night you will get into a groove because there’s nothing else to do. If you can’t afford it, there’s nothing to lose by asking family or friends if they might chip in to help you get away. I recommend rural Scotland or Wales.

14. Reflect on the process, but keep moving forward.

I recently found my old laptop and on the edge of the screen there was a handwritten note: “I know. But just keep going. Please.” It sounds bleak because it was bleak. It will be bleak sometimes. You’re not imagining it. But it doesn’t mean you can’t find it within yourself to edge things forward just a little. Then one day things will edge forward a lot. Keep going.

15. Reward yourself.

I had a bad work balance during my PhD, there’s no way around it. But every couple of weeks I would mark a random day in the week as a ‘Sunday’ and guard it with my life. It was my day for going to the Odeon and watching two or three films in a row, washed down with ice cream and coffee. It was important. Find your Sundays; guard them.

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