Through my coaching work I have met a shed load of thesis writers. I listen to what they’re stuck with; I can relate, my PhD thesis gave me the screaming heebie geebies. And I help them navigate their way through their approach to getting several buckets worth of data, from a tangled mess into a coherent narrative that illustrates clearly what’s been done and why, what happened, and what it means. The Thesis Mentoring project forms my own research study and I can share with you now some of the ways of thinking or working that very commonly come up to delay or paralyse the writing process. And as you will know, watching the clock tick closer to the end of September, living through the panic-sweats, and barely fumbling a sentence together is not good for your health. So, what to do?
One. Start now: Today. Right now after you’ve read this. What can you do today that gets you closer to the finish line? Writing your thesis is not the simple recording on paper of everything you’ve done to date. Only small parts of it are descriptive (methods, processes, reagents etc), the rest needs your critical and intellectual attention and you have to get involved to know how to do it.
- Waiting for the magical feeling of thesis-readiness? You’ll be waiting a long time buddy.
- Need to read more first? No you don’t.
- Don’t know what data you have, and what it shows? Open your files and look.
- Feel you need more data? Write what you’ve got, the gaps will be revealed.
- Don’t know what it means? Start talking about it.
There is no ideal time to start. There is no ideal order to write in. So where do you start? Wherever you want, just start. Game face on. You can do this!
2. Something every day: Once you’ve started don’t stop! Obvs have a break to eat, sleep, relax, wash yourself etc… but it’s easy to have a flurry of momentum and then stall again. Let ‘Something Every Day’ be your mantra. It might be storming through 3000 words in chapter 4. It might be reading 10 papers and summarising each into two or three sentences. It might be getting the fiddly figures done. It might be writing one paragraph of notes to fill in section 1.3.2.ii, but let it be something.
iii. How much every day? How do you know you’ll hit your target? Look up, there are 126 days left until the end of Sept 2015 (lots of people have this deadline). How many days until your deadline? Be honest if you’re not going to write e.g. on Sundays. Or if you’re planning a week off then budget for that, be realistic and honest with yourself. And about how many words do you have left to write (check how long a thesis normally is in your dept.)? A rough calculation will do, then: remaining words / productive days = approx. words per day (every day) e.g. 50,000 words to do / 106 days = 472 words per day (every day) Don’t forget you’ll want time for figures, formatting, corrections and amendments, printing and binding as well as generating new words…but hey suddenly, what you have to do is laid out before you. And if you miss a day, you know how to get back on track.
Four. Prioritise. Jobs are important, papers are important, more data is important, conferences are important. It’s ALL important, but is it urgent? Your thesis is urgent. Check you’re not indulging in academic procrastination, i.e. doing things that look like legitimate academic work but that do not get you closer to finishing your PhD. Make a list with two columns: what’s for now, what can come after? What’s for your thesis, what’s for someone else? There will always be things you need to be doing now, so get out your diary and fit them around the ring-fenced, protected thesis time, and don’t let them delay you by encroaching in. I know it’s comforting to do what’s familiar, and what you can do well, but don’t let it suck you in and steal your writing time.
5. Don’t panic*. You can do it. If you feel like you want to panic let yourself acknowledge your body reacting in a normal way to a stressful situation. Then park the panic, take a deep breath (x10), and carry on.
xi. Stay balanced*: Please take time off. Please take breaks. Please talk to other people. Please laugh and feel joy. Please look after yourself. You’re good to no one if you’re on your knees, a burned out husk of a thing. *If you feel that your health is suffering from stress, anxiety or panic please get in touch with your university counseling service. The good people there can understand what a PhD is like and help you get in control of yours.
Seven. Get back in touch with your supervisor: You stand to benefit from their research experience and expertise, and they are the person best placed to give you feedback on the content and angle of the thesis; but sometimes the relationship is neglected, strained, or explosive. And the stress of this can grind all productivity to a halt and make you ill, helping no-one. It’s never too late to renegotiate a working relationship that will get you to the end, you have a mutual interest in getting this thing finished and you can ally yourselves to get it done. Establishing some ground rules about working together can help. Let them know you’re committed to getting this done, and that you want to find the best way to work together. What do you expect from each other? Writing pace? Micro-deadlines? What’s the turnaround time for comments? How often will you meet? What will you do if you get stuck? What do you need from each other in order to feel confident in getting to the end?
8. Safety in numbers: get a buddy, plan together, write together, commiserate together, check each other’s typos, check each other’s progress, go to writing retreats (Sheffield), run a writing retreat (everyone).
ix. Get a thesis mentor. If you’re studying at Sheffield the programme opens again next month. If not, don’t despair. Just ask someone to help, ask a post-doc you know if they can spare you an hour every 2 weeks. You bring the coffee, they bring the cheer-leading. Many post-docs will need to evidence supervision and teaching skills on their CVs so this has benefits for everyone. Word to the wise, don’t get bogged down in project details, use your 1h wisely to craft your next fortnight’s game plan.
Above all, keep chipping away – ‘Something Every Day’. You will get there, you will finish, you will get your life back, you will be more employable for it!