Dear doctoral supervisor,
“I was blissfully unaware how long it would take me to write up. To be honest I would have preferred a more clear marker from my supervisor, or from the department, saying stop doing experiments now and write! I was expecting someone to say when I had enough data, because I never felt I did, so instead I kept going much longer than I needed in the lab because I didn’t know how much was enough. I feel pretty annoyed about that.”
It’s 246 days until the 31st of October. I mention this date as we have around 1100 third year doctoral students whose theses are due on that date*. With 8 months to go, now is a perfect time to make sure that your thesis writers know it’s time to spend some time each week — an hour a day, every day? — writing. Obvious to us I know, but you’d be surprised how often I hear “Oh, my supervisor’s not mentioned it yet” as a reason for not having written anything. Balancing thesis writing around other things that need doing: interviews, analyses, experiments, teaching, is something I don’t see done well often.
After working with over 350 self defined ‘stumped’ (stressfully unable to make progress) research students who joined the Thesis Mentoring programme — I am offering out the lessons learned to you so you can make sure your folks know what’s what and how to stay well though the writing. The Thesis Mentoring programme has been my research over the last 3 years as well as a delivered programme, and through this work I’ve been able to pick up the common attitudinal blockers of getting on with thesis writing, and develop methods and tools that unstick them.
For many, the biggest blocker to writing and the source of much delay, shame and later anxiousness, anxiety and panic, is actually realising it’s time to get on and getting started with writing. The second is managing writing as a piecemeal process that fits around other work — nudging several projects, or several strands of a project forward at once. Do you find the same from your experience? Below are some ideas you may find useful in gently jump starting thesis writers you work with:
(1) Getting started. You experienced hands know that you need to actually start writing to come to know what you think; that writing is a process of development of an idea, not a simple recording of what you’ve done. So what helps with breaking old habits and starting writing today?
Starting with the end in mind: We often don’t get started with new tasks because we don’t feel ready to (i.e. we’re not sure what we are trying to achieve, or how). Sitting and waiting for inspiration to strike is not going to change this, but taking steps to make the unknowns known, will make all the difference. The easy wins here are getting your students to go and find out what they are trying to produce, by when, at at what pace. Ask them to:
(a) Take a critical look at some theses from past students in a similar research area. These are available in the library or online, and may also be around on shared computers or in labs or offices. They can then see what ‘good’ looks like for your discipline, what the goal is for size, length, structure, and style of writing. Ask them, what similar sections will you have in your thesis, what’s different to your work, what’s missing you’d need to include?
(b) Calculate how many working days are left until their deadline (minus a day or two off each week, because, mental health). Also minus from that total any days holiday time, and days they just know they won’t write e.g. birthday, conference, family events. Write that number down. Then minus another 5 days for formatting, printing and binding. Next, they estimate (and this will be a rough estimate) how many words they’ve still go left to write and write this number down too. If you divide the number of words by the number of remaining days you get a rough idea of the rate you need to be writing at daily, in order to reach the deadline. And they can monitor against this and check they’re on track.
Overcoming assumptions about when to write: Through mentoring conversations I’ve picked up other assumptions, stories people are telling themselves about their thesis e.g: I’m not ready yet; I’m not good enough; I don’t know how; I don’t have enough data; I haven’t got time right now; there’s plenty of time left; it’s not important right now; I’m not allowed to start yet; it’s not normal to write now; I don’t want to look too keen; I mustn’t rush it; everyone else does it this way; I need to do ‘x’ first; If I do it too early I’ll have to re-write it…etc. etc. etc. Next time you see your students, why not enquire into the stories they are telling themslves about why they’re not writing, and see if you can help?
(2) Managing a big task as many small pieces. Fear is what prevents thesis writing, and the longer it’s left, the greater the pain. How can the fear of the ‘mountainous task’ be managed?
Stealth writing (snack writing & prompt writing): What happens when we tell ourselves we need to wait for a free week to magically arrive in order to get started with something? Because know that free week will never actually arrive, we give ourselves an excuse not to get started. My argument to thesis writers is that they don’t even need to wait for a free day to get going. If they review their schedule week by week they will be able to identify time slots of 30min-2h in which to write in. Snack writing (Murray, 2013) is writing in shorter bursts to avoid getting writer’s fatigue (all one day nothing the next…or the next). A writing snack is up to 90 minutes. For each 90 min snack, setting yourself a very specific writing goal ‘prompt’ will help you to get immediately into the task when it’s time to begin. Set yourself an achievable target e.g. ‘draft 300 words on topic X’, or, ‘outline a paragraph that describes finding Y’, or, ‘edit yesterday’s page into a second draft’. Then get on and write it. At the end of the 90min, make sure the last thing you write is a prompt you will find useful when you next open the file to write.
What got you here, won’t get you there: I’m borrowing a phrase from Marshall Goldsmith here that sums up the thinking when we try and apply the strategies that have worked for us in previous roles into new contexts. As undergrads people regularly wrote their final year projects in a couple of sleepless days and nights, and even a whole Masters dissertation can be rattled off in an intense 3 weeks. Researchers come unstuck when they try to apply this thinking to the PhD thesis. Not only because it’s much bigger, but also because it’s more critically involved. This is different, it needs a new and more sophisticated strategy. What might that look like?
Today is a great time to start the conversation about writing. If you’d like more here’s another post I wrote last year on supervising thesis writers. And in these current times of huge student debt (on which interest is accruing every month of PhD study), and unpaid 4th years, it makes financial as well as career sense not to take any longer than necessary.
“If there had been a requirement to hand in writing, and to have different pieces ready at different markers through the PhD, I would absolutely have done it. But you fall in with what others you see around you are doing, and you leave it all too late. I ended up putting most of a year of writing on credit cards because they stopped paying me at 3 years.”
As part of a book on self-managing the thesis writing process I’ve co-authored for Bloomsbury (Taking Control of Writing Your Thesis: a guide to get you to the end — out in August 2017), I have created a set of thesis planning and management tools you may find useful to share with your students. You may use other tools with them, or have discipline specific versions of these, I’d be greatful to anyone who can add to these, or is willing to share resources or supervision methods on thesis writing, just hit me up in the comments. And if you are of the opinion that PhD researchers should be independent and this isn’t your job, OK no worries, please just forward them this post. They’ll listen to you more than they’ll hear it from me.
*adjust to relevant dates for your own cross sessional students.
Murray, R. (2013) Writing for Academic Journals, 3rd edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.