📜 Strategies for PhD Completion

April 30, 2021  My tips for the final 12 months of PhD

The final 12 months of the PhD were the most challenging for me. Seven months away from completion I became a father, and I was working 30 hours as a research officer. Challenges came in many forms. Internally, I experienced insomnia (often baby induced), regular self-doubt (imposter syndrome), and frustration at the looming pages and pages of words needing to be written. It was fatiguing and draining to be consistently motivated.

Immediately after completing the thesis, people would ask me how I managed to balance these demands and stay (mostly) sane. I never had an appropriate answer for them. My response was generally something like “I don’t have a choice, I just gotta do it”. However, with the benefit of hindsight and time, I can see more clearly now what I did to survive.

In this blog post, I will share my tips for surviving the final sprint of your thesis, and what you can do to best prepare yourself for the mission ahead. This post is most useful for those who are (or believe they are) 12 months or less from submission.

Preparations: Resolve and Plan the Basics

If you want to submit in 12 or less months, but have considerable work, you have to have the basics sorted.

  1. Thoroughly review a selection of exemplar theses (there are many such repositories). Understand roughly the distributions in number of studies, chapters, and pages. Inspect the overall writing quality, the proportion of work which is already published, and the general structure.
  2. Establish what actually needs to be completed for you to submit your thesis for examination. This means you should know the exact chapters that will be in your thesis and their respective scope.
  3. This process of establishing these requirements should be negotiated with your supervisor. I was fortunate — I was confident my supervisors had my best interests at heart, and encouraged me to set realistic expectations for thesis through my candidature.

Treat your submission requirements as a negotiation with your supervisors, not a question. Your supervisor likely has your best intentions at heart, but perhaps have a higher threshold for what they consider neccesary for submission. In many cases, “getting the PhD passed” might not require everything your supervisor suggests. You need to listen to their advice and consider it, but negotiate what you really need done.

Example Negotiation

Perhaps you’re supervisor suggests you need an additional study prior to submitting the thesis — but do you actually? There are many reasons a supervisor might suggest this, and you need to determine whether you think it is reasonable. You certainly don’t want to get an examiner demanding more work, but a thesis doesn’t need to solve every problem either.

Hi [Professor] I’ve spent some time thinking about it, and I wanted to further discuss whether an additional experiment/study is required for me to complete my thesis. I’ve taken a look at several other theses from the school, and while there are some with 6 experiments, I have seen several from this University which only included 3 studies. I beleive my studies are detailed and sufficient for fulfilling my doctoral requirements. Do you think that our review team would require an additional study? Do you think I am unable to draw appropriate conclusions in my general discussion without this study?

If you have multiple supervisors, I suggest meeting them independently and getting a few different perspectives.

The Writing Process

Try multiple time management methods.

There is an abundance of blog posts and books on optimising your writing. While I recommend investigating these, don’t invest to heavily in any one technique. It is more sustainable to cycle through different methods depending on your daily motivation and progress with a given approach.

Pomdoro is a very effective technique in which you use a timer to break down work into bursts. I typically went with 30 minutes of writing, 5 minutes break, 30 minutes of writing, 15 minute break. Repeat. To make maximum gains, I would allocate specific sections of my thesis to a pomdoro in advance. This really helped with those sections I loathed writing.

However, I didn’t consistently use pomdoro, particularly in the final 3-4 months (however, a friend of mine did exclusively pomdoro in his final months). I found that most days I preferred to block out large chunks of time and have unsustainable writing binges (e.g., 3-5 hours in the evening). I don’t recommend this as an ongoing career strategy but might be necessary at the end.

Overall, it is critical that you have formal strategies for planning your time and giving yourself focus time. Create variety in your method, even if you cannot have it in the content you are writing about.

Try different writing methods as well. Pen and paper can work great for certain sections. Try printing out your thesis and editing the old fashion way. Use a typewriter or other basic text editor rather than always be writing directly into a single word document. All these little twists help make the process more lively and might let you see the problem in a different way.

Keep a binder/clipboard of all your notes, scribbles, ideas and drafts on hand. Try and make sure that it reflects material that you need to get the thesis done.

Dot point, Expand, Refine.

Large sections are easiest to begin by writing out dot points of the key points you want to cover. For your first pass, do not focus on details, but be more verbose than simple structural dot points. To be clear, you should have already had your structural headings for each section. You do not want to be doing this method if you don’t have a heading. Do not be too concerned about the order of your ideas or even referencing heavily. Just allow yourself to write as many key ideas as you can.

Once you have a set of ideas, it can be good to have a break. Then yourself to return and expand on these dot points naturally and interatively. Identify really good ideas and grow them. Back them up with evidence and citations. Remember, you don’t need to finish each section in one sitting.

Switching between expanding dot points across multiple sections is good strategy for the general discussion where you will likely find yourself coming up with good ideas as you refine the other chapters.

Once a section has all the core ideas you think are required, it’s time to refine it further! Turn it into full sentence structure, and identify what is missing and where you can be more clear with examples and explanations. This approach will help you overcome the challenging confrontation of the empty section requiring content.

Tightly harness, but not suffocate, your inner perfectionist

I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and this not always a helpful trait, particularly for finishing your thesis. To get your thesis finished for submission, you need to learn to set appropriate quality thresholds.

This isn’t just about quality of writing (that should ideally be a very high standard), but the coverage and depth of writing. You aren’t expected to solve every problem in the field in a single PhD, and not every idea needs to be explored to the inner core. Reading other theses will help you understand an appropriate threshold.

Nevertheless, your inner perfectionist does need to be allowed out for a walk from time to time. Whether it’s refining chapters, formatting your thesis, editing the text, or really thinking through the logic of an idea. There is nothing wrong with wanting your work to be of a high standard, but you need to be realistic in just how high that standard is within the time you have got.

In practical terms, it can be good (for example) to have a working “final template” for your thesis document. Allowing your perfectionism to shine in your theme and the small tweaks can help.

Conclusions

I will update this document further, but overall my secret sauce was just to keep chipping away at small managable tasks and creating variety in my workflow.