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PhD Writing up: What I Learned

by Mary Macfarlane on August 30, 2012

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

It’s five years this September since I wrote-up and handed in my PhD thesis.  I was sorting through my email inbox and came across the writing-up advice that I wrote about a year after I finished.  It was a useful reminder for me again, so I thought I’d share it here:

1. It is hard. That is the point. You should be learning techniques for motivating yourself to get on and do things you don’t wanna do that you will be using for the rest of your life.

This is first because it was the most useful one for me – remembering that this was work and that was the point. Sometimes, waiting for the Right Moment or looking for the perfect motivation strategy that’s going to make it all seem easy is just another form of procrastination, and you have to sit down and do it. There were times when I did need a break or to find a better writing strategy, and there were times when I just had to force myself  to sit down and do it.  Learning to recognise which was which was one of the most important lessons of the process.

2. There are two kinds of theses: perfect ones and finished ones. Aim for the latter.

3. Have some idea what you’re going to do next, including a workable plan B if for some reason it doesn’t all go according to plan A. This helps with the pressure a lot.

4. Be honest with yourself about what your procrastination techniques are, and cut yourself off if necessary. Don’t go into solitary confinement and don’t deny yourself all pleasures, but if you can’t resist going for coffee every time you go to the library – and find you’re still chatting to friends there two hours later – work from home for a few hours. If you can’t stay off the internet, switch it off. And really, the bathroom will be fine – it doesn’t need cleaning again!

5. Be realistic about what you can achieve. If you haven’t done one single perfect eight-hour day of solid writing in the entire course of your PhD, then you are probably not going to start now. Two great hours and 500 words is better than twelve hours when you’re going to start any second now, right after you’ve just finished reading this thing in the Guardian, and a word count of 30. (I had lots of those days.)

On the other hand, if you get your best work done between the hours of 10pm and 2am, and you can keep that up for the next six weeks, that’s OK. There is nothing actually morally superior about getting all your work done between 9am and 1pm if it doesn’t suit you, and trying to force yourself into that pattern will result in Guilt and No Work.

6. When you are reading other people’s work, you will probably find that there are some people in your field make you feel absolutely hopeless and as though you are the stupidest person in the world who will never amount to anything.  Some other authors, however, sparks off ideas and connections which make you feel as though you are actually kinda clever and maybe a sophisticated thinker with one or two good and original ideas. Use this knowledge wisely. You shouldn’t ignore all the stuff that’s hard and makes you feel rubbish, of course, but reading stuff that makes you feel clever and capable and sets your brain fizzing is OK too.

7. Reward systems rock. Have something to look forward to after you hand in.

8. You can do it. If you’ve got this far, you can. It’s just a matter of doing it. If you decide you don’t want to, that’s OK too, but own that decision because it’s not the same as not being able to.

9. There will be other summers/ holidays/ family weddings. It’s OK if you miss this one, as long as it is in the service of getting this thing out of the way forever and doesn’t set a pattern for life.

But for my money, number 1 is still the big one – it was hard work, and it was supposed to be. I learned a lot about my own personal style of working, my weaknesses and my strengths, and what I need from a job. Actually being present in the process and not purely focussed on the product was what kept me sane.

Good luck to those who are finishing!  And to those who have also finished, what are your top tips?

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