This week, I submitted my PhD thesis, exactly two years and eleven months from the date
I started. During the final weeks and months of writing up, I’ve been reflecting on the whole process and the strategies that have helped me to submit within that elusive three-year time frame. I think it boils down to four key pieces of advice.
1. Begin with the end in mind.
Three years can seem long a long way off when you first start your PhD. It’s really not. Set a date from the very beginning for completing each chapter, submitting your first draft and final submission. Aim to submit before the final deadline and allow far more time than you think will be necessary at each stage. Work your way back from here, charting the steps you need to take in order to meet these long-term goals.
2. Set regular and realistic targets and deadlines.
Have two timetables on the go at all times: a long-term plan, with major goals for each year of study, and short-term targets and deadlines, which fit in to your ‘big picture’. Don’t get too attached, though, as adjustments will need to be made as you go along. At first you may have unrealistic perceptions of how long things take or how much you can do. If you want to stay on track you’ll have to learn to adjust and rework accordingly. Pay attention to how long it takes to complete tasks such as writing an abstract, article or chapter, reading a paper or creating a diagram. This will help you to set more realistic targets for yourself as you progress in your studies.
3. Write often.
You don’t want to spend your final year learning how to write in an appropriate style. Start writing early, however sketchy or uncertain your work may seem. Share it with your supervisor(s). This will help you to find your academic ‘voice’ and to iron out any problems with your style or referencing, for example. Your early notes are also likely to prove very useful later on, and will help you to chart the development of your research. So make sure you keep and date everything you do.
4. Don’t take on too many other responsibilities.
By this I do not mean that you should spend all day, every day on your PhD. Do not do this, your health will suffer. But if you’re working a significant number of hours a week to support yourself, and/or have other responsibilities that take a lot of time out of your working week, it may not be realistic for you to submit in three years. And that’s ok. Set yourself a more realistic deadline; study part-time if you need to. Your health and well-being are the most important things you have, don’t risk them by asking too much of yourself. I’ve also written about the importance of being kind to yourself here.
It’s really as simple as that. Bear in mind, though, that research can be a messy endeavour and you may come across many hurdles along the way. Personal circumstances can change and you may have significant, unavoidable delays with things like data collection, ethical approval and analysis. Relationships with supervisors or significant others involved in your study are not always smooth and this could hamper your progress too. I speak from the fortunate position of having a fantastic working relationship with my supervisor and no major hiccups along the way, but not everyone has this experience. If you hit problems, be ready to adjust and shift your expectations. Above all, be kind to yourself and flexible when necessary. You will get there in the end!