PhD Bites 1: Vicki Whittaker

About PhD Bites


When I first saw that Jai had written a blog post entitled Completing your PhD in three years, I couldn’t bear to read it. Not because it wouldn’t be full of good sense and sound recommendations, but because I was 28 days from my absolute deadline for submitting my PhD thesis – four years after I started it. I’d not observed Jai’s advice – because, well, Life – and had started September with half-written drafts of six chapters and no conclusion to speak of. (Not, I hasten to add, through any failing of supervision. This was on me.)

So, September was beyond brutal. But even in the depths of despair and darkness – quite literal darkness; I didn’t get a lot of sleep those four weeks – there was a certain measure of grim satisfaction. These are my tips for anyone who is in the home stretch, but still has a lot of ground to cover.

1. Plan.

Draw up a timetable of exactly when you will finish each chapter. Make sure you include time for formatting and proofing at the end. You don’t really have much slippage room; a day at most.

2. Hone your argument.

The advantage of working this intensively is that you see the whole thing unfold before you. You have to trace a compelling narrative path through your material. And you have to take your reader with you, so don’t forget to signpost. Do not deviate from this path. That detour via Saussure might look attractive, but if it adds nothing to your central argument, jettison it.

3. Work with what you’ve got.

Wonder if discourse analysis might throw light on that knotty problem in chapter 4? Too late. Do not start a new literature search at this point – you do not have the time or intellectual leeway to incorporate it and contemplating paths untrodden will just make you feel hopeless. The only time you should be on Google Scholar is to check a reference or a citation.

4. Go with it.

Stress can be productive, but it does have to be managed. If you’re finding it hard to sleep because your brain is whirring, try to harness this by noting down thoughts as they occur. (I often woke to several e-mails that I’d sent myself in the wee small hours) If you’re on a roll and up until 4am, go with it.

5. Pace yourself.

Don’t then try and get up at 7am to carry on working. You can’t keep that pace up for a whole month. If you need a change of pace, try formatting your references, choosing pseudonyms for your research participants, or writing your acknowledgements.

6. Know when to stop.

Accept when you’re banging your head against a brick wall and stop. Walk away from the computer. In fact, just walk. Walking kept me sane. Between 5 and 6pm every day I went for a walk with my son, who’s 10 and obsessed with Pokémon Go. (I’m now something of an expert. Ask me about Rattatas and what they evolve into.) We covered 60km in four weeks.

The thing is, now I’ve read Jai’s post, what we’re saying isn’t so very different: plan, focus, and know your limits. And good luck!

Vicki Whittaker is a PhD student at Aston University. Her PhD took a practice theory approach to studying allotments and social change, and was submitted 5 hours before the final deadline. She is also a translator (from French) and editor. She can be contacted at @MrsKettle on Twitter.

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