How to start writing your PhD thesis?

How should you start writing your PhD thesis?

If you are part-way through your research, I would always suggest focusing primarily on gathering and analysing your data. This needs to be the priority because you can’t present results you don’t have, and it’s impossible to write with confidence if you don’t know what your contribution will be.

Once you have the bulk of the results and analysis, then you can shift your focus to writing (there may be an exception to this if writing is part of your analysis: see this post if this is the case)

The way I approach any writing project it is to start with the introduction and work through in sequence (trying not to leave any gaps and finishing sections to a submittable standard). This is because;

  • You don’t have to decide what to work on and you always have a clear point of focus
  • You can move on to the next section knowing that the previous ones are at least submittable
  • You always know what you’ve already told the reader
  • It forces you to make decisions and deal with problems as they arise (instead of leaving them for later)

You might find it difficult to start with the introduction, but it’s important to stay with it rather than switching to another section. It is a solvable problem given time, persistence and patience.

But if there is a reason why you can’t write the introduction (for example, if you haven’t decided what your research questions are), then this needs to be addressed. You need to face the fundamental problem and make a decision.

This is the writing process in a nutshell; facing the problem in front of you, considering your options, making decisions and moving forward.

See also:

Is it perfectionism or is it indecision?

Is it really perfectionism holding you back, or is it indecision?

There’s nothing wrong with perfectionism, provided you have a clear idea of the standard you’re aiming for and the means to achieve it.

This is very different to having no idea what’s required and being paralysed by the the fear of making the wrong decision or screwing things up.

The way forward isn’t lowering your standards, it’s making a decision, taking a chance and doing things to the best of your ability.

An easy way to update your literature review quickly

If it’s been a while since you last looked at the literature (or a specific area of the literature), here is a very quick way to find recent relevant papers.

Pick a few (5-10) important papers you already know are relevant to your work or the area you want to look at. It’s highly likely that anyone doing similar research will cite some of the papers you already know about. So if you look up those papers on the journal’s website and check the “cited by” information, you can find some recent gems.

This is especially useful in the time between submission and your thesis defence.

See also

How to grow your bibliography from just one paper

From PhD Supervision to PhD Mentorship

Imagine your ideal PhD supervisor. Probably, you want someone who is interested in your work and is proactive in keeping up with what you do. You want someone who will not only guide you, but also shape the way you think about research. And finally, you probably want someone who will help you to see beyond your PhD and share experience and wisdom that will shape your career.

There are people who naturally do this. I was lucky enough to have an amazing PhD supervisor and another great boss when I did my first postdoctoral research project. However, the boss is only one half of the equation and what you get out of the relationship also depends on your approach and attitude.

If you go into your supervision just looking for approval and guidance, maybe you’ll get it. But to get the most out of your PhD supervision, you can’t just think about your own work; you also have to be interested in theirs.

Read what they’ve published. Read their PhD thesis. Be interested. Ask them a few questions. Not only does this help you understand they way they approach research and how they think, it’s also one of the best ways to get them interested in you and your work.

You can take this idea a step further, being interested not only in their research, but in them and their career path. You can ask them why they did a PhD, how they made career choices, why they moved from one kind of research to another… This takes the relationship beyond supervision or guidance and into mentorship.

From their point of view, instead of seeing someone who just wants to know what to do to next in order to get the certificate, they see someone who is interested in the path they’ve taken; someone who wants to follow in their footsteps and learn from their experience. If this is the kind of student you would want as a supervisor, this is the kind of student you should strive to become.

See Also

Talk to people
I can’t contact my PhD supervisor until I have something to show
Who you work with is just as important as what you do
Read your supervisor’s writing

Want to get more done? Stop hitting snooze

What’s the first thing you do in the morning? If you’re hitting snooze on your alarm and going back to sleep, you’re setting the tone for the rest of the day.

It’s easy to justify; you don’t absolutely have to get up straight away and nothing bad will happen if you get to work a bit later. And it took you a long time to get to sleep, so you need to make up for it.

But here’s the problem; anything that’s worth doing involves some degree of difficulty or discomfort. There will always be reasons to delay or to avoid doing what you need to do, or to work on something else, and giving in to these temptations means you fail before you even begin.

To succeed in your PhD, you have to go far beyond the initial difficulty. Once you set your intention, you have to engage with the task and stay with it long enough to solve difficult and frustrating problems.

It isn’t always easy to get up when the alarm goes off. Sometimes you have to fight yourself and force yourself to do it. But winning that battle means you’re starting the day with a success. You’re ahead of schedule, instead of behind.

Likewise, it isn’t always easy to stick to what you planned to do in your work and start when you planned to start. Sometimes you have to fight yourself; fight the temptation to check email or do something else you’ve only just thought of. But winning that battle, following through on that commitment to yourself, gives you a chance to succeed.

This gets easier with practice. Start with the small things, and stop hitting snooze.

See also
The invincible mindset
Effective time management for PhD students (Online Course)

Never let a disadvantage become an excuse

When you look around at other PhD students, you might notice that many of them seem to have advantages over you. Maybe they have a better supervisor, maybe they have better equipment, or funding, or they’ve been given a better project.

Or maybe they’ve got skills you don’t have. They’re better at statistics, or speak better English, or seem to have no problem writing.

It may be that actually their situation isn’t as easy as you imagine (because everybody struggles with something), but that isn’t the point.

It’s easy to focus on your disadvantages, but in doing so you give yourself an excuse; it’s not your fault because your situation is so much harder. There’s comfort in this, but that comfort only reinforces your disadvantages because it stops you doing anything to overcome them.

If you have a disadvantage, you have to work harder. This might mean:

  • Spending 2 hours a day, every day studying statistics, if that’s your weak point
  • Hiring an English tutor and practicing every single day
  • Arriving earlier and staying later to fix a problem
  • Making extra effort to talk to other researchers and ask questions if your supervisor isn’t available

If you engage with your difficulties and put in extra effort to overcome them, and if you keep working on them, over and over, day after day, eventually they become strengths. It’s a hard path to take, because it means doing things you aren’t good at or don’t enjoy, but it comes down to a simple choice…

Are you going to be the kind of person who gives up (or disengages) because of a disadvantage, or the kind of person who does something about it?

Never let a disadvantage become an excuse.

See also:

That thing you just don’t feel like doing

Planting seeds or putting out fires?

“I can’t contact my PhD supervisor until I have something to show”

Nobody wants to send an email to their PhD supervisor saying they’ve achieved nothing in the last three months. The more time passes, though, the harder it becomes.

An example:

Let’s say, for whatever reason, you are unable to work for a whole month. You have two options with regards to what you tell your supervisor:

  • You can just tell them you have fallen behind, or…
  • You can say nothing and wait until you’ve caught up with where you should be.

The second option avoids a potentially awkward conversation, but it also places you under a much higher burden of expectation.

Another month goes by, but you haven’t yet caught up with where you should have been after that first month (perhaps because you under-estimated how long that piece of work would take). It’s now been two months, so you want to produce even more before you say anything.

The more time passes, and the more you feel you should have produced, the harder it gets to reach out. You avoid being reprimanded, but you also become more and more isolated.

By far, the most common cause of PhD failure (or extreme difficulty) I have seen is isolation and a lack of feedback from other academics. So if you’re in this situation, don’t wait to re-establish contact. Do it today.

I know it’s been a long time since I sent an update. I’ve fallen behind quite a bit but am doing my best to get back on track. Right now I’m working on …, but am not sure how to …

Keep it brief, don’t make excuses, and if you’re having technical problems, ask for guidance.

It’s so easily avoidable…

I’d recommend emailing your supervisor every two weeks with brief updates, no matter how well or badly it’s going, saying what you’ve done, what you’re working on, what you plan to do next. For example;

“Just a quick update: I’m still working on the analysis of …, which is taking a little longer than expected as I’m having to learn (technique) as I go. Realistically, this is probably going to take another week or two, and the next step will be to…”

It only takes 30 seconds of their time, and it ensures that they always know (and you have a record to prove that they know) what stage your project is at.

Don’t try to hide like a kid who hasn’t done their homework. Be professional, be honest and communicate.

Write, or don’t write, but don’t do anything else

When you’re trying to write, it can be frustrating if the words don’t start flowing straight away. But getting frustrated doesn’t help. It’s better to relax into the writing with a calm, focused mind.

Neil Gaiman has a simple rule to help with this:

You don’t have to write. You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.

This takes the pressure off. It gives you time to think, to daydream, to juggle ideas in your head.

More importantly, perhaps, it lets you experience the slight discomfort of not producing.

I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.

I’m giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. You sit there and you’ve been staring out the window now for five minutes, and it kind of loses its charm. You’re going, “Well, actually, let’s write something.”

Write, or don’t write, but don’t do anything else.

See also:

Procrastination Hack: Get to Zero

That thing you just don’t feel like doing

Quote Source: Neil Gaiman interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast

That thing you just don’t feel like doing

Yesterday, I posted about a simple time management trick I often use. Whatever tricks or tools you use, though, your mind can easily defeat.

Let’s say you have a to do list of just three things (see yesterday’s post on this), and there’s one task left. It’s not technically difficult, but for whatever reason you just don’t feel like doing it right now. You know you should do it, but it’s nearly lunchtime, you’re hungry, and there’s time to do it later.

Nothing terrible will happen if you don’t do it now, but knowing that you should do it creates conflict. Just that little bit of internal stress that you’ll carry around for the rest of the day. If this is your habit, that stress will only accumulate as the weeks, months and years go by.

There will be times when you face really tough problems, so if you find yourself avoiding even the easy stuff because you don’t feel like doing it, how are you going to cope when something difficult comes along?

What if you did the opposite? What if, when you felt resistance, you took it as a signal that you need to go all in?

That thing you don’t feel like doing, that’s what you need to do.

Actions for today
  • Think of something easy that you’ve been putting off because you don’t feel like it
  • Do it
  • Think of something a bit harder you’re putting off
  • Do that, too
  • Repeat daily

I’m writing this for myself as much as anyone else. I procrastinate, too, but I’m finding this mindset not only helpful in terms of productivity but happiness, too. In part this is because I’m not carrying around those incomplete tasks or un-started goals in my head (which frees up a lot of mental energy). There’s great satisfaction in facing discomfort and it’s the only way to find out what you’re really capable of.