Your final PhD year: moving towards submission

The final year of your PhD is all about pushing towards submission of your thesis.

So in order to reach that point, you need to go through a process of consolidating and finalising the various aspects of your work.

Complexity vs time

Throughout the course of your PhD, most of the things you do will create more work. The more data you gather, the more analysis you have to do. The more reading you do, the references you find to read. Every question you answer raises many more, and so the complexity of your research will tend to increase over time.

complexity-vs-time

This is a perfectly natural aspect of research, and it can take you to places you never could have planned for, but it also increases the uncertainty involved as more options present themselves for further research.

If you want to finish your PhD then this upward trend has to stop. At some point, you have to stop gathering data, stop investigating new ideas, and you have to start finishing things.

Aiming for submission

Once you submit your thesis, there is nothing more you can do to change it. You can’t add anything, you can’t take anything away. If you have a brilliant new idea, it’s simply too late to include it.

If we work backwards in time from that point; the day before you submit you only have time to make a few small changes. All the central ideas and conclusions need to be in place.

One week before you submit, you might be editing, and there might be a few sections you want to tweak, or maybe you are wrapping up the conclusion, but nothing fundamental is going to change.

So the general trend is that the closer you get to submission, the smaller the changes become. You are no longer exploring new ideas, but consolidating and finalising what you already have. This means that the uncertainty over what you are going to present has to decrease (until it reaches zero)

approaching-zero

The tipping point

So the general trend is for research to become more complex and uncertain over time, but in order to finish you need to reduce the complexity.

Therefore, there must be a tipping-point somewhere. A point where you stop creating new work and put what you have into a submissible form.

This means you have to be decisive about what you are going to include and what you are going to leave out. You need to be absolutely certain what your research questions are, what theories your work relies upon, what kind of analysis you are doing, what your main arguments are, and so on.

Only once you have made those clear decisions can you start the process of finishing. It is about reducing the uncertainty about what you are going to say.

tipping-point

When does the tipping point occur?

The amount of stress in the final months is determined by how close the tipping point is to the submission date.

If you are 2 weeks from submission, and you are uncertain about your analysis, then there is a high degree of uncertainty very late. Since your discussion and conclusions depend upon the analysis, then you won’t be able to commit to anything!

tipping-point-stress

So the earlier you get some certainty about what you want to say and how, the better.

How to apply this practically

  1. Analyse data as early as possible, don’t leave it until you have to write about it
  2. Present and discuss your work early, get feedback
  3. Decide on your strongest material
  4. Decide what not to pursue
  5. Have a rough thesis structure in mind; focus on gathering what you need
  6. Set a date to stop gathering new material/ data
  7. Set a submission date if you don’t already have one
  8. When you write, try to finish each section so that it looks submissible
  9. Stick to what you know best!

How do you know you have enough?

After several years working in the field, you should know what other researchers around the world have done.

Is your work comparable to the average published work in the field? Is it competitive? Does it add something of interest to other academics?

You have to believe it is good enough in order to convince anyone else, and the only way to do this is to look at the published literature.

The risk…

Submitting a thesis means facing the judgement of the examiners. This can be a terrifying thought, but it’s unavoidable.

I dealt with this fear by telling myself that I didn’t care what the examiners thought, and that if I failed then it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen and that I would be OK.

Trust in your ability to cope with whatever happens. It will be OK!

 

 

Procrastination hack: get to zero

If, like me, you have a habit of procrastination, here’s a little trick you can use to get yourself going.

When you procrastinate, you probably find yourself engaging in some kind of substitution task. You’ll suddenly think of something else that needs doing (like checking email for example) which you’ll find a way to rationalise.

If you try to force yourself to work, you may feel a lot of resistance; like trying to force an oil tanker to suddenly change direction. So try this instead…

Get to zero first

The first step is to stop yourself doing the substitution tasks. Close the browser. Get to zero. Try to do nothing.

You will inevitably start thinking of all kinds of other things you should do to fill the vacuum, but calmly resist. Just do nothing. It may take some time, but if you are patient enough your thoughts will gradually settle so you can start to focus on your work.

If you create the space first, you can then start to bring your attention to bear on the work.

Quick tip: How to use reference management software

One problem you’ll have to solve at some point in your writing is how to insert references into your thesis.

There are many options in terms of software to do this, but it can be a nightmare trying to get them to integrate with your word processor.

I can’t give specific instructions for how to use each program (I’d rather be force-fed Lego blocks than do tech support for referencing software), but here’s a quick tip that could save you a lot of pain.

Start early, start simple

If you leave your referencing to the end, then you will have potentially hundreds of references across several chapters to insert. If you then try to figure out how to get EndNote to synch with Word for the first time, then you’ll be trying to learn something new by starting at the hardest level, under the greatest time pressure.

So take some time to solve the problem as early as possible in the writing process. Get it working by just starting with 2 or 3 references, making sure they are displayed in the correct format and that the numbering works.

It might take some time to figure out, but once it’s solved and you have a working system on a small scale, it is easy to add references as you go.

 

Productivity comes last

You’ve probably tried to be more productive at some point. If you aren’t getting the output you want for the effort you put in, then it makes sense to look at ways to improve your productivity.

So you can try;

  • Being more organised
  • Managing your time better
  • Setting goals and deadlines
  • Optimising your processes

There are countless systems and tools to help you do these things, and all of them work. Or rather that should be, all of them work sometimes.

If you’ve tried increasing your productivity using any of the above, you probably found that you got an initial boost but then slipped back into your usual habits. This can lead you to the conclusion that you are the problem, rather than the system (after all, the system worked while you stuck to it).

But usually it’s neither you nor the system that’s the problem, it’s just that you are using the wrong tool at the wrong time.

The language of productivity

Much of the terminology we use when we talk about productivity, and indeed the very concept of productivity, comes from industry.

When you have a production line, you want to have as efficient a system as possible. You will have production targets, schedules and procedures to make sure the output consistently meets demand.

This is fine when you have a defined product and a defined, repetitive production process. But the same way of thinking does not work when there is even the slightest requirement for problem solving or creativity.

language-of-productivityProductivity and creativity take different approaches

Creativity is often inefficient. It requires open and playful exploration of a variety of ideas, many of which you may never use. It is difficult to set targets, because you don’t know how it’s going to work out, and some of the things you try might fail.

This is the opposite of productivity, but is essential as a precursor.

Although it is difficult to quantify the output of creative time – because it doesn’t produce immediately measurable results – many companies still recognise its value. 3M, the company behind post-it notes and scotch tape, developed a “15% time” rule, where their R&D staff could spend 15% of their time working on anything they liked, without the pressure to “produce”. Google took concept this a step further, with “20% time”.

There is a lot of creativity in the design of, say, an iPhone; many of the ideas the design team considered will never go to market. But then following that experimentation comes the creatively constrained phase of production- you don’t want someone on the assembly line of your iPhone expressing their creative urges.

How this applies to PhD work

When you are writing your thesis, if you are 2 months away from submitting then you should be focused on productivity, with the clear goal of getting the thing finished on time.

This means that you should not be spending much time exploring new ideas, but rather consolidating the ones you have already explored in depth.

At earlier stages, you should explore dead ends, waste time daydreaming, take risks and make as many mistakes as possible, and be less focused on rigid productivity.

Productivity comes last

Productivity systems and tools are useful, but only when applied at the right time.

Because research so often requires finding creative solutions to difficult problems, we need to give equal consideration to the skills of creativity, letting go of the rigid timetable-and-goal-oriented approach, and taking time to play. It’s only once you’ve done that exploration that it’s time to narrow your focus and get productive.

See also: Productivity vs Creativity

 

Old ideas and new perspectives

I’ve been running this site for more than three years now, about the same amount of time I spent on my PhD research.

When I first started, my idea was to write a book, “The Three Month Thesis” to help students write faster and with less stress. I’d written my thesis very quickly, and not only enjoyed the process but also wrote a high quality thesis the examiners were very happy with.

I actually wrote the book, but never released it because I wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t have enough experience. I hadn’t worked with other students and tested the ideas. And I had made the flawed assumption that because I had done it, I knew how to teach others to do it.

So I shelved the idea and did other things. I took on coaching clients as my main focus, learning, making mistakes and developing ideas as I went. As a result, my perspective is very different now compared to three years ago (I no longer like the name “three month thesis”, as just one example of many).

Whatever your project, your perspective should change over time as you gain knowledge and experience. This is a good thing, because it means you have learned something, but it also means you will have made decisions from a less-experienced standpoint which affect what you are doing (or not doing) now.

Sometimes, an idea doesn’t work out not because it is a bad idea, but because it’s the wrong time, whether because of external factors or just because of experience.

And sometimes these old ideas can become viable when you revisit them with a new perspective.

Are there any old ideas you chose not to pursue in your research? If so, are the reasons why you chose not to pursue them still relevant? It’s at least worth pausing to think about.

Time to write that book.

 

 

The remarkable effects of going 24 hours without the internet

Last weekend, I challenged myself to spend an entire day offline. No email, no Facebook, no news websites, no YouTube…

It was a challenge to break that default habit of going online at the first hint of boredom or distraction, to see if I could do it and what the effects would be.

The results were more profound than I expected…

Planning ahead

Because the internet is now ubiquitous, we don’t think about it any more.

When you turn on a computer or phone, the first thing most of us do is get online without a moment’s thought, in the same way that you turn on the lights when you walk into a room.

But if you know that tomorrow you won’t be able to check the internet at all, it forces you to plan ahead. The internet becomes a scarce resource, and you start to think about what you need to do in the limited time available.

  • What do you need to get done while you have time?
  • What information do you need for tomorrow?

If you not only think ahead, but also take small steps to prepare, you are much more likely to be physically and mentally ready the next day.

Space to think

When you remove the option of going online, it leaves a vacuum which has to be filled with something.

It is very difficult to sit and do nothing. If you have ever tried meditation, you will know that there is a constant stream of thoughts and ideas flowing through your head which is impossible to stop.

As an academic some of those thoughts and ideas might be useful, but the internet acts as a kind of creative anesthesia… it stops you thinking by filling your mind with fluff.

Some say that the best ideas happen when you are taking a shower. Maybe this is because you have the space, in the absence of incoming information, simply to think.

Learning to relax

If you go a full day without checking email, then you know and accept that there will be unread messages sitting waiting for you when you come back online.

I think if you want to do good work, you have to learn to ignore that which does not matter in the short term to focus on the more important.

My mantra, when I was writing my PhD thesis, was to say, “it’s OK, I’ll deal with that later” whenever I was distracted by the temptation of some other task unrelated to what I was working on.

Likewise, on Sunday I told myself, “it’s OK, I’ll deal with email tomorrow”. The surprising effect was that this meant I was better able to deal with email by doing it all in one chunk, rather than individual emails competing for attention with the work I was trying to do.

Cold turkey is easier than rationing

Cutting off the internet completely is easier than rationing it. You could try saying, “I’ll just go online for 2 hours per day”, but this is incredibly difficult to stick to! How do you monitor it? And once you are in that internet-numbed mental state, how do you stop yourself rationalising “just 5 minutes more”.

It is much easier to stick to a binary rule, than a quantitative one. This is why no-carb diets are so much easier to stick to than calorie counting ones; it is clear-cut, do or don’t do, rather than do, but only up to this arbitrary limit.

The effect on productivity and quality of life

I got a ton of work done during my offline day, but I also had more time to relax.

Because I didn’t use the internet as a break, whenever I ran out of momentum I stepped away from the computer. It opened up other options, like going for a run, phoning a friend, tidying up; all small things that improve the quality of life.

When the internet is the default whenever you get bored, the opportunity cost is huge.

Recommendations

It is not easy to escape the internet, and the best way is to remove the option wherever possible. I recommend using freedom, a program which turns off your internet connection for a set period of time. It costs $10, but pays for itself many times over in terms of the time it gives back (no affiliation, I recommend it because I use it).

I also recommend practice. When you get stuck in your work walk away from the computer and give yourself time to think. When you get bored, stop and do nothing and see what ideas come to mind.

Do those few simple things, and I believe it will not only improve your work, but your whole life.

Offline Sunday: a challenge for the internet-addicted

The internet is now so ubiquitous in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine living without it. It is an incredible resource and invaluable tool, but for many of us (myself included) the line between useful tool and harmful addiction has blurred.

The internet is, without doubt, the biggest productivity killer, because it is the comforting presence always within easy reach whenever you lose momentum with your work or get distracted. It is the default habit we often resort to under stress, to escape momentarily from the responsibility, burden, or boredom of the task at hand.

In this blog post, I’m not going to suggest a cure, but rather a challenge to show the scale of the problem.

The Challenge…

The challenge is simple: spend 24 hours completely cut off from the internet

No email, no Facebook, and definitely no Twitter. No news websites, no blogs, and no amusing videos of cats on YouTube.

Although the challenge is simple in principle, it may not be quite so easy in practice. But the idea is to help you develop an awareness of…

  • your dependency on the internet (if you fail)
  • what can happen when the internet isn’t an option (if you succeed)

Sunday is a good day to choose to try the challenge, because it’s easier to get away with not answering emails. I’m going to try it on Sunday 15th December 2013, and will write a post about the experience afterwards.

Join me in the challenge by not joining me online!

offline-sunday

The default habit…

For me at least, the internet is a default habit.

Whenever I am unsure what to do, the first thought that comes to mind is always to check email. Then while the email is loading I’ll open another tab with my second email account, then another with Facebook. Then after scanning those I’ll often open a news website, check for new TED talks, open Google Analytics to check traffic to the site, check Mailchimp to see how the email list is growing, then back to Facebook where I’m chatting with 3 people at the same time, then I’ll notice another email has come in…

Since getting a smartphone, I sometimes do this before even getting out of bed. I’ll then get up, have breakfast, and still be checking my phone while eating… There’s no good reason to do so, it’s just a compulsion.

It’s a problem when a useless habit takes precedence over a basic need, such as food!

Why the internet is so addictive

In terms of usefulness, the internet spans a range from essential to utterly and mind-numbingly pointless (search for “nyan.cat” if you don’t know what I mean).

If we only used when there was some positive benefit then it would be fine, but often the possibility of finding something useful is used as a justifiable first step towards the pointless crap. You convince yourself that you’ll “just check email quickly, in case there is a reply from the boss…”, but it’s never quick, and it’s never just email.

This possibility of there sometimes being something useful or interesting or amusing is what makes it so addictive. The occasional reward reinforces the behaviour in the same way that an occasional win reinforces gambling addiction.

What happens when you remove the default option of the internet

When the internet isn’t an option, you’re forced to think. You have to decide what to do, rather than automatically taking the default option.

It might not be comfortable at first. You might find yourself creating reasons why you need to go online, but if you resist for even just half an hour, you’ll hopefully find that you start getting creative in terms of things to do.

Even if you do nothing, you are at least giving yourself some time to think, which is pretty important for an academic.

It’s an experiment

I don’t know if this will work, but let’s try, just out of curiosity to see what happens. Who’s in?

Free-writing or deliberate writing: a crucial distinction!

For the purposes of this course, I’ve defined writing as a form of communication. In the context of a PhD, this usually means the written thesis you submit for examination or papers written for publication.

You are writing for somebody else, with the aim of effectively communicating your research retrospectively once it’s completed.

If this is the primary purpose of writing, then clarity of structure and detail are vitally important and require careful thought.

However, in many fields it’s common practice to write for a different purpose. Sometimes writing is used as a way of generating ideas and arguments. The purpose is not necessarily to communicate, but rather to explore ideas for your own benefit.

In this case detail and structure may not matter so much. You can allow yourself to run with ideas and see what comes out, without worrying about what anyone else thinks about it.

The value (and limitation) of free-writing

In any kind of creative process, it’s important to allow yourself this kind of playful exploration, without the pressure of worrying about the end result. It’s good to allow yourself to have bad ideas, because they often serve as stepping stones to better ones.

If you just write, without thinking too much, it might lead you to interesting new ideas and help you form connections between ideas.

So free-writing has value, but it is important to distinguish between this kind of free-writing for your own benefit and the kind of writing intended for communication with someone else.

When you communicate research, usually you will be presenting something you have spent a long time working on. You will have examined a particular question or problem in depth, and possibly from multiple perspectives.

In other words, the majority of the ideas you present should not be completely new to you.

Idea generation vs consolidation & communication

If you are at that stage where you are close to submitting a report of your work, it should be less about idea generation, and more about consolidation and refinement of ideas you have already developed.

Let’s look at two possible situations. In the worst-case scenario, you’re a week away from a deadline for submitting a paper, but have no idea what you are going to say and you start writing without knowing what is going to come out. Any ideas you come up with you won’t have time to really consider. You might get something done in time, but it is unlikely to be very insightful.

But if you are a week away from submitting a paper with a good understanding of the relevant ideas, then the challenge is to select what you want to cover from those pre-existing ideas, and express them clearly while putting them together in a logical structure.

In this latter case, you don’t need to write thousands of words in a thoughtless panic. You can think through how to structure your argument. You can write calmly and deliberately, with conscious control over the process and you have a far better chance of writing something good at the first attempt.

Free-writing is for you, deliberate writing is for the reader

So I think it’s important to make a distinction between free-writing (for yourself) and deliberate writing (for other people).

freewriting-vs-deliberate-writing

I do this by free-writing on paper, throwing ideas down all over the page and (literally) drawing connections between points. This builds up a stock of ideas, many of which I may never use. I can then consciously select what to communicate to others through deliberate writing.

I find that free-writing by typing thousands of words without thinking leaves me with a huge lump of text which is very difficult to reorder, partly because it’s difficult to get an overview all the ideas. By doing it on paper, I can see everything at a glance and it’s far easier to move things around.

If you free-write as a form of analysis, or if you use writing as a way of thinking as many people do, but struggle to then edit it into a presentable form, try separating the two types of writing. Generate ideas fast, but then put that writing to one side and start again taking more time to think about how to clearly communicate the best of those ideas to others.

The secret behind success: It’s not what you might expect…

I’ve been extremely successful in many areas of my life.

  • I completed a PhD in physics, writing a thesis in just 3 months which the examiner described as one of the best he had ever read
  • I’ve represented my country as a competitive martial artist (and am the only person to have won the British Universities aikido championship twice)
  • I’ve cycled the English coast to coast trail in a single day (more than 130 miles, with a total climb of 4000 m)
  • I’ve climbed a mountain with a broken ankle
  • I’ve lived in 4 different countries other than the UK (Japan, France, Spain, Iceland)
  • And I’ve created this site, which receives between 1000 and 2000 unique visits daily

My life is pretty good, I do meaningful work that by I’m good at, I’m in superb physical shape, and genuinely believe I can do anything I put my mind to.

There’s a secret behind this success, but it’s not what you might expect. Many other successful people share it, but few talk about it. And you can’t learn it, but you might already have it…

The secret

I suffer from depression.

There are times when I’m torn apart by self-doubt and self-expectation. There are times when I feel like there’s a hole opening up underneath me. Or worst of all, there are times when I just feel emotionally numb.

There have been times when I’ve fallen asleep on the sofa, and woken up feeling paralysed, literally unable to get up under my own strength. It’s hard to describe what it’s like, but if you’ve been there, then you know.

The contradiction

Some of the world’s greatest achievers and most creative minds have suffered from depression, including;

  • Buzz Aldrin
  • Bob Dylan
  • Fyodor Dostoyevski
  • Michel Foucault
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Akira Kurasawa
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • JK Rowling
  • Oprah Winfrey

The contradiction is that what you feel on the inside can often bear little relation to how your life looks from the outside. You can have all the success in the world but still feel like a failure. You can be surrounded by people who love and care for you, but still feel alone.

It’s not easy to talk about

This contradiction makes it difficult to talk about. If you feel like crap, well-meaning people will try to help by pointing out all the good things in your life. They will treat it as a logical argument where all they have to do is provide a solid counter-example to convince you life is actually OK.

But sometimes it just fucking isn’t OK and there’s no logical reason for it.

If you have a broken leg, nobody tries to convince you it isn’t broken. They’ll tell you to take it easy. They’ll ask you if you need anything. They’ll understand. With depression, most people don’t know how to help so they try to tell you there isn’t a problem.

But you should talk about it. We all should. It’s a part of our society, and if you don’t suffer from depression yourself, I can guarantee you know someone who does.

Talk about it…

There are so many reasons to talk openly about depression, most of which I’ll leave to this video since he puts it so well:

 

For me though, one of the best things that has come from acknowledging my depression is a deeper understanding of myself, why (or how) depression manifests itself, and how that relates to my creativity and success.

I believe my depression, my creativity and my success come from the same place. They come from two character traits I have quite deeply engrained.

The first is obsessive thought

When I get depressed, it’s often because I am stuck with the same thoughts going round and round and round endlessly in my head. I won’t be able to sleep. I will be distracted during conversations or during writing while I obsess over something I can’t do anything about. On the surface I’ll be fine, but I’ll be tearing myself apart inside.

It’s not something I would wish upon anybody, but I’ve come to realise that this obsessive thinking, when focused and directed towards action, is the source of everything I have ever achieved.

When I cycled across England in a single day, it’s because once I got the idea to race the sun from the east coast to the west I had to do it. I couldn’t let go of the idea.

When I write, I’ll stay with an idea for days if necessary. I won’t let go of it until I understand the concept and find a way to put it into words I’m happy with.

The second is self-belief

It might seem strange that self-belief is a source of depression, but it can easily turn into self-expectation, and there is a subtle difference between the two.

Self-expectation can cause deep depression if I don’t meet those expectations. It’s knowing I could do more. Knowing I could do better. It’s regretting not doing something I should and could have. It’s pressure. It’s a burden.

Self-belief is when it doesn’t even occur to me that I can’t do something. It’s knowing that I can cope with whatever happens, taking things in my stride that others would be terrified by. It’s this self- belief that allowed me to say, “I don’t care whether I pass or fail my PhD, I trust in my ability that I’ll be OK”. It’s liberating

These two traits combined can tilt me towards supreme confidence, creativity and action or depression, pain, and inertia. I don’t always know how to control or channel it, but understanding helps.

Speak out

I don’t have any solutions to share, but I know that talking about depression is essential.

Leave a comment below and share your experience (anonymously if you like), share this post on Facebook or Twitter, or check out the resources below

Resources and links

  • Talk to your university counseling service or GP
  • The habits of happiness (video)
  • Authentic happiness (includes online questionnaires to measure depressive symptoms)