The self-sustaining cycle of thesis productivity

How do you stay productive, day after day?

One day you’re on fire, the next you struggle to write 50 words.

It’s frustrating; you know you’re capable of doing it, but that just makes it worse on those days when you can’t get going.

1: The first working hour of the day is the most important

If you start the day achieving something, then you’re more likely to stay productive for the rest of the day.

But if you don’t know exactly what you’re going to work on when you sit down at your desk, then your default routine takes over (email, news websites, etc). Two clicks and you’re stuck in a procrastination loop.

So wait before turning on the computer. Spend 10 minutes or so just thinking about what you’re going to do. Start with something easy you can finish!

2: Stop while you still have something in reserve

At the end of the day, don’t work till exhaustion just because you are “on a roll”. You need rest to stay consistently productive!

Stop, and set yourself something easy to start with tomorrow.

The self-sustaining cycle of consistency

If you do this, taking care of the beginning and end of the day, you will be able to keep your momentum from one day to the next.

Achieving something early generates momentum. That means you get plenty done and can finish the day happy with what you’ve done.

Then it feels OK to stop, so you can rest properly, and leaving yourself something easy to do means you can achieve something early, which generates momentum…

Thesis Submission Guidelines: 10 tips to avoid disaster

A bit of forward thinking can save you a huge amount of panic when it comes to thesis submission day.

Here’s a quick checklist… Most may be obvious, but you only need one to go wrong to have a very bad day.

1. Double (and triple) check your thesis submission deadline

Do you have it in writing from an official source? Don’t rely on what anyone tells you!

Do not assume you will be able to get an extension if you miss the deadline. If you think you will need one, apply for it early.

2. Where do you submit it?

Do you know where the office is? Also, what time does it close? You don’t want to show up at 4:45 if it closed at 3:30.

3. What paperwork needs to be filled in?

Universities love bureaucracy and paperwork. And thesis deadline day is not the time to have to battle with someone because you don’t have the right forms signed by the right people.

Make sure you know well in advance what paperwork needs to be completed and whose signatures you need.

4. What formatting is required?

Best to know this one early… what margin size, line spacing, typeface is required for your thesis? It’s good to sort this out right from the start, so that you don’t have to reformat in a panic at the end.

5. Does it need to be bound? If so, how?

There are probably very specific requirements for this. Do you know where you can get it done if your thesis needs binding?

6. How many copies?

It’s usually at least 2, sometimes more

7. Do you have guaranteed access to a printer?

With enough paper and ink? Do you have a backup printer in case one breaks down or you can’t get access to it?

8. Have you checked how your figures look when printed?

If you have complex figures and diagrams (especially in colour) have you checked how they look when printed? Things don’t always come out the same on the printed page as on the screen. If you rely on colour images, check them on the printer you intend to use.

(See “How to design figures for a PhD thesis“)

9. Check your title page.

There will be spelling mistakes in your thesis, that’s inevitable… but check your title page very carefully, and get someone else to look too. It’s the first thing the examiners will see, and you don’t want to mis-spell your title (or even your own name!)

10. Give yourself time to compile and print

Pulling together multiple chapters from different files? Converting to PDF?

This may seem mundane, but things can go wrong when you try to create a large file (especially in Microsoft Word). Your references may become scrambled, your figures may disappear.

Compiling and printing your thesis is not always trivial. Give yourself a minimum of two days to sort any problems!

See also…

Your Final PhD Year

Will the examiner tear my thesis apart?

You’ve done years of research, you’ve got the results, you’ve done the analysis, drawn your conclusions… But what if the examiner tears your thesis apart?

Obviously you want to avoid the humiliation of having your thesis torn to pieces. So here are the 7 deadly sins of thesis writing to avoid at all costs.

1. Lies

Any hint that you’ve fabricated results, or tried to cover up major problems by lying, and the examiner will tear you apart.

If you feel tempted (or pressured) to lie about your research in your thesis or in published journals, it’s really time to have a good look at your situation, and talk honestly with someone you trust. The temptation is understandable, but it’s just not worth it.

2. Bullshit

Distinct from outright lies, bullshit involves trying to give the impression of expertise in a subject you actually know very little about.

It’s tempting to try to appear like you know everything, but it’s far better to give more detail on subjects you are genuinely expert in.

3. Plagiarism

Even if you get away with plagiarism in your thesis, you can lose your doctorate if someone finds out later. This happened to the German defence minister in 2011.

It is sometimes hard to paraphrase other people’s writing, so it’s better to try explaining the idea to someone verbally then writing about it in your own way.

Never sit with the paper in front of you and try to rearrange sentences to make it look different. It just doesn’t work.

4. Misrepresentation of other people’s work

You will have to write about other people’s work, and give references to back up your arguments. It’s very, very important that you know what these references actually say, because the examiner will tear you apart if you misrepresent other people’s work (especially if it is the examiner’s work).

Don’t cite anything you haven’t actually read.

5. Getting the basics wrong

It’s OK to have the occasional mistake, but if you make a fundamental mistake in your assumptions which then undermines your conclusions, then you are in trouble.

6. Ignorance

While you aren’t expected to know everything, you should have a good knowledge of relevant developments in your field and some knowledge beyond your highly specialised niche.

It depends how broad your field is, but at the very least you should be aware of who the top people are and the most highly cited papers.

7. Lack of insight

What does it all mean? How does your work relate to the wider field? What are the limitations of your research and what open questions remain (or are raised)?

You have to give the examiner an idea of what and how you think, beyond just the dry technical details.

You have to be willing to commit to what you think, and know that you can defend it.

It will be OK!

If you avoid these 7 sins, as long as the basic research is OK (it doesn’t have to change the world), and as long as you write honestly and don’t stray too far from what you are expert in, then you should be OK.

torn thesis

How I wrote a PhD thesis in 3 months

Before reading this post please note: it took three and a half years of full-time research to gather the data for my  PhD thesis; the three months refers only to the writing, which I did quickly at the end. I do not claim that everybody can write that fast, and, certainly, if you have not done the research it will be impossible. You probably won’t write as fast as I did, but you might gain some useful insights from the way I approached it.

After almost 3 years, I was on the verge of quitting my PhD in the summer of 2006.

I had nowhere near enough results, the equipment I was using didn’t work most of the time, and I could barely summon the motivation to get up in the morning.

So how did I turn things around, get the results I needed and write my thesis in 3 months?

1. Dealing with stress

After a near-breakdown, I started taking walks around the campus when I faced a problem in my research or found myself getting stressed.

I took the time to think about what I needed to do and get myself in the right frame of mind to come back and deal with the problem.

Previously I would have found myself killing time on the internet just to get through to the end of the day. This one change in habit probably saved my PhD.

2. Limiting the time available

Though my productivity increased once I figured out how to deal with stress, I was still doing experiments well into my fourth year.

I had a final submission date (at the end of my 4th year), but my research was still a bit chaotic. It wasn’t focused on finishing.

My supervisor (the brilliant Professor Moriarty) then told me that I would no longer be allowed into the lab after the end of March 2007, and that I would have to write whatever I had.

3. Adapting and acting decisively

Because of the limited time, I had to make some tough decisions. Anything I did, I would either have to finish or let go. There would be some loose ends, but that was OK as long as I tied up others.

I had to decide not to do certain things, and focus with energy and determination on others.

Still, though, the thesis would be a little thin. So I took on a side project based on another student’s research, which could produce some results quickly.

This side project produced the most interesting result of my scientific career.

4. Finishing research before writing

By the time I stopped doing experiments, I knew I had enough for a PhD. Not the best PhD ever, and not world-changing, but with two publications and enough data for another, I felt it was good enough.

Because I wasn’t allowed back in the lab, I just had to focus on writing. The hard part was behind me. The results weren’t going to change, so it was just a matter of making sure I was productive when writing.

It is much, much easier to write when you know the raw material isn’t going to change.

5. Preparation

I decided to work at home, not at the office, because there would be fewer distractions.

I got rid of the TV, and had no internet connection on my computer. The lack of internet meant I had to gather all the papers I would need beforehand, forcing me to think about what I would need.

I also set up a dedicated space (2 large desks joined together and a very comfortable chair, next to a large window for plenty of natural light), just for thesis writing.

6. Targets and consistency

I set myself a target of 3 months, broken down into targets for each chapter. This would give me about 3 months in reserve before the final absolute deadline.

I had a daily minimum target of 500 words, which I knew I could meet even on the least productive days.

This meant that because I smashed the target most days, I finished every day feeling good about my progress, which in turn meant I started the next day feeling confident.

7. Routine

The two most important parts of the day are the beginning and end. It’s important to build momentum early, and have a routine for ending the day too.

At the end of each day I always left myself something easy to do to get started with the next day, so I woke up knowing what I was going to do.

I also tidied the desk at the end of every day, which also helped close the day mentally and stopped my brain going over and over the thesis at night.

8. Applying ruthless standards to what I included

Whether it was the lit review, or my own work, I cut anything sub-standard.

I focused only on the very best literature, saving myself a huge amount of time. It also had the result of associating my work with the very best in the field.

I only wrote about what I knew about, which made the thesis shorter, faster and easier to write, and of higher quality than if I had included everything whether I understood it or not.

9. Taking time over details that matter

I took painstaking care over the clarity of the writing, the diagrams and the overall look of the thesis.

If a diagram took 2 hours, so be it. If I couldn’t find a high-quality image in a paper to paste in, I would re-draw it myself. Why? Because it adds so much to the feel of quality running through the thesis.

“The unreconstructed Si(111) surface”. This took a very long time to draw and make sure the diagram was accurate.

By applying obsessive focus to one detail at a time, I could make sure that I wouldn’t have to do it again. This brings me to the final point…

10. One draft

I always edit as I write, with one goal only: to make sure I’ve expressed the idea in my head clearly on the page. I don’t move on until I feel the sentence makes sense, with no ambiguity of meaning.

Clarity of thought is always the number one aim. But it is very difficult to come back to a piece of writing days or weeks later and sort out a mess of thought if you don’t clarify your writing while the thought is still fresh in your head.

This means I was constantly re-reading and revising what I’ve just written, but also means that when I submitted something to my supervisor it needed very few revisions and saved months, simply by getting as close to “right” as I could the first time round.

Please Note

I’ve had some comments on this post reacting as if I completed my entire PhD in 3 months. No, I did three and a half years of research first, then wrote the thesis. I also do not claim that anyone can write that fast, as it depends on a lot of different factors. This is why the title is “How I wrote…”, not “How to write…”

How much is enough when writing a PhD thesis?

So you’re working away on your thesis, trying your best to keep your eyes open, get the words down and meet the deadline.

But there’s that nagging doubt… how do you know whether what you’re writing is good or not?

How do you know if your arguments are deep enough, or if you’ve covered enough of the literature?

There is no number. There is no magic formula. Everyone’s PhD is different, and so all you can do is tell your own story.

But there is one element that you cannot live without, and which will help you to know what to include and what to leave out.

Insight

Insight is what separates you, the PhD candidate, from the undergrad student just following instructions or rote learning.

It’s not the same as technical knowledge. It’s the way you think about the subject, the way you interpret and explain the results.

Being factually correct isn’t enough. The examiner wants to see something they don’t already know; not just in terms of results or concepts, but they also want to see your perspective.

They want to see how the technical detail and the literature background informed the decisions you made in your research and how it relates to your analysis.

This is why it’s so hard for anyone to tell you exactly what’s required, because you can’t put a number on how much insight is enough.

They don’t want a bibliography with 1000 papers in if they aren’t relevant.

The examiner isn’t going to care whether your thesis is 130 pages or 150 or 300… In fact if your writing lacks insight, they would probably prefer it to be as short as possible.

How to show insight

  • Stick mainly to things you know about
  • Avoid including random facts for no reason
  • Show how the ideas in the literature informed your research and your analysis
  • When writing, spend time thinking about exactly what you want to get across
  • Try to find the key concept that runs through the section or chapter to tie it together

and

  • Tell your own story. Because ultimately, it’s all about you.

 

The 10 commandments for PhD failure

This is quite an old post now, and I don't write in this style any more (it's a bit sarcastic). For a better summary of the key principles, written with a more positive outlook, check out this blog post

1. Isolate yourself

You are surrounded by other very smart people with different experience and ways of viewing problems.

But if you want to fail, don’t ask them for their opinions. Never ask for advice if you find something difficult, and never admit that you’re making less progress than you think you should.

Don’t discuss your research. Instead, wait till you write your thesis before you attempt to explain your work for the first time.

2. Don’t take time to think

You have to work hard if you’re doing a PhD.

Professors work 26 hours per day, so you must too. Clearly, that’s the best way to do your best work. If you stop to think, people might think you are being lazy, and it’s vital to maintain the appearance of being busy even if you’re too exhausted to tie your own shoelaces.

If you stop to think, you might be able to find a better way of doing things that saves you time… or a new idea that’s a breakthrough in your research. Then what are you going to do for the rest of the day?

3. Don’t ask for what you need

Your supervisor might say no, after all. Instead, carry on doing things the way you are whether it’s working or not.

You can avoid asking for things by following commandment 2. If you don’t think about what you need, you can’t ask for it.

4. Make lots of excuses

Things will happen that will slow you down.

It’s not your fault… you didn’t have the support, you didn’t have the resources, this didn’t arrive on time, there are too many distractions…

Excuses are a great way to cover up your own responsibility for your own research. Strip them away and the onus is on you to think about what you need to do to overcome the circumstances and make progress.

4. Spend all your time reacting to new things

Your inbox is your master. If you want to stay a PhD student forever then spend all your time reacting to new (but non-urgent) tasks coming in, rather than on your long-term goals or finishing what you’ve already started.

Wait till Monday before you decide what you’ll do next week, and then just do what you feel like doing at that moment.

5. Do everything important at the last minute

You work best with tight deadlines.

Doing everything at the last minute means that you won’t have time to think about what you are doing, and gives plenty of opportunity for excuses to crop up.

6. Ignore your own mistakes

Successful people acknowledge and think about their mistakes, then act accordingly.

But you learned from undergrad studies that a mistake is the worst thing you can make in an exam or in an essay. Back then there was little chance or need to learn from mistakes, as you only had to retake the exam if you failed.

Failing a PhD is all about working harder without gaining a deeper insight into your research. So don’t stop to think about what you’ve done wrong and what you can do differently, and never, ever admit your mistakes to others.

7. Avoid making decisions

You can avoid making mistakes in the first place by doing nothing.

Spend all your time worrying about whether this or that option is best, because you don’t and can’t ever know with certainty until you try (that¡s why it’s called research).

You could decide to try something new, but that means having to stop to think about the options. And you risk making mistakes which you’d then have to think about some more and try to learn from, or admit to.

8. Try to be an expert in everything

No good at statistics or data analysis? Never written a computer program before? No idea where to start with a new sub-topic?

Try to do it all yourself and don’t ask for help. Spend most of your time doing things you are bad at, and less time doing the things you’re good at.

It might take a colleague 30 seconds to do something it will take you a week to figure out, but then you can’t make excuses and look busy by struggling on alone.

9. Be totally passive with your supervisor

Just do as you are told. Don’t bring your own ideas to meetings, don’t ask for clarification, don’t stand up for yourself or what you think is best.

If you want to be treated with respect, act with dignity and act proactively.

But speaking your mind, voicing your concerns, coming up with your own solutions to problems means that they might start to see you as a human being and a capable researcher, but there’s also a risk of them disagreeing with you.

You supervisor is not your employer. They aren’t your owner, either. Your time is yours, and you are investing it in the PhD.

But just stay quiet and stay chained to your desk for 3 more years.

10. Forget why you’re here

You are here to succeed. You are here to finish your PhD and move on to the next challenge in your life.

It involves taking some risks, making difficult decisions, thinking creatively, overcoming obstacles. It involves thinking about what you are going to do right now, and acting decisively to achieve what you want to achieve.

But it’s easier in the short term to see the whole thing as an impossible burden, to hide behind excuses, be passive, avoid making decisions and focus on all the problems you face instead.

How to choose your thesis topic

It’s hard to commit yourself to a thesis topic. You don’t yet know if the idea you have now is a good idea or not, and if you commit to it, you might not be able to pursue a better idea you could come up with later.

So here are a couple of guidelines to stop you going round in circles.

1: Stop looking for the one big idea

Start investigating something… anything at all, and see if it grabs your interest.

This might not be what you end up researching, but just exploring your subject can lead to unexpected flashes of inspiration. You might try 3 or 4 (or more) ideas before you hit gold.

2: Talk to people

Share ideas with people in your department, and see what they think.

But also find out what other people are doing. There may be a what’s hot in your subject at the moment. Are there big gaps where nobody else is looking? Should people be looking there?

3: What do you want to learn?

A PhD isn’t just about your contribution. It’s also about what you learn, and the skills you can use later in your career.

What skills and knowledge do you want? What are you already good at and want to improve? 

4: What do you like doing?

Choosing your research topic is choosing what you’re going to be doing every day for the next few years.

What do you enjoy the most? What do really dislike doing?

5: Combine ideas

Once you’ve followed the above steps, if you are still stuck but have a few ideas to play with, try combining ideas in new ways. Applying technique A to area B.

There are very few truly original ideas, but there are always new perspectives on old problems.

When you find a combination that could be interesting, useful, or even exciting, go for it!

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This post was written in response to a question from a reader. Use the comments section to let me know what you’re struggling with, and I’ll do my best to help!

12 things you need to know when starting a PhD

1: Beat your first deadline

Whatever your supervisor gives you to do first, beat the deadline by at least 24 hours.

2: Get to know people who can make things happen

You might not need them yet, but saying hello to secretaries, technicians, porters etc is a very good idea before you need a last minute favour later. Then…

3: Thank people who do things for you

Especially your PhD supervisor. It’s easy to complain if they aren’t there for you, but recognise that they are almost certainly busier than you are, and show that you value their time.

4: Get to know other people’s research

This will give you a broader knowledge base, and stop you getting too narrowly focused on your own research. You’ll learn far more (and faster) by talking to people than you will by reading.

And your colleagues are more likely to be interested in your work if you show an interest in theirs.

5: Get really, really good at one thing

Nobody knows everything. You’re not expected to. But try to get seriously good at at least one thing.

Even better if it’s something useful to other people.

6: What you write now, you won’t like in 3 years time

3 years from now, you’ll know far more than you do now. That’s the whole point of the PhD.

The value of doing a lit review now though his to learn the basics. Focus on basic concepts, and don’t let writing get in the way of starting research.

7: Downloading papers doesn’t count as reviewing the literature

I mentioned this in 17 random tips for PhD success, but it’s worth saying again. Check out this post on an easier way to review literature.

8: Publish

Everything you do should be working towards getting published. If your work isn’t going to be publishable, it’s not going to be worth a PhD.

9: Make contacts outside your department

Contacts are the lifeblood of your career. Get to know people at conferences, get their business card, add them on LinkedIn, and that CV you send 3 years from now won’t be coming from a stranger.

10: Write everything down

Write notes as if they are for someone else working coming in to take over your work after your shift ends. Your future self will forget!

11: Time goes faster than you think

Sometimes the days will drag, but the years will fly by. Set yourself a target for what you’re going to achieve in the first 6 months.

12: Make mistakes

If you make no mistakes, you’re not taking risks and you’re not pushing yourself.

Just make sure you learn from them, take responsibility for them, and try not to make the same mistake twice.

How many thesis drafts do you need to write?

There will always be more you can do.

But there’s also got to come a point where it’s good enough to submit your thesis and get on with your life.

So here are a few guidelines to revising your thesis from one draft to the next.

First Draft

The content shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to your supervisor if you’ve been communicating during your research.

At the very least, you should discuss what you’re going to put in and a rough outline before you start writing.

Still, it’s going to come back with quite a lot of suggested changes, whether it’s spelling mistakes, factual errors, or changes in the structure or style. That’s OK, as long as you’re clear about what they want you to do to make it better.

If there’s even the slightest doubt, ask.

Second Draft

Any major changes should have been made, and it should be pretty close to the final thing, though there’ll probably be a few new mistakes in there.

At this point, your supervisor shouldn’t suggest any major new sections. If they do… well why didn’t they say so after the first draft? This is why it’s so important to clarify what they want you to do after the first draft.

Third Draft

By this point, there should be no obvious technical mistakes or bits missing.

There will still be spelling errors, there will still be more you could do, but from this point on, any further rounds of revision will have a rapidly diminishing effect on the quality of your thesis.

The hardest thing to edit…

The most difficult thing to edit is your writing style. If in doubt, keep your sentences as short as you can. This will generally make them clearer, and clarity is king.

How to avoid endless rounds of revision

Of course some chapters might take a fourth draft to get right, but if it’s going up to 6 or 7, then it’s just silly. Here’s how to avoid getting into that situation.

  • Discuss the thesis structure with your supervisor before you start
  • Plan chapters before you sit down to write, so you know what you’re going to include before you start
  • Give chapters to your supervisor one at a time, rather than drafts of the entire thesis
  • Don’t keep doing new research once you start writing. If you do need to do some extra, stop writing, finish the research!

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