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!

[hr]

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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Writing your thesis in a second language (Part 2)

<<< Read Part One

5 things you can do to make it easier to write your thesis in a second language

1. Don’t translate

The more you think in the language you’re writing in, the easier it will be to express yourself clearly.

If you translate a fully formed sentence directly from your native language, it won’t flow naturally since different languages have different ways of structuring ideas.

So switch your brain to think in your thesis-writing language. It’ll save you a lot of time and improve your writing.

2. Edit

Don’t worry about getting a sentence perfect first time. Everybody has to edit, whether you’re a native speaker or not.

The first version of any sentence is for your eyes only, so it doesn’t matter how good it is. Get it down on the page, then try to make it better if you can.

3. Keep it simple

Shorter sentences are clearer.

When you edit your work, try to make your sentences short, clear and simple.

It’s easier for the examiner to read, and easier for you to write.

4. Play with the language

When you get stuck editing a sentence, is there another way you could say it? For example;

  • Are there alternative sentence structures?
  • Can you write it a different way?
  • Could you rearrange the sentence?
  • Is there a better way to get your point across?

One problem you can have is when the same sentence structure repeats again and again. It doesn’t matter so much when you speak, but it’s very noticeable when it’s written.

Look at the first words in each line of this post. You’ll notice that “when” repeats in two lines close to each other. Normally I’d change that.

Still try to keep it simple, and don’t change things if it’ll make your sentences more complicated, but there are almost always alternatives to choose from.

5. Plan ahead

Your thesis is all about leading the examiner through your research, so you have to know where you want to take them.

Plan the key points you want to cover, first by writing down every idea you can think of on paper, then by putting them in order.

That way when you’re writing you can concentrate on one section at a time, without worrying about what comes next.

 

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Writing your thesis in a second language (Part 1)

OK, this one’s tough…

… But I’m not interested in why it’s difficult. If you have to write your thesis in your second (or third or fourth) language, how can you make it easier for yourself?

Ideally, it should start long before you sit down to write your thesis, so here are some things you can do from day one.

Practice Writing.

If you sign up for a postgraduate degree, you know what language you’ll have to write in, so start practicing as soon as possible.

That doesn’t mean pulling out all your old grammar textbooks, learning the rules and going through set exercises. It’s not only boring, but also a terrible way to learn a language.

Practice by using the language in writing at every opportunity. Need to send an email? Try new sentence constructions and new vocabulary.

Don’t over-complicate things, just try to just push your ability a little bit each time.

Why email?

One of the basic principles of learning anything is that it’s very, very difficult to learn or improve a skill under stress.

In conversation you have to speak without thinking too much. People understand, but it might not be technically correct or the way a native speaker would say it.

Even when corrected (which might not often happen), you’ll soon revert to the way that you’re accustomed to speaking.

Zero pressure

Writing email, you can take your time, stop, check and rethink phrases without any pressure. You’re also practicing writing the things you naturally want to say, rather than what a textbook author thinks you might need.

(If you don’t have a native speaker to email, try to find one. Or you can probably email your supervisor in English. There is always a solution.)

Practice Reading.

Pick a research or review paper written by a native speaker, and related to your subject.

But don’t read it from start to finish, just read one section or paragraph at a time over several days, and look at the language style.

Is that sentence written the way you would write it? Is there a difference in meaning because of the word order? Or is it different in tone or formality?

I don’t understand that… How can I use it?

When you notice something new, or something you don’t understand, before moving on with reading you should ask yourself, “how can I use it?”

Keep a notebook, write down no more than 2 or 3 things then try to use them in real-life writing over the next few days.

Language Resources

My favorite is definitely Wordreference.com

It doesn’t do translation (online translation is unreliable anyway), but is an amazing resource. Full dictionary definitions, verb conjugations and so on, and online forums where you can see native speakers’ translations of phrases and ask questions.

If you have any great language resources you want to share, comment below!

Coming up in Part 2…

Stuff you can do once you start writing the actual thesis…

How to write your academic CV (and how not to)

When writing your academic CV, as with any kind of writing, it’s not just the information you put in.

How you present that information can make the difference between getting a job you love or finding yourself stuck in a job you hate. In other words, it can alter the course of your whole life.

Writing your academic CV: the 2 basic rules

1: Individual CVs for individual jobs

The absolute number 1 golden rule is that you shouldn’t just write one CV, but should tailor it to each individual job you apply for.

If you’re applying for academic jobs, the CV you send will be different to the one you send to work in a bank or bakery, but you should also tweak every CV you send to the specific job you apply for.

The facts don’t change, but you might choose to emphasise certain skills and experience over others.

2: Not all content is equal

Just like in your thesis, not all potential content in is equally valuable.

Not everything you’ve done is equally interesting to an employer. You want them to read you CV and want to know more about you, rather than skimming sections looking for something interesting.

Once you’ve listed your PhD, master’s degree and undergraduate degree, there’s no need to say where you went to high school. If you have a ton of experience as a computer programmer, saying you can use Microsoft Office is pointless.

I’d say 2 pages is a maximum for a CV, but if you had to reduce your CV to one page (which is OK to do), what information would be indispensable?

Think about what information you want them to ask you in your interview, and what they might want to know and make those the focus of your CV

Structuring your academic CV

Part 1: Who are you?

What are you going to put first? Your name, obviously needs to be clear in large bold type at the top of the page. Put your contact information in small type underneath, like a sub-title. Contact information is only useful to the reader when they decide to contact you, so giving it a third of the space on the first page doesn’t make much sense.

What’s the next thing you want a potential employer to see?

Give them a quick summary (about 3 to 5 lines, probably no more) of what you do and what your experience is. For example;

“Recent PhD graduate* in (insert subject), specialising in (insert 1 or 2 skills or areas of expertise, relevant to the job your applying for). Also highly experienced in (something else), with practical experience in/ working knowledge of/ familiarity with (some area you might not be as confident in, but the employer may be looking for).”

In other words, if they only read the top half of the first page, they’ll know everything they need to to decide whether you’re at least worth talking to.

Tailor the statement to the job, or if it’s a speculative job enquiry, to the research group in question. Be brief, but anything you think makes you good for the job, include it here.

Everything else you put in your CV needs to support that opening statement.

Part 2: Can you do the job?

It’s safe to assume that everyone else going for that postdoc position has got good academic qualifications, so is that what you want them to see next? It won’t necessarily help you stand out from everyone else.

So thinking about what to put next… well what do academics care about most?

Publications, publications, publications.

If you’ve published papers or presented work at conferences, then it demonstrates professional competence and backs up your opening statement.

When you come to apply for your second research job or a lectureship, you might want to put your research experience in the form of an employment history, but fresh out of your PhD, demonstrating just that you’ve been published is the most important thing to highlight.

The big difference between an academic CV and non-academic CV is that if you’re applying for jobs outside academia, the specific publications might not be so important. To a  non-academic employer, they simply serve as proof that you were competent at what you were doing before.

Part 3: How did you get here?

Once you’ve shown your publications, you can give your qualifications. For your first “real” job, this will double up as an employment history as it accounts for your time over the last several years.

It’s good to structure this as a timeline, working backwards from the most recent, or what you’re doing now.

The bar job you took to pay your way through your masters probably isn’t relevant to the job you’re applying for, but if you had a job for a significant length of time then put it in. You want to avoid gaps in your history because these cause a bit of suspicion about what you were doing.

Wherever relevant, put some detail in about what you were doing at each place, again to reinforce what you said in part 1. Those things you said you have some knowledge of, this is where to say where you got that experience.

Part 4: Anything you’d like to add?

Finally, if there’s anything else interesting you want to say about yourself, then include a section about your other experience. You could list interests, but its way better to frame it as things you’ve done or achieved.

It’s not interesting that you like running or music, but it is interesting if you’ve run a marathon or played in an orchestra. Interviewers like these kind of things!

A few things to avoid…

DON’T: rush your application by sending a generic CV

DON’T: List everything you’ve ever done to try to make your CV look fuller, you’ll only dilute the good stuff

DON’T: send your CV without checking for errors at least twice. Get someone else to read over it if you have difficulty checking it yourself.

DON’T: use big, dense chunks of text

DON’T: include anything you wouldn’t want them to ask about in the interview (either because you think it’d be boring, or because it isn’t true)

*If you haven’t finished your thesis yet, just replace “recent graduate” with “PhD researcher in…” , and finish the paragraph with “Expected thesis submission date: (insert date)”. If you think you could do the job and can demonstrate that you have the right skills, the fact that you haven’t yet finished doesn’t rule you out.

3 harsh truths about pursuing an academic career (and how to succeed)

After you finish your PhD thesis, you might be tempted, or even excited, to pursue a career in academia. Or you might be looking at postdoc contracts because you don’t know what else to do.

A career in academia does suit some people quite well, but you need to know what you’re getting into before you set foot on that path.

harsh truths

1: There is no academic career ladder

There is no academic career ladder. It’s a pyramid, and it’s crowded at the top.

Most postdocs never progress to permanent positions (or tenure) simply because there are fewer available. and there are more people trying to get into that top tier than are retiring or dying.

It’s certainly possible to get up there, but it takes determination, which means being certain that’s what you want. So you can make the decision to leave now, delay the decision, or make a determined effort to make progress in your career.

Not knowing what else to do is not the same as “I can’t imagine doing anything else”.

The question to ask yourself is this; do you ever wake up early because you are excited by your work?

If yes, continue. If not, do something easier and better paid.

2: Being smart and working hard is not enough

Being good and waiting to get noticed just isn’t enough. Lots of other people are as smart as you, and just as hard-working.

So how can you get ahead?

You have to know what you’re aiming for, set yourself a target and a time frame, and make the decisions necessary to get you there.

If you decide, before your first postdoc, that you are aiming for a permanent position by the age of 32, that gives you a framework for making decisions.

Is that next contract going to advance your career, or just delay your exit? Is it just the first thing that came along?

Are you publishing results just to stay alive, or to make a name for yourself?

3: Contacts are the lifeblood of your career

Who you work with is at least as important as what you do.

It’s vital to find people to work with who are interested in your long-term career, people you can learn from, and people you can trust.

Absolutely the best way to do this is to treat conferences and seminars as networking events, rather than expenses-paid boredom (or stress when you have to present).

If you go to a conference and don’t introduce yourself to at least 10 people, you are wasting your time.

Those contacts are the lifeblood of your career.

It’s OK to search through job listings, but it’s better when the opportunities come to you.

If nobody knows you through your work yet, the only way to start is by meeting people personally. Get out there and get known, because nobody else is going to do it for you.