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Writing a PhD Thesis in 50 days

BnW CelebrateToday I'd like to take 10 minutes to reflect on the end of my PhD. The culmination of 4 years of research. That big book that I scribbled to complete furiously. How it went down, you might say. I've included a few lessons learnt that may be useful for other PhD students, and for my top tips, without having to read how I got them, scroll to the bottom of this page.

A while back I blogged about when is the right time to begin writing your thesis. Ultimately concluding that you should write as much and as early as is realistically possible, though with the focus being on writing articles, rather than a thesis. That said, I didn't really take my own advice, December 2014 rolled round and I had written nothing but a lone paper. It was published and would make up the first 'real' chapter of my thesis, but it was distinctly a sole piece of work. Nothing more could be made of it.

To put things in perspective, the 4-year deadline for my PhD was 31st January 2015. There was no wiggle room, I had to submit my thesis by then. Further, because the 31st was a Saturday, I had to drive to Aberdeen and there were snow storms forecast, realistically I had to print and bind on the 28th. A few days may seem trivial but my timeline was tight, and I knew it. One PhD thesis to write, approximately 50 days to do it.

Monday, December 8th 2014

8 dec 14

Days to go: 52 (1406 since beginning my PhD)

Thesis status: 10,700 words, 0 graphs, 0 tables (one published chapter)

I finished my fieldwork in April 2013, I finished my labwork in October 2014, I was offered and accepted a post-doc in Colorado on 5th December 2014. Before then, most of my time not in the field, lab or applying for jobs was spent playing football, socialising and playing with my data. The last part was crucial to a successful mad dash to the finish. So on this particular Monday (8th Dec), I knew what needed to be done but had no idea how to do it. So I sat in an empty room and wrote on separate post-it notes each different chunk of data that I had. Soil CO2 emissions, senescence rates, soil carbon stocks, soil temperature... After exhausting that list (including all 'mundane'/metadata) I spent about 3 hours rearranging the post-it notes to create discrete chapters that would flow together and make a single coherent story. Eventually, I had my structure so I took it to my supervisor to see what he thought.

post its

We were less than 2 months from my deadline and he'd seen no writing since I had my paper accepted for publishing in October 2013. In short, he wanted me to start writing and whatever plan made that happen he was behind. The conversation evolved the plan more and his wisdom in this area was very valuable - merging bits and moving data x to chapter y, etc. Finally, I came away from the day with a solid plan of my thesis.

The following two weeks I had friends visiting, Christmas dinners and various social things to fill up my evenings/weekends. For the thesis I wrote a general intro, looked at my data in more context of the thesis and set up the document to get the formatting right (margins, sections, table of contents etc). This meant that I could just type and Word would do the rest. Just before leaving Lancaster for the Christmas 'break', I revised my thesis structure to drop two previously planned chapters. This was the most interesting and novel data, but also the data I had examined least so wasn't sure exactly what it would say.

Lessons learnt:

  • Spend numerous hours sitting with post-its to find a coherent thesis structure with limited data repetition.
  • Talk to people about your structure - if possible with people outside your discipline too (this will help you put things in a wider context).
  • Don't be afraid to drop data and findings from your thesis if it helps coherency. But check with your supervisor to ensure you still have enough to make it a PhD!
  • If you need to revise your thesis structure, go back to the drawing board. Concentrate on how your newly proposed structure will read as a whole. Big picture coherency!

Monday, December 22nd 2014

22 dec 14Days to go: 38

Thesis status: 14,800 words, 1 graph, 0 tables

Two weeks had gone by since I'd come up with my thesis proposal and I had only spent 2 days writing, and only an introduction at that. Still to write were 4 chapters (including an overall discussion) and if I was to try and follow what a previous PhD student had attempted, a chapter a week, I was only allowed 10 days to revise, address supervisors' comments and/or take breaks. The next couple of weeks would be crucial to making headway and getting this thesis finished on time. BUT, it was also Christmas and New Years Eve and I was back home with family and friends who I rarely see. Not the environment best suited to lots of work, and who could refuse to play with Fleet and his Christmas...hedgehog?!

fleet toyA plan was born. I'd write the thesis in structure order to make it flow well and Sundays would be my deadline days. By 4th January I'd have one chapter done and from there it was 1 week per chapter, to have the whole thing finished on Sunday 25th January. Over Christmas and New Year I knew I'd have loads of distractions, but none were likely to be in the morning so I devised a way to have my cake and eat it too. Essentially I moved my sleeping pattern to 5am until noon. Family time was afternoon to dinner and friend time was after dinner, usually ending by midnight or 1am. All hours not spent being sociable went towards getting that chapter written. Over those two weeks there was plenty of Christmas fun but also 101 'productive' hours (134 total). And at a push I got the chapter finished and sent to supervisors on that Sunday. It was then that I realised how important the power of fun as a motivator would be the next month. Work hard, play hard.

Lessons learnt:

  • Devise a timeline to completion with only a few (3-5) major deadlines - don't break it down further, this allows wiggle room for some things to be slower/faster than expected
  • Find ways of incorporating, not compromising, all the sociable things you want to do - not watching TV/playing xbox! The problem with TV/Games is you can do them any time and it's too easy to say "just one more episode/game" - when your friends go home that's the end. There's a finite amount of time away from the desk.
  • Work harder, play hardest - give yourself some 'me time' and make sure you sleep enough but focus on work the rest of the time. Once you get out of it, it can take a while to get back in!

Monday 5th January 2015

5 JAN 15Days to go: 24

Thesis status: 25,000 words, 10 figures, 10 tables

I had made good headway and felt positive, it was a beefy 'first' chapter and I was fairly happy with its content. What my supervisors thought remained to be seen but I was optimistic. It was on this Monday that I realised the challenge ahead and began to see how short the timescale actually was. Three weeks, three chapters, with very little margin for error or, more likely, the data to show something I didn't expect. Or, even more likely, me to spend hours/days debugging and figuring out R.

Knowing I can write pretty quickly (some days were upwards of 3000 words) I figured I'd create a formula that may help me stop and move on if I was running low on time for a certain chapter. This was:

Monday/Tuesday - Data exploration and stats

Wednesday - Generate graphs and tables of summary values

Thursday - Results section to put it all together

Friday - Introduction and methods

Saturday - Discussion and conclusion

Sunday - References and revisions

crusadersBut importantly I had football Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday lunchtimes and Sunday night, snooker on Monday nights and football team drinks on Thursday night. Saturday breaks and dinners each night were times for doing things with my girlfriend. This forced me to work whenever I wasn't socialising. There was literally no time for procrastination.

That week, that chapter, well they came at the right time to keep my confidence high. It was the easiest chapter of my thesis and one I knew the data inside out for. So I got it all done on time and sent off to supervisors.

Lessons learnt:

  • Know your data backwards - this was absolutely pivotal to me getting a chapter written in a week
  • Don't worry that it's not perfect - to write 3000+ words a day you can't worry about it sounding just right. If you're getting the point across, that'll do. There's always some time for revisions later.

Monday 12th January 2015

12 jan 15Days to go: 17

Thesis status: 33,400 words, 15 figures, 12 tables

Brimming with confidence, but completely unable to take a break I got revved up that Monday to start a new chapter and follow the same structure that I had just managed the week before. I don't know whether it was fatigue or simply that this new chapter was just much harder than the last, but this one was taking its time and time I didn't have. By Saturday I was still on the results and actually still pretty confused as to how to present them. I managed to hash something together and Sunday I knocked out an introduction and methods before conceding that I'd needed another day to finish it off. In the 8 days it took to finish that chapter, I was 'in' work for 116 hours. But it was done, and sent off to supervisors just before heading out to snooker. I knew it wasn't great, and I knew a few things that would be criticised in my viva (they were), but there were no fast solutions and I was out of time. I had to move on.

Lessons learnt:

  • Don't panic - even when everything is going wrong, nothing is working and it's taking twice as long as you hoped, the one thing you can't do is think about that. Remaining optimistic is absolutely vital!
  • Still make time for yourself and friends - even when things are really bad, they'll only be worse if you don't take breaks to smile and appreciate life. Your PhD is NOT the most important thing. You are.
  • Never underestimate how long stats, graphs and modelling takes - using R means countless hours of fiddling, debugging and googling, but if you're working with data at all you're going to spend a LONG time working out how to present things and how to get the results to be statistically valid.
  • Take pride and confidence from small achievements - don't get complacent but remind yourself that every little victory is one step closer to the big victory.

Tuesday 20th January 2015

20 jan 15Days to go: 9

Thesis status: 42,800 words, 22 figures, 15 tables

Just the discussion chapter left to go but still no time for a break. Throughout the past 3-4 weeks, my supervisors had been fantastic at getting bits and pieces back to me quickly and one in particular often turned round comments to my latest chapters within hours. His advice after I'd sent him the latest draft was:

The synthesis chapter will be important, so spend some time on that – structure it around key questions / findings rather than a chapter by chapter discussion (e.g. “We show that hypothesis X holds true under circumstances Y, from evidence aaaa in Ch2, bbbb in Ch3 and cccc in Ch5” – i.e. bring in evidence from different chapters to make your points). You could build it around your original hypotheses.

Having written most of my thesis within the last month it was all relatively fresh and I knew how each chapter connected to the big picture. It was quite a nice way to end my frantic writing in all honesty; I was able to see my research all come together, and I could now embrace all those times I was trying to avoid repetition. In this section, overlap between the previous chapters was the whole point! I added hyperlinks throughout the chapter to guide readers back to relevant sections - a point that was received very well by my viva examiners.

To give myself time to reflect, and help remind myself of the key points for my synthesis chapter, I first went back to make corrections to the previous chapters. Especially all those advised by supervisors. As I made these revisions I reminded myself of the bigger picture and some of the more interesting points of my previous chapters. These, and only these, featured in my synthesis chapter - not every little finding. I was pretty desperate to get it a full draft together and had an old friend visiting Saturday-Monday...so on the Friday, while I had the house to myself, I started work at 8:30am and finished at 10am the following morning. I certainly wouldn't recommend it if you have other options but I had to get finished. With the first 'full' draft sent to supervisors, I took the weekend off and didn't even look at my laptop until Monday.

Yr4 in out

Lessons learnt:

  • Take a step back and breathe. This overall discussion/synthesis chapter should be enjoyable. If it's not enjoyable to you then it's probably not enjoyable to anyone else who's going to read your thesis.
  • Enjoyable to write doesn't necessarily mean easy to write! Going back to those first post-it notes helps to see the whole thesis at once.
  • If it helps, break your entire thesis into a few major themes and pick the key points from each chapter that belong within that theme. Finish the chapter off with a section of 'future research' and a single paragraph for an overall conclusion.
  • Don't be too reference heavy in this overall discussion, most things should have been said before. You're better referencing yourself than other people (except a few to provide wider context).

Monday 26th January 2015

26 jan 15Days to go: 3

Thesis status: 46,200 words, 22 figures, 15 tables

Feeling relaxed and refreshed after a weekend of socialising I went in early Monday knowing I had 3 days to do all abstracts, acknowledgements and appendices, as well as any corrections or revisions that my supervisors or I had picked up on. I reluctantly checked my email with a sense of dread that supervisor comments were substantial, only to find:

Andy – this is excellent – just the sort of synthetic chapter needed – and pulling together evidence from across the chapters in a thematic way. Perfect. A few minor comments and edits to deal with but these are quite straightforward. Full steam ahead.

fishnchipsWhether he meant it or not, it didn't matter, this was just the confidence boost I needed and Monday/Tuesday I was able to address all comments and pull it all together to create a final draft. I printed a copy for me to read over on Tuesday night and spent Wednesday tweaking it all and making sure it was as close to perfect as time would allow for. All 3 full copies were printed late on Wednesday before a celebratory fish'n'chips and beer with friends to finish it all off!

Lessons learnt:

  • Remain optimistic. I've said it before but it really is the most important thing. Any little thing can, and should, give you confidence.
  • Don't underestimate how long referencing, formatting and getting things to look good take. Ideally leave at least a week, yes a week, for this.
  • Push yourself to a deadline if it'll allow you a day or two off. Those days off give important distance from your thesis and remind you that the PhD really is just a tiny part of your life.

Thursday 29th January 2015

29 jan 15Days to go: 0

Thesis status: 64,600 words, 30 figures, 15 tables (including references, titles, appendices, etc.)

The thesis was printed, it just needed binding, then I could set off to drive to Aberdeen and hand in the document I'd spent 4 years of my life working towards. There were snow storms forecast and weather warnings suggesting not to drive when possible. Sadly this was not possible but I'd given myself a day to account for such eventualities.


Oh and one last thing - I'd forgotten to write an abstract. Not for any of the chapters but for the thesis as a whole. I knew I had to leave by 10am if I was to get to Aberdeen that Thursday in time to hand it in so I got it all bound in a hurry and threw together an abstract. It was awful. I just crossed my fingers and hoped that my examiners judged me on the thesis, not just the abstract! Which I do all the time for journal articles!

So on the journey up there was a lot of snow on the motorways and the heat shield under my car fell off. But I got to Aberdeen in time and was able to relax at a friend's house with a wee dram of Whisky that night before a more leisurely drive back to Lancaster on the Friday.

Lessons learnt:

  • Plan in that extra day, just in case some circumstances are outside your control and require a bit of breathing room.
  • Don't forget to write an abstract for the whole thesis.

In summary:

52 days

35,500 words written

25 R scripts written - just over 50,000 lines of code

156 graphs produced (of which, 27 made it into the thesis)

Top 5 Tips:


Organised isn't always proactive

While I would never recommend that anyone put off writing their PhD thesis until 2 months before their deadline, it is possible. And I'm sure plenty of people have done it faster than I did. Despite what it may seem, me and my research were very well organised. Without this level of organisation I'm pretty sure my timeline to completion would not have been possible.


Know your data inside and out

It's all well and good knowing how to put your research into context but if you don't know what your data shows it's a bit pointless. Look at your data over and over until you're sure of what it says. If you're struggling, talk it over with someone, you probably do know but just need something to trigger the right thought process. Being decisive (but acknowledging uncertainty) is key to getting your point across.


Big picture, global impact

Try to explain your key findings (and their context) to your supervisor, your peers and your parents without them falling asleep or staring at you blankly. All three groups will want different levels of detail and will need you to concentrate on different things to engage them.


Social matters matter

None of my PhD would have been enjoyable without my family, friends and girlfriend. While you need to work hard and be remotely interested in your research, it's still a means to an end, the real goal is to enjoy life while doing your job. Ensure you take regular breaks to do things you love: playing football, knitting, running, going to the pub, cooking. Whatever it is, make time for it, and especially anything social. Try to limit things that don't have finite end points.


Optimism and confidence

This is by far the most important factor. It isn't always that easy but constant reminders that you will finish the thesis and it will be good are absolutely vital. If we put our minds to it, we are capable of anything.

And with that, the thesis was done. 4 weeks later I had my viva...which is a much shorter story!


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