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When to write your PhD thesis

Andy workingI've been AWOL from this blog for the last 3 weeks because of work. It's not a great surprise that every now and then things get in the way of what I want to do while I'm attempting to maintain the balancing act that is a PhD and life. But few things take up so much time that I give up doing the 'extras' in my life (like this website and blog). Re-writing a paper to be published is definitely one of those things. Every academic knows only too well how demoralising it can be to spend years writing a paper and finally submit it, only to wait months and be told no, or that things should be changed considerably if you ever want it to be published. That's essentially what I spent the last few weeks doing; redrafting what I (and the co-authors) considered to be a good paper just to jump through the hoops laid out by some anonymous reviewers. I should state for the record that I'm regularly one of those annoying reviewers and I do value the whole peer-review process, but there are definitely some times that a reviewer has a conflict of interest and doesn't want something published for reasons outside those scientific ones. But, now, that's not what I have been thinking about. It really just makes me ask myself:

When is the best time to write your PhD thesis?

The truth is that I don't really think there is a 'best' time. It depends so much on your research, whether your work is embedded in larger projects, what kind of supervisors your have, when you're willing to give up free time, whether you plan on publishing, if you can break up the chapters into discrete articles, how much 'value' you want your final thesis to have, and so many other things. For me, the best time to write up my thesis is as I go along. I started out with 3 years funding and one of my first decisions was that I wanted to write my thesis by papers. This essentially means that I want to submit one big thesis with an introduction and conclusion and all the 'meat' of the thesis would be contained within separate articles which had been prepared as if they were published in an academic journal. My rationale was that if I could write and publish these articles as I went along (within my 3 years of funding), it would not only stand me in good stead when it came to future employment, but I would also save myself time as I wouldn't have to re-write the thesis into papers to submit after I'd finished my PhD. Fortunately, I was able to design my research to fit around a loose structure of 4 papers, 1 review, 2 original research (new data) papers and 1 modelling paper to tie the data to the larger context. I would then buffer these in the thesis around an introduction setting the scene and explaining why this research was required, and what was needed, and a conclusion that summed up the findings and explained what was needed next. So for me, it was obvious, write and submit these 4 papers to be published before I handed in my thesis and things will be great. But, with that, comes the problems.

Writing papers as you go along in your PhD takes time. And unfortunately time is something we very rarely have in any vocation let alone a PhD where you're expected to design an experiment, carry it out, collect the data, process the samples, do more experiments, run the samples on machines, format the data, do the stats, interpret the outcomes and write up the findings. All at once. To be fair, it's no difference for anyone in academic research, although I get the feeling that at least if you're more senior there are more people you can ask to do things for you. As PhD students, we're at the bottom and it comes down to you and you alone most of the time. And so writing papers while trying to stay on top of everything else isn't particularly easy. A friend of mine managed to write nearly all his thesis on the template of a chapter a week, which is crazy but just shows that writing as you go along might not actually be the most efficient way of doing it (though I'm pretty sure he'd say that it would have been less stressful that way)! His blogpost on the subject is a thoroughly good read and I really recommend anyone to read it, there are a lot of really great tips and tricks in there.

As for my advice, well, it's hard to give any when I'm in my current state of affairs. With one paper submitted, another half-drafted and 2 more to go, I'm in this odd place where I know I should write more but in all honesty don't want to give up more free time doing things I enjoy to fit in both labwork and writing. Unfortunately, one thing that might have to give way is football and exercising. At the moment, of the 168hrs in a week, I spend around 50hrs working, 60hrs asleep, 15hrs doing 'chores', 25hrs socialising, 10hrs exercising and 8hrs doing the rest (eating, travelling, etc). Since the 8hrs is pretty much as low as it'll get and the 15hrs doing chores is pretty much essential, for me to do more work I'd have to drop socialising or exercising if I'm to remain awake and write! How so many academics manage to do all this stuff and write in the evenings - whilst having partners and kids a lot of the time - I have NO idea! Is this what my life is going to become if I go down the route to academia?? Maybe I'll just escape as soon as I finish up my PhD and be done with it. That is, if I ever finish my PhD...!

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