Friday, 22 March 2013

Words of Wisdom

Had a coffee with a colleague and friend, one who not only has a PhD and lots of publications under his belt, but also a permanent job, and, you know, is much much further along in his Career. The advice he gave me on these final months of PhD was this:

- start shutting the whole thing down now. you will find it helpful to think in terms of 'shutting down'. you will want to keep following up new avenues of research every time you stumble across something interesting that you haven't explored. you will want to look up everything that's been written about it and change your entire chapter 4 to accommodate this new thing. there isn't time. you don't have time to do that. start SHUTTING DOWN the phd, and making it smaller instead of bigger. focus on making sure that what you are saying is clear and concise. you know what you mean; try and help the examiners know what you mean. think about transitions between chapters, think about making your line of argument as clear as possible. use your supervisors.

- you may find it useful to find out very soon about the final stages of handing the thing in. which office do you take it to? which binders will you use, and how much time will they need? what colour does the binding have to be? how many copies do you need? find out how many days this will all take, and put them in your diary near the final deadline. bear in mind that just printing it out takes an entire day.

- if your examiners find more than X amount of mistakes (say, 100), then they will be obliged to spend your viva going through each and every one of those mistakes with you, which isn't very nice. (if you can magage to avoid this, then you will have a very nice viva.) check footnotes and quotations. allow yourself time, after the thing is written, to read through carefully and check things thoroughly. at this stage, every time you write something, reference it properly. start thinking in terms of 'this bit is now tidy and i have checked it through, and i can move on.'

- your examiners will think your phd is fine. it's fine as it is right now. your examiners haven't read the material you are working on. (my friend, who is a specialist on my area, said: I am working on this, and I haven't had time to read the thing you are working on.) your examiners won't know that you have all these files on your computer, with all this extra information that you never had time to incorporate into your phd, and which you think is crucial and is missing. no-one knows that but you. it doesn't matter.

- (I was worrying that I have probably missed out loads of secondary, critical material, which i didn't realise even exists/ or came across it and then forgot all about it.) it will happen - in your viva, someone will say 'have you read X book on this?' and you will say 'No'. it doesn't matter. they will tell you about it, it will be helpful, and that will be it. if necessary, they will tell you what corrections to make.

- your thesis only has to be good enough. it's already good as it is right now. print out stuff you write as you go along, and put it in order in a ring binder. this way a) you get to see how much work you have done, and b) if it is printed out, you are less likely to think (as you would when you see it on the computer screen) 'oh my God, I have to restructure everything/ rewrite the whole thing/ copy and paste all these things and put them in a different order...'. Use a red pen (or a green pen) to correct, annotate, put a few arrows here and there to indicate where things can go. correct the physical draft on the page before you. this is easier to do than correcting a draft which is sliding past your eyes on a screen on a word processor. (i agreed with him that screens are evil.)

- think of this draft as though it were something that has been written by someone else. this is not your phd; this is a friend's PhD, and you are helping your friend reread it and correct it. what would you say to your friend? you would not say 'oh my God, every single word of this is rubbish and needs rewriting.' you would say, 'well done for writing all this stuff', and then you would say 'well, i'd suggest changing three-four things, and then basically it's OK.' you are allowed to say to yourself, as you might about a friend's work, 'gosh, [X] has made a right mess of this. she should definitely change this bit and move this bit' - you are allowed to criticize, but remember, this is someone else's work at this point and you are helping. you do not have responsibility over it. it does not define who you are. it does not say anything, reveal anything, about you. it does not define your worth as an academic or a person. it isn't even a finished thing; you can turn it into a book, or turn it into articles, and that will mean you get to make it completely different. it isn't the last thing you will ever write. and, to be honest, no-one (apart from maybe two people) will ever read it.

- (and then he said) : remember Good Enough; think Shutting Down. and Good Luck!


  1. Thanks so much for your blog, I found it after a particularly harrowing meeting with my supervisor and you can easily guess what I typed into google to find your blog! It is great to read someone articulating exactly what you are going though and how you are feeling. Good luck with the thesis writing and I look forward to reading your next installment.

  2. hey hey! ... glad to be of use! yeah, try not to hate your PhD too much. it will be fine. just keep starting on bits of it... and then enjoy lots of lovely time off. keep at it, good luck! xxx

  3. this is a wonderful post!

    I have about 4 months left and find myself falling into the traps you detail here.

    Shutting down sounds good.

    Thanks for passing along the good advice.

    1. you're welcome! beware of the traps, but remember, we're only human. we all fall into them, and it's ok. don't beat yourself up about it. just keep starting again and again. good luck! xxx