Doing a PhD is about so much more than the thesis you produce at the end that lets you proudly utter the words “Actually, it’s doctor.”
But at some point, you’ve got to take the ideas, doodles, scrawls and sketches and turn them into a thesis. When I got to that point, I wasn’t bowled over by the support available. After a while, you want to move from “everyone’s different!” and “there’s no one way to write up!” to “no, really, please tell me: how on Earth do I go about this?”
Don’t get me wrong – there is no one way to write up, and there’s almost certainly not a single best way. But this blog is my writing-up “write-up” which I hope, at best, might help others find what works for them (and, at worst, might help them rule out one option as a horrifying exercise in academic masochism.) Now that I’ve written it up, it sounds even more ambitious than it did when I first devised it – but I promise this worked for me.
I was a full-time PhD student, and over the summer between my second and third years, I had done piles of data analysis and qualitative coding. I already had a few chapters which were in good stages of drafting and a few chapters from annual reviews whose ideas needed splitting up and sharing across the manuscript as a whole. Similarly, I had pages (virtual and physical) of ideas, draft paragraphs, and thoughts about existing scholarship. In sum, I had enough to sketch an outline of what I thought my thesis contents page might look like.
I also had a goal: a draft by the end of February. That would leave good time for editing, job hunting, potential house moves and other life events (and, as it turned out, adjusting to living through a pandemic). With retrospect, that goal was unnecessarily ambitious – June would have been just fine. But my excessively-nurtured overachieving perfectionist soul had spoken, so February it apparently was.
So I sat down at the start of September, armed with my calendar and the finest pastel highlighters I could find, and worked out how many weeks I had until the end of February. Then I marked on holidays (essential). I dedicated a week to getting my undergraduate marking done in peace (necessary). I dedicated another week to assisting with college inductions (unexpected) and the two interviews I still had to complete and transcribe (delayed). Then I wrote a list of my proposed chapters. I took out the introduction and conclusion (you write those last anyway) and left out the two chapters (methods and literature review) I was already fairly happy with.
Dividing ‘remaining weeks available’ by ‘chapters to draft’ gave me a ‘weeks per chapter’ figure – one so small it was quietly frightening: about 2.3 weeks per chapter. I could easily and legitimately have abandoned ship at this stage without losing face whatsoever. But that overachieving perfectionist had spoken. Plus, I knew from experience (i.e. writing up my MA dissertation) that I find it helps to have a plan, even if it’s a strict one. I could let the February goal shift if I needed to, or if it proved completely unrealistic – the aim was to produce a timetable that helped, not one that became a stick to beat me. I wanted to at least give February a shot.
I assigned two weeks per chapter. I pooled the remaining .3 week snippets and turned them into two ‘grace weeks,’ which I notionally placed at the two month and four month points, knowing I could move them around to buffer against unexpected illness, falling behind, writer’s block, NVivo having a meltdown (ALWAYS. BACK. UP. NVIVO) or the urge to hurl my laptop into the River Wear.
I set the chapters out around the grace weeks in the order I expected them to eventually appear in the thesis, surmising (rightly, it turned out) that it would help me keep tabs on my overarching arguments. And then I drew it all up in a beautiful timetable. I decorated it with cheery sunflower doodles, and stuck on my kitchen wall. I cut up coloured record cards and used blu-tac to turn them into moveable stickers: as I finished drafting each chapter, I’d reward myself with a dopamine hit by moving its sticker from the ‘work in progress’ column into the ‘draft completed’ column. I created a virtual copy on Trello, so that I could do the same even if I wasn’t at home.
Then, finally, the most important part: I pulled out my phone and made a list of tiny rewards: buy-one-get-one-free bath bombs from the Body Shop; new (and definitely not academic) book; a hairband (which I still associate with finishing my chapter on compartmentalization.) Little incentives that helped a weary PhD gremlin to forget about the RSI in her thumbs from typing all day, and to mark all of the milestones she was passing. Maybe it’s just that I never progressed past the reward chart stage of childhood development – but the chart helped break down a huge goal into smaller ones.
And you know what? It worked. By the end of February, I had a draft (just in time, it turned out, for the pandemic to sweep across the world and leave me to edit it from the comfort of my spare room.) The afternoon I’d spent euphemistically adding joyful sunflowers to a highly ambitious personal timetable paid dividends by keeping me motivated and on track. I even got that marking done on time.
I can’t lie and tell you it was always an easy process: colleagues would probably confirm I looked like a feverish hermit tapping away at my keyboard day after day in the corner of our shared office, chewing on my earphones and drinking ungodly quantities of black tea because none of us ever remembered to buy milk. When I finished the draft, and the adrenaline had filtered out of my system, I was pretty poorly – with hindsight, I should have taken it more slowly and preserved my health. I definitely needed those grace weeks. And the draft was by no means perfect when I finished. But it was done, and while it needed plenty of editing, it was a clear and recognisable ancestor of the thesis I submitted the following September.
As I said: there’s no one way to write up. This approach worked for me, and it might just work for others – but I can think of plenty of others for whom it would have been a disaster. So go and talk to other PhD students and ECRs about what they think works – the worst they’ll have is cautionary tales. And at the very least, start writing up your list of tiny treats immediately!