Thursday, 10 October 2013

How to finish your PhD on time

Posted by Lynne Forrest

So, with a few minutes to spare, I submitted my PhD thesis within the three-year deadline. But, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some smug blog on how I successfully managed to do this. No, the writing-up period was a total nightmare that involved 90-hour working weeks and then staying up all night to send the thesis off for binding at 4.30am on the day of submission. There has to be a better way.
"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham;
These are my rules for successfully submitting on time, all of which, on reflection, are pretty-much common sense but yet, somehow, I (mostly) failed to do:

Go on a course to ‘how to manage large documents’ if your institution offers it. 
I’ve been using Word for years so was pretty blasé and thought I didn’t require this. But, a bit too late, I realised there was a lot of functionality that I had never used. With two days to go I had to learn how to create a Table of Contents automatically, as well as a Table of Tables and Figures, so that I didn’t have to manually update page numbering each time I moved text and tables. Really useful, but I should have done it far earlier.

Don’t leave the document-formatting until the last minute. 
It takes far longer than you think to do all this and I left it to the final fortnight. I had dozens of tables that I then interspersed within the text, some of which were landscape and thus required the insertion of section breaks and different, customised margins to the portrait text. Once the custom margins were inserted tables had to be re-sized to fit. Tables split over pages needed headings repeated. All of this is tedious and very, very time-consuming.

Don’t go on holiday shortly before your submission date. 
Save your holidays until post-submission. It’s really no fun trying to get a dodgy wi-fi connection as everyone else enjoys themselves, and thesis drafts do not make for relaxing poolside reading.

Don’t go to a conference 2 weeks before your submission date. 
I’d barely returned from holiday when I went off to SSM2013. I’d seriously thought of cancelling but luckily my presentation was written well in advance and actually the conference turned out to be really revitalising during a real low-point in my write-up. So maybe not such a bad thing to do after all if you can handle the stress…

Write the literature review and methods early on – in the first year if possible. 
At the beginning of the PhD it feels like you have plenty of time but you really don’t. So get on with the stuff you can do as soon as possible. Then it just requires some last minute tweaking and updating in the last few months. I did actually do this one!

Focus single-mindedly on the write-up. 
My husband lost his job shortly before the end of my write-up. I coped with this by ignoring it and ploughing on. Personal-life crises will inevitably happen and sometimes you just have to be ruthlessly single-minded and concentrate on getting finished. You can have the meltdown once you submit.

Know when to stop. 
I think the best piece of advice I received was being told that your thesis does not have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough to pass. If I’d had a few more weeks my thesis could definitely have been better but I also think there are diminishing returns here. The more time you have the more you revise and re-edit. If you’ve made the changes recommended by your supervisors and they say it’s fine then just STOP. (However, I haven’t had my viva yet so we’ll need to see how this one pans out…)

Ultimately I finished on time because I was given a non-negotiable deadline. If I didn’t submit on time I would lose the three month funding available to write-up papers. This was such a good opportunity that drifting on was not an option. I’d have preferred to have done it without putting in ridiculous hours, never seeing friends or family and doing nothing but working in the final weeks, but it’s done.
It is possible so good luck!


  1. Stephanie Mulrine10 October 2013 at 09:12

    Well done, Lynne! I hope you have had time to relax a little more now! I totally agree with your first point on going on a course. Although I'm still in my first year, I went to one run by Durham University and it was so incredibly enlightening! I thought I was fairly competent with Word, but I guess 'you don't know, what you don't know'! I will probably have to refresh when I get further along, but I think all PhD students should try and seek this out!

  2. Thanks Stephanie. As you say 'you don't know what you don't know'! I think I'd now go as far as recommending that these type of 'Managing Large Document' courses be made compulsory for all first year PhD students. it's so easy to underestimate what a massive task producing a thesis is.

  3. Some good advice Lynne, thank you. My (insane) deadline is 3 weeks away and I'm working full time now too. Just got to stay focused and like you say it is important to be single minded, even though other stuff is going on.
    I agree about the word course too - essential!
    Best wishes

  4. I love this piece. My personal saviour has been Endnote and I absolutely insist that a reference manager is fundamental to any thesis. I completely agree regarding managing large word docs.
    I did a Viva Survivor course which really helped me a lot too.

    knowing when to stop was a massive stumbling block for me. my advice with regard to that aspect is to get feedback from your supervisor, present lots, write every day, blog, and generally learn to let all your work go quite swiftly. I didn't do enough of that and by the time it come to hand over my thesis it felt like I was losing a limb.