Just after I finished my PhD, I had lunch with a friend I’d not seen for a little while. When she asked what I’d been up to, it was very satisfying to produce a photo of myself in my doctoral plumage. “Blimey, Catherine,” she said, “you must’ve worked really hard”. “Yes,” I replied, smiling broadly and triumphantly. The smile faded as she added, “because it’s not as though you’re really intelligent or anything”.
Within this most backhanded of compliments lurks an essential truth: successfully completing your PhD is down to diligence, not brilliance. Of course, you need a good idea to start with and the insight to turn it into a significant and original research project; but then it’s a case of organising and motivating yourself. That’s what this book is all about.
Over the last six years, I’ve worked with more than 3,000 students at different stages of their PhD. Although many were struggling, not one lacked the intellectual capabilities to produce a thesis. The problem was always confidence, time management, or lack of direction — sometimes all three. I’m here to help you get back on track and reach the finish line.
I was awarded my PhD by the University of Sussex back in 2014. My subject was the Victorian author Florence Marryat, who wrote dozens of lurid novels and enjoyed a very colourful personal life. I studied part-time, alongside full-time employment, and finished in just under 4 years. This is not because I’m bionic – far from it – but because I treated my PhD like a project. That’s to say that I broke everything down, set targets, and monitored my progress. Alas, I cannot claim that it always went smoothly. There was a lot of despondency, periods of complete inactivity, and afternoons of shouting at my computer when it was misbehaving. I’ll share some of these unedifying episodes with you later on.
Like many researchers, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy, or ‘Imposter Syndrome’ as it’s often called. We’ll discuss this in Chapter Two. Finishing my thesis proved more of a psychological than an intellectual challenge. Not recognising this initially, I pushed myself too hard and made the project much more difficult than it needed to be. Now that I’m brimming with post-doctoral wisdom, I hope to prevent you from making some of the same mistakes. Doing a PhD shouldn’t be an exercise in masochism. Taking care of your health and wellbeing makes it more likely that you’ll succeed. After all, you want to be well enough to enjoy swishing about in your finery on graduation day.
Why I’m Writing this Book
Since graduating, I’ve spent many hours pondering easier ways of finishing a PhD. After a brief stint as a lecturer, I realised that I love supporting researchers. I’ve been running workshops, facilitating writing retreats, and offering 1-2-1 coaching at more than a dozen universities. This privileged position has given me an insight into the lives of PhD students from a range of backgrounds and disciplines.
Although everyone is completely different, you’re all facing broadly the same challenge: doing a PhD is hard. This becomes even harder if you’re combining it with a job or caring responsibilities, or if you’re writing in a second language. Given a PhD usually takes between 3 and 6 years, there’s a good chance that life will intervene at least once to throw you off course, too. The tired old advice of “Treat your PhD like a job” simply doesn’t work. I’m here to offer a more practical perspective.
A few people breeze through their PhD, knowing exactly what they’re doing and never giving their supervisor a moment’s worry. This probably isn’t you. I don’t want to present doctoral research as an unbearable slog, but I do want to be realistic. It’s tough for most of us. That’s why relatively few people get to call themselves Dr. It’s hard, but not impossible. I want to help make it possible for you. My role is to break down each stage so it’s more manageable. This book is intended as a pocket coach, providing support when you need it.
Who This Book is For
I’m assuming you’re reading this book because you’re struggling. This book is mainly aimed at PhD students who have already started on their thesis and have made some progress. You might have entered your second year and suddenly realised that the submission date is closer than you thought. Or you could be in the final stages, trying frantically to bring everything together.
As such, I shan’t be addressing the literature review, fieldwork, or data analysis. I’m assuming you’ve done this already and are now writing up your results. Nor will I dispense advice on developing a theoretical framework or choosing a methodology. If you’re still planning your project, there’s lots of great advice out there. You can find some reading recommendations in the Bibliography. You might still find a lot of the book helpful, though.
This isn’t another “this worked for me, so it’ll work for you” book. There’s no miracle cure lurking in these pages, just lots of proven strategies for you to try. Some of them are based on my experience, others are from students I’ve coached over the last six years. Annoyingly, we can’t just deploy someone else’s successful regimen — it’s a matter of trial and error, rather like research itself. I’ll offer a range of tools or methods so you can discover what’s right for you.
There are parts of the book that will resonate with you; other advice might not make any sense at all for your specific situation. Please disregard anything that’s not helpful. We’re all unique, so no single solution benefits everyone. And please be kind to yourself along the way. I’m not setting standards for you to achieve. It’s about creating a sense of curiosity and a willingness to experiment, rather than pursuing perfectionism.
I’ve tried to make my advice applicable to all disciplines and styles of thesis. Inevitably, though, there are many differences, and you’ll need to adapt some of the examples to suit your circumstances. Nevertheless, whether you’re based in the laboratory or in the archives, you still need to produce a very long document that makes a contribution to the sum of human knowledge.
Although I’m here to help you complete your thesis, there’s only so much I can do. In this book, I’m focusing on the fundamentals, the processes that you need to create, deploy, and refine. The next layer is the conventions in your discipline. This is where you’ll need to talk to your supervisors and peers to find out how this information applies in your particular context. It will vary enormously according to the type of research you’re pursuing. And then finally, the very top layer is the specifics for your project. Your thesis is completely unique. This means you’ll have to adapt what you’ve learned from me and other people to come up with a solution that’s right for you. Nobody else can tell you precisely what you should do with your thesis.
A Note on Language and Terminology
Throughout this book, I’ll be referring to your thesis — the term generally used in the UK for the written element of the PhD. In the US, it’s usually known as the dissertation. The Americans are right on this one. The argument based on your research is the thesis, and the dissertation is the written document in which you explain it. Given I’m based in the UK, I’m going with thesis.
There are many different ways of referring to you: PhD student, doctoral researcher, postgraduate researcher, and many more. I’m sticking with PhD student. Although some people are keen to emphasise their transition from taught student to researcher, others have told me that being referred to as a student is a relief. Student suggests they’re not yet experts — and that’s exactly how they feel. I’m also using this term in the interests of clarity. I’ll also refer to PhD supervisors. In the US, they’re usually known as a dissertation or doctoral advisor.
I use British spelling because anything else just feels odd. And most of my examples and terminology refer exclusively to the UK Higher Education system. While the advice here might be more broadly applicable, you should always consult the regulations for your institution.
How to Use this Book
You can either read this book from cover to cover or simply jump into the chapter that’s most relevant for you. I’ve kept it concise to ensure you don’t have to waste time that could be spent on your thesis. Each chapter concludes with a summary of what we’ve covered, along with some action points and a troubleshooting guide.
This book is arranged in eight chapters, each focused on a specific area of finishing your PhD:
Chapter 1 is all about purpose — understanding exactly what’s required from a thesis, and why you want to write one. Yes, this did seem a good idea at some point. Once you have a sense of purpose, everything else becomes much easier.
In Chapter 2, I help you develop the right mindset for finishing your PhD. This includes vanquishing the dreaded Imposter Syndrome and experimenting with some positive psychology. Often, we get stuck in the past, thinking about all the things we should have done, rather than focusing on what we can do now.
You’ll start planning in Chapter 3, by setting milestones, anticipating problems, and being realistic. I’ll explain that you are the project manager of your PhD and we’ll consider what skills and resources you’ll need for completion.
An effective working relationship with your supervisor is crucial to your PhD success. In Chapter 4, we’ll think about how you can get the support you need and also identify potential sources of conflict.
Chapter 5 is dedicated to prioritisation — the business of making sure you do your most important work each day by protecting your time and eliminating distracting thoughts. We can easily get overwhelmed by all the stuff that’s beyond our control, while all those priorities slip away.
It’s not just about protecting time, we also need to use it effectively. In Chapter 6, we’ll develop some tactics so you can make significant progress with your writing. By understanding the obstacles that get in our way, we can overcome procrastination and become more focused.
Most of us can achieve a couple of productive days. The challenge is to do this consistently. In Chapter 7, we’ll create some routines to help you achieve the results you crave. You’ll also meet a monkey and discover what you can do on those days when your brain refuses to cooperate.
Finally, in Chapter 8, I’ll guide you through improving the structure, content, and flow of your thesis. This is the stage where you’re thinking about how you present your research project to examiners. I’m here to ensure you show it off to the best possible advantage.
Occasionally, I’ll recommend technology. As that’s an excellent way of rendering a book obsolete in a matter of weeks, I’ll be including all the links on my website rather than within the text: www.howtofinishyourphd.com.
Are you ready? Let’s get started.
How to Buy Your Copy
How to Finish Your PhD is available in paperback and ebook editions. You can order through your favourite online retailer or independent bookstore. The ebook edition is available through Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and all the other major channels. If you'd like to buy in bulk for your students (20+ copies), please contact me for discounts or any other queries.