PhD thesis: writing it up (and the art of procrastination)

Mike Smith reveals six of the most useful pieces of advice he has been able to give his PhD students over the years

August 26, 2017
PhD

Doing background reading, undertaking leading-edge research, and analysing the results may seem like the hard part. In fact, they may well be hard, but these elements are often the aspects of research that, as a PhD student, you find easier to carry out. It’s the research process, and you must have been good at it in order to get on to a PhD programme in the first place. And it’s something that you will continue to do in a research career.

However, research doesn’t get you a PhD. The “traditional” UK form of assessment (and one that is prevalent in the geosciences, my subject area) is a written thesis and oral examination. The latter, while potentially nerve-racking, is relatively short and the direct style of question and answer is similar to the way that conferences operate. But the thesis? It’s an 80,000-word “book” presenting, in long form, your understanding of your subject area, identifying a “gap in knowledge” that you intend to investigate, outlining the methodology that you will use to investigate it, presenting the results of the investigation and then summarising their significance.

On face value, it is a suitable assessment tool. However, given its restricted nature, it will likely only be read by your supervisor and examiners. It is also a style of writing that is sufficiently different from writing for journals and considerably longer – if you want to publish it, you will need to re-write it. So, is it any surprise that many PhD students struggle with writing up? So, to get you writing, here are six of the most useful pieces of advice that I’ve been able to share with my students over the years.

Top of the pile is that you can improve the quality of your research simply by being a better writer. That’s not to say that your understanding or investigation gets any better, but that your communication with others improves and that is a significant part of the research process (particularly when you are being examined). And the route to better writing is to practise – write more, write regularly, and write in different styles.

Let’s take those in turn. First, you need to increase the quantity of your writing. Second, try to write regularly. And it isn’t just academic writing that helps you, but writing fiction, non-fiction, formal, informal, personal, descriptive and narrative. It is all productive. If you complete 500 words every day, in any form, you will rapidly improve your composition, editing and grammar.

Allied to more writing is more reading that exposes you to alternative writing styles and vocabulary. Read more in your subject area and in different genres more widely. If you want to rapidly improve your word knowledge, then a smartphone app such as Vocab.com, will enable you to compile word lists.

Even when you the research is complete and your writing skills are good, the words may simply fail you and procrastination sets in. You volunteer for unpaid teaching, read an article that you know isn’t useful, or even clean the bathroom. Anything that doesn’t involve writing. How, then, do you summon the writing genie?

You have to start at the beginning, and simply begin writing. You simply must get into the habit of writing daily, setting yourself a realistic target and sticking to it. Procrastination hits us all, but force yourself to rise above it.   

Think about where you write – not all places are created equal in the world of procrastination. Coffee shops and the train are now my favourites – they are distraction-free, anonymous and allow me to focus on getting words down and out of my head. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the porch of my girlfriend’s house and my PhD thesis at the kitchen table. I suggested to one student that he sit on the London Underground until he had reached his target.

In addition to place, there is also time of day. I’m a night owl and find that I’m particularly productive between about 8pm and 11pm – find your own optimal time slot.

One of my biggest productivity boosts has been being able to write when the mood strikes. That doesn’t mean always carrying a laptop though – a smartphone and a mini keyboard are all that’s required for getting words on to the page. And the best travel keyboard that I’ve found so far is the Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard. Turn on your phone, fold out your keyboard and start typing.

And finally, in the words of Anne Lamott (Bird By Bird), you have to write shitty first drafts (SFDs). No one writes perfectly the first time – in fact, I expect to see extensive changes and SFDs are about getting ideas out of your head and on to paper in a structured manner. As one of my mentors, Jim Rose, once said, you can’t improve your writing until you have it down on paper. And SFDs are that first step.

Completing a research degree is hard as you are pushing the boundaries of what is known – but more than that, you are independent and largely self-managed. Take it Bird By Bir-style and start by getting that SFD out the door.

Don’t forget that there are places and times that you will find are better for your writing and, if it helps you, allow yourself to write whenever you get the urge.

Mike J Smith is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Maps and a senior fellow at the Higher Education Academy. 

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