The problems of meeting deadlines are as acute in academia as in any other line of work – if not more so. And perhaps the first high-stakes encounter academics have with this difficult-to-master discipline is the PhD.
Siân Lindsay, lecturer in educational development at City University London, has investigated the process of doctoral completion. She interviewed several PhD candidates at her institution as they were writing up their theses, in a bid to understand the factors that facilitate or obstruct their progress.
Dr Lindsay – who will speak about her project at a Society for Research into Higher Education event in London on 13 June – shared some of her discoveries with Times Higher Education.
“Overwhelmingly, students who were on track to complete their thesis on time had actually written their thesis as they went along,” she said.
“It seems really obvious to say, but the reason students don’t complete on time is because they don’t tend to have their thesis ready.”
She added that it was not particularly important what form such continual writing took, whether drafting chapters or keeping an academic diary, which is what she herself did.
“Every single day I’d write down what I’d done and why I’d done it, because when you write up your thesis you have to justify why you’ve gone in certain directions,” she said.
“Looking back on the diary helped me, particularly in the viva. I could use it to rationalise my decision not to approach it in a certain way.”
Dr Lindsay said she believed that “serial writing”, a term used by Rowena Murray in her book How to Write a Thesis, helped with the development of a thesis because you are not “just ‘telling’ knowledge, you’re ‘developing’ it”.
The second key factor she identified was a proactive supervisor who offered encouragement and feedback during the write-up.
“When you’re writing your thesis it’s very strange because you don’t know where the goalposts are. You can look at other examples of students’ theses, but it’s hard to figure out how your thesis needs to look. So your supervisor is key to guiding you towards what the end product should look like.”
Acknowledging that it was too simplistic to say “make sure you have a good supervisor”, she advised students to be “making and sustaining contact with your supervisor, particularly during write-up”.
“Then there are self-based factors: being motivated, organised, having self-discipline – strategies to understand how you work best,” she said. “Feeling overwhelmed” is common among PhD students, so breaking work into chunks can be a very productive approach.
“Having support and encouragement from friends and family and a good working environment are crucial too,” she added.
Immersing oneself in academic culture was a factor Dr Lindsay also rated highly. “At City we have an annual research symposium and students can present their work and talk about their research,” she said. “That’s so important because it not only prepares you for the viva, but it’s fun to do. Avoiding those offerings by universities is going to tempt you into isolation and wanting to leave the whole process. When you’re talking to other people, you’re getting new ideas and perspectives. It’s refreshing your isolated state of mind.”
Meanwhile, Dr Lindsay said that she was surprised at how few students had told her that they had “let their thesis fall by the wayside” because they had run out of money.
“A lot of the students went and sought part-time work anyway,” she said. “While they were writing they could have that part-time job as a distraction and it helped to structure the process. But being in full-time employment was a big no-no.”
The done deal: Siân Lindsay’s top tips on finishing your thesis on time
- Continual writing during your research project is key; don’t leave writing to the very end, as then the task of writing your thesis may seem impossible. Remember that the very act of writing things down can help you develop your ideas.
- Making and sustaining supervisor contact and supervisory support is essential, especially when nearing the end.
- Immerse yourself in academic culture and get talking about your research at conferences and research symposia. It is worth trying to publish in a peer-reviewed journal. This will be a valuable confidence boost for your viva.
- Don’t get a full-time job, even if you are sorely tempted. However, a part-time job could work in your favour because it could help to structure your time, providing a break from unhelpful spells of isolation and giving you an anchor to the rest of the world.
- Support and understanding from friends and family is important. Talk to them about the challenges you may be experiencing, especially during the final stages.
- Find a writing-up environment that works best for you and minimises unhelpful distractions.
- Reflect on what drives you to write your thesis. Breaking the task into manageable chunks with self-imposed deadlines works well for most, and being organised is paramount.