Six Tips for Finishing Your PhD Thesis
- Student Tips
Keep calm and write your thesis. That should be the mantra of every final-year PhD student out there. But with chapters to write, forms to complete, revisions to make, and all of the endless small (and enormous) tasks needed to complete the thesis, the last months of a PhD can feel completely overwhelming. Finishing a thesis without stress is probably impossible, but it doesn't have to be a miserable experience. If you follow a few simple rules and take some time to plan, you'll make it through the last months of your doctoral studies, and you might even enjoy it.
1. Plan ahead
If you're working on a doctoral thesis, you probably already know the importance of planning. In fact, you probably wouldn't be in the end-stages of your PhD if you weren't pretty good at project management and organization. So don't stop now. The last few months of your writing-up period are going to be hectic, so plan ahead for all the big and little things you'll need to accomplish before your submission deadline. Print out all the forms you'll need, confirm everything with your university and department long before the deadlines, and start printing long before submission day. But planning doesn't just apply to submission-related things. Set up automatic debits for all your important bills so you don't miss payments. Cook freezer meals ahead. Take a quick glance at the calendar and make a note of any important non-PhD related events – birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, etc. - and make any necessary preparations. RSVP to events, buy and sign cards, and even wrap presents now. You'll save time and be able to enjoy those special moments without stress or guilt.
2. Take breaks
Speaking of special moments, make sure to take the time to relax and enjoy life outside academia. You may feel that you're too pressed for time, but it's important to your mental and physical health to step away from work from time to time. Take a break and attend a friend's birthday (with that gift you wrapped two months ago). Have brunch with your family. Go for a walk in the park. And don't feel guilty taking time for yourself. Even just a half-hour away from your computer can help you recharge and fuel productivity.
3. Edit early
Hopefully, you've spent the last few years writing as you research, so by now all your chapters should have rough drafts. But don't leave the editing to the last minute either. It may be tempting to work right up to the deadline and attempt a marathon editing session during the last few weeks. But if you feel stressed now imagine coming across an entire section in a middle chapter that needs additional references two days before submission. Don't do it. Remember that planning we mentioned? It should include a schedule for editing, revisions, and printing. And don't forget to take your adviser(s) into account. They'll want to see final drafts as well and will need time to read and revise. Ideally, the last month before your submission deadline should be spent on mechanics and formatting, not content.
4. Get the support you need
But don't rely too heavily on your adviser(s) at this point. It's too late to change direction or major arguments, and negative feedback could derail your efforts. Don't worry. You'll get plenty of feedback (good and bad) during your viva, so unless you need direct input from your adviser(s) ask only for help with editing or proofreading. Or, better yet, ask someone outside your department and field to proofread sections. Send chapters round to friends or family and ask them to check for grammar errors or comprehension. They'll probably be super impressed with the scale and depth of your work, and some praise (with a side of typo-detection) is just what the future-doctor ordered. If all else fails, find someone to give you a hug and tell you it will be okay.
5. Don't be alone
And don't just call friends and family for help with revisions. Make sure to stay in regular contact with the outside world. Remember those breaks we recommended? Take them with people who care about you and have your best interest in mind. Researching and writing a doctoral thesis is often a very solitary activity, especially during the final months and weeks and it's easy to get lost in your own mind. While you'll definitely need time on your own to concentrate and push through certain tasks, you also need to spend time with other people. Meet the other students for a drink, or plan a date-night with your significant other. Even an hour spent at a yoga class will help you re-charge and remind yourself that you're not alone.
6. Enjoy the process
You might laugh and wonder how anyone could enjoy the abject stress and panic that is, inevitably, the last weeks of a PhD, but there's also lots to enjoy. Take a step back and remember that just a few years ago, you had barely formulated a question for research and now, sitting before you, are hundreds of pages that answer that question. Revel in the attention lavished on you and your work by experts and lay-folk and take pride in your accomplishment. You've worked hard to get to this point, and you deserve to be both relieved and happy. And don't forget to celebrate when it's all over.
Elizabeth Koprowski is an American writer and travel historian. She has worked in the higher education system with international students both in Europe and in the USA.