Guest blog

Blog – Tackling the PhD thesis through planning

Blog by Dr Clíona Farrell

Reading Time: 9 minutes

With PhD thesis writing a fresh experience in my mind, in this blog I share my tips by reflecting on some of the planning and techniques that made it a (mostly) enjoyable experience for me!

As a newly minted doctor having just finished my PhD, I am joining dementia researcher as a regular blogger to share my experiences, research, and advice. For this first blog, I will share some tips which I hope will make PhD thesis writing seem like a less daunting task. I submitted my PhD thesis only two months ago and although it was a challenging time, I was surprised to enjoy the writing process overall, even if some days felt like a drag! I felt a great sense of achievement spending the time collating all the work that I had managed to complete during my time in the lab. After an incredibly busy three years with a split focus on experiments, analysis, lab meetings, seminars, science communication commitments and teaching, it felt like a complete change of lifestyle to have the sole focus of writing the thesis. Finally, I had the opportunity to think about my research, read the papers I had saved many moons ago, and consider my results in a wider context than the work of my own lab.

When thinking back on the writing experience, success ultimately came down to planning. Not only planning what to write but preparing for all aspects of this monumental task. Because of this, I am splitting my tips into different ways to prepare yourself. Hopefully planning even some aspects of thesis writing will make it a less stressful time for you.

Tip 1: Planning for the end

The first step to completing a PhD is knowing when you want to finish. In my university (UCL), I was required to submit an examination entry form four months before submitting my thesis. This tells the university that you plan to complete the degree soon. The second piece of paperwork that must be submitted to the university by your supervisor, is the examiner nomination form. Again, this needs to be submitted a minimum of four months in advance of thesis submission as it can take a while to be approved. This form proposes who will read your thesis and perform your final viva examination. It is important that you consider who YOU would like to carry out your viva, asking your supervisors or colleagues in the field for suggestions. At UCL, I was required to have one internal and one external examiner, but this can vary between institutions. Choosing examiners can be tricky, as they cannot previously have collaborated with your supervisor, and need to be experts in your field. I decided that I wanted and in person viva (if possible), as my friends who passed their viva during the pandemic found it anti-climactic and advised me against it. Therefore, we decided that UK-based researchers were best. On top of this, a fellow PhD student in my lab was doing their viva around the same time (with our projects being on closely related topics), so we also needed to have some compromise to balance both our examiner panels with seniority and expertise.

Tip 2: The thesis plan

Having a solid plan is arguably the most important part of the writing process. Advice from my supervisor was to write an incredibly detailed thesis plan (including content and structure) such that when you start putting pen to paper, you know exactly what you need to do. You should read other people’s theses. These can give you the much-needed inspiration for structure, length and style; they are usually available through your university library website. I also considered what pieces of writing I could use as a base for my thesis. Although my great intentions of “writing as I went along” this never actually happened, I had my upgrade report and a published first-author review article to consult for my introduction and methods chapters.

Taking this all into account, while finishing my final experiments, I spent time formulating my thesis plan. Firstly, I broke this into the main chapters – introduction, methods, three results chapters, and discussion. Next, for each of the results chapters I made a list of each figure, its title, and the data it would contain. For the introduction, I listed each subheading and included important references for each. For the methods, I listed each technique I did and where I could find my protocols. On top of this, I decided to include a short introduction and discussion in each of my results chapters, and bullet pointed the key points. Once I was happy with this plan, I sent it to my supervisor for some feedback. I then used my final thesis committee meeting to present this plan and get feedback on structure and points I may have been missing. Having a solid foundation made the whole process of thesis writing less daunting. In fact, friends of mine have written their entire thesis by just continuously expanding their plan until it was fully formed.

Fun Fact: The longest PhD thesis ever written is from Joachim Schöpfel at the University of Lille, consisting of 2,654 pages on the topic of “Les Universités de l’Europe et de l’Amérique” (Universities of Europe and America)

Tip 3: Planning your thesis writing timeline

There are always more experiments you could do to improve your thesis. But a good thesis is a done thesis, so setting a firm deadline for when you will stop in the lab and start writing is key. For many, this will be dictated by when your funding ends. For me, I was keen to complete both my thesis and viva while still being paid, so I stopped about five months before my funding ended, with an aim to submit my thesis with six weeks left (the minimum allowed time between thesis submission and viva examination). Despite this, I was still in the lab two weeks into my dedicated writing time – I needed to be much stricter with myself. I would also advise planning to take a break or holiday during the writing, as it is a tiring process and people are prone to burning out. For me, the Christmas holidays fell during my writing period, so I planned to take this off. Overall, this left me with a little over three-months to write.

In a perfect world, this would have been a good amount of time, however, life is never as smooth as you think it will be. I needed to take two separate weeks off for being ill with various winter bugs, and I attended two short conferences during my writing period. Having not accounted for these breaks originally, I was left rushing through some of the final parts. Life will always get in the way, so I would advise that you add additional time to your schedule for unexpected interruptions. In the end, I ran over my schedule by a few weeks and ended up starting my postdoc position before doing my viva.

Therefore, when planning a detailed writing timeline, be realistic! Consider if you still need to do data analysis during the writing period – this will add more time than you think. Also acknowledge what you’re good at, what you enjoy, and what you know you might struggle with. For me, I prefer writing literature review style introductions than making figures (and editing them 1000 times). Therefore, I scheduled more time for figure making than introduction writing. When possible, I think that a good rule of thumb is to plan at least 2 weeks per chapter, 2 weeks for feedback, 2 weeks for edits, and 2 weeks for time out. However, this may not always be feasible, with some people being forced to write in much shorter times, and some preferring to write over much longer periods.

My final piece of advice for planning the thesis writing is to have a clear discussion with your supervisor (and anyone else who will give you feedback) about when they want to receive work, and how long they anticipate it taking to give you feedback. For me, I sent the first draft of my figures and legends, and subsequently each chapter, one at a time to my supervisor. This gave me a huge sense of satisfaction ticking each one off (even when there was lots to change). You can decide when to implement their feedback; all at once or spending small amounts of time each day while working on the next chapter.

Tip 4. Planning where and when will you write

This will be incredibly different from person to person, but I would advise trying a variety of locations before settling on where to work from. Initially, I thought I could write from my office; however, it quickly became apparent that there were too many distractions and too much temptation to go into the lab. Next, I tried working from home, but I didn’t like only having my small laptop screen, and I found myself procrastinating by doing housework or cooking slightly extravagant lunches. I settled on the postgraduate space in one of the university libraries where there were screens available to use. UCL actually has a variety of libraries which I sampled throughout my time writing, and sometimes I would switch up my location in the middle of the day to energize myself.

During PhD writing, go easy on yourself for the first few weeks as you learn when you are a productive writer. I ended up keeping the same work hours I had while working in the lab, roughly 9-5pm, as this suited me best for keeping a similar schedule to my partner and keeping engaged with my hobbies. As it was winter, I also struggled to continue writing once it was dark outside, but learned to accept this and went home early if I wasn’t feeling it. Sometimes I had bursts of energy late at night and could bash out an hour or two then. Treat it like a marathon, and rest when you need to.

Also, life doesn’t stop just because you are writing. You will still get emails, requests for help, or have other tasks that need to be completed. After a month of writing, I had to limit myself to checking my email in the morning and after lunch only, as it was too distracting and I would allow myself to spend time on tasks which felt productive, but ultimately, we’re taking me away from my thesis.

Final practical advice

Although you can plan to make it easier, thesis writing is still a big challenge, and even with a plan it can feel overwhelming at times. To combat this, I would advise you to make small achievable to do lists. Try to avoid overestimating what you can do in a day or a week – an example of my daily to do list was: write results text for figures X and Y, sketch out the results chapter introduction in detailed bullet points, and implement some feedback from a previous chapter draft. And when you finish these things, give yourself the credit. I celebrated completing every chapter as they each felt like important milestones!

My final advice is to LOOK AFTER YOURSELF; try to maintain a positive balance between life and writing. I still took the weekends off and continued doing sport or meeting friends in the evenings. I also made the effort to have lunch with friends from the lab at least once a week, to keep in touch with my colleagues. Whatever self-care looks like to you, be that binging TV shows, going to the gym, or to the pub at the weekends, it’s so important to take a break from thesis writing, and to avoid eye strain too!

Whenever you will be writing your thesis, I hope you can take these tips into account to help you plan for and write a successful thesis!


Clíona Farrell

Clíona Farrell

Author

Dr Clíona Farrell is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the UK Dementia Research Institute at University College London. Her work focuses on understanding neuroinflammation in Down syndrome, both prior to, and in response to, Alzheimer’s disease pathology. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Clíona completed her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience in Trinity College, and then worked as a research assistant in the Royal College of Surgeons studying ALS and Parkinson’s disease. She also knows the secret behind scopping the perfect 99 ice-cream cone.

 

 

Comments 1

  1. Mary Farrell

    That was very interesting Cliona.
    Look forward to reading more of your blogs and I am very interested in your research around Dementia.
    Keep blogging💕

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Dr Clíona Farrell

Dr Clíona Farrell is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the UK Dementia Research Institute at University College London. Her work focuses on understanding neuroinflammation in Down syndrome, both prior to, and in response to, Alzheimer’s disease pathology. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Clíona completed her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience in Trinity College, and then worked as a research assistant in the Royal College of Surgeons studying ALS and Parkinson’s disease. She also knows the secret behind scopping the perfect 99 ice-cream cone.

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