📜 Strategies for PhD Completion

April 30, 2021  My tips for the final 12 months of PhD

The final 12 months of the PhD were the most challenging for me. Seven months away from completion I became a father, and I was working 30 hours as a research officer. Challenges came in many forms. Internally, I experienced insomnia (often baby induced), regular self-doubt (imposter syndrome), and frustration at the looming pages and pages of words needing to be written. It was fatiguing and draining to be consistently motivated.

Immediately after completing the thesis, people would ask me how I managed to balance these demands and stay (mostly) sane. I never had an appropriate answer for them. My response was generally something like “I don’t have a choice, I just gotta do it”. However, with the benefit of hindsight and time, I can see more clearly now what I did to survive.

In this blog post, I will share my tips for surviving the final sprint of your thesis, and what you can do to best prepare yourself for the mission ahead. This post is most useful for those who are (or believe they are) 12 months or less from submission.

Preparations: Resolve and Plan the Basics

If you want to submit in 12 or less months, but have considerable work, you have to have the basics sorted.

  1. Thoroughly review a selection of exemplar theses (there are many such repositories). Understand roughly the distributions in number of studies, chapters, and pages. Inspect the overall writing quality, the proportion of work which is already published, and the general structure.
  2. Establish what actually needs to be completed for you to submit your thesis for examination. This means you should know the exact chapters that will be in your thesis and their respective scope.
  3. This process of establishing these requirements should be negotiated with your supervisor. I was fortunate — I was confident my supervisors had my best interests at heart, and encouraged me to set realistic expectations for thesis through my candidature.

Treat your submission requirements as a negotiation with your supervisors, not a question. Your supervisor likely has your best intentions at heart, but perhaps have a higher threshold for what they consider necessary for submission. In many cases, “getting the PhD passed” might not require everything your supervisor suggests. You need to listen to their advice and consider it, but negotiate what you really need done.

Example Negotiation

Perhaps you’re supervisor suggests you need an additional study prior to submitting the thesis — but do you actually? There are many reasons a supervisor might suggest this, and you need to determine whether you think it is reasonable. You certainly don’t want to get an examiner demanding more work, but a thesis doesn’t need to solve every problem either.

Hi [Professor] I’ve spent some time thinking about it, and I wanted to further discuss whether an additional experiment/study is required for me to complete my thesis. I’ve taken a look at several other theses from the school, and while there are some with 6 experiments, I have seen several from this University which only included 3 studies. I believe my studies are detailed and sufficient for fulfilling my doctoral requirements. Do you think that our review team would require an additional study? Do you think I am unable to draw appropriate conclusions in my general discussion without this study?

If you have multiple supervisors, I suggest meeting them independently and getting a few different perspectives.

Collect Your Materials

To work most efficiently, you need everything (notes, data, drafts) easily accessible. To maximise every minute of my focus time, I needed to reduce all setup and search time. I had a single folder called “Thesis” which contained my notes, drafts, figures etc. I had individual word documents for each chapter (waiting to be merged into a grand document ~1 month before submission). This dramatically helps version control.

Make sure you collate all your notes and writing from across your entire candidutre, these may be very helpful at a moment when your mind is very full. My notes were stored in Emacs and OneNote, and I spent a lot of time finding early drafts and ideas (which ended up being very useful for early chapters).

Keep a binder/clipboard of all your notes, scribbles, ideas and drafts on hand. Try and make sure that it reflects material that you need to get the thesis done.

The Writing Process

Experiment with multiple time management methods.

There is an abundance of blog posts and books on optimising your writing. While I recommend investigating these, don’t invest to heavily in any one technique. It is more sustainable to cycle through (or experiment with) different methods depending on your daily motivation and progress with a given approach.

Pomdoro is a very effective technique in which you use a timer to break down work into bursts. I typically went with 30 minutes of writing, 5 minutes break, 30 minutes of writing, 15 minute break. Repeat. To make maximum gains, I would allocate specific sections of my thesis to a pomdoro in advance. This really helped with those sections I loathed writing.

However, I didn’t consistently use pomdoro, particularly in the final 3-4 months (however, a friend of mine did exclusively pomdoro in his final months). I found that most days I preferred to block out large chunks of time and have unsustainable writing binges (e.g., 3-5 hours in the evening). I don’t recommend this as an ongoing career strategy but might be necessary at the end.

Create variety in your method, even if you cannot have it in the content you are writing about. Try different writing methods as well. Pen and paper can work great for certain sections. Try printing out your thesis and editing the old fashion way. Use a typewriter or other basic text editor rather than always be writing directly into a single word document. All these little twists help make the process more lively and might let you see the problem in a different way.

Overall, it is critical that you have formal strategies for planning how you spend your time, and for giving yourself true focus time. Similarly, ensure that you give yourself quality guilt-free recovery time. This final stretch is an endurance test. You need sleep, recreation and social contact — plan these and follow through. For example, I always dedicated a minimum of 1-2 hours quality time with my daughter every evening (in addition to routine parenting). Sometimes you might feel you are really “on a roll” and want to stay up a little later (but at the expense of tomorrow). Avoid the temptation unless absolutely essential, because it will come at a cost to tomorrows performance.

Dot point, Expand, Refine.

You probably have a few sections sitting there, currently empty with nothing but a header. I had one such review section on my “todo list” for probably three years. How do you start these?

It is imperative that before writing large sections, you have structural headings under each thesis chapter. A heading (e.g., “Review of Theoretical Approaches to X”) will guide you in what to write, and make it clear what information the reader will already know. These headings and subheadings can evolve, but you need them in place to get started efficiently.

Large empty sections are easiest to begin by writing out dot points of the key points you want to cover. For your first pass, do not focus on details, but do be more verbose than simple structural dot points. As a rough guide, 2-3 sentences per dot point is the upper limit of detail. Do not be too concerned about the order of your ideas or even referencing heavily. Just allow yourself to write as many key ideas as you can.

Once you have a healthy set of these ideas/dotpoints, I suggest having a break or work on something else for a while. When you are ready, return and expand on these dot points naturally and iteratively. Move ideas about, add in the connecting text, identify where you need more detail, and experiment with wording. Critically, identify what are your really good ideas and focus on growing them, and back up claims with evidence and citations.

Once a section has all the core ideas you think are required, it’s time to refine it further! Remove your dot points and turn them into full sentence structures, and identify what is missing and where you can be more clear with examples and explanations. This approach will help you overcome the challenging confrontation of the empty section requiring content.

Remember, you don’t need to finish each section in one sitting! Alternating which sections you are expanding dot points in is a really good strategy for the general discussion. You will likely find yourself coming up with good ideas as you refine the other chapters and sections. I would suggest leaving open a second window of the document to have your discussion notes in place.

Tightly harness, but not suffocate, your inner perfectionist

I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and this not always a helpful trait, particularly for finishing your thesis. To get your thesis finished for submission, you need to learn to set appropriate quality thresholds. I had to force myself to live by the mantra “Job’s a job, get it done” (courtesy of my father in law).

Calibrating your quality threshold isn’t just about the quality of writing (that should ideally be a very high standard), but the coverage and depth of writing. You aren’t expected to solve every problem in the field in a single PhD, and not every idea needs to be explored to the inner core. Reading other theses will help you understand an appropriate threshold.

Nevertheless, your inner perfectionist does need to be allowed out for a walk from time to time. Tasks where perfectionism is useful include: refining nearly complete chapters, formatting your thesis document, identifying editorial or formatting issues with the thesis document, or really thinking through the logic of an idea. There is nothing wrong with wanting your work to be of a high standard, but you need to be realistic in just how high that standard is within the time you have got.

A practical tip that I suggest is to have a working “final template” for your thesis document. A thesis is one of the few publications you will create in academia that permits a bit more creative freedom. Small tasks like selecting the font styles, writing acknowledgements, checking you have all the necessary sections are great tasks for allowing your perfectionism to shine through. I think I spent a few hours selecting my ideal font (which was Minion Pro for the record).


I will update this document further, but overall my secret sauce was just to keep chipping away at small manageable tasks and creating variety in my workflow.

Last update: 2021-07-09 14:59