Writing up the PhD thesis

I thought it might be useful – for myself and hopefully for readers currently doing a PhD – to jot down a few thoughts about writing up the thesis, while they’re still fresh in my mind. I haven’t personally come across many blogs or thinkpieces that describe the process in any detail, and this in itself strikes me as interesting. (There was this recently, http://www.theguardian.com/science/sifting-the-evidence/2014/jun/11/writing-up-the-home-straight-of-a-phd but despite the title it didn’t really talk about the writing-up process itself – not surprising, considering the author was still 3 months away from submission.) On the grapevine, you hear isolated anecdotes of tears and breakdowns and bizarre eating patterns and sleepless editing marathons. Before getting there myself, I saw several friends and acquaintances fade away from the social scene for a few months and then return, relieved to have Writing Up out of the way but mysteriously muted about how it actually worked. I’m guessing this silence is due to the fact that generally, once you’re out of it, you don’t really want to go back there – and people are too polite to ask you to. 

Nonetheless I think, as with most aspects of academia, we can make a hard thing easier by talking about it. There are a few things I wish I’d known before I started the whole process. So with that in mind, and also with the more selfish motivation that I think it’s useful to reflect upon and learn from your experiences, here are a few observations about Writing Up drawn from my own experience. These are absolutely personal and are not meant to speak for everyone’s experiences – in particular, the way this works will vary hugely between disciplines. I’m an English Literature PhD studying at York, so I guess this should be seen as roughly applicable to the way Writing Up works for UK doctoral students in the humanities. But even then, your experience might be completely different from mine.

1) It took about three drafts, and about six months. 
What I mean by this is that in January 2014 I had five big rambling pieces of work on different authors that each addressed some aspect of naming in eighteenth-century literature, and that I swaggeringly called ‘chapters’. They weren’t chapters. They were overgrown conference papers, or three conference papers linked together, or hybrid lumps of literature review and close reading. I also had thousands of pages of notes and ramblings. I still didn’t know exactly what my argument was; how these things might all link up and form a cogent argument that could actually contribute to current scholarship. I realised this in January, and I panicked a bit. So what happened between January and June?

2) There shouldn’t be one big deadline. There should be several small ones.
Around January, I started to really use my supervisor. That is, I said, ‘I want to send you a draft of my thesis by x. Please hold me to it.’ I tried to make it so that I’d make myself look pretty stupid if I didn’t make the deadline. Then I got to work. And oh god, that first draft. It was awful. I was trying to link these pieces of work together, pulling new arguments out of thin air, jettisoning lovingly crafted ones that I’d worked on for the best part of year but just didn’t fit any more. It made me wonder what the hell I had been doing all my PhD. It made me think, ‘I can’t do this, I should just give up.’ But in the end I got a first draft, in all its awfulness, and sent it off to my supervisor. That first draft took about three months.

Once I got feedback from my supervisor, a funny thing had happened. I kind of knew a lot of what she’d say in advance. Working on the thesis as if it was a large, unitary piece of work – even though I was riddled with self-loathing as I did it – made me aware of many of the weaknesses of my argument, and also – a sadly smaller number – the strengths that I needed to research more, and make more central to the structure. Once I had my supervisor’s thoughts to confirm what I already knew and embellish it with insights that only she could give, I was away on a second draft, which took me from April to May. I passed it on to her again, with a tight turnaround for feedback, and then I wrote the final draft in the last two weeks before hand-in. 

3) Expect to be working right up until the last minute
The last draft in the last two weeks? Sounds a bit… close to the bone? Well, yes. I don’t know if everyone thinks they’ll be done and dusted a few weeks before the submission date, and just be leisurely proofreading, honing their acknowledgments, maybe doing a fun wordcloud. I did. But it didn’t work like that. Over those six months, I became more passionately invested in my subject than I had ever been invested in anything before. I wanted this thesis to be great. I wanted it to say everything. I read and read and read, sometimes scanning seven or eight books a day, following endless paper trails to find that critical source that I knew would bolster my argument, to revisit that text which I didn’t think I’d quite grasped yet. I re-shaped my chapters endlessly, splitting them into two, moving sections around, chasing after the Platonic Thesis, the ur-thesis, the thesis that would say EXACTLY what I wanted to say. This continued until the final week.

Maybe it shouldn’t have done. Maybe I should have eased off at the second draft, polished what I’d got, checked my formatting and sent it in. Or maybe I should have extended my deadline, because…

4) You can set yourself a hard and fast deadline and stick to it, or be more flexible.
At York, you have to file your Intention to Submit two months in advance. So around 6 April, I filled in a form to say I’d hand in on 6 June, and the talks about arranging examiners began. But here’s the thing: if your intention to submit is before the end of your registration period (that is, if you’re planning on finishing before your 4 years has expired) then it’s flexible. You don’t need to stick to the deadline.

But this wouldn’t work for me, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. So, I set myself a deadline that I HAD to stick to for handing in my thesis. My motivation for doing so was that I had accepted a short term fellowship at the Huntington Library in California, and booked my flights and accommodation for 8 June. So I had to hand in by June 6th or I’d lose my money and perhaps my fellowship too. 

I suspect my supervisor thought I was mad. No flexibility for emergencies, no time off to recover. But there was method in my madness. I have always found, personally, that I am most productive when I’m working to a deadline that CANNOT be shifted. There’s something about fear that induces a wonderful clarity of purpose. If I had been able to put the deadline back, and back, and back, then I think I’d still be there, labouring after Draft 2. 

Maybe that would have produced a better thesis. I’ll never know. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is that I don’t think my health would have taken it. Because…

5) This might be the most physically difficult thing you’ll ever do.
I was prepared for Writing Up to be a mental strain. I was prepared for feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and nerves. What I was’t prepared for was how physically tough it was. It all stemmed from lack of sleep, I think. I found it very hard to get a good night’s sleep where I wasn’t dreaming about tracking changes, and eventually I found myself, near my three deadlines, sleeping and working in shifts – six hours’ work, two hours’ nap, repeat ad nauseam. What this means is that I stopped doing any exercise at all, because I was always too tired. And near my deadlines I ate whatever was in the fridge or takeaways, which made me feel even worse. Smoking didn’t help either. 
By the time of my third deadline, the sleep deprivation got to a point where I was actually hurting myself quite badly. I fell over in the street because my balance was constantly off – hilarious pratfall, but I was in pain for days. My face was always aching because I was grinding my teeth when I did sleep. I had a constant agonising crick in my neck. My stomach was a mess. My immune system was buggered, and I picked up a hideous cold in the final weeks. 

This is one thing I really think I could have managed better. If I’d controlled my diet better (maybe by getting a job lot of fruit and veg once a week) and tried to make sure I jogged just 20 minutes every few days, I think it would have paid dividends further along the line.  The time spent at the supermarket or in the park feels like a big sacrifice at the time, but trust me, you don’t want to end up as physically knackered as I was.

6) Deciding to apply for jobs at the same time as writing up is a big decision.
There were a few key moments over the last year of my PhD when, without even really being aware of it, I made some quite important choices about how the very crucial last few months would be organised. The first of these choices was: Should I apply for jobs during my final year, at the same time as I’m trying to write up? I chose yes, back in late summer 2013, because some goodlooking postdocs were starting to crop up on jobs.ac.uk and I would technically be eligible for them because I would be handed in (hopefully) by their start date of autumn 2014. But I could have chosen no, and that would have meant a less stressful year, but a vastly reduced chance of segueing smoothly into a job – instead, most likely, I would have planned on having a year out working in a cafe or bar and picking up teaching where I could, while starting the applications a year later.

It’s impossible to speculate accurately about the road less not taken, but I can tell you about the one I took. Applying for academic jobs is an exhausting process (and it will be the subject of a post for another day). Doing it while trying to write up is pretty hideous in a way, because the moment you feel like you’re finally getting into a work groove, another job comes up and you have to drop everything to write another self-praising spiel. It keeps throwing your rhythm off. Also, unless you are very lucky, you get rejections. And a slew of rejections, while you’re trying your best to keep your morale up, can feel pretty devastating.

But there are also benefits to it. When you get good news, when you get shortlisted or invited to interview or basically open any email saying “We are pleased to tell you…”, Writing Up feels, for a moment, feather-light. Added to that, I think that applying for jobs really helps you hone your ideas towards the thesis. When you’re constantly having to explain succinctly what your thesis is about, when you’re constantly having to send in sample work of different lengths, it’s like a series of min-deadlines that helps you towards your ultimate goal. It’s an irritation in the short term, but genuinely helpful in the long run.

7) You will, finally, feel that you know what you’re talking about. And that will feel amazing.
I don’t want this to be a misery memoir. I’ve saved this point for last, because it is so important. In one very bizarre way, the last six months was one of the best times of my life. I was almost exclusively focused on one thing, one project, one goal. To be working towards it, with few other distractions, was a buzz: I could lose track of time while writing and realise at the end that I had finally made that breakthrough; managed to express that tricky paradox or link up those two awkward thoughts. Finally, at the end of four years of study, I felt that I knew my field very well indeed, and knew where my argument fitted into it. I felt confident that I could defend my thoughts and inform those of my colleagues, and that I was making a genuinely original contribution to knowledge. That is a precious, exquisite feeling. That’s why we do this.

So, if you’re in the home strait (or approaching it) – bon courage. You can do it. Try to stay healthy, and try to enjoy it along the way. This is why we do this. Keep swimming.

(PS Let me know if you found this helpful – I’m considering doing similar posts on the viva and job applications, if they’d be of use to anyone.)

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3 thoughts on “Writing up the PhD thesis

  1. Hi Sophie, just to say I found this post very helpful since I’m having one of those mid-thesis crises at the moment. You remind me that we need to take some time out however hard it feels because diet and exercise enable us to sleep well. I have two years to go yet – can’t submit as a pat-timer in less than six years. Already feels the enthusiasm has waned but I think there’ll be a good reason for this submission rule, not just the cynic’s (haven’t paid enough yet).

    I’m so pleased you got to CA, surely one of the most stimulating environments to be a new doc in. Best wishes for a great stay and good luck in the next round of job applications.

  2. Living through this right now so very welcome post. Any others would be also be gratefully received. I’m not ashamed to say I need all the help I can get. I was in a state before the last few months began to dawn!

  3. I’m in the last 2 weeks before submitting my PhD and this post was exactly what I was looking for! Viva and job app posts would definitely be welcome. Congratulations on finishing!

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