Analysis Chapters

This working for a living thing is really cutting into my time for other things. On the flip side, it is really nice to be making money again.

We have now gone through all the sections of the thesis but the last two. These are the analysis chapters and the conclusion. One could suggest these are the most important parts of your thesis and the ones your examiners will read with the greatest care. In the analysis section, you show the work you have done. You prove your thesis statement. This part might be long or short. It might contain a great deal of data and charts, or none at all. Your type of analysis will depend on your type of thesis. But all theses contain this section. This is not where you talk about what others have done. This is not where you talk about what you are going to do. This is not where you discuss your methods. This is where you show the research needed to prove your hypothesis is correct (or incorrect). This may be your own field research, statistics, or even research gathered from other sources. But it demonstrates what your thesis is and what problem it solves.

I’ve recently been doing research on business plans. I’ve never had much of a head for business and never written a business plan, but I thought I should have a go at one for my new company. The analysis part of your thesis is like the main section of your business plan: where you say what the business is and why its needed and what it will do for your customers. Ostensibly, this is the integral part of a business plan. Everything else supports this. Just as the rest of the thesis supports the analysis.

It will also be either the first thing you write, or one of the last. This will depend on how your research formulates itself. Sometimes starting with this part makes the rest of the thesis just flow onto the page. And sometimes, particularly if you are still not entirely certain how your data proves your hypothesis, starting with everything else may just lead you – step by step – to your final conclusions. In order to write your analysis chapter you have to understand your data. You have to know what it means and how it relates to your thesis and what it says. You have to know your conclusions.

This makes the analysis section of the thesis very scary. A lot of people procrastinate this part, because they don’t believe they have enough data to prove their case. This is unlikely, but sometimes the data can be overwhelming and you don’t know where to start.

I’ve been there. This is the part of the thesis I wrote absolutely last (other than the conclusion). Before I started it, I still wasn’t certain what format this section would take, how many chapters I needed, or – exactly – what I needed to say. I stewed for a long time, going over the data again and again, trying out different directions, before I realised that the hypothesis I had asked was wrong. Or rather, it wasn’t wrong, I had just asked the question the wrong way. Flipping the question suddenly lined up all of the data and away I wrote!

It might not be that easy for you. It might be even easier. The idea is to have a clear thesis statement, that you set out to prove through data gathering. The data either proves the thesis to be true, or not. Either outcome is valid, particularly in the sciences. But in Humanities, sometimes we get a little carried away with things, and we go off on tangents, and ultimately we realise we have a bunch of data that isn’t useful. You don’t have to use all your data, but having it all can confuse you. Sometimes, weeding out what data is actually useful will take you the longest, but once you have it you will be hard pressed not to shout ‘Eureka!’ and dance about the room.

And from there, it is a case of writing it all up. The analysis chapters don’t have to be formal or grandiose. They are about showing your data and explaining why it answers your thesis question and why that’s important. Be straightforward. Be clear. Don’t use 10,000 words when you only need 5,000. Here is where you need to learn to be concise. Flowery language or more words than necessary are not going to impress your examiners. They want to read this chapter (these chapters) and implicitly understand your entire thesis. If they can’t do that, you have not written these chapters correctly.

So take your time here. Be clear on what you are saying. Discuss it with others. Get others to read it. Focus on saying only what you need to say to prove your thesis. The flowery stuff can be saved for other chapters, like the lit review! [I’m joking, flowery language is inappropriate in any section of the thesis.] By the time your reader gets to this part of the thesis, they want it short and sweet.

 

Post-Viva Feelings

Following up on the previous posts (here and here) about preparing for your viva, and the day of the viva, here comes the ‘what happens after your viva ends?’

You will probably be conflicted, unless you managed to breeze through with no amendments. Then you will just be smiling so hard you’ll worry your face will hurt tomorrow. That’s good. Keep doing that. Who cares if it hurts tomorrow? It’s worth it.

If you aren’t one of the lucky ones (i.e., you’re most people), then the moment your viva is over is going to bring all sorts of feelings you can’t really classify. You don’t have to classify them. You don’t even have to understand them. Every single thing you feel after the viva is valid. There’s no ‘right way’ to feel afterwards. Some people, even with many amendments, might be absolutely thrilled. Some with only a few amendments might feel awful that they didn’t do better. A lot of that is going to be something you know going in. If you’re one of those people that wants to knock yourself over the head for getting one question on an exam wrong, you should probably prepare yourself for what you’ll experience if you get a list of amendments a page or more long.

Alternatively, if you are the type of person that’s just glad you passed, no matter how well you did, then you’ll probably be happy no matter how many amendments you got.

Also, if you spent the last six months of your Phd trying to figure out how you could justifiably quit, getting lots of amendments may feel like the worse thing ever, because it means you have to do MORE of your PhD, when you were so glad to be done with it at submission.

Whatever type of person you are, you should prepare yourself for what comes after. The viva is scary and stressful and wonderful, all at the same time, and how you react to it is important to understand going in, because it will make you more confident dealing with whatever happens in that room.

But equally, considering how you will feel if you pass magna cum laude, or if you end up with 12 months of amendments and a complete rethink of your thesis, will at least prepare you for the initial ten million thoughts that go through your head the moment your viva ends. And if you can understand how you will react to whatever the situation is, you’ll be more prepared for it.

I tried to be. I knew I was going to feel bad unless I walked out with no amendments, and since the chances of that happening were in the realm of winning the lotto (I assume), I knew I was going to be very conflicted when my viva ended. I didn’t really understand how conflicted I would be. The truth of the matter is that I had dozens of people congratulating me and the only thing I could think about was ‘I have to do another 6 months of this? Why didn’t I quit last year when I had the chance?’

I sipped champagne, went out for drinks, and spent three hours on a train staring into space, and by the time I went to bed that night all I wanted to do was cry. Cry because I’d just done the hardest thing I’d ever done in life…and it wasn’t over yet.

It’s a severe reaction. Most people are just happy to be done the really hard part of it. But, for me, doing amendments to my own work that were someone else’s idea of ‘correct’, was a lesson in sheer bloody determination. And the thought of graduating was the only thing that sustained me for the next 6 months. No, the amendments weren’t awful (most were really easy, and a few were really…well, anyways), but they were still things that had to be done, and they affected the whole thesis, so wording had to be changed, etc. That’s just as much work as editing your draft before submission is (maybe even more, depending on how good your draft was). I felt justified in my reaction, but I also felt horribly disappointed in myself that I wasn’t happier. That I couldn’t seem to get it through my head that I had a PhD. Because as far as I was concerned…I didn’t have a PhD. Not yet. And if I didn’t do the amendments in a much better way than I had – apparently – written my thesis, I would never have a PhD and 3.5 years would have been nothing but a waste of time.

So understand how you’ll react. Try to plan for it. For every eventuality. If you know you’ll react badly to amendments, decide how you’d rather spend your evening. If you know you’ll want to celebrate no matter the outcome, then plan a party. Have something that evening after the viva that you will enjoy, however the viva itself goes. And don’t feel you have to celebrate. If you don’t think you want to celebrate not-quite-but-almost-getting your PhD, then don’t. Even if others want you to.

It’s your day. You do whatever you need to to get through it. And survive tomorrow. Whether tomorrow is ‘I have a PHDdddddddd’ or ‘oh god, this list of amendments if four pages long’.

Transitioning

If you haven’t discovered, or aren’t following From PhD to Life, please stop reading this post and go there immediately. It’s hard to imagine that one single blog/person could put me on the right path, but Jennifer has, without even realising it. She has because she did it herself. She managed to transition and make a career and she did it simply by perseverance.

It’s a hard thing, to transition. You’ve been in academic for 3 years, at least, if you’re full-time PhD in the UK, but probably you’ve been in it longer. You’ve probably got an MA under your belt too. How do you leave it all? First, you decide if you need to. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you can make a career of the academic thing. If so, I wish you all the very best in the years ahead and I hope it is as wonderful in ten years as it is now (or more wonderful!)

If you’re already contemplating leaving academia, you’ll need to transition out of it. If you’ve had a professional job already in your field, it’ll be that much easier to transition back to it after you leave the academy, even if it isn’t the same job.

But for a large number of PhD graduates, the transition is new and absolutely terrifying. It’s so terrifying, I’ve basically been a deer in headlights for the last year and a half. And I’m tired of being frozen. And just like when I reached that ‘I’m over it’ moment of my PhD, and found the drive to finish, I’ve reached that ‘I’m over’ being scared part of transitioning. I just want to get on with it now. Despite the hard work. Despite the pain. Despite the uncertainty. I want to make this work. I want to transition fully.

[I’m trying really hard not to make Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. references guys, I really am.]

But how to transition? Baby steps. How did you learn to do anything in life? One step at a time; and if those steps are small, even better, because that will make them more doable.

Are you transitioning to freelance? To a full-time job? To a related aspect of academia? Figure out your path first. What is it you ultimately want to be doing? Than figure out how you think you can get there. That might not be your path, but it’s a place to start. If you can find people who have transitioned on a similar path, all the better, because they can tell you what worked and didn’t work for them. That isn’t a sudden roadmap to your future, but it’s good information to have, because it might be the path you end up taking yourself. And if it’s not, it’s good to know other people have forged their own way and made it.

You don’t have to have lofty goals. You don’t have to have a dream job in mind, but you need to figure out what will make you happy and safe. And that’s hard. Man, is it hard. But trust me, the day will come that you figure it out. And don’t be too worried about how far off that day is either.

People will constantly pressure you while you are transitioning to try things. To figure things out. To know things. But transitioning is about learning. It’s about steps. You can’t see the future anymore than the person asking those annoying questions can. So don’t bother answering. You’ll figure it out as you go, most of the time at least. And that’s okay. That’s life. We never have all the answers.

But have a direction, that’s all I’m saying. Have a goal, even if that’s just one goal of many to come. And go after it. Make it happen. But know that sometimes, it really does take that ‘I’m over it’ moment. And if that’s what it takes, and if this is the direction you really want to go, you’ll get there. On no one’s timeline but your own.

And that, really, is the road to happiness.

Post-Graduation

This strange and bizarre reality happens after you graduate. You’re done. DONE. It’s all over. They can’t take it away from you now (I tell myself this because the alternative is unthinkable). You are a PhD and you have a piece of paper and a hat (if you bought it) to prove it.

You are not, absolutely not, a student anymore. And herein lies the crux of the matter. Because no matter how bad it got during my PhD and no matter how many times I thought ‘the real world must be better than this’ I knew otherwise. I knew I had it good. And I miss it. And not with rose-tinted glasses either; I just plain miss all of it, and that includes the stress. At least I had something concrete to be stressed about.

Now I just stress about life in general.

But it’s a strange place to be, post-graduation. You are done. Many of your colleagues are probably finished too. You have other friends still doing it and now you are cheering them on from the ‘I finished – so can you!’ perspective. And you are either a) unemployed or b) lucky. If you are B, congrats, I’m exceedingly happy for you. If you’re A, you are probably also thinking ‘Maybe my PhD wasn’t so bad…’

Let me tell you, it wasn’t. Oh, trust me, I had months it was the Worst Thing I Have Ever Decided to Do and I regretted all my life choices. But now, on the flip side, and definitely in the A category, being a miserable PhD student is still better than being an unemployed PhD. Because at least I have something concrete to focus on: finish the PhD. Now my concrete has become the mythical: get a job. Because when people ask you ‘what do you do?’ you get to answer ‘I’m a PhD student!’ and they get excited. Now I answer ‘I’m working on a variety of things’ by which I mean job searching and making no money off trying to freelance. Generally, people get the message and stop asking. Some don’t. Then I come up with really impressive words for what I kind-of-sort-of-don’t-really-do. And they lose interest.

But hey, I have a PhD. A a LOT of people in the last months have said some version of ‘congratulations, that’s amazing’. And yes, that feels nice. For about .5 milliseconds until your brain reminds you that ‘yes, PhD: UNEMPLOYED’. But it’s weird, this post-graduation thing, because everyone around you who has not done a PhD thinks you have done the most amazing thing ever [WHICH YOU HAVE. Let me be clear, YOU HAVE.] And in your head, if you are the A person, all you hear is ‘if you can do that, why can’t you find a job?’ Because that’s what you ask yourself every single day.

If I did my PhD, and I have a shiny piece of paper to prove it, why am I still struggling with everything else in life?

Because. I promise you, others who have not done PhDs are struggling with life, and they don’t have a PhD on their wall to slightly console themselves with. But yes, most days, looking at that piece of paper fills me with no emotion whatsoever, except failure. Because yes, a PhD is a massive accomplishment, but if that’s all I do with the entire rest of my life….I’m going to have a problem.

So, things are changing. And this post is the first public step in that change. If academia is out (it is), and if no museum in this country wants to employ a PhD (or so it seems), then that leaves only one place to go.

I have always found it best to be my own boss. Hello consulting*, how are you?

*posts galore on this step-by-step process to come. And if you haven’t check out From PhD to Life yet, head right here. Because that’s been my biggest inspiration these last weeks, and if so many other people can do it, so can I.

The Order of the Thing

Also titled: Why people write thesis chapters in certain orders – and why I didn’t.

I’ve talked about thesis chapters before. About how to create an outline for your chapters, and roughly what sort of chapters are needed for a thesis. But I haven’t actually broken that down much further, so here is the first post wherein I talk about actually formulating and writing said chapters in more depth.

Everyone, (including my supervisor) said ‘don’t write the introduction first!’

I politely told everyone to please go away.

I am a logically ordered person. Beginning, middle, end. I read this way. I write this way. I think this way. Just because everyone tells you to write your thesis in a certain way, does not mean that way will actually work for you. So consider any advice (including this) that you get. If you are not used to writing a certain way, or you are unsure of how to, your PhD thesis is probably not a good time to experiment.

Having said that, I know a lot of people who did what they were told. That’s fine. If you want to try that, go ahead.

But if you absolutely cannot (ie. if you’ve been staring at a flashing cursor for a month or more), then go about writing how you always have. If it’s worked before, it will work again.

So I started with chapter 1. Part 1.0. And then I wrote 1.1. And then 1.2. And then all the way to 1.9. And then I wrote chapter 2. Etc.

All the way to the conclusion. Which you should write last anyways (thankfully).

Was it hard to write Chapter 1 first? Yes, of course it was. I had no idea what the rest of my thesis would be, beyond a general outline. I knew roughly what my literature review and theory chapters would have, but I was still doing my data analysis when I started chapter 1, so I had no real idea what my later chapters (or conclusions) would be. But you don’t need that to write chapter 1. Whatever you write will get rewritten and edited. My final chapter 1 was not so different from the first draft, but it included my conclusions and a final outline of the thesis.

In the introduction, you can write about the theories you are using (in brief or in detail), your methodology (as I did – I didn’t have a methodology chapter), an outline of what the rest of the thesis will be, your conclusions, brief literature reviews – i.e. the most integral literature to your thesis, and – most importantly – your aims and objectives. Some theses will not include all of these in chapter 1, but mine did, so it’s certainly possible to.

I started by figuring out what had to go into chapter 1 (see above list). Then in what order those worked best. Then I literally created a Word doc. that had subheadings for each section. Then I started at the beginning with introducing my thesis, the RQ and sub questions, the aims and objects. Then I moved on to literature, then theory, then methodology, then the thesis outline. When I started each section, I broke it down further. This was most important for methodology, as it was the longest section. It had 7 subsections (each type of research method I used for qualitative collection, each case study museum, the method for data analysis – in brief, I talked about this in depth later). Once you get to that many subsections, you’re talking a few hundred to a thousand words for each. And that’s much less scary!

I continued how I started. Each chapter was the same way. Headings, followed by breaking them down to subheadings when I reached each new section. I wrote in 500-word sections, most of the time, and it pretty much worked out.

But it was logical. It was sequential. It was the only way. It may not be your way, and if so, then you’re doing what everyone advices you should do. But if this is your way, know that it’s okay. That it does work. Write how you know (and then write what you know) and you’ll have a thesis in no time.

Divorce Rates (why people stop their PhDs)

I’m lucky. I know I am. I finished my PhD. It was a hard slog and there were weeks I considered stopping, but I didn’t, and I have my doctorate now.

But that does not mean that people don’t stop their PhDs. I hesitate to use the word quit, because that conjures up all sorts of negative connotations. To quit sounds like to fail. And stopping your PhD is not failing (failing your PhD is failing). It’s choosing to take a different path, because you realise the one you are on is not the right one. It’s no different than quitting your job because you know there are better options out there. And we wouldn’t consider that failing, would we?

Why stop your PhD? There are many reasons, and each one is as individual to the person making the decision. But let me list a few of the most common ones, and the ones I’ve actually encountered in people I’ve met.

You might decide to stop your PhD because of academic reasons. By which I mean: you don’t like your supervisor, your department, your university, your colleagues, etc. These are all valid reasons. If you hate your supervisor, or they are never around, or they want you to do different research, those are good reasons to stop your PhD. You might start it again at a different university (in fact, I suggest looking into other universities, if you stop for this reason; one university doesn’t mean all universities). If you aren’t happy with things, give serious consideration to why and what you can change. If you can’t change much, it might be time to look elsewhere, or reassess if you really want to do the PhD.

Another reason to stop is that you don’t like your topic anymore. This does not always mean you will throw in the hat. There are ways to change your topic without stopping doing your PhD entirely. I know people who have done it. I sort of did it myself (post for another week). Discuss this with your supervisor and other staff if you aren’t happy with what you’re doing. Can you change it and still stay in the department? Still keep your funding? Once you’ve figured out where you’re at you’ll know whether stopping is the way to go, or whether changing to a different department/university might work. But there are always ways to change your topic and still do your PhD.

Some people decide part-way through (or earlier, or later) their PhDs that it’s not for them. Sometimes it’s because they realise it won’t advance their career the way they want it to. Other times it’s because they just don’t like doing a PhD. Perhaps they’ve been offered a dream job. Perhaps their family situation has changed. If you simply decide the PhD isn’t for you, or it isn’t the right time to do one, then do stop. You won’t enjoy it anymore and it’s more stress than you need if it’s not helping you in life. I think this is a grand reason to stop doing your PhD and if I’d had the guts to actually stop mine, this would have been the reason.

Another reason to stop might be more along the lines of you just can’t handle it anymore. It’s okay. PhDs are stressful things. They can cause a lot of mental and physical anguish very easily. And it’s hard to get out of it. It’s hard to make it better. And sometimes it’s just too much. I completely understand. I seriously considering stopping for this reason at one time or another, but everyone feels that way at some point in their PhD. I took a sabbatical and realised I just needed a break. That may be the issue. If it is, take a break. If taking a break doesn’t help, give serious consideration to whether a doctorate is worth the misery. Because it can be miserable doing a PhD and I’m of the opinion that nothing in life is really worth the sort of misery that leads to depression and anxiety. They’re very hard to get rid of once you have them.

There are other reasons, of course. As I said, it’s a personal decision, and your reasons are your own. But whatever your reason – or reasons – know that they are valid. It’s okay to stop. It’s okay to move on. It’s not failing. It’s not admitting defeat. It’s making the right decision for you at the right time. And once you stop (if you don’t start again somewhere else), don’t worry about people asking you ‘why did you quit?’ You don’t have to answer that. Your reasons are your own and they are right for you. Don’t let other people judge you. And never, ever let anyone tell you it’s a failure to stop doing your PhD.

First submission – when are you really ready?

You’re not. Seriously, I’m not trying to trip you up or scare you, but you will never, ever be ready. Not in your head. You will never feel you are ‘done’. You will never feel you are ‘ready’. You will forever think there is more you could do. More you could write. More you could research.

Your heart will tell you when it’s time. Because you will reach a day when you can’t do it anymore. When it is just too hard and you are too tired and you don’t want to get up tomorrow and still be doing your PhD. That’s when you know you’re ready. Because you are. Because your heart has told you. Listen to your head for every moment of every day from the day you start your PhD to the day you wake up and know you are ready to be done. Then start listening to your heart.

Everyone falls out of love with their PhD. Every Single Person. Some people fall out of love sooner rather than later, but everyone does it. If you’re lucky, it’ll happen later, because take it from me, not loving your PhD makes it ten times harder to do. But you will fall out of love and you will still be doing your PhD. And the longer you hate your thesis, the quicker your heart will tell you it’s time to let it go. Every single PhD ends in a divorce the day you submit. It’s mostly amicable. It’s mostly okay. But it really is ‘irreconcilable differences’. You cannot tolerate another day with your thesis. Your thesis is no longer doing you any favours. It’s time to part ways.

But really, how do you know you’re ready? What if your heart tells you before your supervisor agrees? Well, probably. I mean, maybe not. Maybe you’ll be one of those lucky ones that loves it to the time you hit your editing phase. I really wasn’t that lucky. I fell out of love in my second year, and although my thesis and I reconciled later, it was short lived. We ultimately still ended in a divorce, and I was happy to see ‘him’ go on the day I submitted. I was done. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I didn’t want to try to make it work. I just wanted ‘him’ gone. And go ‘he’ did.

But it was because my supervisor agreed. He agreed because he knew I was over it. And he knew I was ready. He knew I had a thesis. He knew it was good enough to submit. Otherwise, he would have told me to stick it out. He would have told me to keep trying to make it work. But he didn’t have to tell me this and I’m very, very glad he didn’t. I was so ready to be done.

Talk to your supervisor. Discuss – in complete honesty – the question ‘is it ready to submit?’ and whatever the answer is, be ready to work with it. If it’s not ready, it may only need a few more weeks of work. Don’t despair! It does not have to be perfect, but it does have to be a complete thesis. It has to have the things a thesis needs: originality, research, factual knowledge, grammatically sound, formally written, complete (all the chapters and parts are there), and it has to be your own. If it has all those parts, you’re probably good to go. But talk to your supervisor. Even if you have never talked to them through your PhD, this is the time to talk to them. This is the time to make them work for you. It’s what they’re there for.

But it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough. You hear that a lot and it is absolutely true. It just has to be good enough for you to viva. It just has to be good enough for you to stand in your viva and defend it. It can be a long way from perfect. That is not the point of a PhD thesis.

And when it is good enough, let it go.

Feedback and Evaluation

The biggest difference between a PhD programme and, say, an MA, is the lack of constant feedback and the daily obligation to be accountable to your whereabouts and your work. You might go weeks (or months as a part-time student) without talking to another PhD student or your supervisor. It means the onus is on you to do the work. This can be difficult, but what is especially difficult is a lack of regular feedback. There’s no papers or exams with a mark telling you you need to work harder. There is only you.

If you are lucky, your supervisor will expect some sort of regular contact and an update on how your work is going. If you aren’t lucky, you may have to go find this yourself.

But it’s not just your supervisor you can go to. Other PhD students in your department are a fantastic resource. It can be difficult to approach someone you don’t know (particularly if you’re a part-time person), but it shouldn’t be hard to find contacts for other students, at least those you share a supervisor with. If you can find even one person that is your Person, this can make a big difference to getting you through your PhD. If you can’t find one in your own department, look further afield. I found one on Twitter!

When you have someone, or more than one, make use of them as a resource, but also offer to act in the same capacity for them. This may be as simple as setting a deadline and asking the other person to hold you accountable to it. It may be as complex and involved as asking for feedback on a paper or on research you’ve done. If your Person doesn’t have time for such things, find a new person (or another person). It’s good to have more than one, and often it’s very useful to have different people for different sorts of help.

But once you have tracked down someone who can be a good resource for you, exploit them (I mean this in the nicest way possible – and remember they will likely do the same to you). Ask them to read the paper you are writing. Ask them if they will be a sounding board for an hour while you work through a difficult theory or thought you are trying to get straight in your head. Ask them to read over a paragraph you are struggling with. Just ask them. It’s so hard to ask for things when you are PhD student, because you forever feel guilty for needing help and for bothering others. Get over that right now. You can’t finish a PhD completely on your own. You need help and you need support and that means bothering other people. The system works because those other people bother you (or other people). It’s the circle of PhD life.

If you aren’t sure, start by asking for help that won’t take up too much time. Struggling with the wording of a sentence? Can’t quite put into words the theory you’re using? Not sure how something will sound to someone outside your field? You can always build up the relationship to full on feedback.

But other students can be the best source for this, because they want it themselves, and because they will inevitably be coming at your field of study from an outside perspective. It’s why it’s best to get someone who is not your supervisor to read your finished thesis before you submit, because they will find things that you and your supervisor never noticed. Persons can be good for this sort of thing, if they have the time, but often non-PhD student Persons are best for reading whole theses.

But you need to ask for feedback. Everything you’ve done thus far in life has had some sort of feedback, even if that was just a verbal ‘good job’ at the last place you worked. As human beings, we crave this, even if it’s a critique, because it makes us feel good about ourselves and challenges us to do better. You need someone to give you feedback and evaluation of how you write, what you are writing, your research question, your analysis, etc. If your supervisor cannot always be available to do this, you need someone else to help. And even if your supervisor is, it’s best to have a second opinion. Other people will not catch the same mistakes, but they will catch new ones.

So find a Person or Persons. Make friends with them. Offer to support them. Ask for help. Ask them to be honest with you. You don’t want someone who just says ‘great job, sounds fantastic!’ because it probably doesn’t sound fantastic. You want someone who will go ‘well, actually, I think you need to rewrite this, I don’t understand it’. The more constructive criticism your Person can give you, the better.

Near the end of your studies, when you are reaching those final words before editing your thesis as a whole, find a few Persons you haven’t approached before. Ask them to edit, ask them to proof, ask them to comment. Ask people who know absolutely nothing about your topic. Ask people who are not academics, and ones who are. The more feedback you can get and opinions you can hear on what your thesis is like, the better you can make it before submission, and the more prepared you’ll be for your viva too.

Those First Few PhD Months

This won’t be the only blog post on this topic, but here’s an important one to start off with.

Okay, you’re a PhD student now. Congrats! You’ve met your supervisor and have a rough idea of what you’re supposed to be working on.

But there’s that question regarding skills development that your supervisor couldn’t answer. And you’re not really sure who you talk to about the form you need to fill in for that thing everyone talks about. Or what training you’re supposed to be doing. Or who to talk to at the library about research resources.

There are a myriad of questions that come up when you start a PhD (and all the way through as well) that your supervisor will not be able to answer. If you have contact with any PhD student in your department that is ahead of you, ask them first. They inevitably asked someone ahead of them. That’s how you find stuff out. If you don’t have a contact, ask your supervisor if you can have the email address of one of his other students (this is not just useful for the silly admin questions – it can be useful to talk to someone else with the same supervisor, especially if you ever have an issue with them). If your supervisor won’t give you an email address, use the department website to track down another student who’s already in second or third (or beyond) year. No one is going to have a problem when you email to ask ‘where do I hand in this form?’ because that person asked it first.

If, however, you don’t want to bother another PhD student, or you’re a distance PhD student and emailing someone you will never meet horrifies you, then contact your department administrator. Every department has one, no matter how small. This person is normally the ‘secretary’ type individual, but they are also the front line person who deals with students and there is no silly question they have not already been asked. If you are on campus, talk to them in person (and talk to them – this person may save your life (or your PhD) one day). If you are not on campus, email them. They’re contact details should be on your department webpage, but failing that your supervisor will know who this person is and give you an email/phone number. And don’t be afraid to use it.

I can’t tell you the number of times I emailed my department admin and asked the dumbest questions ever, because I could not bring myself to ask another PhD student and look that stupid. Of course, inevitably, the admin had been asked that question before, which means it wasn’t dumb. Most of the time she knew the answer immediately, but when she wasn’t sure if the policy/etc. had changed, she called someone that did know and then gave me the right answer. I was on campus, so I was in the department a lot to use my office space (though not as much as I should have been – story for another day), and more often than not I would swing by her office to say hi, chat about life in general, listen to her talk (most people didn’t talk to her, they just used her for information and then left, which is a pity, as she had great stories), and then quietly asked for help. She never laughed or said she’d deal with it later. She always helped, no matter what she was in the middle of. That’s what her job is all about.

You’ll get the occasional admin who doesn’t like their job and doesn’t really want to do it, but it’s their job and you are welcome to ask them questions and expect answers, whether they want to give them or not. But do show them kindness, and they might just start doing the same to others. It’s worked for me in the past. Just remember that these individuals deal with A LOT. Everyone in the department relies on them. They have a lot of work to juggle. They are going to have bad days, no matter how much they like their job. If they are having a bad day and your question can wait a few hours, then leave it. You can always email tomorrow.

Moral of the story: never anger your department admin. This is the number one person after your supervisor that you want on your side. But make use of them, it’s what they are there for.

And not only for all those silly questions you can’t ask anyone else.

Thesis Chapters

The be-all and end-all of how to create a thesis chapter plan (no matter what department you’re part of).

Well, here’s a Big One. An Important One. The one that everyone I know worried about (or is worrying about) and the one that caused me no end of grief. Wish I had had something like this to look at, all in one place.

Google has just become your best friend. There are thousands and thousands of pages that can give you outlines of theses. Read as many of them as you can, but don’t waste all your time this way. Your university might have a standard format for your department, so ask around amongst students and your supervisor. Your discipline might have a specific number of chapters and a general format to use for a thesis. Ask as many people as you can who are doing similar work to you and take the average, or their best recommendations.

If it’s very much a ‘whatever you feel is right’, then you have a problem. It’s so much easier to start with a general idea than to start with nothing.

The basic format of a thesis is, usually, an intro chapter, methodology chapter, lit review, data chapters, analysis, conclusion. That’s not to say all theses look like this. Some method chapters end up in the intro chapter. Sometimes you’ll have more than one lit chapter. Sometimes analysis is in the data chapters. It’s really rather flexible.

Most theses are 5-6 chapters, though, and generally range from 50,000-80,000 words. Humanities subjects are normally on the high end, while science is normally lower (because of all those graphs). Your university department WILL have a maximum word count (or page count) and you MUST take that into account.

It’s generally advisable that, when you first start writing-up, to sit down and work out your chapters – roughly – and assign a general word count to them. You might not keep to those word counts, but it gives you something to aim for.

[If you can keep to those word counts, more the better though. It makes editing easier.]

Start easy. Chapter 1: Introduction. Chapter 2: Methodology (or not, if you’re putting that somewhere else). Chapter 3: Lit Review, and so on. Guestimate. It doesn’t have to be set in stone.

Once you have that chapter list, start to break those chapters down. Introduction normally starts with an intro, then the research question, aims and objectives, etc. There are basic formats on Google and most of them will work for you, with a bit of tweaking. The Intro isn’t rocket science.

[Unless you’re writing about rocket science.]

Your other chapters will be less specific. Google will probably stop being helpful around about the time you get to your data chapters, because each thesis is so individual.

I originally planned out 7 chapters, but ended up with 8, on account of needing to add another data chapter because I had two main data sets in answer to my question, and then some other data that didn’t fit in those chapters, but was still actually really important. So it ended up being data chapter 1, and sort of took the place of the methodology chapter too, but also linked my last lit review with my first proper data chapter a lot better than they had been. It worked out, basically.

My chapters ended up being thus:

Chapter 1: Introduction – intro, research question, research aims & objectives, context, methodology, outline

Chapter 2: Lit Review 1 – this was the very traditional lit review chapter for the general field in which I was writing

Chapter 3: Lit Review 2 – this was the first of two theories I used for my thesis – this theory was used to analyse the data after collection

Chapter 4: Lit Review 3 – this second theory was used to actually collect the data, so it was a bit methodology like as well, but I flagged that up specifically in Chapter 5 in it’s own part – this was also the unique part of my thesis, so it was the Key Chapter

Chapter 5: Data chapter 1 – introduction of case studies, linking Chapter 4 and Chapter 6, analysis methodology, conclusion and introduction of main data chapters

Chapter 6: Data chapter 2 – intro, included analysis, conclusion

Chapter 7: Data chapter 3 – intro, included analysis, reviewed research question at the end, conclusion

Chapter 8: Conclusion – summary of findings, limitations of research, future research, unexpected conclusions, conclusion (this was a page long).

Remember, every thesis is different, so this is just a sample. When I first started writing-up, I had a very general thesis outline, but as I got further along that got more and more detailed. That’s the way it should be. You don’t have to know everything you’re going to write and where it will go when you start – you just have to start.