We Interrupt This Program

Owing to the fact that I’ve not been on holidays (at all – usually I work 6-7 days a week on various projects) I will be away this week on a technology-free vacation. Alas, my schedule did not allow time for me to draft a blog post for you and schedule it for posting ahead of time. These things happen, and as PhD students (or potential students, or former students) I’ve no doubt you understand.

Hopefully there will be a blog post for September 12th. I say hopefully, as I am not back until the 10th and have a near whole-day event the 11th. But one tries one’s best.


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.

How to assess progress

Particularly when you are self-monitoring your hours spent working. Which is really the PhD in the nutshell.

You work from home (or the office). You see your supervisor maybe once a month (or less). You don’t really talk to the other PhD students in your department, for whatever reason. You have months at a time working on a single issue: researching a new topic, writing a paper, doing your fieldwork, etc.

So how do you assess your progress?

It’s not easy. You don’t need to worry that it’s not. The PhD is an independent research project. If you’re doing the sciences, you may be lucky enough to have a project that is mainly lab based. You have a series of experiments to run. You know what those need to be; you know you need to get them done in order to move on. You know roughly how long each one will take. You know how many times you need to do them. You can make yourself a general schedule and know that if you are not sticking to it, you are falling behind.

But if you’re in the humanities, you are more likely than not to be left alone for several years at a time, with only brief moments of accountability to others (like your supervisor) and a lot of time to manage yourself.

Setting a schedule year-on-year and then breaking that down into month-by-month is the first step. But within that you are going to have projects and activities that could take weeks and you need to be able to monitor your progress. There’s no point getting to the end of your scheduled three months for researching ‘this particular topic’ and discovering that you really don’t know anything about it, haven’t read the most important book on the topic, and can’t actually define the terms the subject uses.

Trust me, been there, done that.

Let’s break this down into separate issues.

  1. How do you monitor progress when writing?

This is actually the easy one. If you have to write an article for publication, you have an idea of the length it needs to be and a deadline when you need to get it done. Those should be your two main monitoring flags. If you have a paper due to your supervisor, you have a deadline, and if you’re smart, you’ve gotten a word count/page count to write to as well. If you haven’t, ask for one. If your supervisor says ‘however many words you need’ well, set yourself a word count. If you have a month to write it, you probably don’t want that word count to be 10000, so be realistic. That’s longer than most thesis chapters (but it IS doable, if that’s your word count).

First, start with your deadline. If you have several steps to do before writing (research, etc.) then put those into your writing plan. Create a calendar with important milestones, and when you need to achieve each one to move onto the next step. And keep that deadline in mind at all times.

Then, every few days, particularly if your work isn’t going well, look at that calendar again. Do you have time to reach your next milestone at your current rate of progress? What happens if you don’t? Can your other milestones be bumped back? If not, then you need to work on your current milestone. You need to sort out what isn’t working and why. Are you confused? Are you procrastinating? Are you worried about something? If you can find the root cause, you can work to overcome it and get yourself back on track.

  1. How to monitor when researching?

Okay, the hard one. You have a new field of study, or a theory, or a subject you have to learn about as part of your PhD. You cannot leave this until the end. You need to have it researched prior to writing-up. There’s a deadline. If you think the topic will have an impact on your fieldwork, then you have another deadline. Write those into your overall PhD schedule.

It will always take longer to research than you think. You will always get distracted. Keep that in mind. Start researching. Every week or so, come up for air and look at your schedule. Look at how many books/articles/journals you’ve read. Do you feel you’re making progress? Do you have any idea how much more reading you have to do?

Start keeping notes. New terms and definitions, key theories, key authors, key works, etc. Start to form in your head an understanding of the new topic and what you conceive it to be. Don’t understand? Keep reading.

Sometimes, the best way to conceptualise something new is to try to write about it. Even if you don’t need to write a paper or article, try anyways. If you can’t write about the topic, you need to keep reading.

But don’t lose track of your schedule. Focus on the main authors in the area, and read the main articles, and if you find yourself reading an article that has only a very small amount to do with the topic, but it aside and try something else. Don’t let yourself go down those research black holes.

If you know you are going to have to read a lot of articles, don’t let yourself spend three weeks wasting time and then realise you have a week to get through everything. Be smart about it and you won’t have to worry about your progress, because you won’t easily get off track.

  1. How to monitor progress during fieldwork?

This is nearly as easy as writing, and much easier than researching. You have to plan your fieldwork out in advance. You need to know where you are going, who you are going to speak with, how many places you need for case studies. The worst thing is to wake up four months into your fieldwork and realise you are so far behind you are never going to catch up. Plan this stage of your PhD out in advance and you won’t have to worry too much about monitoring progress.

But you can get so into fieldwork that you kind of forget you have to do something after it’s all over with. If you are mainly interviewing, keep an interview schedule and don’t forget to look ahead to see how many people you have left. If you are doing other sorts of qualitative research, try to keep to your schedule as much as possible, but don’t forget to take a deep breath every few weeks and seriously critique where you are and where you need to be. How much more data do you need to collect and how much time do you have left? If you find your progress seriously impeded, you may have to reconsider the types of data collection you are doing.

If you are doing quantitative data, then this might be even harder. There’s the sense in quantitative data research that more is better, and sometimes that leads to an endless amount of collection. Remember, you have to analyse this at some point and the more you collect, the more you need to analyse. It’s useful to start off your fieldwork acknowledging how much data you usefully need to collect for your study, and try not to get too focused on ‘as much as possible’, but rather ‘this is what I need’. In your first days doing it, think about how much data you are getting, and then work this out over the long term. If you can collect this much in one day, and you have thirty days of data collection, is that enough data for your project? If not, you have probably overestimated the amount of data you need and should reassess.

A lot of monitoring progress is looking forwards and backwards and not just focusing on the now. How much have you done? How much do you (realistically) still need to do? How much can you do today? How much did you do yesterday?

Critique yourself. Be willing to admit to yourself when you are not handling things. When you are behind. And be willing to do something about it to catch up. But the key is to not get too far behind in the first place. Keep your head above water, regularly look at your schedule (have a schedule), and don’t get too bogged down in the day to day.

Setting Limits – and Why Not To

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is all about goals. Daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, novel goals, etc. It’s about having an aim and working to achieve that.

Yes, sometimes you will miss a daily goal, or a weekly goal, but if you reach your monthly goal by November 30th, then that is all you need to ‘win’.

I’ve had a pretty easy NaNoWriMo this year, so far. I’ve only had one day I failed to hit my word count, and I made it up the next day. Some days I’ve been writing until 11pm, but I’ve managed to get it done without having to cut into my precious sleep time.

But it has me thinking about how we write. Specifically, in how we set writing goals…and limits.

Those two things may sound similar, but they aren’t. You set goals as something you hope to reach. Ultimately, they are often overly optimistic goals, but the point is not to necessarily reach them so much as to convince yourself that you can. They drive you forwards, encourage and inspire.

But although goals are important for your writing, so are limits. It may sound odd to hear, if you are just starting the writing journey of your PhD, but there will be days where you get so involved in what you’re doing that you just keep going.

Through lunch, through dinner, through bathroom breaks, and through bedtime. This is not healthy, obviously.

So let me talk about limits and why you should set them, when you should set them…and when you shouldn’t.

There are going to be periods of your PhD where you are mostly writing. These may come over the course of your entire journey, or all at the end. Wherever they fall, it is important that during your ‘writing time’ that you are focused on writing first and foremost. Do not allow yourself to get distracted by other things (particularly researching, as that is a black hole you will never crawl out of). Procrastination will be part of this experience, and that’s alright, but if you find it is dominating the writing time, you will need to re-evaluate what you are doing and how you are doing it. And the true reason you are procrastinating.

But as well as procrastination (which we all experience) will come moments when you fall into what I call writing mode. It’s when I become so focused and in the zone I lose track of time. I lose track, in fact, of pretty much everything. Which can be a bad thing for my bladder.

You may not experience these moments very often, but you will experience them. Whether it’s trying to get the wording perfect on a certain paragraph, or getting so in the zone you decide to crack out your entire 8000 word chapter today, or your brain is running a mile a minute and if you don’t get it all down onto paper, you’ll forget it forever (usually my biggest issue).

However, even if these moments are rare, don’t allow yourself to become a slave to them. It may sound like a grand idea to crack out 8000 words today (I’ve done it myself), but in the end, this is rarely a good thing. For one, in order to write that many words, you’ll barely stop to do anything. For another, it leaves you no thinking time to craft what you are writing. And, personally, I find my hands ache A LOT after that many words.

I also find that, the next day, I tend to not get out of bed.

And this is the most important reason to set yourself limits. Because when you don’t, you run the risk of exhausting yourself. And that generally leads to procrastination, or other forms of lost work time. It may seem like a great idea to write for 12 hours today, but if that means you don’t write for the next week, you’ve done yourself a disservice. You have taken yourself away from your story/thesis/article and you are no longer in the zone. You have also drastically limited your thinking time. You will also find that, when rereading what you have written there will be a lot of editing needed. Editing is all well and good, but if it ends up involving complete rewrites, you haven’t exactly saved time.

So there are reasons to set limits, particularly when you have to knock out quite a lot of words in a set time. This may seem counter productive, but pacing yourself is the best way to win the race.

I set writing limits every time I sit down to write. Whether it’s NaNoWriMo with it’s set 1667 words a day, or when I was working on my thesis. For my thesis, I generally set limits with sections, rather than word counts. The ‘I will write this subsection today’, however long it takes.

There are a good many reasons to do this. I found that on days I was having a hard time focusing, that it gave me a goal to work towards. A realistic goal. On days where I was so in the zone I could have kept going for hours and hours, it made me stop, eat, take a bathroom break, go to the gym, and all around take some time out. Often that was thinking time about what I’d written, or what came next, but it was always important time. It also means that you can create a realistic working plan of your project, with deadlines, and know that you have a good chance of making them.

If you know you can write a 1000 word section, whatever it is on, then you can plan your writing schedule for the rest of your thesis. If you know you have to write a 7000 word chapter in May, you know how many days you need to set aside for writing, and how many can be days off, how many can be days for extra researching or referencing, and how many can be days lost to procrastination, before you end up behind.

One of the best things about NaNoWriMo is that it teaches you you can do this. You can write to goals. And it also teaches you you can write to limits. I find most people get very good at it. If they know they need 1667 words today…they’ll usually write about 1670. I can generally stop myself in the middle of a paragraph to hit the right count, and know that I am in the middle of something I will be encouraged to continue tomorrow. This is one of the key suggestions to overcome writer’s block – always stop in the middle….



I have not forgotten about the last part of this blog – when not to set limits. Sometimes you will just need to get on with things, and then it is best to set goals – to be optimistic rather than realistic. Sometimes you may just want to let your writing zone take over, usually after a lot of careful thinking and planning time, when you know what you need to do and just need to get on with writing it.

You will probably have moments when you don’t know whether you need to set a limit or a goal, or both. You can only learn this from practice.

But although goals are important, don’t make them impossible, and remember that setting limits might actually help you more. And if you find you’ve been sitting at your computer for seven hours without a bathroom break…it’s probably time to set yourself a limit, if only for the sake of your body.



How Many Hours, or How Few?

Because timing is everything, someone raised this issue over on the How To Survive Your PhD edX course, and I figured, since I answered it there, I’d answer it here.

I’ve encountered more than a few PhD students from various universities/departments who are given guidelines when they first start. Things like: ‘you should be working 15 hours a week’ (part-time), or ‘this is a full-time job, and the hours should be as such’.

The thing is, a PhD is not a job. Yes, you might be one of those lucky ones that gets paid for it (plenty of us actually pay to do a PhD, rather than get paid for one), but that does not mean that it’s the 9-5 job your parents had. This is academia. In a nutshell, that means there are no set working hours. If it takes you 56 hours a week to do the work you need to do that week then…you have a 56 hours working week. If it only takes you 20 hours to do it, fantastic.

So when your university department tells you how many hours a week they expect you to work on your PhD, treat it as a guideline, rather than a rule. Everyone works differently. In undergrad, I had friends who researched and wrote their papers over the course of one day (the day before it was due) and still got an A. I usually spent about two weeks writing my papers. That does not mean my paper was better than theirs, because I had spent more time on it. Writing, like most creative pursuits, really has nothing to do with time.

[Though practice does make perfect, if you are struggling to develop the writing technique.]

I found that, some weeks, I worked barely 10 hours on my PhD. Sometimes it was because I had work outside my thesis. Other times it was because there was a conference. Sometimes I had duties in my department or on campus that took several days. These things happen. I spent most of my PhD stressed and feeling guilty for not doing 40+ hours of work on it a week. Which is ridiculous, of course, but guilt doesn’t really care about what’s reasonable. It took me until into my 3rd year before I stopped worrying about it, and that was simply because sanity took over. What was the point of lying awake at night feeling bad about the fact I had only done 3 hours today instead of 7, when I could be getting a good night’s sleep in order to do more hours the next day.

Sanity prevails a lot in year 3. Mostly it’s because you just hit the ‘I don’t care anymore’ wall and the only way over/around/under it is to let go off all those things you did in your first couple of years that were useless. Like feeling guilty and worrying about how many hours you weren’t working.

So, my advice to you, from a completed PhD student who worked several contract jobs, did monthly duties in my department, mentored other students, still travelled and took days off, and wrote a bloody novel while being a PhD student: work however many hours you can OR however many hours you need to to reach your deadline. If that means a 56 hour week, well, get cracking.

If it means 15…then take the rest of the day off and stop worrying about it. You’ll be better for it tomorrow.