I submitted my thesis at the end of February, a week after starting my new job as a Lecturer at Northumbria University. I then defended my PhD exactly a month ago and passed with no corrections. Before I completely forget how that last month or so of writing my thesis felt, I wanted to share some thoughts and tips that hopefully can come in handy to others in a similar position.
Back in January 2017, during a moment of utter panic, I sat down and made a timeline of what needed to be done in my last year. You can find that timeline below, but be aware: 90% of it didn’t go as I had planned. Compared to my original plan, I submitted 5 weeks late(r). By the time of submission, I technically still had seven months before a very hard university deadline (which was September 2018), but I wanted to have handed in a month before I started my new job to have some well deserved holiday and sleep. However, life is messy and doesn’t always go according to plan!
My laptop broke at the beginning of December, whilst I was in a meeting with lots of important people and sitting across the table from my supervisor. I think I kept the appearance of a calm and in control person, until I lost it and had to step out to call my partner on the other side of the world and have a good cry. Long story short, I got a new laptop after a couple of weeks but obviously, that meant I was set back on my writing schedule. We were also looking for a house in Newcastle (which is about 4.5hrs by train away from Cambridge where we were living) so lots of house hunting happened on the sidelines, as well as figuring out how to move all our stuff. Movers became too expensive so we settled, with much of my resentment, on moving our stuff ourselves in three (almost four!) trips. Moving also set me back as I had to take out another two weeks to pack stuff, load a van, drive up 235km, unload van, then drive back another 235km. And repeat. And repeat again. So much for having a restful break! All this to say, things get in the way and you can only work around them. But it will end and it will end sooner than you think!
The last month of my PhD, until the day I submitted, was an emotional rollercoaster to say the least. For reference, as of December, I had two entire chapters to write (the final study chapter and my discussion) plus all the revisions. I also had a lot of notes about what I wanted to write in those chapters, so I wasn’t starting completely on a blank page.
Day & night
For starters, the notion of a month extended beyond the typical 30 days. The greek distinguished between kronos and kairos… and my experience has definitely been of the days stretching and shrinking. My typical day started at about 9am when I would wake up but I couldn’t get up. I was too tired from having gone to bed after 3am. Despite it still being a 6hour night, I felt like I was on a different time zone.
I took a lot of caffeine tablets (if you are curious as to which ones, I took these). Not because I necessarily believe they can help (although the first week I did see an improvement) but because I would have done anything legal to improve and speed up the process. On the box it said it’s best to be taken for 8weeks so I assume they are suggesting it takes a while to have an effect. Who knows… I was happy with whatever placebo effect they gave me.
Also, surprise surprise, getting a good night sleep made me a better human the next day, more pleasant to be around with (although I’m the only judge as I spent my days at home alone) and more focused/productive. However, I found that in the day to day routine getting an 8h night sleep still wasn’t as restorative, because of the 12h working days. My life was pretty miserable. You know when they say ‘you will live, breath, dream, eat your thesis’? I didn’t get it. Until then. I’d been having dreams about my thesis for the whole month. In one of them I hadn’t included enough details, and I’m sure there were others about my viva, which I have now forgotten.
And for full disclosure, even now, having passed my viva and not having to do any corrections, I still dream about my thesis. I think it will just take a while to get out of my system. My partner still now reminds me how nice it is to see me wear clothes as opposed to PJs because the most effort I did in that month was change from PJ bottoms into leggings and a jumper.
All the feelings
I would sit up all night worrying about whether my thesis was good enough. I had several moments of feeling sad I would suddenly lose my support network and some amazing colleagues, so much that I found it hard to come to terms with the idea it was all coming to an end. But then I’d think about the new ones I was about to meet and I got super excited and couldn’t wait to finish. Ultimately, those past 4+ years have changed me so much I am a different person. Not just because I now know how to do research, write papers, write small grants, review, help organise a huge conference, but I’ve matured and gained a lot of confidence I never thought I would have. Strangely enough, in the midst of all this turmoil, I also found inner peace…. I’ve had so much anger inside me for so long (for reasons that precede my PhD life), but all of a sudden, as I was deeply immersed in my writing, it melted all away. That feeling of peace is what ultimately kept me sane.
When I finished writing my thesis it was 3am on Sunday, 21st January. Ironically, that was two days after my supposed hand-in date. That’s when I realised it was over. And then just like that, I started sobbing uncontrollably, waking up my partner who was very confused (but by this point, used to seeing me crying every day). I went to bed, woke up the next day, gave one last read to that chapter and sent it to my supervisors. That evening, I poured my self a couple of large glasses of wine and wrote my acknowledgments.
A week after having written a full draft, I was almost finished the first review of all of my chapter. A second round was still necessary, but on the Sunday, 28th January, I found myself bursting into tears approx every 30min. I’m sure it was exhaustion, being bored of reading the same old thing over and over again, but it was also a mixture of feelings: not wanting to let go, losing my colleagues and friends, losing the support of my supervisor, as well as excitement for having got this far and being so close to the end, and having a new chapter of my life and career lined up.
I finished my revisions on February 2nd, a self-imposed deadline marked by my leaving drinks and the fact that we had 2 weeks to pack all our belongings and move house. After that, it took me a few days to sort out all the formatting and references, before I submitted on February 23rd (in full striking period).
What actually went down
This is how much I wrote that month, on a daily basis. Where it says n/a, I didn’t write a single word and was instead working on other unrelated stuff. On the 20th I took an intentional day off.
and this is a more details account of what happened every day:
For a more emotional interpretation, can read my daily account in this Twitter thread, where I kept track of my progress.
So what do I advise anyone who is finishing?
- You need more time than you think! Give yourself AT LEAST 6 weeks from when you finished writing to actually submitting. By finishing writing I mean you are only left with small edits, no major chapter revisions.
- Format now. I always thought I’d leave it to the end as a reward/easy activity, but I found myself putting it off because it wasn’t mentally challenging and I was so immersed in my work that I needed to be constantly stimulated. So the earlier your sort this out, the better.
- Insert references now. Learn how to use Mendeley, Zotero, or whichever one you prefer and get it sorted now. Use your day off to make progress, or stick your favourite tv show on and just power through those references.
- When you are stuck, talk it out with someone (even if they don’t understand). Hearing yourself say those things will be in itself useful, and if the other person doesn’t understand you will be forced to repeat it until they do and you find a way to crack it. One day, my partner came home from work and I sat him down and spoke for 4 hours straight about my chapter/thesis. He did not manage to get a word in, but it didn’t matter. It helped me clarify my thoughts (and yes, he is very patient).
- It’s ok if you just stare at the Word document. When you are stuck take the smallest step. And I mean the smallest step. For me that sometimes meant I would have to read just one sentence.
- Make sure you have a support network. I had my best friend’s birthday that month and I almost didn’t go, but I knew I needed to see other humans. Even if they wouldn’t ask, I would share how I felt with other friends, because any word of encouragement helped. My partner would just give me a pat on my back every few hours when he was home and that meant the world to me.
- Eat healthily. If you don’t have a lovely partner/friend/flatmate/parent who can cook for you, batch cook in advance, freeze and then use when needed. make sure you get a balanced diet… you need the energy (see what going without sugar can do for you!).
- While you are at it, do some exercise if you can. But it’s also ok if you don’t. I didn’t. My legs were aching to move, but I barely even left the room, let alone get dressed. I knew this was going to be a very atypical month of my life so I just accepted it and moved on.
- It’s ok to cry. Just let it go (and sing the song as a cathartic experience if you have to!). I don’t think I’ve cried as much in my life as in that month.
- JUST.KEEP.WRITING. Trust your past self, trust the fact your supervisor hasn’t told you it’s all wrong, and just keep writing. A PhD is very much an endurance exercise. For every bit I wasn’t sure whether to include, or for sections I needed to take out but couldn’t bring myself to delete, I pasted them in a new document called “things I should add but won’t”. My honest justification to myself was ‘well, if anything, this will make for a great correction!’.
- Write your acknowledgments with a glass of wine. Mine are really long, and I thought of cutting them down multiple times, but frankly, I am really grateful to all those people and they deserve a special recognition.
- Finishing your thesis sits on a logarithmic scale, it’s not linear!! Suddenly, you’ll find yourself a lot closer to the end than you thought. It’s never going to be perfect. In fact, I have a whole document of things that I could have included in my thesis, but decided not to, for time, for the sake of the argument and because you could potentially never end.
- Give yourself rewards for whatever milestone you set yourself, however small they might be. My weakness is Netflix, so I would reward myself with an episode or two of whatever show I was watching. By the end, I started watching a series in Danish because I was forced to read the screen and stop thinking about my thesis for 40 minutes at a time.
- Make sure you take breaks that are real breaks, even if small. I would watch an episode of something on Netflix at lunchtime and at dinner because I needed to be distracted and more importantly, something that wouldn’t ask me about or engage in conversations about my day/thesis (sorry Dan!).
- Ignore your emails. I would check them once a day at the end of the day. For someone who spent an entire day sorting out her inbox at the beginning of her PhD, and kept it clean for 4 years, it was heartbreaking to let that one slide, but I couldn’t divert any energy to it and I knew how draining it would be. After all, my own PhD was telling me about it so I took some of my own medicine and set up some microboundary strategies of my own.
- Do what your supervisor says. They are there to help you and they want you to pass! (Also, I was told to add this :P).
Finally, although the following tips are not about a PhD thesis, they still ring true to my experience, so have a read through this Twitter thread by Jamie Barlett.
Best of luck to anyone writing up!!