By Richard Parfitt |
I’ve just finished my PhD (hurrah go me well done). I submitted just inside three years, which according to many of those with whom I’ve discussed my efforts makes me a super human warrior master of knowledge with extraordinary powers of academianess. Or something. Nah. This runs the risk of being a deeply congratulatory post, and that really isn’t my intention. What I do want to do is explain that if you are in a position where you either want or need to have your PhD done within the three years that your funding lasts, then you can do that.
The first thing to say is ignore the legion of academics and fellow students who tell you that this is impossible, or that the necessary effort will inevitably destroy your mind. You should always keep your workload within reasonable limits, and your health always come first, but that is not incompatible with getting your work done. If you feel, as I did, that financially and personally a three-year PhD would be better for your life and wellbeing, you’re probably right.
It’s also untrue to say that if you put your effort into a three-year finish that you can’t fit in other things – teaching, marking, outreach, impact, conferences. On the contrary, doing all of these things will help, not hinder, your ability to get work done. Teaching will help you understand how to explain your ideas succinctly and clearly. Conferences will give you important feedback on your work. Outreach and impact work will help you to keep your research relevant. If you don’t start doing this until after you finish your doctorate, or until very near the end, your work will take more time, not less.
Instead of stripping yourself of additional activities, you need to cut wasted time out of your PhD life. People don’t take longer than they want on their thesis because of how they work in the last six months of their PhD, but because of how they work in the first six months. If you’re starting a PhD soon and you’re looking at Pubs and Publications for advice (as you should), then I highly recommend that you start thinking about what you want to do right now. Start planning, and then when you are studying full-time you can get at it straightaway. You don’t need to be at 100% capacity from day one, but don’t start at 40% and assume you can ramp up as you go along. Hit the ground running and you can actually get more relaxed as you approach your deadline.
If you’ve done this and made a good start, well done! On a day to day basis, I would again advise you not to waste any time. Treat it like a job in the sense that if you’re late, your boss will shout at you. Have a set start time and a set finish time, and work as hard as you can during those hours. Never let yourself get to the start of a day of work without knowing what you’re going to work on that day. Time spent flicking through your notes in the morning trying to work out what to do is wasted time. Get on with it!
“What a killjoy, I hate his blog, I bet he says don’t ever take time off next”. Not at all, take time off and take it regularly. You need your downtime! What I would suggest is that, like everything else, you plan when you’re going to do it. I’d advise against impromptu days off except in special circumstances. It’s much easier to rest and keep your work up to date if you plan at the start of the week to spend Saturday sleeping or playing Quidditch or being generally down with the kids and such like. I watched the football every weekend, watched Strictly on Saturday nights, went to the gym twice a week and for twenty minutes before bed I read a novel. Yours will no doubt be different, but the point is that if you plan your work around your recreation, it’s much easier to maintain a work/life balance.
The final thing is work hard and start bloody writing as soon as bloody possible. Read a lot, get a lot of feedback, and WRITE a lot. Did I mention writing? Don’t wait until you have everything, you’ll never have everything. There are retired professors who still haven’t read everything they wanted to read for their doctorates. If you have any idea of what you want to write, then give it a go. Write it down, see what happens. The worst-case scenario is that you write a bad draft. WHO CARES? It’s only a draft. I wrote loads of bad drafts, but it’s much better to write a bad draft at the start than at the end. Writing highlights what you don’t know yet in a way that sitting and thinking doesn’t. Re-drafting is dramatically easier than writing from scratch. Aim to have everything drafted, even in its first crappy form, six months before submission.
In summary, get started, get organised, get writing. Work/life balance is about how you plan, not how you procrastinate, and get writing! Go forth and be awesome, fellow PhDers. Did I mention start writing?