When to begin writing

(source)

I recently went to a seminar put on by the postgrad office titled “writing your thesis”. To be honest, given I am in my first year, I mostly went for the advertised free lunch! I assumed that the seminar might be vaguely useful and give me some idea of what to expect in about 2 years’ time, but that it would probably be more relevant to final year PhD students. In fact, my friends who are in their final few months of writing up found that the seminar covered a lot of things they already knew. In retrospect, I think it was more suitable to first and possibly second year PhD students – just as well the free lunch motivated me to go.

True, a lot of the advice was pretty common sense (e.g. keep copies of all of your work on various devices, take & organise notes on the papers you read). But even some of the common sense things were ones that hadn’t yet occurred to me and might be useful to know in advance (e.g. don’t include anything in your final thesis that you are not 100% sure you will be able to fully explain to your examiners, there is no required rigid structure or length for the thing). A lot of the seminar actually boosted my confidence and was quite useful in making me feel like that huge big write-up looming ahead of me in the relatively distant future wouldn’t be quite so bad after all – so long as I didn’t ignore it now. I heard some similar advice at a previous academic careers event: doing a PhD is not about running some experiments and messing around for 2.5 years (as www.phdcomics.com jokes about) and then frantically trying to write it all up at once in the last months of funding you have left. I expect that works for some people to some extent, but it sounds like a recipe for a serious case of stress. Rather, the idea seems to be that this is a long process, where you should be acutely aware of your goal (i.e. the “book” you are to write) from the very beginning and start taking small, concrete steps towards this aim from the first few months.

Suggestions seemed to mostly revolve around simply starting to write something (anything) as early as possible: keeping good notes on the literature as well as your methods throughout, writing papers and also writing updates for your supervisors every now and again so they know the details of what you are working on. My uni has a formal yearly appraisal process that sounds like it will help with this and other PhD students online have also discussed the benefits of this sort of system. Practicing writing a bit more informally for your supervisors can also involve doing a short review of some of the key literature (that they might not be overly familiar with, particularly if your chosen topic is on a tiny specific subfield of their field of interest) or a summary of some analyses you have been working on – who knows, they might even deem this worthy of publishing and at the least, they might give you some helpful feedback. Another thing that was not mentioned, but I think has lots going for it, is keeping a blog, where you can also practice your writing, work on your style and communicate about research.

Some other bits of advice that I thought were useful to bear in mind, include: trying to tell a story (and tying up loose ends within it) but in a concise & scientific style and avoiding “waffling”, reading other PhD theses to get ideas on structure, length or style, setting yourself deadlines and sticking to them, and closer to submitting: researching the interests of your examiners and actually reading your university’s regulations on vivas (a.k.a. thesis defences).

Part of me feels that taking all this advice will require being pretty hyper-organised. However, I’ve spoken to enough post-docs to suspect that taking it might just well make the difference in terms of my future physical and mental health.

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