Enjoying your PhD

My PhD is now officially over! The 3rd and final year was extremely busy, what with finishing writing up my thesis while simultaneously applying for post-doc funding. This didn’t leave me with much energy for writing blog posts so now that it’s all done and dusted (I passed my viva with no corrections and secured some amazing funding for a 4-year research project!) I thought I would post one final entry on this blog before moving on to post-doc life.

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I genuinely really enjoyed the time I spent doing my PhD but I am aware that not everyone does. I guess I was extremely lucky in a number of ways but here are some of my thoughts on what you can do to try to have a positive and successful experience. Just to note that my PhD was in the UK, in science (child psychiatry & genetics) and my plan was to carry on working in academia afterwards so my PhD experiences and the advice below might not apply to other situations.

Make PhD friends

This might seem a bit obvious, but you can’t underestimate the importance of having a strong social network while doing your PhD. It’s particularly nice to have friends who are also doing PhDs, especially a few who are a step or two ahead of you. While your specific topic is likely to be fairly unique (even niche) within your research group, some of the methodology you will be using and background literature is likely to overlap with what your colleagues are familiar with. They may have already overcome the problems, issues and obstacles that you come across and asking for their advice and help could save you hours of confusion and futile googling! What’s more, regularly offering to help your colleagues (e.g. by proof-reading some of their work) can create the positive and supportive environment necessary to make PhD life easier and more pleasant for everyone. If you don’t have any colleagues nearby doing PhDs, you could consider attending any available postgraduate social events that might help you meet other PhD students.

Your supervisors are there to help

Senior researchers are busy people so it might be useful to have more than one official supervisor to turn to for advice. Every supervisor-student relationship is different, so depending on the person, you might need to initiate contact and make an effort to book in regular meetings. I found that weekly or fortnightly meetings worked best in my first year, with less frequent meetings afterwards. I’ve also previously written a post about the possible benefits and pitfalls of socialising with your supervisors (probably my most read post ever!). You might also find it useful to have an independent mentor – you could speak to your supervisors or postgraduate office to see if there is a possibility of being assigned a mentor, just so you have another experienced researcher to turn to for advice.

Find the right work environment

I treated my PhD as a real job (minimum 9am-5pm Mon-Fri), which meant I paced myself well with my work and got a lot of work done every month. I found it essential to have a consistent work routine, surrounded by colleagues who were working at the same time and also to have clear boundaries between work time and home/relaxing time.

Seek out interesting events

It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for local and national courses, summer schools and seminars and pick the most relevant and interesting ones to attend. You will definitely need to learn how to use a reference manager (I thoroughly recommend Mendeley, which is free and really easy to use) and at least a couple of statistical packages (I really recommend Stata to be one of these). I also suggest getting familiar well ahead of time with how to write long documents in Word or whatever software you will be writing your thesis in – one of the most useful courses I went on during my entire PhD was the one that taught me how to use Word Styles, insert figure captions, tables of contents, section breaks etc. Most courses have discounts (or are even free) for PhD students and so this is a great opportunity to learn useful, new things.

And I definitely recommend going to relevant international conferences – these are extremely useful for a number of reasons. Presenting your work (even in poster form) is great for getting your name out there, speaking to other researchers and it also looks very good on your CV. Conference sessions can give you a sneak preview of exciting new research that will be published imminently in your field and also give you an appreciation of some of the wider research context beyond your narrow topic of interest. You get the opportunity to put faces to names of some of the top researchers whose work you have been reading and citing. And although it can be somewhat intimidating, this is also a great opportunity for networking, at the very least with other PhD students from around the world. It also gives you the chance to apply for a travel grant or maybe even win a poster prize, which, if successful, all look great on your CV. And of course, you get to travel for free and might get a half day for sightseeing, which is a lovely perk, especially when you are on a low PhD stipend and can’t afford to travel for holidays!

Keep on top of the literature

I’ve written a whole post about this before. It’s really handy to keep reading papers throughout your PhD. It’s not only necessary for your thesis literature review/introduction chapter(s) but can also be helpful for idea generation, and steering your thesis in terms of what you are most interested in.

Submit chapters for publication

A good PhD thesis is one that is “publishable”. This means that if you have already published some or most of it, you are on the right track for your PhD viva/defence. The process of publishing your work can also give you some helpful feedback from reviewers, which could improve your thesis chapters and prepare you for possible viva questions. To make the last few months of your PhD less ridiculously stressful, you probably want to start writing your thesis in the 2nd year, the earlier the better. Writing up some of your results as a paper for submission makes a lot of sense at this point. If your research topic is quite novel, you could also consider trying to publish a systematic review paper which could double as your first thesis chapter. Other than getting some of your work written up early on, publishing papers is likely to also give you an edge for getting your first post-doc. Whether you like it or not, publications are the single most important addition to an early career researcher’s CV.

Have an online presence

I definitely recommend joining Twitter and if you are already on there, make the most of it. There is a whole world of academic link-sharing and (brief) discussing of various academic and scientific issues that is worth keeping an eye on. If you’re hesitant about contributing, just follow interesting people and read what they are saying.

Another idea is to keep your university profile page updated and once you’ve got a publication or 2, make a profile on Google Scholar, ResearchGateORCID, and maybe also Academia.edu, LinkedIn or other websites. Consider tweeting and blogging about your papers and check out who else is talking about them on social media using Altmetric.

Get involved in some other stuff

The advice I had early on was that you should try your hand at several things during your PhD, beyond the core requirements. This could be getting involved in public engagement, blogging, getting some undergraduate teaching/supervision experience, organising a local conference or inter-disciplinary meeting etc. These are all ways to gain some skills that look good on your CV and to learn more about what it is you enjoy and are good at within the academic environment. But remember that this is just to dip your toes in the water and try some things so don’t let any of these extra-curricular things take over too much of your research time.

All things considered, I got a lot more out of my PhD than the right to use the “Dr” title and I feel as prepared as I’ll ever be for being a post-doc. So, thanks for reading this blog and feel free to leave any other suggestions in the comments!

Getting your paper through peer review

Whether you like it or not, productivity in academia/science is judged (at least in part) based on your publication rate. This focus on quantity is associated with various problems – see for example “Problem 4: Pressure to publish” of Chris Chamber’s recent post. Although the goal of doing science should not be the publications themselves, they remain an important method of disseminating our results and ideas to other researchers and the public. Learning how to write a concise, informative, thorough, accurate and all-round good research paper is clearly an important skill to acquire during your PhD, particularly if you hope to continue your academic career.

However, learning how to get your paper through the peer review process is also a skill that you need to acquire. The quality of your writing and your ability to include important details in your manuscript (i.e. the content) are of course directly linked to this but there are other important things too. I’m glad that the attitude of my supervisors and more generally, in my department, is that I should be publishing my PhD work when ready, as this gives me targets for writing up my thesis. Being involved in analyses and manuscripts outside of my core PhD has given me additional experience in navigating the peer review process.

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Step 1: Choosing a journal

Once you are happy with your analysis and have started writing a manuscript, you need to decide on a target journal for your work. I have written about this before and I have to agree with my previous thoughts on the matter: it just takes experience and time to get a sense of what journals publish what kinds of papers, in terms of their specific focus etc. When I’m reading papers, I tend to ignore what journal they came from, though sometimes I make a conscious effort to check this. Journal homepages frequently have a little blurb about what sorts of papers they will publish and scanning through the titles/abstracts of some of their recent issues can help. There are a couple of online tools which allow you to paste your abstract in and then scan it for keywords to give you some suggestions of appropriate journals. I’ve also tended to chat to my supervisors to get their more experienced thoughts on the matter.

Step 2: Choosing reviewers

Perhaps my least favourite part of submitting a paper is the need to identify potential reviewers. Some journals even require six different reviewers. How do you know who to suggest? Ideally, you want to identify people who have a good understanding of the background to your work and the methods you have used, are fair and have a good reputation and don’t have a clear conflict of interest. For my first few papers I relied heavily on my supervisors to suggest people based on their research interests and reputations. I kept a list of these suggestions and have re-used names for other submissions, where appropriate. Although in cases where my paper was rejected, unsurprisingly, I’ve tried to come up with alternatives.

I think the main way of identifying potential appropriate peer reviewers is by checking the author lists of the papers that are most closely linked to your own work. I’ve also found that going to seminars, talks and conferences is also useful. Seeing somebody present their work, especially if it is relevant to yours, means you are much more likely to remember their name. If you get the opportunity to speak to them, for example if you are lucky enough for them to visit your poster presentation at a conference, you can even get a sense of what kind of person they are and what they think about your work. I think this may also be particularly helpful for trying to identify potential PhD thesis examiners.

One other thing to bear in mind is that the anonymity of the peer review process means you are unlikely to find out which of the people you suggested did end up reviewing your work and which of them were the ones who gave the positive and useful comments or indeed, the less polite ones.

Dealing with rejection – back to step 1

Even after writing as a good a paper as you can, having it internally reviewed by your supervisors and co-authors, proof-read by your colleagues and settling on a journal and possible reviewers, the chances of having your publication rejected can feel depressingly high. It happens to the best of academics, sometimes for the wrong reasons (e.g. null results from a well-powered good study design) and sometimes because of bad luck in having reviewers who have misunderstood your work and not given you a chance to clarify it. I think that being able to cope  with the occasional rejection and carry on without letting it get to you personally is an important thing to learn too.

Step 3: Responding to reviewers’ comments

It’s important to bear in mind that (almost) regardless of what the comments are, being asked to do revisions is good news! I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a paper being accepted for publication without at least some minor revisions. More frequently, major revisions are called for, oftentimes multiple rounds of these. Whether it is the anonymity of peer review or tactlessness to blame, reviewers’ comments can sometimes be a little upsetting in their negativity. For some examples of particularly harsh comments, see FemaleScienceProfessor’s recent “Fake Review Contest” blog posts. Alternatively, for some slightly more humorous examples, see this Storify of the recent #SixWordPeerReview Twitter meme.

In an ideal world, the reviewers’ comments would all be very insightful, sensible and constructive, with a view to improving the manuscript. Although many comments will be quite reasonable, there are a few things to learn about writing your response to them. What should you do if you disagree on a certain point or if the reviewer is asking for something that you had actually already mentioned? I’ve been told by colleagues that if a reviewer is asking for something that is already there, you might need to make this item clearer and more prominent (especially if it’s hidden away in supplementary text for instance). As for disagreeing, if you have a genuine scientific reason, you should probably defend your work and the decisions you made, although perhaps also amend your manuscript to discuss the issue further.

Another question concerns the tone of your response. Should you be excessively polite, thanking the reviewers for their useful comments multiple times, or just get straight to the point of addressing them? You don’t want to come across as abrupt or rude. Generally speaking, you probably need to be professional and polite, but assertive if you have solid reasons backing up how you performed your experiment or chose to present the results. It can be quite useful to look at how other people write their responses to reviewers, which you can do by looking at the “peer review history” of articles published at PeerJ.

Having a little bit of experience with how peer review works may help you anticipate the sorts of comments that you might get. Being a reviewer yourself (something I have only a little experience of so far) and discussing research articles during a journal club can also highlight what kinds of things will make a good publishable research article.

One step ahead of the game

It’s that time of year again, when my friends and peers are busily editing, formatting, referencing and proofreading their final PhD thesis drafts. Inevitably, this has brought the goal of my PhD to the forefront of my mind. But more so than at the end of my first year, this has come with an additional sense of impending panic about my post-PhD plans.

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I’ve written before about the stressful consequences of not thinking about and planning my career soon enough. So I know all too well that it’s never too early to start preparations for the next step. Naturally, these preparations involve researching available options.

So what are they? These generally split into options that involve staying in academia and research vs. options that do not. Much has been said recently about the general difficulties facing PhD graduates in terms of leaving academia, even though statistically speaking, the majority of us are going to do just that. As a psychology postgraduate, I could:

  • Leave research and compete against the 100s of other graduates to try to get a place on a training course to specialise as a clinical, educational or other psychologist
  • Leave psychology for a vaguely related but new subject (e.g. medicine, social work or teaching)
  • Leave both psychology and research all together and get into science communication or join some graduate scheme or something entirely different

Yes, those are all viable options… but not ones I am keen on. I want to stay in research because I love it and this is what I really want to do. According to my “individual development plan”, my skills, interests and values are most compatible with being “Research staff in a research-intensive institution”. So, with that in mind, what should the next step be?

  1. Becoming a lecturer in the hope that in between preparing and delivering lectures, marking coursework, supervising and mentoring students and doing admin work, there will be time to squeeze in a bit of research
  2. Competing for a coveted but short-lived post-doc position on somebody else’s grant
  3. Failing getting a post-doc position, trying for a research assistant post (for which you wouldn’t need a PhD). Judging by the difficulty of getting one of these without a PhD, I’m pretty certain a lot of PhD students end up doing this.
  4. Applying for your own grant money via one of the supremely competitive “early career” fellowship schemes

Every option is bound to be competitive and all options (except perhaps the lecturer route) are going to be short-term (1-4 years from what I’ve gathered) before you need to try for a new post. Many of the options may also involve moving to a new university/city, which can come with all sorts of complications.

At the moment, it is far too early for me to think about the first 3 of these options as positions will only be advertised at most a couple of months in advance. I have just over a year to go before my funding runs out. The fellowship route on the other hand would involve about a year-long application process, so now would be the time to start considering this option.

I’ve recently been to a few talks and workshops on fellowships and have been looking into specific schemes that offer something I might be eligible for. Although it sounds like a really exciting and appealing option, it also looks pretty tough and competitive.

One of the trickiest parts is coming up with a brand new, exciting and viable research idea. I’ve already had to come up with an idea for my undergraduate dissertation and then an idea for my PhD, followed by several more specific ideas for my PhD research chapters. The trouble is trying to find time to work on developing a new project idea (fellowship), while still working on the last one, which is still far from done (PhD).

Perhaps that in itself is a useful skill I should practice, given that that is what the cycle of grant-writing appears to be like. From my limited experience of seeing supervisors and professors writing grants, there is only a short grace period in between successfully receiving grant funding and beginning the next grant application, while the current work is being done. Well, it can’t hurt (too much) to try, right?

The privilege of writing

Apologies to my few regular readers for my sparse posts in the last few months. In addition to concentrating on actual PhD work, I’ve been doing a bit of other writing. I’ve started dabbling in science communication, mostly because it’s cool and a good thing to do and partly because I need the practice. As far as I’m concerned, any writing I do is useful training for the thesis-writing marathon I need to complete. Coming up with interesting ideas for this blog (though my success here is arguable) and phrasing things coherently (again, an arguable statement) helps get me in the habit of phrasing thoughts into sentences and writing. It’s also kind of fun and vaguely cathartic to chronicle my first forays into academia like this.

The style I use here is pretty casual and writing blog posts is substantially easier than writing scientific papers. The writing style needed for science communication is very different from both of these. I’ve recently written a couple of posts for the Mental Elf blog and also a guest post about my first PhD paper at Counterbalanced.

Most recently, I’ve poured quite a lot of time and energy into an attempt at an entry for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award for MRC-funded researchers. The competition has 3 parts: answering the question “why does my research matter?”, imagining what advances might occur in your area of research in the next century, and coming up with a good title.

I found this competition so difficult I nearly gave up about a dozen times, only to start from a completely different angle and delete loads of stuff and carry on. I’m not entirely sure why or how I persevered, except perhaps through sheer stubbornness; I had already put in so much time that I needed to somehow justify this to myself. The only way to do so was to actually see it through to the end. Suffice it to say that I doubt my entry will be selected but I am glad that I went through with it. And I learned some useful things about writing in lay language in the process.

Possibly the trickiest part of the competition was coming up with a good title. There is a £100 prize for the article with the best title, which was sufficient to motivate me to make an attempt at something that wasn’t the world’s most boring and generic 3-word title. I sought the advice of the internet. Unsurprisingly, everyone writing on the matter agreed that article titles are really important. They are the first, and often only, thing a reader will see. No matter how amazing an article is, the title needs to instil at least some sense of curiosity or interest in a reader to attract their attention. This is equally the case for newspaper headlines, books and blog posts as it is for academic journal articles, conference talks or posters.

I have an issue with titles. I always leave them till last when writing a blog post or other article, though I often have a “working title”. I’ve seen some advice which recommended spending as much time working on your title as you spend on the main article, which frankly, seems a bit like overkill.

I can just about briefly and accurately convey the gist of an article in a handful of words but how do you make it exciting, curiosity-piquing or fun….without making a terrible, cheesy or lame pun? There seem to be a fair amount of the latter out in the world of academia – see some amusing examples of fake psychology titles here. You can normally forgive these if the title still makes some kind of sense and gives you an impression of what the article might actually be about. Many academic journals make things more difficult by restricting your word or character limit, while also demanding that you use no acronyms. Some academic journals also make further restrictions by explicitly forbidding you from giving away the results in the title.

Some options for reasonable titles are using questions, clever cultural references or double meanings. But this is easier said than done and requires a bit of creativity. Sometimes you just need to give up and stick with what you’ve come up with, hoping that an older, wiser you would not cringe too much (something I may have failed at). I spent far too much time trying to come up with a title for my competition entry. In the end, I hope I struck a balance between accurately representing the article and not putting the reader to sleep on the spot. I doubt it’s a winner but I gave it my best shot. I also seem to have spent far too much time reflecting on the importance of titles.

Fitting the pieces into a thesis

I’m very excited that my first PhD paper has recently been accepted for publication, after a supposedly ‘minor’ (but actually quite tricky) round of revisions. My plan is for this paper to be one of my first results chapters in my thesis. I’ve also got some reasonable ideas and have begun on my next 2 chapters/papers. This feels pretty cool on the whole but being ever the pessimist, I can’t help but worry about something. I think I’ve been dwelling on the bigger picture lately because of watching a few of my friends recently submitting their theses and having their vivas (i.e. defences) as well as having had to prepare an overview of what my completed thesis might look like for my appraisal a few months ago.

The attitude in my department, and specifically amongst my supervisors and colleagues, is that I should be focusing on writing up my PhD results chapters as I go along, with the intent of submitting them for publication as soon as possible. I quite like this approach as it is very motivating and makes my PhD feel like a real contribution to science, rather than just as a personal learning process that has no benefit to anyone but me. However, one of the difficulties with this approach is trying to tie together my ideas and publications into a coherent whole, which tells a story with a logical progression of ideas. As far as I understand, this ‘story-like’ nature is important in a PhD thesis.

However, I’ve also been told that it’s generally fine to just have a collection of loosely-related published chapters inserted into the thesis exactly as they were published and to maybe include brief “link” chapters between them to tie them up a bit better. The Thesis Whisperer refers to this kind of approach to your thesis as a “patchwork PhD” but like the friend she refers to in her post, I kind of feel like this is cheating a little bit; I don’t like the idea of not having a seamless and logical argument threading through my work. I’m also a bit concerned that having a set of introductions, methods and discussions in each of the “Results” chapters will mean the thesis Introduction, Methods and Discussion sections will be very repetitive. I’m not sure that boring my examiners with repetition is the best approach to convincing them to happily accept me into their midst…

So although I am not quite halfway through my PhD time-wise, I have already begun worrying about the structure of my thesis. I’m not really sure how I might link up my 3 planned results chapters so far and it feels important to address this issue now, before they’re finalised. Additionally, I feel the need to plan my next analyses in light of trying to have a coherent end product. It feels like a tricky thing to tackle but I guess this is a more organised approach than trying to find a way of trying to fit the pieces together once everything is all written.

Taking time to reflect and plan

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It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day stuff and lose sight of the bigger picture. My to-do list seems to never actually decrease in length as pretty much every time something gets crossed off, something else is added on. Given how I already feel that I spend too much time rearranging this to-do list in an attempt to prioritise my work, the idea of spending more time on reflecting, planning, timetabling and goal-setting is not hugely appealing. Part of me was convinced that this would just be another energy-sucking and perhaps time-wasting pursuit but the more self-aware part of me realised that I could easily put this off indefinitely because I was worried it might actually be hard work. Fortunately, I’ve had the same good advice from enough sources (some PhD-related blogs & a couple of comments on my blog) to actually do something about it.

I now have a fairly detailed and complicated table divided into weekly goals, with one item highlighted as of particular importance to work on per week and anything that is an outside, non-self-imposed deadline highlighted in red. These are then grouped into months, which have overall goals. Although the level of detail decreases as time goes on, I’ve also made an effort to have quarterly goals of larger things that I would ideally like completed within a certain timeframe (e.g. submitting work to a journal). The timetable has the dual effect of being a comfort and a motivational kick. It’s a comfort because I can visualise that when I spread out the work on my to-do list over months, it actually looks quite realistic, preventing unnecessary feelings of panic and it’s motivational because on days when I’m feeling demotivated and am likely to procrastinate, I can’t shake away the sense that I have specific assigned prior engagements I need to be getting on with.

My timetable has recently had something of an upgrade and expansion. This is because it’s time for my end of first year review. A couple of weeks ago, I had to submit a report of what work I’ve done this year, along with quite an in-depth proposed timetable for the rest of my PhD, even including a provisional outline of the chapters I intend to include in my thesis… Reflecting on how much I’ve achieved over the last 10 months (I started in January) and how this all fits in together, how it might look in a thesis and what the logical next steps are, was actually a lot less terrifying and a whole lot more exciting than I would have expected.

I’m really grateful that my University has this sort of system and requires first year students to make such detailed future plans. Although I’m sure things will be different to how I can currently envision my thesis, the motivation to reflect and plan has really helped to remind me of the bigger picture. I know that other PhD students have also had the same sense of this being a worthy process and I think that if you are a PhD student and your University doesn’t have such a formal process, I would encourage you to do something of the sort with your supervisors. I have still got a “mini viva” coming up, which I’m a bit nervous about. This is going to be a chat about my progress and plans with 2-3 independent researchers with some understanding of my topic. Most of my friends who have been through this say it’s nothing to worry about but I have heard a couple of rather unpleasant stories so am looking forward to having it over with…

When to begin writing

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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.