My heart goes out to the grad students out there that are now out of their labs or in from the field without warning. Had I not been able to get to the lab during my research it would have shut down my progress entirely and every continuing semester cost me about $3000 dollars. I would have lost the money from my teaching assistant work. I wasn’t allowed to work on the side, though I did, but a pandemic would have shut down my tutoring too. Plus I had a mortgage to pay all by myself. So I just can’t imagine what you all are going through right now. I know a lot of you are hoping to get some thesis work done with this time. I aimed to white my entire 140 page continuous PhD thesis in 90 days, start to finish, with revisions and I completed it in 94 days, I got sick one week. I started with a blank document at the start and that was it on day one. I saw this tight timeline coming and when I started for a variety of reasons, which I’ll get into but I think it’s safe to safe to say I did this under pretty close to pretty terrible conditions too.
I also didn’t just wing it either. I spent a solid week researching and taking notes on the best ways to do this for me. That and I was a researcher right? That time paid off so, so, so much because 90 days from start to finish is almost unheard of. Some articles I read said the average is from 12-18 months! That sounds pretty long to me too! It was a long time ago but I think it was this guy that provided me with the most useful tips back then. That’s a lot of what’s in here, I still have those notes and I thought now might be the perfect time to share!
My PhD thesis
For my PhD I pioneered a simple but novel technique for knocking down proteins using RNAi in sea monkeys. Don’t worry I’m not about to delve into my research particulars here (thesis link), though I kind of want too so keep reading. Because at least 4 other research groups around the world were in pretty much the exact same field as us, and this was a simple, inexpensive and logical next step for 4 years my supervisor and I laid awake at night thinking we were going to get scooped. Once we published other groups could have the technique up, running and producing results within 100 days and that included shipping time for instruments. So we decided to hold off publishing until the very end and then publishing all the papers at once.
I didn’t want to let this stage of my life to drag on forever I wanted to be out by the 5 year mark and that meant that I had to get this written like now! If I let it continue into the summer it would have cost an extra $2500 in continuing fees and I was already broke plus I wanted to graduate in May with all the hoopla. I was very much moving onto the next stage of my life too, I was planning to sell my condo and move in with honey once this was all done and I knew myself well enough to know I could only do one of those things at a time.
A note about my supervisor. He was a great man and had lots of admirable qualities like when you gave him pages even 40 at a time he had them back to you thoroughly edited within a week, often less. But over my 4 years of lab work he was absent for over 2 years on medical leave for late stage lymphoma. A year of that at the end he wasn’t even reading my work and I was running the lab. That was really stressful and looking back it really was a leaving the inmates in charge of the institution sort of situation. I needed him back (after a bone marrow transplant) to even think about starting to write. The other two PhD level researchers in my lab weren’t serious at all and both ended up dropping out after 7 years in the lab shortly after I left. So I was in charge of ALL the master’s and honors students, grants and logistics. He was also a little bit old school so I knew I was going to have to write one continuous very long thesis and not a divided modern one with chapters for different parts of the project. Sad face!
The importance of an outline
The first thing you are going to want to do, after reading this, is to make a very detailed outline of your thesis. Start as if you are writing the table of contents, then separately start working on what would resemble your chapter headings. Include page estimates below the headings but not things like references or appendices unless you are somewhat clairvoyant. If you have lots of figures to generate make a list of those too. This will give you an idea of how many pages the document will be. Don’t worry the names you write in this section will totally change but now you don’t have a blank document anymore!
Think about what word processor you will use and your schedule.
Think long and hard about what processor you’ll use. Auto-formatting in word is a test of anyone’s patience. I used pages and numbers for figures and it was pretty good. But I took my graphs into the lab to add error bars in excel before dropping them into the pages document. Make a conscious choice of what seems best to you.
Also be realistic and decide on what your daily and weekly schedule will be. Like 10 am – 5 pm, no weekends or 6 days a week. I tutored and would have slept until 10 if allowed, some days I did but I had to start tutoring around 4 so that was my deadline for the day. I decided on 7 days a week so if I did take a day off I had to make up the progress before or realistically after. Now you’re ready for stage three
Pages per day
Now you have a good but rough estimate for the number of pages in each section. Sections might include:
- (Appendix if you know what this will be but I prefer to wing that as I go. More on that later)
This could also be divided simple into chapters
Now you are going to generate that magic pages per day figure that you are going to live and die by for the next three months or whatever. Take your pages total and divide it my the number of working days left on your timeline. That is exactly what you have to produce every day! Now you know how long each section will take you. My total was 1.6 pages a day, totally manageable right?
Give self imposed deadlines to your supervisor at the start
You are going to write whole sections at a time otherwise you’ll just keep putting off the hard stuff and never get back to it. This way you’ll also be able to hand off whole sections for editing as you go and speeding up overall progress. You may not allocate time for super easy sections like methods since they come out so fast. Now generate a list of dates when you will have each section done. Email that to your supervisor. Now you have to do what you said, when you said, motivation and accountability built in!
Dealing with figures
It is best to include time to deal with your figures and factor that in especially if you have more than 3. That’s because they can take forever and it’s realistic to budget time in for them from the start. Plus figures take up lots of space and count as a page two if the legend is on another page. Since your figures can be unpredictable plan to hand them in last. I sketched out the figure I wanted when I created it in the results or discussion section. Alternatively tackle them all in the results section but they will keep changing as you continue into your discussion.
Save easy days up and rewards
Or for when you get behind. I saved my materials and methods, time not allocated otherwise for lazy days at honey’s house on the beach. I told my supervisor that he would have them when they were done. Since I was working 7 days a week I knew I’d need some easy ones thrown in there. So when I needed to do other life stuff and have some social contact I would head out there and write. These days were my biggest reward I had while writing.
I also should have built more rewards into the schedule. I do remember that on days when I had a hard time getting started I let myself go to Starbucks, go through the drive through and come back ready to work, even though it wasn’t in the budget at the time. I also fell into the habit of making myself a full elaborate breakfast everyday. Whether it’s running, shopping or going out with your friends it’s a good idea to give yourself a reward for meeting your targets at the end of the week. Bribery worked when you were three it will still work now.
Have something to go to at the end of the day
I mentioned that I had to tutor at the end of everyday (5 days a week) which turned out to be a really good thing. The fact that my day had a deadline made me get down to work everyday. If I procrastinated for a few hours then 4 o’clock was coming and those 1.6 pages still weren’t written. If you can build this into your life right now, which might be hard, then do it. Maybe it’s a glass of wine, a run or something that shuts down your day go for it. Under non-crazy world circumstances this might be a perfect time for an evening job given no one has extra money left at the end of their degree. I’m thinking as a former server catching a few supper shifts a week would be good. This also helps with your mental health since part of your day is yours and seeing people everyday kept me sane and you know made me bathe.
Maybe create a workspace?
I did this and poured some real cash into it too, some of it was gifts though. I knew I would be selling the condo after this so adding some built ins to a weird room was a good idea. Was it a dining room, a den, another bedroom or an office? I added two wood bookshelf and a granite slab in between then as a desk which would work well in any of those rooms and I got a super fancy Eames chair. I believe I bought the book cases, honey installed the whole thing, a friend gave me the granite towards my progress and my mom bought me the chair for Christmas. I wanted a serious place to write my serious document at the time.
But I ended writing the whole thing pretty much on my couch in my pj’s covered in food I just ate. I did use the desk some days and I think it did help sell the apartment. But.. I’m sitting in that chair now and it’s one of my favorite things still.
Deal with extra pages within that section of time
You know that extra figures especially and pages will pop up as you go. Those pages weren’t planned for so as they pop up deal with them within the time span you committed to for that section. So if you planned that your introduction or a certain chapter was going to be 25 pages but it’s stretching on to 35 then get the extra ones done by the date you committed to. If that were me I would have allocated 16 days to writing that section getting the extra 10 done was less than an extra page a day and that’s a pretty big overage percentage wise. If you realize it’s happening within a section up your daily production goal for that section as fast as possible.
Distract yourself with other parts of your thesis
It sounds crazy but you already know that you can literally agonize over a sentence for 15 minutes or more . Sometimes you just need a break from a paragraph. Rather than going onto something unproductive (like YouTube or social media) work on another part you can deal with in the moment. Write a figure legend, do some figure editing and take care of future you. Even if you have to turn that section in late you can make up the time later because part of your work for the next section is already done. Don’t leave that headspace because chances are you won’t get back to it. Also as you’re puttering away the solution to that hard sentence will probably come and you can get right back to it since you’re still there.
Reference as you go!
That’s pretty much all I have to say about that. We all know how impossible it is to go back and remember that paper you were thinking about when you wrote that sentence and left a pair of empty brackets. Plus figuring it out just takes longer overall. But while we are on the topic of references no matter the format you have to convert to eventually use the name date style in text and write out all the info in the section now. Then you don’t have to worry about numbering at least for now. I used a separate document for my reference section which I later merged but others would prefer a software option. Be careful about that though. A friend used endnote and since the document was so big every time she changed something at a certain point it would freeze her laptop of 10 minuets as it updated the document. Not using numbers but rather names and dates helps you with this too as it takes less computing power along the way.
Dealing with setbacks
I was actually going through a bit of a rough personal time while writing my thesis. I had financial worries, my relationships with some family and honey wasn’t at a high point and I was drinking more than I should have been at the time. Your circumstances might be different but not many, if any, grad students get to the end of their degrees with their life totally functional and intact. Setbacks will happen but as much as possible just keep pumping out that page total day after day. If you realize you can’t work as many days in a week as you thought just up your page target to reflect that schedule. If you stay up to date on your goals for the most part it is totally possible to get back on track by doing extra for a few days to catch up. Have an honest look at your life before your start. Do your best to predict the specific issues you have and plan for it at the start.
There are a few other crucial tips but they didn’t warrant their own section:
- Use a different color paper each time you print your thesis. You might not think you will have to print it more than once but you will. I didn’t do this and I wish I had because deciding what page went with with version became my own 8th circle of hell.
- At the end of this you will need to track down a full copy of Adobe to export your document to PDFa for submitting your thesis to grad studies for reading and after your defense when your timeline is the most tight. Work on this before you have to and keep more of your hair. Hot tip printing companies often have one and will let you use it.
- If you want something in and your supervisor doesn’t or vice versa just solve that problem by dumping that data into an appendix. Whomever wanted it in gets their way and if some one asks a question about that during the defense you can just say “actually if you flip to appendix B”. It makes you seem totally competent and gives the message this might be really important to you and yes I did the all the work but it only made it to the appendix. Basically that’s a defense win all around.
- Be okay with separate files, I had 2 the thesis and the references but more would have been okay too. Maybe even easier.
- In the process you might have some differences with your supervisor and later your committee. Sure you can dig in your heels it is your thesis after all. But you have to ask yourself do your really want it that way or do you just want to be done? Most people will never read the thesis but rather the papers that are published from it. If you can deal with it just give in most of the time. Then the one time or two you can dig in and stick to your guns if it’s important to you.
- If you use this schedule and you supervisor doesn’t super suck, you’ll be getting their edits as you are still writing. If you can deal with them as they come in. Let’s be honest most of them don’t really matter and it’s totally the kind of work that you can do while sipping a glass of wine and watching a video after you’re done writing for the day. Then it’s 20 pages at a time not over 100 in a single go. When you hand in your last section your first draft is already edited.
- If you can find a thesis buddy even if you have to search for someone new. My best grad school friend happened too be writing at the same time as me and it was such a help to vent to someone who understood why we both had such greasy hair!
- I can’t remember exactly but I do thing a few of my sections were handed in a day or two late. Not only because I was really sick one week either. $hit happens along the way but the idea is to stick to the spirit of the plan overall. When my superior would ask if my results were ready on Wednesday I would say no but you’ll have them by 5 on Friday and that was still pretty impressive when I did it. Basically don’t let a minor setback turn into a major one!
Whatever conditions you are writing your thesis in these tips will help. For most of us though they weren’t ideal. I can’t imagine trying to save some of this time during a pandemic with no problem with thesis writing but sometimes in grad school you gotta do what you gotta do. So don’t shoot the questioner but how long did it take you to write your thesis? What’s your number one tip for progressing through the progress and how are you dealing with post-graduate research right now? Leave it in the comments below!