Thesis Prison

Family Thesiswhisperer has spent the last month in our hometown of Melbourne. We caught up with many friends and relatives while we were there, some of whom are doing or have just completed doctorates. One friend got pregnant twice during her doctorate and had a longer journey than most. While we raised a glass to her recent gradaution I asked her how it felt to be done. “Liberating!” she said “But the last three months was hell. No one avoids that bit right?”.

I nodded emphatically. No matter how well you plan it, there is bound to be a certain period of time where your thesis will dominate your life once you decide it’s time to get it Out the Door.

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 2.34.21 pmPart of the problem is that a thesis is such a long project. Many of us have to go back to a full time job before it’s entirely finished. Still more of us study part time from the very beginning and have to juggle multiple commitments the whole time. When your thesis time demands increase they can temporarily squeeze out all the other things that normally keep you sane.

Exercise, socialising, The Good Wife TV marathons are the kinds of things that get cut in order to make way for the thesis. It’s a bit like shrink wrapping your life so that only the boring working bits are left. After about a month or so you can feel like you are in Thesis Prison playing scrabble with the Warden. It’s a rare person who doesn’t get a bit stir crazy.

Thesis Prison is similar to the Valley of Shit, but without the self doubt because there’s no time left. March is peak time for thesis submission in Australia, so I’m sure some of you are in Thesis Prison right now. I can sympathise. Recently I started counting calories and running in an effort to lose my ‘baby weight’ (I should add – my baby is now 13 and taller than me). Over a couple of months I have lost a dress size, but I often felt like I was back in Thesis Prison.

So here are 4 tips for getting fit and/or surviving Thesis Prison. I’d love to hear how you are dealing with Thesis Prison in the comments.

Put on your damn shoes

Even though we all know that having a routine is valuable, sticking to it is much easier said than done. Although I’ve come to enjoy running, I almost always don’t really want to do it. But if I put on my running shoes I know I will eventually I will force myself to go because I’ve started the process.

Routines consist of smaller actions done in a certain order.

So, just sit down at your desk and start doing something. Anything. Try some small, but necessary tasks. Good examples are filing and tagging references in your database, cleaning and formatting data, copy editing etc. If you find you are developing a new kind of deferment activity, set a timer to limit it by using the pomodoro technique.

Conversely, just open your document anywhere and pick a place to start writing. Tell yourself that you can always throw it out if it’s crap. Or start reviewing your writing with Claire Aitchinson’s ‘storyline’ technique (described here by Cassily Charles) or Rachael Cayley’s ‘reverse outlines’. Both of these techniques are great for zooming out from a close engagement with your text to see the bigger picture. They can also help you spot opportunities for new writing.

It’s all about time served

Nobody even noticed my lifestyle changes until I’d lost nearly 10 kgs, which took around 3 months. Most of the time I just felt like I was missing out on all the cake and getting nowhere. Similarly Thesis Prison can be disheartening because Progress is often invisible. It’s possible to spend a whole day at your desk and feel like you have achieved nothing.

One solution is to visualise the progress somehow.

If I weigh myself once a week or measure my waist I can see the progress. I use the running apps on my phone to measure distance travelled and calories consumed. Likewise when I was doing my thesis I stuck a piece of graph paper on the wall next to me and charted my progress by colouring in a block for every 1000 words. We follow a similar principle in our Thesis Bootcamps where we hand out squeezy lego blocks for every 5000 words written. It sounds silly, but it works. Of course, there’s an app for that! Try the Writing Journal or use the progress bar tool in Scrivener.

Don’t compare yourself to the other runners

You see the same people running in your neighbourhood. There was one woman I started to think of as the Queen of Running. She always looked immaculate and barely seemed to raise a sweat as she lapped me easily. I stared at her enviously as I huffed around the park feeling like death warmed up.

Compared to the Queen of Running I felt like a faker, or at least totally inadequate. Then one day a friend stopped me on campus to say she’d seen me out on my run and nearly didn’t recognise me because I ‘looked like a pro’. She said I had inspired her to start running (presumably because if I could do it anyone could) and asked me if I could give her some tips. I was astonished. I just assumed I looked the way I felt on the inside while I was running.

The lesson? Thesis Prison distorts your perception of yourself. Everyone is running their own race. Just concentrate on winning yours.

Change it up

Running can be boring, so it’s necessary to change the route often and spend money on whole new playlists and outfits (that’s my excuse anyway).

Writing can be really boring, so try a diagram, or a matrix to progress your wrtiting in different formats. I have a hand out here which shows how you can use a spider diagram to ask questions. There is a good page here, designed for primary school teachers, full of other writing diagrams you can play with.

Alternatively, you could try setting up a matrix to play with your thoughts and see if you can make connections between ideas. There’s a good description of the basic concept on the My Studious LIfe Blog (where I stole the idea from) and I have worked this up into a handout you can print out and work from. A matrix is a helpful way to write because, while it forces some  hierarchy on your thoughts, it frees you up from having to make transitions or think about what order ideas should be presented in an argument. I’ve written more about both these approaches in my post about how to write faster.

A drastic solution is to take yourself to a new location where you have no choice but to finish. You could go on a research retreat; read Kylie Budge’s story about going to New York to finish her thesis for inspiration.

I still have another 12 kgs of baby weight to lose. I hope these techniques keep working for me. How about you? How are you coping with Thesis Prison? Any tips for your fellow prisoners?

Related Posts

Thesis Detachment

PhD paralysis

How to write 1000 words a day

The Valley of Shit








37 thoughts on “Thesis Prison

  1. cta says:

    I’m currently serving my sentence in thesis prison. Hopefully I’ll be released in April! To help get through, I have a ‘Progress’ table on the whiteboard in my office. On the Y axis are the sections of my thesis (Intro, Background, Methods, etc), on the X axis are progress levels: Drafted/Included Supervisor’s Comments/Re-drafted/Polished/Edited/Ready to Submit

    Not only is it satisfying colouring in the squares in the table as I make progress, it’s also good ‘public accountability’.When fellow students, or my supervisor (or sometimes the head of school!) pops into my office for a chat, they glance at my ‘Progress Board’, which makes me look at it and reminds me exactly what needs to be done for each section to be ‘Ready to Submit’.

    I guess I can think of this as my ‘Good Behaviour’ board for the next couple of months!

    • Juna says:

      Love your idea of a progress table with the X axis stating progress levels. I’ve only been tracking using Scrivener’s word count. But I think high time to see it as a whole! Thanks cta!

    • MS says:

      Thanks to TW for this post, and to you for the progress table idea!

      I’ve just entered my final six months and feel like I’m already in the Thesis Prison. I’m starting the dreaded editing stage, and have been finding it really hard to make sense of my progress. I’ve become so used to gauging how I’m doing by looking at my word count that I’m floundering now my first draft is done. I used to think of editing as proofreading only, and have never really confronted my own writing to such a deep extent before; quantifying my efforts seems less feasible now, and the process is taking up all of my headspace. Dividing revisions into stages like you have done is a really good idea, and something I’ll definitely take up – I think expressing criteria like that will help let some light into the cell, so to speak.

    • Kara Salter says:

      Wow thanks for this idea! I’m in thesis prison and hope to be released by the end of May. I’ve been struggling with a way to track my progress other than a list of tasks with ticks. Your progress board idea is just my kind of approach, visual, so I can really see where I’m at, and visible, so I can prove to my family that I’m actually doing something!

  2. Juna says:

    Congratulations on taking up running and losing 10kg! Been telling myself I need to take up running (or at least more walking!). Thank YOU for this post. Extremely timely! Have been reading and (what feels like) wondering about aimlessly on how to structure the Discussion chapter and get it off the ground. So this post and its links are great!

  3. Rán Tryggvadóttir says:

    Thank you very much for this blogpost and all the others I have read … I hope I will rememer to thank you in my final thesis … Not yet in my final phase but I am getting a taste of the prison life. Good luck with the running …

  4. EtengabekoGatazkak says:

    Great post!
    And the progress table… What a great idea! I´m (hopefully) in my last year and any advice is very welcomed!
    (And, keep up with running! Exercise is being for me the best tool for stress management these last months).

  5. katyleighkennedy says:

    I’m not 100% sure about this metaphor of thesis-finishing being like running. Or running being like being in prison! Running should be about a lifelong lifestyle change and not reaching a finishing line and then stopping. There are always new running goals to be had, whereas the goal of finishing a PhD is pretty final. Running should be joyful (it’ll come, give it time, it can be horrible at first, you will be Running Queen before you know it) whereas the final stage of finishing a PhD sounds…traumatic. Running can be a lovely social activity you can do with other people whilst putting the world to rights (whereas shut up and write involves, well, shutting up). Have you tried parkrun? Parkrun is fantastic.
    But: very well done on taking up running! I hope you learn to love it as much as I do 🙂

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Yes – you are right that the thesis ends… but the work of writing and research doesn’t if you become an academic. Maybe that’s why I see the connection. Thanks – given me a bit more to think about with my analogy 🙂

      • Nadine says:

        I am at this stage in my thesis too. I have compared it to the “nesting” stage pregnant women enter just before they give birth. Unfortunately even though I have been ordered to produce by date X, I still am not quite where I should be, but the ticking off of references, the confirming of data (or one may say, the counting of baby clothes and the packing of the bag), gets stuff out of my head and leaves space for the creating or recreating of the actual words and arguments. – Reminder to self, 75% of my children arrived 6 weeks early.

  6. The S.A. says:

    Thesis Prison is definitely where I am at right now. Submission is in a matter of weeks, but I feel in control, and then feel weird that I feel in control. Every other person around me at this phase appear to be at their wits end, so I’m worried I may be missing something (or not).

    My time is 100% thesis right now, morning to night. The only other activity I do to “stay in touch with the real world” is to blog on “Stylish Academic” and my research blog occasionally. Everything else, out the window.

    I even recently dreamt some sage was giving me some useful feedback on my thesis draft. Isn’t that the kind of hallucination one has in prison? LOL.

    Scrivner has made it really easy for me to manage my thesis project. Also, maximising my iCal by keeping a record of how I spend a whole day has helped. I schedule everything now, even “rest moments”. I’m not a slave to it. I’m happy to move event boxes back and forth, but I want to be accountable for how many hours I spend doing what (before & after). I believe this is perhaps why I feel in control.

    I am working backwards from my submission date in March, and I am alert to unexpected eventualities. There is a contingency plan 🙂

    Best wishes to me.

  7. jessplainsong says:

    Gosh, I actually never experienced thesis prison. My last 6 months felt like writing was dancing. Once I had worked out my lit, it was easy. I had truly the most fun time right at the end of my thesis, only falling into the depression hole once I’d submitted 😱. I had been told about thesis depression hole. Horrible place. Anyway. Editing is easy. Read your thesis out aloud. Amazing what you pick up. Read patter and follow your methodological audit trail. Read a book on how to complete your thesis. And, yes, write up regularly a list of tasks per chapter. Maybe in pretty texta colour on a paper scroll! I did this. Helped a lot. And right now? Just 2 days ago I was informed I had met all requirements for my degree. Huzzah! 😃

  8. Paul Gill says:

    One of the best bits of advice I was ever given was don’t worry about writing perfection, just start writing. People often worry about writing the finished article (and end up pontificating as a result) but for the most part, it’s a progressive process that evolves over time and it usually starts off quite basic! Striving for perfection is admirable but you have to start somewhere. Make notes, make a plan and then start committing words, however random and basic, to paper. It’s a useful starting point. No one ever wrote a thesis or research paper in a high impact journal in one sitting. It takes time and numerous iterations.

  9. Nikki Aharonian says:

    It may sound strange, but while I am still in my 5th year juggling my PhD together with a full day job as vice principal in a school, running PD for teachers and my family, I am waiting to reach that final stage of “thesis prison” where I will be able to fully devote myself to my thesis. Of course that doesn’t mean it won’t be hell when I arrive there.
    Good luck with your efforts and think how healthy you are going to feel.

  10. Alannah Croom says:

    I really needed this today. I am not writing a PHD thesis, but an honours thesis. It is a struggle, I tell you. I can’t imagine writing a PHD thesis right now! Thank you for this xxx

  11. Shiralee says:

    Hello fellow inmates. I’m also in Thesis Prison, with a planned release in June. Working full-time and every waking minute outside that is thesis editing. Except for exercise – competing at a National level means training three times a week is still a must (although at the moment some weeks might be a little slack)! Love the progress chart idea – thanks for sharing cta. Congrats on your commitment to running TW. Hope your “good behaviour” gets rewarded and you smash those goals.

  12. Jeanette Hannaford (@MrsHannaford) says:

    Hi from Willy Wonka’s Thesis Prison! I’m not sure this suggestion fits in with an article documenting the difficult process of losing weight, but, I am marking progress with a large jar of chocolates… A few months ago my partner and I happened to stroll past a well-known chocolate shop when they were advertising a very good deal for 100 chocolates. I imagined needing about 100 days of work to finish off my thesis, and so it seemed like a fun way of seeing that the time was ticking by, and that the end of the process would come. Any morning I work on my thesis, I allow myself to have a chocolate from my jar after lunch. I’m now down to the final 30 chocolates, and into my final stages of putting the chapters all together into a unified whole. (I also run, and eat a healthy diet most of the time…)

  13. Colleen says:

    Good timing Whisperer! I’m starting to go bonkers and I hate my chair. I’m meant to be submitting next week and I’ve found that the time between “This is great it’s all good” and the “This is shit, I’m going to fail” moods is getting shorter and shorter until I imagine I shall just throw my hands in the air and yell “I give up!” I’ve also had to remind myself not to compare myself to other ‘runners’. This is my phd and I’ll bloody well do it my way. Or maybe not…no I will…no I won’t. Oh just give me another piece of chocolate!

  14. joannelehrer says:

    I love the running/thesis metaphor! I think I’m in transcription hell at the moment – I feel like I’m plodding through a very muddy swamp, it takes ages to make any progress (way longer than I planned) and because it is so boring, I am even slower than I should be. But only 24 interviews left (I’ve done 20, that’s not even half!). And before you ask, yes I have to transcribe, and yes I have to do it myself. I made sure of that with the methodology I chose. I also wrote a blog post comparing the phd to running, but more with a race training schedule. You can check it out here, if you want:

  15. HVS says:

    This is me, right now! Except that I’m playing Scrabble with the warden with one hand, while writing validation documents for an M.Sc. in a completely different subject with the other. Thesis and validation documents are all due in in the same week. Needless to say I’m even more wild-eyed & forgetful than usual at the moment. 🙂

  16. Sarita B says:

    I’m currently in thesis prison. I’m a single parent trying to catch up on time lost from a lack of childcare, a recent house move, having to take on paid work and from prolonged absences because of chronic RSI in my right hand (developed post-fieldwork). I’m determined to finish on time but it’s petrifying to think that despite the fact that every day counts, I don’t have every day to work on my thesis and many external factors dictate how much work I can get done each week. Although this is extremely scary, I must be in some kind of denial about the urgency of my situation because I keep telling myself that there’s only so much I can possibly do. However, my deadline doesn’t care if my son gets chicken pox a third time or if the nursery shuts for staff training.

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