This post is by Laura Wynne, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania. She has worked for six years as a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney. She researches housing policy and urban sustainability. She just submitted her PhD – only 10 days after her scholarship ran out. How did she keep to time so well and keep her weekends free? Read on to find out.
Any PhD student worth their salt will tell you that #PhDchat is just about the loveliest place on twitter—on #PhDchat, people are supportive, friendly, generous with advice and celebrate one another’s achievements (what is this, some kind of parallel twitterverse?). But, despite all this, there is a part of #PhDchat that makes me sad: the #PhDweekend thread.
Sure, everyone there is still supportive, friendly and generous, but it’s the very premise that upsets me. Weekends are important. Our forebears worked hard to secure us two days a week of respite. Why are so many students spending so many of their weekends on the computer or in the lab (or, worse, on twitter)? I came across a tweet on #PhDchat the other day that might go some way towards explaining why #PhDweekend exists. A fellow student had tweeted to #PhDchat that her supervisor had told her that, in order to complete a PhD, ‘you need to suffer’. This idea that we must be miserable to do a PhD is absurd. The PhD should be challenging, yes, but should it really feel like suffering?
Beyond what it should feel like, there are many reasons why working all day, every day, doesn’t even make any sense. We know that, beyond a certain threshold, there is an inverse relationship between hours worked and productivity. This is for a number of reasons: firstly, working long hours is terrible for our health, and if you’re working long hours you’re probably sleeping less, too. Poor health and sleep deprivation lead, in turn, to reduced productivity. But there’s more to it than that. Parkinson’s law (nothing to do with the disease) posits that any task facing you will expand to fit the time you have to complete it. If you set yourself a week to do a task, it’ll probably take you a week. If you’re racing for a 3pm deadline, it’ll probably take you up to that deadline. Tasks don’t come with in-built timeframes—they expand or contract depending on how long we give them.
For some reason, we’ve arrived at a point where we’ve decided that all of our time—just about every waking minute—is potential PhD time. We try to fill up every hour with reading and writing and field work and emails and then wonder why we feel like we’re getting nothing done. It’s easy to fall into this trap: the pressure is high, jobs are scarce, funding is limited, making us feel the need to devote every minute of our existence to our PhD. But is that really the best way to go about it?
For me, working long hours is not an option. It’s not that I have kids or illness or anything like that. I am just incapable of working long hours. Give me three hours to do a task and I’ll do it in two. But ask me to work a 60 hour week and the mere anxiety conferred by the thought of it will have me shivering and sick within minutes. So when I started this PhD I needed to figure out a way to do it without giving my life—and my health—over to it. I decided to put a limit on how much time my PhD would take.
Trying to work out how much time your PhD will take is like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’, except that the piece of string in question frays into dozens of tiny bits of string that may or may not be consequential until you’ve explored them right to their logical endpoint. So, with Parkinson’s law in mind, you need to reorient the question. Rather than asking, ‘how long will it take me to do this PhD?’, you need to ask ‘how much time do I have available to write this PhD?’.
When I first did this, the results looked a little scary. When you take away holiday time (ESSENTIAL!), sick time (inevitable), part-time work or teaching, the inevitable distractions of email, twitter, reading blog posts about PhD productivity, and all the other bits and pieces that take time away from the actually doing-of-your-PhD, you realise that you’re down to maybe 3.5 days a week over the life of your PhD (if you take 7 hours/5 days a week as your starting point—which you should. I’ll say it again: weekends are important. So is sleep.)
Then think about what you can actually achieve with those 3.5 days per week. For me, it doesn’t look like much at all. I use the pomodoro method (structuring my work in 25-minute high-focus sessions—no distractions allowed—with short breaks in between). A really productive day of writing for me would involve six pomodoros. Maximum. It might not sound like much, but that’s really tiring (in a ‘ooh yeah I worked hard’ way, not in a ‘ugh I’ve been staring at this screen all day’ way)—and it’s also time enough to get a tonne of writing done. Of course, on top of these six pomodoros, I’m doing emails, note taking, checking #PhDchat etc—all the stuff that isn’t reading, writing, fieldwork and analysis.
If you think about trying to do, say, six pomodoro sessions per day that you have available (which for me is at best 3 days per week over 3.5 years), you’ll realise that the PhD that you arrive at if you ask ‘how long is a piece of string?’ is completely unachievable within the actual time you have available.
So, instead of trying to find more time in your week, you need to re-scale your PhD to meet the time you have. This may be easier said than done, but the main message is: be realistic. What can you achieve in the time you’ve got? Remember, you don’t need to write the greatest PhD that’s ever been written, you should aim to write the best PhD you can achieve. That means taking stock of your resources (your mental capacity, your time, your energy) and being honest with yourself about what you want to get out of the PhD.
In addition to my daily six-pomodoro targets, I also set myself realistic targets for chapter writing. When I started writing my first chapter, I realised that I would spend the whole year trying to perfect that piece of writing, if I didn’t establish a timeline. Borrowing a habit from my husband (yes, we’re a two-PhD household!), in my third year I set myself a timeline that gave me 5-6 weeks to draft each chapter. (Of course, I’d done plenty of note taking, analysis and some rough sketching prior to this point, so I wasn’t starting entirely from scratch.) I blew a couple of these along the way, but, as I prepare for submission at the 3.5-year mark, I’m well ahead of schedule, if my peers are anything to judge by. Setting these deadlines encouraged the task to grow into the timeline (rather than the timeline growing with the task), directing me away from ideas of a ‘perfect chapter’ towards creating something resembling a chapter to send to my supervisors by the due date (usually accompanied by a slew of caveats about how it’s ‘just a draft’ and ‘very rough’ and the discussion section is ‘very preliminary’).
This method is staggeringly helpful. Feedback from my supervisors on my very-rough drafts takes me light-years ahead of where I would be if I was fumbling around in the dark by myself, trying to perfect each section. Plus, if nothing else, it gives me a sense of momentum. This sense of momentum and achievement is so very valuable in the PhD. It is so hard to know whether we’re doing enough. What these methods—the pomodoros and the six week chapters—have provided me with is a means of being accountable to myself. Using an app (I use Be Focused Pro, but there are dozens out there) I track my daily progress—each pomodoro is tallied up on a neat little graph so I feel good about myself every day. And—you’ll have to trust me on this—there’s nothing like the feeling of sending another chapter to your supervisor every six weeks.
The PhD is an unwieldy beast, but I’d suggest the best way through is to change the question you’re asking yourself: instead of asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ ask yourself ‘how long should my piece of string be?’.
Thanks for that bracing dose of time management realism Laura! How about you? Does this time breakdown speak to you, or do you have another way to manage expectations and deliverables? Love to hear about it in the comments.
Love the Thesis whisperer and want it to continue? Consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon and get special, Patreon only, extra Thesiswhisperer content every two weeks!