A 5 step program for finishing your PhD (finally!)

Part of the fun of being Thesis Whisperer is the emails I get from all around the world. Many of them outline classic PhD student dilemmas, which are excellent blog fodder, such as this one, from Laura S:

Have you, or have you considered anything along the lines of *actually finishing* writing? I can produce writing like nobody’s business, and get well on my way into a paper. Finishing, however, is agony. I think this is in part because I’m a lateral thinker and a perfectionist. I’m sure you are familiar with these traits! It is also, however (as I’ve recently discovered) a particular challenge for folks with ADHD. Discovering as an adult that I had ADHD has been a real light on a lot of my patterns and tendencies, so when I feel ready (i.e. more research) I would be happy to contribute a couple of blogs on the topic if you are interested and think it would be helpful to others.

Now, I can’t talk about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder specifically because I am not an expert, but I do know a thing or two about finishing a piece of writing. The ‘Thesis Bootcamp’ program I run at ANU helps PhD students who have run out of time to complete their dissertation. The program is insanely popular, but it’s expensive to run. We can only take 26 people from up to 100 applicants, so we must choose people who are most at risk of dropping out. We look for people who have done most of the thinking and just need to write. Our selection strategy means most of our Bootcampers have faced significant challenges along the way, such as failed experiments, ill-health and conflict with advisors. Despite these issues, most of these people just need to sit down and, well – write. Sadly they can’t seem to do this on their own because they feel ‘stuck’. It’s almost like they have late stage dissertation constipation. 

image by @matbotsfield on Unsplash

At thesis Bootcamp, we use a range of strategies to help people move on from this ‘stuck’ feeling. We are proud that everyone who spends a weekend with us writes at least 5000 words, and many write more. At least a couple of people hit our ‘stretch goal’ of 20,000 words. After watching over 400 people go through this program, I’ve got a good idea of what it takes to finish a dissertation. Below is my patented, trialled and tested 5 step program for drawing a line under your PhD studies and calling it done.

Step one: identify what is holding you back

In my experience, there is a range of factors at play in people feeling unable to finish, but most people are held back by fear. Some people are in a comfortable rut and fear what comes next after their PhD – especially if the job market for their skill set is unclear. Other people are perfectionists – functional or otherwise- who fear the dissertation they are crafting will not pass. Others fear confrontation with their supervisor over the content of the dissertation. 

Unpacking the feelings with a professional therapist is the best way I know to put these fears to rest, which is why we hire at least one for the Bootcamp weekend (sometimes we have two!). Having a therapist on hand while confronting the fear of finishing is amazingly powerful. Some people who have resisted therapy in the past are finally free to share their concerns with an expert who can help them lay those fears to rest. Later these therapy resisters tell me that confronting their fear of writing helped them with other issues too. Some have saved their marriage, others have got divorced, some change careers or cities – some even decide to drop out of their PhD. The program is meant to stop the dropouts of course, but I figure that helping a person move on with their life without the PhD is sometimes the best outcome.

Step two: commit to it

Some people have a habit of restarting their writing (or even their whole project) over and over again. The reason for restarting all the time seems rational until you dig a bit deeper and see a pattern that stretches right back to the beginning of candidature. Restarting over and over is a symptom of perfectionism: if you feel like your writing is misshapen and ugly, working with the text long enough to finish provokes a range of unpleasant feelings. One way to avoid the feelings is by starting again with a ‘clean slate’. Other people have trouble committing to a structure for the dissertation. These people can be functional perfectionists, who are willing to accept their ‘bad writing’ but get obsessed with finding the perfect structure for the whole work. You will never find the perfect structure because it’s an illusion. A dissertation is a story of the research done, that’s all. You could tell at least10 different stories; some will be better or worse, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter because the PhD endeavour is a pass/fail proposition. Perfect is the enemy of done.  Just find a structure and stick with it long enough to get the whole thing written. 

Another good avoidance strategy is to funnel creative energy into side projects. Instead of finishing the (now slightly boring) big project, I encounter people who are getting stuck into journal papers, articles, blogs, podcasts – you name it! There is always another creative distraction if you look for i. It’s easier, in the moment, to go for immediate gratification ahead of long term benefits.

I don’t want to shame anyone for these behaviours – I’ve done many of them myself. There’s no need to beat yourself up. In fact, the shame spiral just makes things worse. If you really want to finish, learning to focus is crucial. In the first instance, just notice and be aware of your behaviour. Noticing helps you develop strategies to counter the unhelpful patterns. When you feel like starting over again because you hate what you have written, put it away for a day or two and then come back. I guarantee the writing isn’t as bad as you thought it was when you come back to it. Self-talk helps too. When the feelings that everything you write is shit well up, say out loud: ‘ok, it isn’t perfect, but it will have to do for now’, or ‘I’ll come back to this later, let’s move on’. Self-talk can help you suspend judgment and just keep writing – which is most of the trick to finishing after all.

Step Three: Write the conclusion before you finish 

In my What do examiners really want? workshop, I advise people who are to write a draft of the conclusion to their dissertation at around the six-month mark. The suggestion always gets funny looks, but there’s method in my madness. Writing the conclusion sometimes helps you think through your methods: what experiments or data gathering would you need to do to prove anything you said? Writing a draft of your conclusion also forces you to surface assumptions and biases so that you can be aware of them as you process your data. People ask whether writing the conclusion early is ‘cheating’. Of course, it would be if you just constructed the whole project to ‘prove’ what you thought in the first place – that isn’t research. My view is, writing the conclusion early is acceptable as long as you:

  1. consciously write the conclusion draft as a thought exercise only and/or 
  2. use the draft as part of the development of your project and method, and 
  3. take the opportunity to examine and critique your own biases. 

Writing the conclusion can work when you are close to the end as well. When you’ve finished most of the other writing, doing the conclusion can usefully narrow the scope of what remains to be written. The conclusion fixes your endpoint and forces you to commit to finishing – sort of like aiming an arrow at a target. Give it a try and see.

Step Four: list it out

When you have written the conclusion, start a list about what you want to achieve in the piece of writing and tick it off as you go. Making a list forces you to articulate a pathway to the end and define what ‘finished’ means. For example, at the moment I am working on a journal article about what non-academic employers want, using job ads as data. Here’s my list of provisional goals for the paper:

  • Why is it important to know what non-academic employers want?
  • Tell the reader why using job ads is a good approach and how you have used them.
  • Explain the key findings – particularly the unexpected ones
  • Explain the new curriculum model and how it could be used in research education and policy development.

The list is not a writing outline – I can address these points in any order I want to. The paper will be ‘finished’ when I’ve written about everything on the list to my satisfaction, so I try to keep the list as short as possible. After the first brainstorm, I leave it for a few days, review it (or share it with co-authors) and then finalise the ‘master list’. I then pretend the master list is not allowed to be altered. This forces me to commit. In my experience, this mind game is remarkably effective, but it only works for short pieces, so if you are employing this technique for a dissertation, do a goal list for each chapter.

Step Five: Imagine life without the dissertation

At Bootcamp we ask people to write on a single post-it note a fun, non-work thing they have been putting off doing. The answers range from ‘sleeping as long as I want’ to ‘having a baby’ or ‘riding a motorcycle around Sicily’. We then encourage people to imagine how they will feel when they do those things they have put off. People sit with dreamy smiles on their faces as they contemplate the bliss of a dissertation free life complete with babies, motorcycle rides and endless sleep (well, not all at once – I don’t think those things are compatible really!). We encourage people to keep the post-it note as a handy reminder of the long term rewards they can have if they do the boring, finishing bit first. Some people tell me they hang on to this encouraging piece of paper for years afterwards!

Ultimately, if you decide to finish, you will. And that’s all I have to say on the subject of Taming your PhD. Why don’t you go off now and do it?

Related posts

How to write 10,000 words a day

PhD detachment

PhD Fear

PhD rage

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3 thoughts on “A 5 step program for finishing your PhD (finally!)

  1. Miriam says:

    This comes at the perfect time for me. I’ve been paralysed (or ‘constipated’ to use Inger’s word!) for about 3 months now, in the middle of trying to finish a good draft so I can move on to the editing and submission stages. I’ve tried to break out of it but the fear has held me back, and made me avoid my supervisors, and so on. Tomorrow I’m about to go on a self-imposed writing retreat for a few days, a version of the Boot Camp, to try and break out of the paralysis and get going again.

  2. Heidi Winnen says:

    Someone told me that paintings are never finished, they are abandoned! Maybe theses are the same. Get the thesis to where it can stand on its own two feet and send it on its way.
    I have published three local history books and could have tinkered with them for ever if I didn’t have deadlines. I am already finding the milestones in my PhD to be helpful in focusing my mind, my efforts, and my writing.

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