How NOT to do a PhD #6: Endlessly

I haven’t blogged about the PhD for a while, but, having submitted a first draft to my supervisor on Monday and had a little break from it, I feel it might be time to add another post to the stream of How NOT to do a PhD.

So, as I said, I have a full draft in now, but my absolute end-game deadline is not until September 2016. There was nothing stopping me getting it in early, except the lack of deadlines. I don’t do anything until there is pressure on it to be done! My first two chapters had been written in the chaotic final term I was teaching in a secondary school, and by December, they were more or less sorted. I then had three more chapters, all of which were in some state of already written, but didn’t hang together, or cohere with what was now the first two chapters.

January was a black hole for PhD work. The reason I left my job was to move to a new job in Australia, and we were expecting to move immanently for the start of the Australian school year at the end of January. When the visa still hadn’t arrived by February, I went back to the PhD. I began booking in supervisions with my supervisor at regular intervals to discuss particular chapters, so I had the motivation to re-write them. The final supervision I had booked was to discuss the last chapter, during a conference in the middle of April.

So then it was all written and it was then a case of editing the whole thing. Initially I gave myself a week to go through it all and address issues we had discussed in supervisions (I did a lot of this in the garden, during a surprisingly nice week). My supervisor had also told me not to send it to her until I’d read it as a whole at least twice over. So I booked the following week in my diary to do this, and gave myself until the end of the weekend (3 May). I ended up having to be a little flexible on this, because it took me all day Monday (4 May) too, but since it was a bank holiday weekend, I’m claiming to have achieved my aim!

I worked harder than I ever had before on the PhD, doing 8-10 hour days of editing, and spending a couple of hours on the peripherals (references, bibliography, formatting) whilst watching TV in the evening. I still managed to squeeze in a few socials, including a day out for the hubby’s birthday, but it was mostly working. I reasoned, though, that it was better to have two weeks of hell (read: intense work) than to drag it out endlessly. I had to set a deadline in order to get it done, and since I was in control of setting the deadline, it might as well be sooner rather than later (though not unreasonably soon, or it would have been demoralising when it passed by).

I discovered the pomodoro technique, working for 25 minutes with a timer and then taking a 5 minute break, which worked well, and I could plan what I wanted to get done in that time (e.g. redraft a chapter conclusion). I also worked in two hour blocks, before taking half an hour off. Twice in the day, I ate during my half hour, and once, mid-afternoon, I went for a walk around the block (about a mile). I planned roughly what I wanted to achieve in the time I set out, and noted what I had achieved in my diary. In the final edit, I was trying to read every word on every page, and therefore it took me an hour to read 10 pages. So once I’d worked this out roughly, I had an aim for the hour (this was quite frustrating as a fast reader – I read 30 pages of academic or possibly double that of trashy novels in an hour, but it was the only way). I also tried reading it out loud, which did help me to find a few errors that my eyes were skipping over.

Key message: set targets, don’t work endlessly. Work in focused blocks of time. Keep a note of what you’ve achieved. Work a bit harder/longer one day/week to give yourself a bit of time off the next.

Woman Standing On Red Rocks Celebrating Success

image courtesy of stokpic


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Danielle, and congratulations on submitting!

    I have some similar work habits, like focusing for short bursts of highly productive time (ok, this is partly out of necessity) and scheduling breaks and time away from the thesis.

    It’s going to take me longer than you to go from full draft to finished draft as there are so many levels of editing and revising, from the big-picture argument thread, to the structural fitting together, down to the nitty gritty of accuracy and meeting style guidelines. I can’t believe you did it so quickly. Your first full draft must have been pretty polished?

    I’m hoping that my little local in-the-PhD-cave writing retreat at the end of next month helps me to make some big progress.

    On and on I go! It’s always good to hear that there is an end to the PhD tunnel. Enjoy the light!


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