10 Steps to Finishing a PhD Thesis (or book) in 6 Months
Most academics will admit to themselves and students that the majority of dissertations and books are written in a 6 month block of time (the remainder of the post focuses on a PhD process, but it can be easily applied to book writing). I’m talking here about the WRITING process- not the research, figuring out the question, organizing the chapters etc (no wizard can do all that in 6 months- at least not this wizard). But once you’ve done your (field) research, reading, thinking through the chapters, taking notes etc. it really should only take you 6 months to finish the thesis. For PhD students this is referred to as the end of the faffing about/procrastination/reading gawker and people.com daily/existential crisis about the structure of the thesis phase and the start of the “time to suck it up, close the office door, shut off the email, and just f#$@king write” phase.
So how can one get a complete draft of the thesis done in 6 months? Here is the 10-Step Process to Completion.
1. Figure out what your D-Day is. Look ahead approximately 6 months and determine either when you would like to submit a full draft or else acknowledge when you MUST complete (maybe the last date before you have to pay for an extra semester of tuition, maybe your committee members are leaving for sabbatacle after a certain date, maybe your partner has threatened to leave if you don’t finish by a particular date, maybe you want to finish before you give birth)- whatever it is, get the date and highlight it on all your calendars and write it up in a threatening font and paste it to your wall (I used the final date as my email password so I had to enter it everyday as a reminder….and no, I don’t still use the same password).
2. Count back from that date and clarify how much time you have left. Is it 6 months or slightly more or less? Count the number of weeks (ie 24), then acknowledge any potential periods within that time frame where you know you won’t be working (Holidays, attending a wedding etc). Now you have your total number of weeks until D-Date.
3. Panic. Yes, coming to terms with the fact that you’ve got 22 weeks to crack out a thesis before you will be faced with an extra semester of tuition sucks. Revel in the panic for a day, it will ultimately be motivating. Ask yourself how many more times you want to get questioned about “still being in school” from family members during the holidays, think about how it would feel if the student in your tutorials become your grad-student colleagues, calculate what your retirement (non)savings plan will look like if you are a student for another year- now take that panic and zen-force it into writing fuel.
4. Set out a work plan. Using the 22 week example, make a list of each of the chapters that you need to write. Start with the chapters that you feel most confident with (ie the ones that may be partially written or are based on an article or conference presentation you’ve already done). Now calculate how many weeks you can spend on each chapter and still stay within your 22 week budget. Try to be realistic (most people can’t write a decent chapter from scratch in 1 week, but you can probably revise an article and build it into a chapter in 2 weeks).
5. Panic. This is the “holy SH*T I’m never going to be able to finish” stage. Again, revel in it for an afternoon. Acknowledge fully that your days of 2-hour coffee sessions and showing up to the office hungover at 11am are over. Say goodbye to facebook, better yet, unplug or delink your office computer from the internet for all but one hour a day (most research related searches leads to an hour staring at fashion.com or somehow reading about Jessica Simpson’s second pregnancy- you know it, and I know it, so just fix the problem)
6. Based on the timeline you set at stage 4 break every week up into smaller tasks. For example, if you known you only have 2 weeks to revise a chapter and update it, break down the list of tasks that will be required and give yourself specific things to accomplish everyday (this could include reading 3 articles and incorporating the work into the chapter, revising the conclusion section etc). Again, be reasonable. I recommend writing out your weekly and daily goals up on a big piece of paper and sticking it to the wall, or getting a white board and having everything clearly laid out. You’ll look like Russel Crow from a Beautiful Mind hunched over your desk with maps and outlines everywhere- but whatever. When you finish your tasks for the day reward yourself by going home or heading out for coffee- conversely, if completing the days task means you need to stay late, so be it. Also, if you get off-track from an illness or unexpected distraction, don’t throw in the towel and abandon the whole plan. Instead, try to revamp the schedule and redistribute the tasks so that you can reasonably get back on the rails. Getting sick for a day or two is no excuse for throwing the entire plan into the garbage.
7. Set weekly rewards for yourself. Use the internet as a reward- surf through the Duck of Minerva after you’ve edited for an hour straight. Give yourself 15 minutes of Jon Stewart when you finally revise the intro you’ve been working on.
8. Make a list of brainless tasks and set it aside. Footnotes, grammar and spelling checks, looking for a lost resource are all things you should do at the end of the day or when you are feeling like a zombie. When you have to do this type of work, throw on some reggae music or whatever makes you feel good and pretend you are not doing the devil’s work.
9. Everyone says it, but you really need to do it: set a word goal everyday. In addition to your specific tasks- free write for at least an hour everyday and remind yourself that during this time you don’t need to worry about perfection. No one will read this first spewing of ideas but it will provide you with something to revise and rework into a legible chapter.
10. Let go. Get over the idea of your first draft being an earth-shattering opus and let go of your identity as a PhD student holed-up in the office writing. You will NEVER finish if you wait for perfection or if you get too attached to your student status. For me, and for most others, the best parts of my research life started POST PhD. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the process and revel in the time and environment you are privileged with as a grad student- just don’t cling to it like a security blanket.