How to finish your PhD on time?
3 critical lessons every PhD learns the hard way
By Stine Øyna
During my very first week as a PhD student my new colleagues and I attended the defense (i.e. Viva or equivalent) of a Chinese guy who had spent 10 (T-E-N) years on his dissertation. I didn’t quite get his topic (or his accent), so I spent the time speculating on these 10 years. He probably started out, much like myself at the time, thinking that he would dive enthusiastically into his topic, do a lot of reading, some writing, a bit of traveling, and then come out on the other side in a given time – which in our case is estimated to three years (4 if you also teach) – with a self-produced booklet in his hand, and Dr. next to his name. Two years into the process, I am still naive enough to think that I will make it by the 4-year mark, yet, I have developed a complete understanding – no, not of my research area – but of how three years of research easily can turn into 10 years of work. Hoping to pass on some painfully attained tricks, I have summarized three work strategies below.
1) The critical lesson of limiting time spent on unimportant tasks
First of all, there is one advice that beats everything else when it comes to limiting unimportant tasks, and it can be summarized in a two-letter word: NO. In order to finish your PhD on time, this word needs to be an integral part of your vocabulary. Yes, you are PhD student, and yes you should be proactive, but the only one who suffers when your PhD is not finished on time is YOU. Thus, YOU have to be the one to say no when it is necessary. Second of all (and related to saying no), limit your engagement in side projects until you have a clear understanding of what your PhD will contain, and also the necessary components to finish it (e.g. your data). Third of all, as time is the key issue, think of your time as your think about your money. You wouldn’t pay a large amount of money for a low-return investment. So, with every work-related invitation you get; weigh effort and reward. Low-effort/high reward might be worth saying yes to, but high effort/low reward tasks should be avoided. Fourth of all, save “busy work” for when you have finished research for the day (busywork can typically be done on a half functioning brain, while research needs you to be sharp). And finally, save less important tasks for the very last minute. For chronic over-achieving PhDs this is a hard on to adhere to but doing things last minute forces you to spend only the minimum amount of time required.
2) The critical lesson of entering ‘flow’
A lot of the work we do requires deep concentration and uninterrupted focus. In other words, you need to enter a state of “flow” (i.e. complete immersion into the activity) in order to progress. When you enter flow, you are more resilient towards disturbance, and you are better able to get difficult tasks done. Research shows that in order to achieve flow, you need to resist the brain’s urge to do other stuff (e.g. visit social media, get a cup of coffee or stare out the window) for about 15 minutes. However, if you are unable to resist small breaks during the first 15 minutes, the timer re-sets (meaning that it will take at least 15 more minutes until you achieve flow).
For me, there is a few things I need to do in order to save me from myself (and others). First, I close my e-mail. Your inbox is the biggest threat in this regard, as it constitutes “legitimate” disturbances. Opening and replying to e-mails is still work after all. Yet, in terms of preventing flow, it is just as bad as illegitimate disturbances. Second, I start the program “Self-control”, which blocks me from a number of websites I tend to visit when my brain is struggling (e.g. Twitter, various online newspapers, or Facebook for the 167th time). Third, I put my phone on do not disturb (silence mode is not enough, who are you kidding, vibration also makes sound). Fourth, I have deleted all social media apps from my phone, and only have them on my tablet (at home). Fifth (yes, this is important, so five advices are necessary), I put on my noise-cancelling headset. The noise-cancelling headset is necessary, not only to avoid annoying sounds such as chewing or keyboard noises, but also to signal that you are not to be disturbed.
3) The critical lesson of having a system for notes
Being a PhD implies having your head consumed with a number of thoughts (e.g. writhing you should have finished yesterday, fear of sucking, guilt of not having seen your grandma since last year, etc.). For me, this results in pathological forgetfulness, and if I don’t write shit down, I might as well never have read, heard, or thought about it. Often, I vaguely remember having read something about some or other topic somewhere, and the result is often an hour or more which you spend desperately searching through articles, word documents, and old post-its. An important time-saver is thus having a good system for taking notes and do it early. There are numerous tools available to aid this purpose, and quite a few programs are beneficial. OneNote is great for keeping track of your notes and excel is widely used for summarizing articles (use columns for reference, theory, method, findings, etc.). Lately, I have started uploading articles to NVivo (qualitative analysis software) and using it to categorize literature (e.g. concepts, theories, or methodology). Others prefer the old school way of printing articles and keeping them in physical folders together with relevant notes. Whatever approach you choose is fine, the important thing is to have a system and establish it early in the process.
To sum up: Learn to say no to unimportant tasks and limit the time you spend on such tasks. Limit your disturbances (from yourself and others) so that you spend more time in ‘flow’ and develop a good system for taking notes in order to avoid duplicating work. And most importantly: Do whatever works best for you (meaning that if the above advice does not help you, DON’T follow them).
Stine Øyna is a PhD Research Fellow at the School of Business and Law of University of Agder, Norway. Her research is focused on born globals / international new ventures, internationalizing SMEs and women in entrepreneurship. She teaches entrepreneurship in the Bachelor and Masters level. Follow her research on ResearchGate and Google Scholar.
You may read her previous post on 10 terrible thoughts you will have during your PhD.
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