For a couple of years, you have been doing research, research, and more research. But now the final deadline for your Ph.D. is in sight, and it's time to transfer your research results into a thesis. Where do you even begin?
You've got a lot of things to do before you can actually start writing, and you will have to work in a more structured way than you probably have been used to for the past couple of years. Here we provide a five-step framework to guide you toward your goal.
1. Establish your achievements.
Presumably, you sketched out a plan for your research projects at the beginning of your Ph.D. program, so now you need to get a clear picture of where you are in that process and see how it will all fit together in your thesis. Start by making a list of the projects you've finished, such as the research you've already published in a journal article that only needs a bit of editing to fit into your thesis.
Next, list the unfinished projects you are working on and identify the steps you'll need to take to finish them, whether it's sorting out the relevant data, writing and running a data-analysis programme, extracting a message from the data you've collected and analysed, writing up your findings, or all of the above. You'll also have to think about how you want to write up these last few experiments: You'll need to balance the short-term benefits of writing it up as a thesis chapter--which will save you the time of finishing a peer-reviewed article--with the longer term benefit of adding a journal article to your list of publications.
Once you have a good idea of what you have accomplished so far and what it will take to finish the ongoing projects, you should verify your achievements with your supervisor.
2. Determine what should be included in your thesis.
You and your supervisor will likely agree about what you've accomplished so far and what still needs to be done to complete your ongoing projects. However, opinions might diverge when it comes to whether you need additional material for your thesis. You should meet with your supervisor (and thesis adviser, if different from your supervisor) to discuss exactly what should go into your thesis. Perhaps you believe that finishing ongoing projects will provide sufficient content for a thesis, whereas your supervisor wants you to include a minor (or major!) addition, and your thesis adviser wants you to start a new, ambitious project.
Coming to agreement on these issues will not be easy, so you should be well-prepared when you meet to discuss your thesis content. You will need to decide what you believe is a proper balance between the quality and quantity of the content and the time it will take to finish your research and start writing. If there is truly a need for you to do one more project, make a comprehensive and very specific plan for it.
In the course of these negotiations, remember that even if your adviser's motives for keeping you around are self-serving, the extra time and effort you spend to extend and sharpen your work might make a big difference in your career. So don't stretch it out too long but, assuming you can keep food on the table, don't be in too much of a hurry, either.
3. Make a countdown list.
Now that you have established a "still-to-do" list, make a plan for when to do it. This will be your countdown list, a schematic timetable that describes week by week how you plan to finish your thesis by your target deadline. Most of the activities on your list should directly contribute to thesis chapters.
Use your still-to-do list to estimate the amount of time you'll need to finish those last few projects and allocate that time on your countdown list. Then, draft a table of contents for your thesis. Estimate how many weeks it will take to finish each chapter and block off that time on your countdown list as well.
Next, allocate time for other activities, such as arranging for the printed version of your thesis, preparing for the defence, and setting up job interviews. In reality, you will be working on several tasks in parallel, but writing down the tasks sequentially will help you get an impression of the total time the thesis preparation will take.
Finally, toward the end of writing your thesis, you will have to deal with the procedures that come with submitting it for approval. The university likely has a long checklist of these usually extraordinarily complex and often time-consuming tasks. Make sure you know well in advance what needs to be done and when, and include them on your schedule.
Once you've created your countdown list, you may realize that writing your thesis is going to take longer than you thought. Don't panic. This is the time to hone your time-management skills and your ability to focus on what is important. Your schedule is tight, so good planning will count. Try to minimize delays caused by others.
4. Anticipate uncertainties.
It may be difficult to plan how much time you will need for some tasks. Perhaps that one last set of experiments relies on a sample that needs to be prepared by other people, and you can't count on them delivering it when you need it. Without that sample, the project will be impossible to complete.
If you foresee such problems and potential bottlenecks, it may be useful to have a back-up list to your master countdown list. The master list assumes you'll get the samples on time, and the back-up list assumes the research will come to a halt until you get the sample. For this back-up plan, reschedule the order of your activities to make use of the newfound time, perhaps by identifying a (small) project that can replace the sample project. Don't adjust your overall deadline just yet. Estimating these risks up front will enable you to discuss the various scenarios with your supervisor. Most importantly, this type of forward planning will minimize the uncomfortable feeling that you have a potentially critical problem ahead that is completely out of your control.
5. Discuss your planning with your supervisor.
Now comes the tough part. This meeting might feel more like a negotiation than a discussion. At one end of the table is you, the hard-working Ph.D. student who wants to wrap up the work in a reasonable amount of time. At the other end of the table is your supervisor, possibly hungry for more research results that can be used in a future presentation or publication. Hopefully, some disagreements about how much work you need to do can be curtailed by giving your supervisor your proposed table of contents and your countdown list in advance of the meeting. These documents will show your progress and demonstrate how much you already have accomplished.
If there is a major disagreement, try not to get angry. Instead, summarize the issues you don't agree about and ask for some time to reflect on your supervisor's point of view. Sometimes these planning discussions can't be finished in a single meeting, but that's okay; it's worth doing properly. You will save yourself quite a bit of thesis-preparation stress if you can structure a countdown plan on which all parties can agree.
If, during the course of your research, you find that the project is taking much longer than anticipated, your first reaction may be to work even harder and longer hours or to go into denial about how much time you really need to finish. Rather than sticking your head in the sand, face your situation, make a new plan, and discuss it again with your supervisor.
The last year of your Ph.D. is distinctly different from the ones that have come before it, because you'll focus primarily on transforming your hard work into thesis chapters. Moreover, new activities will become more important, such as finishing projects before a pressing deadline or looking for a job for after you get your degree. This multitasking requires a more structured approach than you've probably taken previously, so be sure to plan your activities. Your countdown plan will show you what needs to be done and will force you to prioritize those activities. Effective communication with your supervisor will establish a commitment to reach your final goal together.
Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your Ph.D.: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Gosling is a senior medical writer at Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics in Germany and a freelance science writer. Noordam is a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a regional audit organisation. He has also worked for McKinsey and Co.
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Images. Top: credit, Frenkieb. Middle: courtesy, Springer