Advice for finishing a PhD thesis while working?
September 17, 2011 6:29 PM   Subscribe

Any advice for finishing a PhD thesis while working?

I'm an ABD PhD student. I also work full time. I really like my job and I'm good at it. My supervisor and coworkers are extremely supportive of my grad school endeavours. The job only really requires 40 hours a week, and I have a short commute and no kids, so finishing up my thesis should be doable.

But I can't seem to actually write...I'll have a busy week at work, set the thesis aside, and pretty soon two months have gone by and I've made zero progress whatsoever. If I have a choice about what to do with an extra evening, I seem to gravitate towards work rather than school (even though working evenings really isn't necessary). If I avoid work, I end up browsing the web until bedtime. When I really try hard to concentrate on my thesis, my eyes just sort of slip off the page. If it keeps going like this, my program will kick me out for lack of progress (which I'm terrified of).

I'd like to know if anyone here has any awesome tricks for keeping yourself motivated and accountable while working on a thesis (or other similar, long-term independent project). I'll probably be in this situation for two years (if I can break this writer's block), so I really need to make it work for the long haul.

I've tried setting specific deadlines for chapters, but they don't seem to really work without any kind of outside enforcement. I really don't feel comfortable enlisting my friends or family to help me stick to deadlines. Maybe I can hire someone to yell at me periodically?
posted by miyabo to Education (14 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
For many people it's really hard to work on a thesis after they come home and are tired from a day of work.

Have you tried working on the thesis in the morning, before work?

As for deadlines forming a writing group with other ABD scholars can be very helpful( even if they aren't in your field). You get the peer pressure to get work done, and since you are reciprocating for them. there is no guilt from feeling that you are taking advantage of them.

On the other hand if your friends and family are like mine, they will be happy to help you because they want you to complete you PhD almost as much as you do.
posted by oddman at 6:47 PM on September 17, 2011

I did this for the last year. It sucked. It probably sucked more for me because I also have a toddler.

Anyway, write EVERY NIGHT after work and ALL weekend. Get up at 8am and start writing. Just do it.

Some things to think about:
_ you're so damn close, just finish
_ the longer it takes you, the more stale your lit review will be and you might have to do it over again
_ your employability will change once you have the PhD
posted by k8t at 6:48 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Someone gave me a really great, simple piece of advice about getting my graduate work done while working full-time:

If nothing else, think about your project for at least 1/2 hour a day.

That's it; that's all. But on those really bad days, when you just can't tackle the stack of reading or do any writing, you can definitely sit and think about it. You can think about it over dinner, or you think about it on your commute, or you can think about it at the computer. But a half hour isn't much.

The difference I've experienced since I started practicing this is pretty big - it means that even if I'm not doing a lot of work on any given day, or can't, or just don't feel like it, I still am able to stay engaged and feel in touch with the work - instead of going a week or two without doing or thinking about it at all (other than 'I should be working' which doesn't count), and then feeling it recede into the distant past.

And just the fact that you spend some time thinking about it every day means that you can sort of stay more excited about the work. "Thinking about it" is wide-ranging enough - it doesn't translate to "write seven pages" or "make bibliogpraphic entries," it's enough to just idly turn things over in your mind and think about the topic more generally. Oddly, this leads to an increased motivation to actually get to the books, keyboard, or whatever.

That advice is really helping me. Good luck!
posted by Miko at 6:49 PM on September 17, 2011 [15 favorites]

I am in the same boat as you. Here is what seems to be working for me:

Spending one hour a day devoted to the dissertation. Sometimes I'm writing, sometimes I'm revising, sometimes I'm writing in my dissertation journal about how much I hate my dissertation, but at least it's not slipping from my mind. (Similar to Miko's advice above.) Sometimes I set specific writing goals -- I find 250 words (the equivalent of one double-spaced paged) is a good minimum.

Reserving one weekend a month for doing nothing but working on the dissertation (and eating, and bathing, obviously). I usually check into a hotel for this, one where I can feed myself from the hotel restaurant. Spending the money on a hotel room generates enough guilt that I feel bad even thinking about something else. Usually, I can generate 30-40 pages of writing in one of these sessions (sometimes of only dubious quality, but it can be edited down later to something useful).

Remembering that done is better than good -- no one wants to read even the best dissertation. This has taken the pressure to Make Things Perfect off of my mind. It doesn't have to be perfect, or even all that great -- it just has to be done and defended.
posted by heurtebise at 7:04 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I got to the "eyes sliding off the page" phase of my dissertation, I had to go to the "fifteen minutes a day" plan. EVERY day of the week, I had to work on the diss for a minimum of fifteen minutes. Even if I didn't write anything, I had to engage with the dissertation somehow for fifteen solid minutes—re-reading already drafted parts, or reading and taking notes from a source, or working on the outline. I'd set a timer so I couldn't just work for twelve minutes and call it fifteen.

You can always squeeze in fifteen minutes even if you work late or whatever, because it's ONLY fifteen minutes. But if you get into the habit, on some days you'll find yourself running over the stop time and doing thirty or forty-five minute sessions. Or more. But don't put that expectation on yourself—always start out saying "I have to do this for fifteen minutes, but then if I want to, I can quit."

Another trick is to go somewhere a few times a week, if not daily, and make it your thesis-writing place. For me it was the library; for you it might be a coffeehouse. It has to be away from home, and it has to take a little effort though not an overwhelming effort to get there. The thing is, once you make the logistical effort to get to your writing place, it seems silly to waste the travel time (or price of a cup of coffee) that you've "invested" to be there, so it's easier to convince yourself to make the trip worthwhile by getting some work done.
posted by Orinda at 7:15 PM on September 17, 2011

Building on what others are saying, look at the pomodoro technique. It has been a huge help to me when I don't feel like starting one work: surely I can work for 25 minutes, and then I get a 5-minute break! Usually once I actually get started, I like the work.

For the real magic, combine this with habit judo, where you more or less play a video game with your daily habits: you get randomly varying numbers of points, earn rewards as your points build up, and go up in levels. (Note: don't bother with the habit judo android app, the app doesn't work.) One of your early habits can be to do one 25-minute chunk of writing a day. Then as you get established, add another. If you have the right personality, habit judo can be amazing. Even when I'm tired and don't feel like working, I find that I'm highly motiated to do my habits before bed because I hate the idea of getting negative points and slipping backwards. It's a small thing but can be just the push you need to actually DO the work consistently.
posted by medusa at 7:27 PM on September 17, 2011

I did this for two years -- until I just cracked, quit the job, took out student loans and finished that way. I actually lost time on the diss, since I had to pretty much start from scratch. Writing is very hard work, and a doctoral thesis isn't a part-time job.

The one thing I'd suggest is doing the writing first thing in the morning, 5 days a week, BEFORE you go to work. This is the core of Jerry Mundis's writing schedule program, and it works.

Also, write for far less time than you think you should: a half an hour, an hour at the most. This is the only way I can get anything done while I'm teaching. DON'T write all day and all night. You'd drop of exhaustion, and your brain will dry up just to give you a rest.
posted by jrochest at 7:45 PM on September 17, 2011

I nth all the "write for a short time, but write everyday" suggestions. i'm not sure what to say specifically about your job interference, because it sounds like you feel that your job isn't the whole problem -- you just aren't using the free time that you have. i had a very 'carefree' PI who probably would have let me hang around for another there was very little external pressure to get mine written. (well, there was the 'pressure' of me wanting to be out of there...) The '15 minutes a Day" book ( and a rough schedule of when I would have certain chapters done was the key to getting there. THe schedule and the fifteen minutes meant even if it was crappy, it existed in some form. And then things got much easier when all I had to do was edit.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:20 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

You may not want to hire someone to yell at you, but my husband did have someone who worked as his "organizer". He checked in every day, read over drafts and was all around super duper awesome and worth EVERY PENNY. Memail me if you want contact info.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 8:49 PM on September 17, 2011

I was the complete opposite of "write for a short time". I recommend planning to spend your weekends, your annual leave, your sick leave, and any other whole days in the library. Plenty of people write their entire PhD in 6-12 weeks. I wasn't one of them, but you should aim to be quick.
posted by roofus at 3:08 AM on September 18, 2011

I had this same issue with my Masters thesis... minus the supportive non-academic environment (won't go into details since I'm not entirely anonymous here). I did a lot of what others have recommended – thinking about it for at least 15 minutes a day. Once I got started, that often turned into an hour and at least a few sentences that ended up being structurally important. It was especially helpful for research; I found many of the supporting works in my thesis during those times.

I only managed to write about 30 pages in six months, when my program wants Masters theses of about 150 pages. I live in France, so said, "eff this, I'll take as much summer vacation as I can and write all day every single day". Ended up churning out 110 pages in 21 days (in French, which is not my native language). Honestly, I think it turned out better than it would have if I'd written in small segments every evening, but that's also due to the nature of my thesis – I'm studying comparative literature. Having solid thematic threads from start to finish is important, and I was able to do that much better when I was able to focus on my thesis and nothing else. And – having thought about and prepared it for so long turned out to be a great asset. My thesis seemed to write itself during my vacation, because everything was already there, essentially. Which surprised me because it certainly hadn't felt that way before. Creation can be funny that way.

Small chunks of time are great for editing. You get out of your thesis space at work, come back to it, read something and can really tell whether it makes sense as is or if it needs further explanation/support/research/cites. (And when writing a thesis in a foreign language, you more easily see the vocabulary and grammatical errors, sigh.)
posted by fraula at 3:35 AM on September 18, 2011

Echoing everyone who has said just write. It doesn't matter if it's fifteen minutes a day or an hour a day, but the important thing is just to do it. It doesn't have to be perfect or completed prose, and it might not necessarily be 'writing' but reading an article, doing some analysis, transcribing data etc etc, but if you want to finish and you have the threat of being kicked off the programme for lack of progress, that should be all the motivation you need. Otherwise, all the hard work you have put in up until this point will just be wasted. You have to ask yourself if you'd be happy with that.

One website which is really good is, where you can set 'pacts' for your daily, weekly or monthly writing targets, and generally talk about working (or not working) on your PhD.

I don't envy you for having to work and finish up at the same time, but just think that when you do get it done (and you will), all the free time can be spent screwing around on the internet and working at something you enjoy without the guilt of the thesis hanging over you.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 4:07 AM on September 18, 2011

Towards the end of my thesis I was like Fraula - I spent whole days just writing, partly because I had the time, but mostly because I'd done all the heavy-lifting you need to do to be able to write for long chunks of time.

The great strength of the write-a-little-bit-every-day model is it keeps your writing 'muscles' limber. As you've encountered, it's tough to get your mind into your work if you've been distracted. If you keep in touch with your work every day, whether it's reading, writing or thinking, you're working out the 'muscles' you need to take advantage of the good days you *do* have to get solid work.

Also, remember that 'writing' is actually the end result of a bunch of little tasks, and one of the biggest tasks is deciding what you're writing and where it goes. This is why planning and outlining is so important, also, so you can direct your energies where you most need them. It's much easier to sit down and decide to write one 250 word section of a chapter, a task you've defined in advance, than it is to sit down and begin by deciding what needs doing.

I actually just wrote a blog post today on everything I learned about finishing a PhD. DM me if you'd like me to send through the link.
posted by nerdfish at 6:07 AM on September 18, 2011

I've done this, and it's not what you'd call fun. I was greatly helped by the support of my SO and supervisor, but my practical suggestion for what you can do is to keep 'momentum' by doing a certain minimum number of words every day, even if you feel like the words you're writing that day aren't great, and by cultivating a habit of returning your attention to the work whenever you feel like flaking out and stopping.

Directed attention is something you can train with mindfulness of breathing meditation, if that is something you're familiar with. These two techniques helped me to keep my thoughts on topic for good days without beating myself up too much when I had a bad day and entering into a fugue of failure.

To determine my minimum number of words, I set myself an end date for the writing phase and a vague minimum word count, and determined the mean number of words/day I would need to hit that date. It was a smaller number than I'd expected, which made it psychologically easier to tackle. To help with that I had some scripts which measured my daily progress at that and plotted some charts of how well I was doing on the desktop, which provided a bit of extra motivation and allowed me to go to the pub without guilt if I'd had a good week or whatever.

Obviously word count is not an indicator of quality, but your supervisor ought to have made sure that you have ideas of quality to write down and now you are into the grind of laying them out coherently.

Good luck! Get to it!
posted by larkery at 4:19 AM on September 19, 2011

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