Writing up a PhD – The final straight?

Hand typing at a keyboard

Tapping away

This week I ran a workshop for research students on the topic or writing up the thesis. I remember my own journey well and how exhausting it all seemed. I, probably like many other research students, did not relish the prospect of turning my research into a well crafted piece of writing so I procrastinated.. a lot! Much of my written work was completed in a matter of weeks right at the end only because I was given an immovable deadline, just what the doctor ordered for a classic last minute type of person.

I set out to try and help research students understand that it doesn’t (and probably never will) feel comfortable to approach such a seemingly daunting task as producing a thesis and I set about imparting as much wisdom, hints, and tips on writing as I could. This has led to this particular workshop being quite content heavy as it has been added to over the years (so any thoughts on streamlining the content will be appreciated!) incorporating bits and pieces from the Vitae Resources repository as well as nuggets collected from far and wide.

Two things I think are important about writing a thesis:-

  1. Writing should be thought of as being integral to the research, not as a add on activity
  2. The purpose of the written thesis is to convince the examiners that you meet the criteria for the award of doctorate – so clarity is important!

Here’s the slides.

Further resources

Throughout the session I made reference to a number of blog posts which I think are worth highlighting here:

The Thesis Whisperer – Edited by Dr Inger Mewburn; this is an excellent resource for folks navigating their way through a doctorate).


Patter – Professor Pat Thomson‘s blog – This has to be one of the best places to read up on the many challenges of academic writing.

There are some great hints and tips in the postgrad researcher section of the Vitae website on the topic of completing your doctorate that are well worth the time to read.
Finally, if you have any comments or advice about writing up then I’d love to hear them.

Finding time to write – snacking instead of feasting

At the end of January we ran a workshop here at UWE for researchers entitled “Writing for Publication”. Dr Rowena Murray from the University of Strathclyde, a veritable expert on the topic, came to facilitate the event for us.

Rowena has published a number of books on the subject aimed PhD students and academic research staff, it was a fascinating day. She outlined a number of approaches to achieving some writing goals (having actually established some in the first instance!) that can be utilised by almost anybody.

I have to confess that I find writing extremely hard, it is not an activity I like doing particularly. This is especially so when it comes to writing about research. I’m aware that this has a lot to do with my personality, how I prefer to approach things. However you would describe it or quantify it, I am an extreme example of “Mr Last Minute”, a deadline has to be looming above me like a boiling, tumultuous storm cloud in order for me to find the clarity of thought, energy and enthusiasm to commit the contents of my head to paper. Indeed, my PhD thesis was largely written in a period of six weeks (having procrastinated for the previous six months) only because I had no other choice but to finish it before an externally imposed deadline.

One of the approaches that Rowena described on that day was that if one waits to feel “comfortable” or “good” about writing before you commence, then most of us would be waiting forever. There is value in adjusting the mindset to realise that thinking about writing is never going to feel good. Another practical consideration, which I have come across in other spheres, is the idea about having to have a large enough block of time to actually achieve anything, therefore fooling oneself into thinking that it is not worth starting anything that you can’t ‘get your teeth into’.

The reality is that if one has a clear goal, a results oriented approach, then plenty can be achieved in really small chunks of time. The idea of free writing has never really sat well with me but it can be amazing to see how much one can write when you suspend the “quality control” feature!

This approach is then to realise that one has to make the best of increasingly small chunks of time in order to achieve things including writing, learning how to “snack write” rather than waiting for sufficient time to “binge” or “feast” on writing.

One of the outcomes of the workshop was to establish a writers’ group, something I duly did. In fact that is exactly where I am sitting now, in a room free of distractions with some other researchers who are furiously scribbling away and making progress on their latest research paper.

I, on the other hand, am merely writing this blog entry. Still, that’s something I have achieved today…