HOW TO FINISH A PhD IN THE HUMANITIES IN (x) YEARS

by luketarassenko

I haven’t written on this blog in a very long time, almost a year in fact. One of the reasons for this is that I was finishing writing my DPhil (PhD) thesis in Theology.

Having now done this, I thought I’d share my top 10 tips for finishing a PhD in case it’s helpful to anyone who sees this on facebook or who might find this post through google (it does happen, according to my wordpress stats page). So here are my tips for finshing a PhD thesis in the Humanities in however many years you need to do it in.

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Luke’s Top 10 Tips for finishing a PhD

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1. Apply ‘large rock theory’.

This was the single most useful technique I discovered so I will spend the most time on it. I was told about it on the Oxford ‘making progress with your doctorate’ course. You can find large rock theory discussed elsewhere on the internet but here’s my explanation of it: Imagine you are trying to get a collection of different sized rocks into a jar. If you try to shove them all in at once they will never fit. BUT if you put the largest rocks in first, then the medium sized ones on top of those, then the little ones on top of those, then the gravel and sand in to fill in the gaps, they will fit!

Similarly, if you just randomly do different tasks during the day and try to do everything at once it will never work. BUT if you do the hardest tasks (‘large rocks’) first during the day, when you are the freshest, or whenever you work best, then the next hardest (the ‘medium sized rocks’), and so on, then you will be much more efficient and get more done! For me, this looked like writing the thesis first thing in the morning, reading primary texts first thing in the afternoon, then reading secondary texts and articles, and finally leaving emails and admin till the end of the day.

(Another good trick I picked up is just checking the subject lines of emails first thing in the morning if you absolutely have to and then only responding to the urgent ones. But this is dangerous—it starts your brain on the admin path first thing!)

2. Type notes straight to computer whenever possible.

Since you will have to create the finished product on a computer anyway, this saves the time of writing out notes by hand and then typing them up later. It may not always be possible because of screen/keyboard fatigue, but I found it was a useful and efficient practice when it could be done. I would also try to be as selective as possible about what notes I took. In my experience personal brief summaries of key ideas and the most important quotes from texts are more valuable then pages and pages of copying!

3. Have a master reading list document in priority order.

This will mean that you know what you need to get through overall, have it all written down in one place, and can see what is the most important thing to read next when you don’t know what to go to. Ideally it becomes organised in terms of what you are reading for what chapter, and then it will prioritise texts in descending order of importance for each chapter. It also means you can add to a single unified document whenever you discover something new to read and satisfyingly tick texts off as you read them (or bits of them).

4. Set achievable goals and reward yourself when you meet them.

This is a bit of a no-brainer, but you might forget to reward yourself when you meet a goal. I think ideally the reading list should also say what you are aiming to read by when. But the most important goals are writing goals, so that you are sending material to your supervisor regularly and actually producing the thesis. A goal might be 10,000 words a term/season. If you don’t reward yourself and take regular breaks and holidays then eventually you will start to believe that all that matters in the Universe is your PhD and you will go completely crazy.

5. Use Endnote, Refworks or another referencing program to organise your references.

Try to do this if you can, so you don’t spend a nightmare week properly formatting all of your references at the end of the PhD. That’s what I did and it was horrible. Using software, though you have to learn how to do it initially, is far more efficient and better prepares you for future academic work.

6. Just keep doing SOMETHING!

Actually, maybe this is the most important tip? There will be times when you are just staring at a blank screen or a pile of notes feeling brain dead and thinking ‘Urgggh…What do I DO?’ As long as you don’t get paralysed by fear and just keep doing SOMETHING each day eventually the thesis will get done. Just keep swimming. Inertia is crippling; movement keeps your brain in gear and it will be easier to change course if you take a wrong turn, rather than just stopping.

7. Get regular exercise.

Because it keeps the blood flowing, keeps the mood up and just makes life better generally.

8. Keep seeing other people.

Humanities postgraduate work is isolating and depressing and staying connected with others keeps your mood up too. Support from family / friends / church / niche interest club is essential to completing a PhD in my view. As well as those, going to seminars and conferences will keep you talking to others and is also important for staying in touch with the academic register for writing and with what is currently going on in your discipline.

9. Have a creative or recreational outlet that isn’t the PhD.

Another tip for the protection of your sanity. It might be creative writing, painting, music, fishing, whatever! Although you may have to be a bit careful with this one. Part of the reason I didn’t get a Post-Doc after my PhD is probably because I spent all the time I should have been working on journal articles and presenting papers at conferences writing children’s stories instead. Though maybe this just shows I am more interested in being a children’s story writer than an academic!

10. Pray for your thesis every day, if you are a praying person!

Another no-brainer. I definitely couldn’t have finished my PhD in the time limit without God’s help and without prayer. God knows all the answers, after all.

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So those are my top ten tips for finishing a PhD in the Humanities. All the very best to anyone who has read them and is currently struggling through a Humanities PhD!

P.S. I passed my doctoral viva with minor corrections, as opposed to major corrections or having to resubmit, so hopefully these are tips that apply to finishing a PhD well and not just finishing one at all. I had to do it in three years because my funding was going to run out then and I was offered a place on a PGCE course which made finishing the PhD a condition of the offer, but I think they apply however long you have to finish.

P.P.S. I should also say that my thesis wasn’t recommended for publication in its present form, which all Oxford Theology theses are automatically considered for. But I was told this was because of genre choices I made with my last chapter rather than because of the quality of the work and that I could get a couple of articles out of it or expand it into a book for publication, so again I think that these tips still apply to finishing a PhD thesis well! I made these choices consciously and knowing what the risks would be—I was trying to do something a bit rogue and creative in my final chapter, and my examiners really didn’t like it. In the end it became more of a duograph or a one-and-a-half-ograph than a monograph, which is why for my minor corrections I have been asked to edit it down.

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Now that I’ve finished my PhD, it’s my wife’s turn, as she’s just started one. I’ve already shared these tips with her and she said they were quite helpful, so I thought I’d make them more publicly available. Go for it, honey!

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