Ways and Means: How to Effectively Manage your PhD Thesis


 Jennifer Maiden

University of Sheffield



Embarking on a PhD was one of the most exciting and rewarding decisions that I have ever made. Now half way through my second year, I am still as enthusiastic about my research and eager to explore new ideas as I was at the beginning of my project. Having said this however, I haven’t always been so sure-footed. This is primarily because when I began my study, I had very little idea of what was really involved in a PhD, or of the practical skills that I would need to develop in order to produce a good piece of research. I also had the added complication that I worked from home, and so had very little of the peer support and guidance that other students based closer to the university enjoyed. I therefore had to learn a lot of the practices I now employ everyday through a painful mixture of trial and error that often left me feeling quite unsure of where I was going with my research, and in some instances, quite frankly a little lost. As a result of my experiences, in this paper I have listed a number of key suggestions that I have found to be extremely useful in order to manage a PhD effectively, and I hope that these pointers will be of use to other doctoral students who find themselves in a similar situation, both as they begin their studies and as they progress with them. 



Don’t be Overwhelmed


This point might sound a little self-evident, but I cannot overemphasise how important it is to keep this thought in mind when you are first setting out on a PhD. The sheer volume of research available, coupled with the fact that you are not entirely sure what direction your project will take for the first few months of study, can make the beginning of your doctorate a very lonely and frustrating period. The most important thing to remember is that with the help of your supervisor, you will find your niche area of research - it may simply take a little time. Also, rather than thinking of this phase of your study as wasted time, it is actually an extremely useful stage of your research development during which you find lots of information that you may either use in your doctorate at a later date, or which you may utilize as ‘off-shoot’ material (that you can subsequently use in articles or conference papers, etc).



Disorientation Happens to All of Us


This sense of being overwhelmed or disorientated is not something that is always confined to the first year of study. Even well into my second year, I sometimes find myself loosing that sense of direction and purpose, as I become a little overawed by the amount of information I have accumulated. This is perfectly natural (I have been assured), and I have friends in their third year of study that have had the same problem. The two things that I have found really help when this happens, is firstly to keep in mind why you are investigating your chosen query and what you are intending to achieve during the course of your project. Continually ask yourself: is what I’m doing directly relevant to my doctorate? The second thing that I find invaluably useful is to write. Formulating your thoughts into a chapter outline, introduction or even summary, will allow you to articulate your ideas coherently whilst making it clearer for you to see where you are going with your project. Even if none of this material makes it into your final PhD, writing down your ideas enables you to spot the ‘holes’ or weaknesses in your argument, that you are then able to re-address and develop.



Organise your Time Management


All of the PhD students I have talked to have had problems managing their time efficiently. The difficulties of working on your own, with very little in the way of deadlines or set objectives, can make a PhD feel much more difficult than it needs to be. As a result it is very important to plan your day efficiently and to cogently prioritise the jobs you have to do. I have often found that when I am overwhelmed or intimidated by a task, I take on the role of the proverbial ostrich - looking to do the washing or to go for a walk - rather than face the section that needs to be completed, or the chapter that is getting close to submission. Making a list, outlining your aims and objectives will help you to avoid procrastination, whilst allowing you to be focused and organised in your approach to each task. When you make your list, it is also important to make sure that you set yourself realistic and achievable targets, for example, giving yourself an easily realisable set of tasks to be completed each day. This will help you to maintain a sense of achievement, and fend off the feelings of discouragement that inevitably rear up if the goals you want to accomplish seem unobtainable or insurmountable. The physical size of your PhD research will add to these feelings of discouragement, so ensure that you file and save individual chapters/research sources etc., in separate folders and devise an easy referencing system. This will allow you to keep abreast of your own progress and monitor where you are going with each line of enquiry, to avoid wasteful and unproductive repetition.



Become an Effectual Researcher


As long as you manage to keep abreast of your own progress, you will produce a comprehensive and interesting PhD. However, perhaps the most easy and important rule to producing a good thesis is to enjoy it. If you find that you are having real problems that are impeding that enjoyment, talk to your supervisor, join a postgraduate forum, but most of all don’t feel isolated. If you voice your concerns you are likely to find a ready-made support group that is happy to listen, and this is as much the case for students working away from their universities, as students who are based on-campus.