(Last updated on: 10/12/2020)
Committing to a PhD is a big decision. As I wrote in this post, there are reasons for and against doing a PhD, all of which need careful consideration. According to The Times Higher, around a fifth of PhD candidates never qualify for the award, and a lot of this is down to the time it takes to complete and the motivation required to endure it! For many students the number one question that they have is ‘how can I write my PHD faster?’
Most PhDs are completed between 3 and 6 years, but some people take far longer. During this time life will have its ups and downs, circumstances will change. When I enrolled on my programme in 2013 I was a completely different person from when I graduated. During my three years I got married, changed jobs twice, bought two houses and had a baby! For many people, knowing that they can finish their PhD as quickly as possible is motivation in itself to open up the laptop and start typing. In this post I share with you how I completed my PhD part time in 3 years…and how you can too!
You might also be interested in my post- ‘Should I do a PhD? 5 Reasons for and Against‘
Tips to write your PhD faster
Manage your time well
My student card doesn’t expire until the end of 2019, but I actually submitted my thesis in 2016 and passed my viva early 2017! This is because I did my PhD in almost half the time allocated to me. Much of this was down to strong time-management skills, which I pride myself on. You don’t have to be the most organised person in the world but it will help!
Here are some of the ways that I organised my time to ensure maximum output:
- Have a schedule and stick to it- I used my Apple calendar to plan each day. I had structured start and finish times with set things that I would work on each day.
- Use dwell time wisely- I would also use any extra time in my day to do small bits such as reading papers or printing articles. I am a Lecturer so I would set the students on task and then do my own reading whilst they did theirs. I would take notes whilst on the train or during the TV adverts.
- Allow time to recharge- It is really important that you have some down-time too. I never worked past 6pm and usually rewarded myself for my hard work that day with a glass of red wine or two. I always had at least one day off per week.
- Don’t push too hard- We all have days when the words don’t flow. Instead of wasting my time staring at a screen I would do something different on these days, PhD-related or otherwise.
- Don’t waste time- If a chapter didn’t appear relevant, I didn’t read it. If a conference presentation wasn’t useful to my topic, I didn’t watch it. If a meeting wasn’t necessary, I cancelled it.
For more tips on how to manage your time well I highly recommend the book the 4 hour work week– it really has been a game changer for me!
Have a reason to finish
Most of us need some form of motivation to be productive.
I chose to undertake my PhD with a view that it would take me out of the further education sector where I worked at the time and into higher education. I was frustrated with the compulsory education sector and I didn’t feel it stretched me mentally. Having a PhD would enable me to apply for jobs in HE, which is where I wanted to work. In the first instance this was my motivation to work hard.
After a year I secured employment at a University Lecturer. Whilst this was fantastic, it did take away my primary motivation for completing the PhD.
This was, however, no problem. I was ready for the next stage in life: a baby. I calculated how long it would take me to complete the remainder of my research and to write it up. Once I thought that it was possible to complete in under 9 months, hubby and I made the decision to start trying for a family. We were really lucky to fall pregnant straight away and with many hours of hard work, dedication and nagging my supervisors to mark my work, I managed to complete my research five months later and to organise my viva for two weeks before baby’s arrival. It literally was the race against biology.
As you can see, I had two very good reasons to open up my laptop and start writing each day. Had I not worked so quickly my life would likely look very different right now. Perhaps I’d still be writing in the day and drinking my wine in the evening instead of taking care of a toddler and a baby!
Want to write your PhD faster? Find a reason to!
I want to say that your PhD won’t be all-consuming, but I’m sorry to say that it will probably take over your life. I haven’t met a single person yet who has completed their PhD and will beg to differ. Yes, you need some downtime, you absolutely do. But there will be times when you are dreaming about correlations, informing your friends about philosophical approaches and quoting academics in your field as if they are your friends. I have also been known to be so distracted by my (PhD) thoughts that I’ve washed my hair twice or put my keys in the fridge.
Whilst this may sound bad, it’s actually when some of my best thoughts came about. My suggestion is not to resist it, but to embrace it as part of the PhD journey. Keep a notebook by your bed, tell your friends about your research and maybe even make first-hand contact with those academics that you now feel you know so well. There are also some pretty useful books that can help motivate you to power on, such as this one from Amazon.
It won’t last forever, you will get your life back one day, I promise!
You might also be interested in my post- ‘Should I do a PhD? 5 Reasons for and Against’
My last suggestion for the person who wants to write their PhD faster is to think strategically. Put together a long-term plan as well as a short-term plan. Sure, it’s great to know what you’re doing today or tomorrow or next week, but where does that fit in the bigger picture? Here are some examples of techniques that I used:
- Keep an annotated bibliography- I did this right from the start. In it I outlined the main points of the reading but also the methodology used. This came in super useful further down to line when I couldn’t remember all of the details of what I had read months or even years earlier.
- Outline each chapter from the start- OK so you might not know what your findings will be but you will have a rough idea of where your research is going. I had several working documents where I saved links to articles or inserted quotes from papers that I read that I thought might be valuable in the future.
- Use software to reduce time- There are a range of computer programmes and apps that you can use to help save time and improve accuracy. This is an area that I’m not particularly strong at and I know that I wasted many hours doing my referencing by hand and undertaking manual calculations for my statistical analysis. Software such as Endnote, NVIVO or SPSS are widely available and there are lots of YouTube videos to guide you should you not know what you are doing.
- Invest your time wisely- Go to conferences, they are great for stimulating thinking and for networking. I went to some fantastic events at various universities in the UK and abroad and I really enjoyed speaking with other PhD candidates. It’s amazing how beneficial this can be in developing new ways of thinking along. It also provides excellent mental benefits to be able to discuss burning issues with colleagues who are going through the same things as you are, because lets face it- there isn’t a huge PhD community out there. When you choose a conference to attend, however, choose wisely. I mostly went to events that were relevant to my topic or methodology that were hosted at reputable institutions with high-calibre speakers. My university was very low-profile in the area of research and I found the in-house events to be largely irrelevant to me and to provide minimal benefit- so I tended to avoid attending these as I thought that they were a waste of time.
- Plan your external moderators early and strategically- Like I said, conferences can provide excellent opportunities for networking. This is also a good opportunity to scope out potential external moderators. You can chat with other academics, get feedback on your work and assess their suitability as an external at these events. If you select one that you have met before it will also likely put your mind at rest for the big event- the viva.
You might also be interested in my post-‘10 reasons your PhD WILL take over your life!‘
So these are my top tips for those who want to complete their PhD faster. I did it, so you can to! Do you have any recommendations to add? Please leave them in the comments box below!