Surviving your thesis

Many PhD students view thesis writing with trepidation but, as James Hayton explains, this rite of passage need not be a nightmare – it just takes the right tactics.

Copyright Jorge Cham 2010

In the summer of 2006 my PhD in experimental physics hit rock bottom. After almost three years of research at the University of Nottingham, I had very little in the way of results, zero publications, and was spending most of my time in a darkened lab beating my head against an optics table. There was a real chance I would not finish at all. It did not seem to matter how often I stayed in the lab until 3.00 a.m. – things just were not coming together. It was an utterly depressing time.

The change came one day when I was so frustrated by constant failure that I just had to get away from the lab, away from the department; just escape, immediately. Nottingham has a fantastic campus, so I walked down to the lake, found an empty bench and sat in the sunshine until I felt like going back. This became a habit that saved my PhD, because it helped me realize that working harder just doing more of the same would only make things worse.

Previously, my default when things went wrong had been either to force myself to carry on, or get depressed and find justification to spend time on the Internet instead of doing something constructive. I would find myself just trying to get through to the end of the day, rather than focusing on what needed to be done. But afterwards, if my head was not in the right state to work effectively, I would take a walk around the campus until I was ready to do what I needed to do. Once I took the pressure off myself to appear as if I was working, or to spend hours and hours in the lab, my productivity rocketed. It seemed that small changes in habit could produce massive changes in outcome.

I entered the fourth year with a new attitude and an outlook built on my new habit of stepping away from the situation when stressed. My supervisor, Philip Moriarty, and I managed to get enough results together for a paper, and suddenly things did not look so bad. Crucially, he also set a date after which I would be banned from the lab, no matter what. Anything not finished by that date would not get done.

It is amazing how that focused my effort. With a list of 10 experiments to do, you never quite know which to do first. When you have to eliminate eight of them because there is not enough time, you can actually focus on those that will move your research forward.

500 words at a time
When the time came for me to write up my results, I realized that I needed to apply similar habits to my thesis. If I wanted to do more than just "get through", then I would have to approach it in a different way to most people. I wanted to finish fast, and keep my social life at the same time. Just sitting and typing would not cut it. How could I make it inevitable that I would succeed?

First, I abandoned the idea of filling the 9 to 5 day chained to the computer, and focused instead on specific targets. If I wrote a minimum of 500 words per day then I could stop; pressure off. I could finish the day satisfied with my progress as long as I had done my 500 words. As it happened, I smashed that target almost every day, while friends with better results were struggling to finish a paragraph per day.

So how do you get those 500 words? Physics and writing both rely on creativity and imagination, and both need your brain to be on top form. I never used to think about how to get my brain working (beyond caffeine) before going to the lab or sitting down at the computer and checking e-mail. Waiting to be in the right frame of mind did not work, and usually relied on guilt to get me going, so it made sense to actively create the right frame of mind on demand before trying to work.

Just being at the computer was counter-productive if I was not making progress, so I set a new rule: if I was not focused, I had to get away from the computer. If I knew what to work on, I would do a physical warm-up for five minutes to get fired up before sitting down at the desk. If I needed time to think, I would find somewhere to relax and think things over on my own, then come back when ready.

As a result of these strategies, I went from down and out in 2006 to writing a thesis a year later that my examiner described as one of the best he had ever read. After doing postdoctoral research at CEA Grenoble and the Universidad Aut˜noma de Barcelona, I now teach other people how to write theses. In all of these things my success has stemmed from those few counterintuitive principles I learned back in 2006: being willing to step away from the work when my head is not in the right state; limiting the time available; and eliminating tasks to focus on the few that matter the most.

Top 10 tips for a trouble-free thesis

  1. Never just sit down and try to type. It's common to hear advice in the vein of "just get words down", but it doesn't work that way. Get your brain and content in order first.
  2. Use pen and paper before pixels. Get the disordered ideas out of your brain and onto physical paper first, then try to put them in order before you start typing. It'll save you huge amounts of time.
  3. Don't turn on the computer until you know what you're going to work on, otherwise you'll end up stuck in a default loop of e-mail and Internet until guilt catches up with you.
  4. Get your mind into the right state to work before you sit down at the desk. I decide what to work on, then do a five minute physical warm-up to get the blood flowing before I type. A walk around the block can work too.
  5. Give yourself time away from the computer to think. Archimedes had his bathtub, Newton had his apple tree and Feynman had his wobbling plate. Your brain can do great things when you relax.
  6. Not all content is of equal value. Spend more time and effort on the best results and references. Making the thesis longer with sub-standard work only reduces the overall quality. Less is more!
  7. See your progress: I use a 4 × 10 grid on a sheet of A4 above my desk. Each block in the grid equals 500 words, which I filled in as I went. Small habit, huge difference in morale and productivity.
  8. Work in 25 minute bursts of high energy and focus, with five minute breaks in-between. Use a timer, work on one thing and stop when the timer goes off. Take a longer break after four rounds.
  9. Get into the habit of finishing sections, rather than leaving them for later. This means setting small tasks that you can complete quickly.
  10. You won't follow all of the advice all of the time. That's fine, but if it's not going right, take a step back, look at your habits and start again.

About the author
James Hayton writes and manages the website, e-mail

This article appears in the May 2011 issue of Physics World.

last edited: June 27, 2018

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