Does a Ph.D. really have to take a thousand years to complete?
Not if you find strategies that will help you research efficiently, write quickly, and maximize every day you spend at work. I've compiled a list of suggestions to help you overcome various physical, intellectual, and emotional hurdles to degree completion. Which techniques on this list work best for you? What tips can you add for your fellow doctoral students? Please share in the comments section below.
While in coursework, start early on your papers. You’ll ultimately achieve a better project relative to the time you invest. The better-written and more intentional your work is early in the program, the richer pool you’ll have to draw from in developing your dissertation. To keep yourself on a writing schedule for large projects, you might try an automated deadline calendar such as the one offered by Baylor University Libraries.
Learn to super-skim. My blog post describes in detail how to do this. Actually, by the time you read this, maybe there will be a speed-reading app to make reading even more efficient than my super-skimming strategies.
Track your time with Toggl or with the stopwatch on your phone. Stop the clock when you stop working to chat with a friend, run to the restroom, or hop on Facebook. Don’t stop working for the day till you’ve hit your quota. You might also try the Pomodoro time management technique.
If your library allows, order your library books to be delivered to your office or to the circulation desk, rather than spending hours in the stacks searching for books yourself.
Check the Survey of Earned Doctorates for the average time-to-degree in your field, and find the numbers for your own university as well. Your goal is to get as close to the average as possible, or beat it.
Keep your inbox ruthlessly organized. Sort messages into folders immediately upon receiving them. For example, you could have folders entitled Advisor, Research, Teaching, Meetings, Conferences, Events, and Social. Flag any messages that you do not read and sort immediately.
Know your degree program requirements. Make a list, and check each requirement off as you complete it. Pay attention to which items can only be done at set times or rare intervals. Also, pay attention to changes in degree program requirements.
Find an efficient note-taking system that you can sync across all your devices. Evernote is a classic; you can can type notes directly into it and attach various kinds of files. Evernote works equally well for lesson plans (if you teach) and for dissertation research.
Choose an advisor who has a reputation for being helpful. This article comes out of the UK, but most of it applies in US doctoral programs as well. Your advisor must be capable, competent, and have your best interests at heart.
Keep on top of paperwork. A doctoral program requires you to file an unimaginable quantity of forms. One missed form can delay a graduation requirement, or graduation itself. Make a list of all the forms you'll have to submit between now and graduation. Better yet, make friends with your department's office manager.
Use every minute of your day. When doing a mindless task like walking the dog or waiting in line at the grocery store, let your mind work on whatever problem you’re trying to solve that day. Or at the very least, think about how to structure your work for the rest of the day or week.
Keep a Victory Log where you record every one of your accomplishments, however seemingly insignificant. If you don't, it'll be too easy to feel that you're making no progress. Even though I'm done with my Ph.D., I still keep an ever-growing list of victories in the Notes app on my phone. Here's how Matt Schohlau tracked his progress in grad school, beginning in his second year: "I started writing down every weekend what I had accomplished during the preceding week. I took great care in this, and I often reread what I had done in the past few weeks... Sometimes in the middle of the week I would realize that I hadn't accomplished anything to be recorded at the end of the week, and I would make sure I would get something done." Schohlau explains the importance of tracking one's progress: "During a Ph.D. you often try something, and it doesn't work in the end. That can be frustrating -- but I feel that tracking what you have done helps to overcome this frustration. The path to success has unexpected twists and turns in a Ph.D., and while a failed attempt looks like no progress, it really is."
Avoid “busy sloth” – unproductive activities that you focus on in order to mask the fact that you’re not working on the tasks that matter most. Eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson said it best: "Not only in the slumber of sloth, but in the dissipation of ill-directed industry, is the shortness of life generally forgotten."
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Whenever possible, swap class notes, lesson plans, etc., with colleagues.
Use the best hours of your day for your creative work. I find that I'm most energized and creative for the first few hours of the workday, and then again after dark. I save my most tedious tasks for late afternoon, when I'm best able to plow through mindless tasks.
Develop habits that foster creativity because the research that will earn you the doctorate requires this faculty. Keep in mind these 18 things creative people do differently. Among other habits, creative people daydream, observe their surroundings, make the most of failures, ask big questions, and take risks.
Work in your optimal sound environment, whether that means light classical music, noise-canceling headphones, or white noise. My preference is to work with brown noise from my 99-cent SimplyNoise app.
Don’t let your dissertation committee members avoid you. I heard of one doctoral student who got an elusive professor's attention by taping a giant orange poster to his office door. It worked! The point is, don't be afraid to insist that people fulfill their obligations to you.
Ask questions on Quora and be amazed by the thoughtful and well-informed replies you receive overnight. Follow the topic threads related to your discipline, as well as the threads on graduate school, doctoral studies, and academic writing/publishing.
Don’t take detailed notes on a source until you know you’ll be working closely with the source. When inserting direct quotations into your notes, copy and paste the quotations from an online version of the source if possible, rather than typing them out.
Create a Motivation Station on Pandora with all the music that motivates you most. Edit August 7, 2014: You can also create playlists with your favorite tracks for dissertation-writing. This tip is courtesy of Zakiya Luna, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Barbara.
Back up everything in multiple places. Don't be one of those people who loses hours' worth of work to a hard drive crash.
Know at least the basics of Microsoft Word so that you can quickly adjust margins, insert tables, use heading styles, etc, as needed. Understand your technological tools in general so that they can save you as much time as possible.
Deal with Impostor Syndrome. Ironically, your feeling of "impostorism" is probably a sign that you do in fact belong. My first year in grad school, I felt like I was trying to figure skate in the Olympics while wearing rental skates. Finally I realized that most people felt that way. I'm glad I didn't drift away from the program for fear that I was not capable of doing the work. You know, because I ended up doing just fine.
Don’t let Incompletes pile up. Take them only if necessary (say, if you have a serious illness), and get rid of them ASAP. Nothing’s more annoying than having to put off your doctoral exams for months while you wait for your professor to return from sabbatical so you can turn in the paper for that one class you were supposed to have finished two years ago.
Think about your research discipline in the midst of your daily life. You never know when fresh insights for your research will occur to you while chopping onions for dinner or reading your child a bedtime story. Remember the story of Archimedes' realization about the volume of water, which occurred to him while he was in the bathtub? Well, it could happen to you too. In a more recent example, a modern-day philosopher's conscious daily experience of her discipline led her to write to a fascinating book.
If you have a child, get help, and lots of it, from people who love your child dearly. Guilt and worry over your child’s well being are not going to help your productivity any more than they help your parenting. If you want to go the nanny route, try Care.com, where you can post a job ad for your ideal part- or full-time nanny and also read up on how to choose, hire, and pay your nanny. Think of the money you spend on quality childcare as an investment in your child and in your career, rather than as a consumable good that is gone as soon as you “use” it.
Overcome perfectionism. Perfectionism is not only painful (according to this article in The Atlantic on “The Agony of Perfectionism”); it’s also a waste of time. In 2012, Kerry Ann Rockquemore wrote a 5-part series on the cost of perfectionism among academics. She points out that even though “the culture and structure of academic institutions exacerbates perfectionism,” the sad truth is that “perfectionism has been shown to have a negative impact on scholarly productivity.” Rockquemore describes the 5 stages of overcoming perfectionism: “1) Recognize what academic perfectionism looks like and understand what it’s costing you; 2) Start breaking the cycle of perfectionism on a daily basis; 3) Experiment with strategies for overcoming perfectionism in your writing; 4) Experiment with strategies for overcoming perfectionism in your teaching and service; and 5) learn the high art of intentionally varying your standards across your work and life.” Rockquemore's five wise articles are essential reading for those among us who are sometimes stalled by our obsession with perfection.
Rest is productive. Your brain needs time not actively focusing on work. Nap, walk your dog, hang out at the pub. Just not too much.
Get your relationship on solid footing, or get out of it. If you have a spouse/partner, I hope it’s someone who respects your work and is willing to bear with the financial, emotional, and physical sacrifice that is grad school. The right partner energizes, stabilizes, and encourages you. If your relationship with your partner is making grad school harder rather than easier, have some frank conversations about what’s going on beneath the surface.
Use your dissertation proposal defense to your advantage. Ask questions, welcome your committee members' critiques, and listen for clues as to how to make your project go as smoothly as possible.
During work time, block distracting websites using one of the many free apps developed for this purpose, such as FocalFilter, SelfControl, or Cold Turkey.
Learn how to use Word's Track Changes feature, if you haven't already, so that you can track different versions of your documents over time, prioritize different readers' feedback, and opt to reject changes with which you don't agree. Also ask readers of your work to add their comments in comment boxes rather than in the text itself.
Right before bed, turn your mind to the hardest unsolved problem or the most perplexing text that you encountered that day. Think about the problem as you lay in bed falling asleep. When you wake up, you may have greater clarity. (Warning: this technique can also lead to insomnia, so it works best if you go to bed a little earlier than necessary.)
Collaborate with members of your cohort and other peers through a formal writing group or through informal conversations in offices and hallways. When your thoughts are tangled up, the process of describing your work to another person can help you to untie the knots. Tell peers your specific goals so that they can hold you accountable. Contrary to what a senior scholar once told me, academic success is not a zero-sum game.
Put motivational quotations on your bathroom mirror. Among my favorites: "Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it" (Goethe); "There is only one way to avoid criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing" (Aristotle); "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined" (Thoreau); "Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value" (Einstein).
Find the productivity apps that work for you. I like Evernote, Mind Node, and Caffeine. I'm sure a hundred cool new ones have come out since I last checked.
Use school supplies you enjoy. Your folders, pens, etc. should be in colors that inspire you.
Do not allow teaching to take over your life, even if you're one of those teachers who genuinely loves every interaction with every student. Decide upon an appropriate number of hours to spend per week on lesson planning, office hours, and grading, and stick to your limit.
Consider your failures to be paradoxical successes. Benjamin Franklin said, "I didn't fail the test. I just found 100 ways to do it wrong." Wrong answers and dead ends are intrinsic facts of the researcher's life. Discovering and rejecting what doesn't work represents progress toward the right answer and the productive path.
Work in a blue room. Disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer said that people are most creative in rooms with blue walls. Sure, his assertion was based on a misinterpretation of a single study. But I wrote most of my dissertation in a room with ocean-blue walls, so I have a sentimental allegiance to this factoid. If you have $25 for a can of blue paint, and you feel like looking away from a computer screen for a few hours, it wouldn't hurt to try.
Find your body’s ideal sleep/caffeine formula. The goal is to maximize your waking hours by sleeping no more than necessary, but still sleeping enough that your waking hours are productive. Sufficient sleep is necessary for memory formation, so don't go crazy with the all-nighters.
Take power naps. In grad school, I kept a fleece blanket in my office so that when my energy was really flagging, I could curl up under my desk for a 10-minute snooze. If a student catches you, just pretend that your behavior is perfectly normal, and your student will assume it is.
When developing an argument or a narrative out of a mass of facts or ideas, diagram your material visually. You might try writing all of your variables, constructs, or sources on index cards, and stick the cards to a magnetic white board. Move the cards around as needed and draw arrows to show relationships. Snap photos of the board in different configurations so that you can record the progress of your work and return to an earlier iteration if necessary.
Trim the fat from your schedule. A lifelong insomniac, I once realized that I spent too much time lying in bed trying to fall asleep. I made a rule that if I wasn’t asleep within an hour of going to bed, I’d get up and get to work. I later learned from this podcast that the the findings of sleep scientists back up my practice.
When you're losing perspective on a long paper, print out the document. Looking at a hard copy of the paper in its current form, you'll be able to see more easily the relative length of your various sections, the organizational framework you've used (intentionally or not) to structure your ideas, the frequency with which you use key words, the sub-sections that are under-developed, etc. Plus you'll give your eyes a break from the computer screen.
When working on a long writing project, create an easily updated outline by using the Heading Styles in Microsoft Word. First, put each of your sub-headings in the appropriate heading style according to the level of the heading. Then, at the beginning of your document, insert an Automatic Table of Contents. This TOC is essentially an outline of your manuscript-in-progress. Now you can easily see the structure of your argument, and you can instantly update it every time you add or change a sub-heading. Just highlight the TOC and click "update field." Use the TOC/outline to check the overall structure of the argument, the number of sub-sections per section, and so on.
Don’t let formatting your documents become a time-sucker. The work is so easy to outsource by hiring an editor or a document processing specialist. Alternately, solve each formatting frustration ad hoc by finding a youtube videos for each specific formatting challenge you face, when you face it. For example, I found this great tutorial on how to create an automatic table of contents. (Useful for #49, above.)
If you teach, grade efficiently. Design the assignments in such a way that you can grade them with a detailed rubric (by merely checking off boxes rather than writing entire sentences) or some other efficient system that is appropriate to your discipline. At the very least, if you must give your students feedback in sentence form, remember that students can only process and integrate 2-3 key takeaways per assignment. Don't overdo it on the comments, or you'll wear out yourself as well as your students.
Never, never stare blankly at a computer screen. If you're not making progress, get up and move. Better to open a book or even gaze out a window, than to stare at a computer screen that’s going to fry your eyes and make you feel discouraged.
Keep an organized spot at home where you can get work done in spare moments. Even if you work in the office or on campus most of the day, you can get in a half hour of work over your morning cereal and another hour after your family members, roommates, or pets are in bed.
Spend time in environments that energize you. For me, that means natural light and the presence of other busy human beings. For you, maybe it means a cave that is lit dimly with gas lamps and is free of the cacophony of humanity. Do what works for you.
Realize that setbacks are a dime a dozen in grad school. When they happen, don’t waste time and energy feeling sorry for yourself. Remember that grad school is a privilege and a gift. As one grad school mentor is fond of saying, "Onward!"
Plan your doctoral exams so that your reading lists are as relevant as possible to your dissertation project.
Integrate your social media use into your work. Follow and interact with people and organizations whose posts might spark ideas related to your own research. Blog or tweet about your research. Your followers can be a sounding board as you develop your ideas.
Seek advice from people in similar fields and/or life circumstances who finished grad school in a timely manner. In case you hadn't noticed, people love talking about how they got to be so successful and dishing out advice based on their own experience.
Tell your graduation deadline to every person who can influence your progress. It helps to specify why you chose that deadline—say, the impending birth of a child. Your advisor might be more likely to provide timely feedback on your latest chapter if he or she knows that you have to defend before your Mini-Me arrives.
Realize that you will always have more to learn, and be sure to listen, really listen, to people who know more than you. As Maimonides said, "Teach thy tongue to say, 'I do not know,' and thou shalt progress."
For gosh sakes, take my advice and learn what a paragraph is.
Publish! As you hurry along in your degree program, don't forget the necessity of publishing while still in graduate school. Check out Jeff Bilbro's awesome advice for racking up publications while you're still a doctoral student.
Outsource and barter when you can. Your graphic designer friend can create the diagrams and charts for your articles, and in exchange, you can dog-sit for her. Your grammar-savvy friend can proofread your papers, and in exchange, you can help him re-vamp his teaching wardrobe.
Eat. My quick power foods in grad school were hard-boiled eggs, Ovaltine, and bran flakes. Sure, my husband still makes fun of me for the fact that I lived on these foods for 5 years. But what's so strange about them, really? All three foods are nutritious, cheap, and require zero prep time. If you want to be more zen about your diet, try sticking to the simple foods that monks eat to promote meditation.
Take advantage of all your university’s academic resources: research librarians, online resources, dissertation support programming, writing labs, and so on.
Take advantage of all your university’s non-academic resources, such as gyms, health services, and student life programming. These resources can contribute to your progress in intangible ways. Exercise increases your energy, health services help keep your body working, and events such as guest lectures can spark new insights for your work.
If you’re attending grad school in an exciting city, pretend you’re instead living in Waco, Texas, where I went to grad school. Waco is homey and charming in its way, but it's not exactly an epicenter of activity. This can be a good thing for grad students because they don't have to try so hard to stay focused on work.
Use peer pressure to your advantage. You know that one grad student in your department who always seems determined to appear smarter and more accomplished than everyone else? Spend at least fifteen minutes around that person every time you need a jolt of ambition.
Don’t get too comfortable. Some of the people who take the longest to finish their Ph.D.s are those who have the coziest friend groups, the most patient domestic partners, and/or the slushiest slush funds. These things are great and all, but if they're keeping you from making steady progress toward your Ph.D., you need to introduce some discomfort into your life. Promise your friends you'll pay them each $50 for every additional semester you take to finish your dissertation. Promise your partner that, for every year you spend in grad school, he or she can have an extra puppy/solo vacation/fill-in-blank-here.
When you encounter difficulties, sublimate your negative emotions (anger, fear, insecurity, grief) into your work. Sorry to quote Samuel Johnson again, but, “Sorrow is the mere rust of the soul. Activity will cleanse and brighten it."
Find what motivates you. According to this TED Talk about what motivates us at work, we may be more productive and focused when we (a) "see the fruits of our labor," (b) "know that our work helps others," (c) "receive positive reinforcement about our abilities," and (d) view "images that trigger positive emotions." Translation: take time to admire the pages you have already written and the papers you have already published, keep a file of all the emails and cards in which your students thank you for inspiring and educating them, assign your loved ones the responsibility of reminding you what your strengths and talents are, and keep photos of said loved ones on your desk.
Experiment with structure. Many writing coaches (Paul J. Silvia, among others) recommend creating a rigid writing schedule and spending some time every day writing. While I personally prefer a more flexible schedule, I believe everyone should try the rigid-schedule thing before opting for a more flexible plan.
Choose a dissertation topic as early in grad school as you can. Don't spend years flitting from topic to topic, afraid to commit. This project does not define your identity as much as you think it does. If you settle on your topic early on, you can make more of your coursework feed into your dissertation project. Take courses with professors who will be flexible and let you tailor your papers to your dissertation.
Early in the dissertation process, take the time to design your research well. Get feedback from an expert in your research method. Make sure your plan is strong before proceeding to the IRB, pilot study, proposal, etc.
As you assemble your dissertation committee, pay attention to how the various members are getting along. Have back-up members in mind in case someone doesn't make tenure, or something else goes south. Beware rivalries, conflicting egos, and so on.
Keep convenience foods in your office so that, on days when you forget your lunch, you don't have to trudge out to buy a sandwich.
Keep your dissertation topic as narrow as possible, without verging into insignificance. Ask experts in your narrow research area what new projects are most needed. No matter how tempting, don’t set out to change the world with your dissertation. Focus on the one problem you can solve in X number of pages. Once your committee passes you, you can revise your dissertation into a world-changing publication.
When choosing your research topic, use others' lit reviews to your advantage – especially recent lit reviews. Reading other scholars' recent surveys of the current state of knowledge in your field is an efficient way to locate gaps or flaws in the existing knowledge. For potential research topics, you can also try scouring the conclusions of other scholars' recently published work, specifically the sections where the authors make recommendations for future research. Before you embark on the research, though, double-check that the project has not yet been done.
Be ready to adapt quickly if a project similar to yours gets published by someone else while you’re still writing it yourself. Even if someone publishes a nearly identical study, it’s likely that there is some difference between your approach and the other person’s. Or, there may be some tweak or adjustment you can make to salvage the project. Don't discard your project lightly.
Honor the connection between writing and thinking. Let me quote professor/writing coach Theresa MacPhail, who asserts that the secret to writing a dissertation is simply to write, every single day: "Because writing is thinking, brilliant thoughts do not just appear on the page after long hours of arduous musing on a subject. In my experience, the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself—usually just at that moment when you’ve run out of steam and are staring down a seemingly intractable problem, desperately wanting to quit." I don't agree with MacPhail that writing, research, and editing are entirely discrete tasks. I happen to work best when I'm switching among closely related tasks at 20- or 30-minute intervals. But regardless of whether MacPhail's exact strategy works for you, her column is definitely worth a read.
Avoid checking out mass quantities of library books that you won't end up needing. Either rent a library carrel, or spend quality time in the library aisles sorting the books before you decide which ones to check out. Use your phone to take photos of books’ copyright pages and of key passages. This will be much quicker than using the library’s scanner or copier, or writing notes by hand.
Work recursively. As you develop your dissertation project, move back and forth between others' work and your own, between the abstract and the concrete, between the data and your analysis of it. This recursive movement is the key to ending up with a cohesive, relevant project.
Develop a writing strategy that plays to your strengths, as I describe in this blog post.
Read backwards. That is to say, when reading the literature in your field, pay close attention to publication date. Work backwards from the most recent research to the oldest. Starting with a firm grounding in what’s happening now will help you know what you can skip in the older literature. Depending on your field, don't bother with older stuff unless it's foundational.
Designate a blog, Pinterest board, or notebook to store all the insights, quotations, etc. that won't make it into your dissertation. Keep your mind and desk clear, so to speak, to focus on the project that’s required for graduation. Those other rabbit trails will still be waiting for you when you’re a Doctor.
Consider advice carefully, but don't always take it. Throughout grad school, you're bound to get conflicting advice about your research, your teaching, and your efforts on the job market. Don't get frustrated and shut down. Weigh the advice carefully, ask your advice-givers for clarifications and exceptions, and make the best decisions you can. Academic work, like everything else, is endlessly complex. You'll never please everyone.
Just write. If you’re one of those people who struggles to get ideas from your head onto the page, try free-writing. Don’t worry about it sounding right or being organized the first time. Just get it down. You can come back to your document with fresh eyes a few days later and create a reverse outline so that you can see the structure of what you’ve said and figure out how to re-organize it.
Consider how much time you spend on the various tasks involved in writing. Which part of the process is the greatest time-sucker for you? Topic generation, organization of a draft, or polishing and clarifying what you've written? Find a writing partner, writing consultant, coach, or editor to help you with that part of the process.
Free yourself from the grip of grammar and other lower-order concerns. Don't let an obsession with your potential grammar errors slow your writing progress. Grammar is the easiest thing to have an editor correct for you.
But also, find a grammar resource that works for you, such as Grammar Girl.
Find a visual design resource if you need to represent your findings in figures and charts: perhaps Stephen Few’s Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten.
Be wary of pouring too much time into the academic job search as you move toward graduation. Efficiency is just as important in the writing of cover letters and tweaking of CVs, as it is in dissertation-writing.
Use Endnote or a similar tool to manage and format your references and citations.
As you reach each mini-milestone, celebrate your progress so that you're inspired to make more of it. Every time you turn in a chapter or make your way through a thicket of revision notes, reward yourself with a trip to the pub, a new pair of shoes, a hot-fudge sundae, or whatever else makes you happy.
Keep up with the necessary sites, like Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, TheProfessorIsIn, ChronicleVitae, and any other site you can find that produces timely and reliable advice for graduate students in your field.
Look forward to, and plan for, the job you’ll have after grad school. I know, I know, [insert complaint about academic job market here]. But think positive. Check out the Alt-Ac career ideas on TheProfessorIsIn.com, Versatile PhD.com, and Alt-Academix.com, as well as in So What Are you Going to Do with That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia.
Obviously, you should work with ScholarShape to streamline your writing process!!
When you're feeling low, remember that the very instant you reach your nadir is the instant that your triumphal upswing begins. Think of those hard-work montages that come two-thirds of the way through movies. Summon your courage and carry on.
Love your work, and love the people for whom you work. Call me sentimental, but I'm pretty sure love is the ultimate motivator.
Share this list with other Ph.D. students, and in exchange, ask them to pass along to you any of their own tips that aren't included here.
Take heart. If you’ve read (or super-skimmed) all the way to the end of this list, that's a sign that you do have the will to finish your Ph.D. quickly. Now all that remains for you to do is to put your new strategies into action.
Please share comments below. How many of these strategies have you already tried, and which do you plan to try next? How do you balance the need for speed and efficiency against other considerations, like the care of one's family and the cultivation of professional skills?