“A good PhD is a finished PhD”: tips for completing your thesis from academics who’ve been there

Struggling to find the motivation to get through the final furlong of your PhD? Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology, shares some top tips to help you finish strong – with many thanks to Rob Briner, Kamal Birdi, Jane Ogden, Gail Kinman, Katrina Pritchard; and Rebecca Whiting for the quote in the title.

Picture of PhD student graduating

Studying for a PhD and writing the thesis is one of the most challenging undertakings in academic life. One of the difficulties is that there is no blueprint. Each research journey is different. Each thesis is unique. Some of us, and this includes me, probably spent too much time and energy emulating others. Then the realisation dawns that it’s yours and only yours to finish.

Writing the thesis is not a linear journey. There are stops and starts along the way. We start doubting our capacity as writers. We will wonder if our research will ever be good enough. Will people care? Or will they look down on our undertakings? Self doubt tends to creep in.

Motivation is also an issue. On the home stretch, which should be the final energetic lap, many of us get bored with our own words. The end is in sight, but energy levels dip, which often means that procrastination sets in.

What can we do on the final furlong? In no particular order, here are our top tips:

Make yourself a plan and timetable

Month by month at first. Week by week on the final stretch. Share this. Make it accountable. If you miss deadlines and milestones, rethink and learn from why this happened. If you were too ambitious, revise timelines but share this with your supervisor. If slippage happened because you simply didn’t write, reflect on why this happened. Don’t beat yourself up, but recognise that this was a slip and think of strategies to do better next time.

Create a reward system and reward chart

Maybe don’t hit the biscuit tin every time you write 500 words, but think of other treats. A walk in the park? A cup of your favourite tea? Relish and notice the reward. It will feel very satisfying to tick tasks off.

Divide tasks up into ‘intellectual’ and ‘housekeeping’

Some tasks are tough mental work, such as writing a meaningful conclusion. Others are more tedious, such as formatting tables, but these tasks still need to be done. So when you are feeling fresh, do the hard stuff. When you have brain fog, do the simpler tasks. This way, productivity is kept up.

Enough is enough

No thesis is perfect. A take-home of five to six contributions, clearly articulated, is better than a long list.

Divide your attention equally

Don’t fall into the trap of going over and over a certain section, but neglecting other equally important sections of your thesis. Use your chapter structure to ensure that you work across all chapters equally. It’s a common trap to neglect the conclusion. Use your abstract to articulate and shape what your key contributions are.

Chunking is your friend

Don’t think about writing thousands of words, or an entire chapter. Think about writing lots of 500 words. It will feel much more manageable.

Use your submission form to fix the end date

Do this as soon as realistically possible. Seeing the date in print makes it more real and will focus your energies.

Let go of perfection

A perfect thesis is a rare creature. Is this really what it’s all about? Doing doctoral research is an apprenticeship which prepares you for the next chapters of your life. Celebrate what you do well, and don’t mull on your weaker points. Good research is rarely perfect but thought provoking. That’s what it is all about.

Make a plan

Our final tip is not just to read ‘top tips’ but to plan how to put them into action. What are you going to tackle first of the above? Always remember – “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. Perfectionism and ambition are helpful, but should not deter and detract you from the final submission. It’s part of an academic’s life that we worry if our work is good enough, liked, cited and used by audiences. A thesis does not have to be perfect, but needs to document a learning journey.

We wish you well in your writing journey on the ‘final furlong’.

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Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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Gender equality in academia

Dr Almuth McDowall discusses how Birkbeck is drilling into the data of the Athena SWAN Charter, an initiative which seeks to address gender inequality in STEMM.

Are women in STEM subjects not progressing as far and fast as their male colleagues? What should universities put in place to nurture and retain female talent? These are questions close to my own heart, not least as some of my own research on work-life balance and also on executive rewards as a science-practitioner in organizational psychology touches on gender issues.

It’s been much debated that women are more likely than men to leave academia in science subjects, and are underrepresented in senior roles. The Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN Charter, established 12 years ago, seeks to address gender equality through charters. These provide a framework for institutions to apply for an award which recognises their work on equality and diversity. Birkbeck is a member of this Charter, and a number of departments and schools hold awards including Biological and Psychological Sciences.

As a member of the College’s Athena SWAN panel, I am aware that much is being done in the institution to support direct initiatives, such as a dedicated mentoring programme through TRIGGER/ ATHENA SWAN, but also to support culture change by ensuring that any processes and activities are based on evidence and local need, and serve to further, rather than hinder, the equality agenda.

One of the challenges for everyone in academia is that our work is largely driven by the student lifecycle and a tight year-round calendar of events. Friends who tell me ‘oh you academics have all summer off, don’t you’, usually get a rather terse and detailed reply, as I list the number of tasks that have to continue all year around: student supervision, working on academic projects, updating and maintaining our records and so on.  As a result, we often don’t have the time to really drill into the data we have already gathered on issues such as equality and diversity.

Luckily, our ATHENA SWAN panel seeks to address just this. Earlier in the year, I set about a more detailed analysis of (anonymised) data from our staff survey, from all female and male academics in STEM subjects, concentrating on the free comments which people had provided. My question was: do women and men raise different things? And the short answer is: yes, they do.

On the whole, women report to be most concerned about effective communication in the institution, a sense of being valued but also the local facilities and environment. Men, on the other hand, appear more concerned with training, development and progression as well as pay and benefits. These are interesting differences, suggesting that women might focus more on how we work as an institution, whereas men focus more on how they get rewarded for what they do.

The next step is to follow up these issues in dedicated focus groups, to gain more rigorous data and insights on the issue.  Are women more likely to focus on Birkbeck as an institutional environment, but might this come at the expense of focus on individual needs and career progression? Are men more likely to ask, and get what they want? We hope to report back on these issues in due course.

 

 

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