“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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Meet our staff: Professor Almuth McDowall

Meet Professor Almuth McDowall, Assistant Dean for Organizational Psychology. We briefly caught up with her to discuss what she enjoys about working at Birkbeck and what she likes to do in her spare time.

I have worked at Birkbeck since 2014, and have been Assistant Dean for Organizational Psychology since 2016. In some ways, it’s been a homecoming after 30 years, as I started my UK academic education here at Birkbeck with training in systemic therapy.

What do I enjoy most about Birkbeck?

I love everything about Birkbeck, as I keep saying and genuinely mean that this is the nicest and most collegial bunch of people I have ever worked with. Our executive team

Head of Department & Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

in BEI has been catching up weekly and sometimes daily, our focus is on supporting each other to plan for the uncertainty ahead; my colleagues in OP have been going the extra mile to support all our students. Human connection matters so much, particularly in these challenging times. Birkbeck students are the best. We salute you. I can’t wait for face to face lectures to begin again. I always make a point of checking in with the group, no matter how large or small and ask how they are doing. Our students make so many sacrifices to join us and learn. Huge respect!

What is most challenging about my job?

Well, let’s put it that way – academics don’t necessarily want to be managed. We relish autonomy and freedom in our work. But let’s face it, there is a job to do which involves common tasks. So coordination and getting joint agreement can be a challenge.

Describe Birkbeck in 3 words

Inspiring, eclectic, connected

What do I enjoy when I am not working?

As a former professional dancer, I spend a good part of my salary going to see the arts – classical ballet, modern dance and hard rock in equal measures. I am a regular at the Almuth dancingRoyal Opera House! I still teach dance-based fitness classes – in fact, some at Birkbeck. This helps me feel grounded and also makes me a better lecturer. In dance classes, you always have to be at least two steps ahead mentally. This is good practice to have in any lecture – stops you from ‘mentally cruising’!

Can you tell us about a good book you read, a film you watched or place you visited?

I love London and London parks, we are so lucky. During the lockdown, I have rediscovered rollerblading. I go to Burgess Park just off the Old Kent Road. On sunny days, this is not only ideal for skating around the park but also people watching. Last time I went one person was practising the saxophone (beautiful!), another group doing Salsa, all socially distanced of course, and Canada Geese were having a serious fight in the lake, scaring us all. It’s a really buzzy and very London Park – go and visit.

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Managing staff who are working from home: business as usual?

Professor Gail Kinman, Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Kevin Teoh from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology share tips on how to manage staff who are working from home.

Empty office

Steps to manage the Covid-19 virus mean that working from home is now mandatory for many people. This will help contain the virus, but such a major shift in working practices will not be easy. Some employees will be working from home for the first time and may struggle to accommodate to their new environment. It may also pose challenges for managers who are required to ensure ‘business as usual’ but have little experience of managing people who work remotely.

The skills required to manage staff during these challenging times are quite different than those needed face to face. Below, we provide some guidance on how to manage remote workers effectively.

Set expectations from the outset signalling support and understanding

The move to remote working will make communication more challenging and you will have less insight into what staff are doing each day. The first step for any organisation is to communicate with all workers affected, setting out clearly the support you are offering, how you will communicate with them and the expectations you have for their performance.

In the current special circumstances, this may mean waving goodbye to previous management practices such as mandatory core hours and operating a flexible “work when you can, as much as you can” policy. Some workers will have challenging circumstances and may have little time or energy for uninterrupted home working. It is important to acknowledge these challenges from the outset and keeping conversation streams open will help you become aware of any changes in people’s circumstances. Also provide clear information on who staff can turn to for advice and support and issue regular updates.

A settling in period is crucial

Staff will need some time to process the change, access the necessary equipment and systems, establish channels of communication and negotiate and adjust work tasks. Do not make assumptions that people who work at home will be more productive as they have more flexibility and their commuting time is eliminated. People will typically take a lot longer to do things and be unable to work to full capacity, especially during the early days of home working. Keep reassuring your staff that you do not expect them to be as productive as usual – maybe the best that you can do in the short term is to identify priorities and work out how best to meet them. Ensure that you have a mechanism for staff to feed back on how things are working out for them. Double check also that appropriate hardware and software is in place. For instance, there are reports already that some organisations are running out of virtual protected network (VPN) licenses.

Be sensitive to role stress

People experience role overload when they are expected to fulfil multiple roles simultaneously without the resources to do so. Resources can be time, energy or attention. Role conflict occurs where fulfilling the demands of one role (e.g. work) is incompatible with meeting those of another (e.g. caring for children). Understandably, both role overload and conflict can be distracting and impair wellbeing and productivity.

Staff will have to dedicate considerable time and energy to craft a balance between their work demands and domestic responsibilities. They are also likely to be anxious about obtaining household provisions and need to monitor the health of themselves and their family members.

Build trust and avoid micromanaging

Building trust between you and your team is crucial. Jointly negotiated goals will help your staff feel engaged, productive and motivated. Deadlines can be set but, as discussed above, flexibility will be required as personal circumstances are likely to be subject to change. Bear in mind that the communication process should be two-way. It is important for managers to check in with staff to monitor their progress and their mental health, but your direct reports also have a responsibility to provide you with updates. Managers are unlikely to have the time to set up cumbersome and intrusive reporting processes, but avoid bombarding people with unnecessary requests, forms, procedures and guidelines.

Use meetings sparingly

Tools such as Skype and Zoom make organising meetings for remote workers straightforward but be aware that online meetings can be time-consuming. Ensuring that all staff members have an input is also challenging. Try not to organise meetings over lunchtime to ensure that staff have a break and are able to prepare meals for children. Send out clear meeting etiquette guidelines. Ensure that meetings are never booked backtoback, as they can become very draining. A shared diary will help mitigate this.

Be aware of the risks of being ‘always on’

Discourage staff from working long hours even if they are willing to do so, as they will be less effective and more vulnerable to health problems. Encourage people to have regular breaks away from their workstation throughout the day. As well as stopping work physically, staff should switch off psychologically to replenish their energies and to enable them to meet their domestic responsibilities. Role model the behaviour you expect from them, such as making it clear that there are times that you are not available, are resting or are meeting your other responsibilities.

Be aware of people’s personal circumstances and conscious of the challenges they are facing

What caring responsibilities do your direct reports have? Are they home-schooling? Do they have the necessary equipment and a quiet working environment? Some people may have access to a dedicated office, while others have to work on a kitchen table, a bedroom or the sofa. Encourage people to take steps to create boundaries (both physical and psychological) and avoid distractions wherever possible but accept that this will sometimes be inevitable. Children will interrupt meetings, dogs will bark and internet connections will inevitably fail.

Treat your staff as individuals

Your staff will experience the change to remote working in different ways. Some may feel anxious, while others will relish the challenge and break from routine. You will find that some people will need more support than others, so you could offer them short goal-setting meetings at the start of each day and a catch up at the end. Others, however, might find this intrusive and prefer to be left alone to get on with it. Be aware that some people will be prone to over-working and may need encouragement to switch off. Asking staff to share with you any difficulties they may be experiencing will help you gain insight into their individual circumstances, needs and preferences.

Encourage socialising and bonding

Working at home can be isolating; this will be a particular problem where staff are largely confined to their homes. Loneliness can reduce motivation and productivity and increase the risk of stress, anxiety and depression. It is important therefore for people to maintain social bonds and feel part of the team. Take some time before a meeting for people to share something personal. Encourage other social bonding opportunities such as ‘virtual coffee time’, a video chat over lunch, or a joint exercise session. Continue to celebrate people’s birthdays or other special occasions. Be creative – one manager we recently spoke to distributed a mini ‘pub quiz’ to help relieve the pressure and encourage team bonding.

Be kind, compassionate and respectful

Show genuine concern for people’s wellbeing and understanding of their personal circumstances. Provide praise and positive feedback so that people know their efforts are recognised and provide affirmation of confidence in your team. You can encourage staff to be open about any difficulties they are experiencing by disclosing that you too are struggling at times. People’s home environments are now their workspaces, but they should not feel that the organisation has moved in with them. It is important, therefore, that communication is measured and considerate.

What about your own wellbeing?

It is equally important that you show the same kindness and compassion to yourself. Expectations of managers are high, and many are now responsible for keeping the business afloat while endeavouring to support their staff through a major transition. Recognise that these are unusual times and it will be a learning experience for everyone.

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How to set up your home working space to support mental and physical health

Dr Rachel Lewis, Registered Occupational Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology shares her tips for creating a safe and productive work or study environment at home.

Home office

The coronavirus pandemic and ongoing lockdown have meant dramatic shifts in the way we work, much of which is beyond our control. Many of us are now working from home, sharing study space with housemates or family members and juggling childcare and other responsibilities into the mix. 

One thing we can take control of, however, is how we set up our workspace to support mental and physical health during this challenging time. The tips in this blog will help you to create an effective workspace, plan manageable routines and mitigate some of the stress that comes with adapting to a new way of work. 

Step 1: Choose your workspace 

As we continue to work remotely, it may be tempting to gravitate to your duvet or sofa and work in comfort, but doing so makes it difficult to manage the boundary between work and other areas of your life. 

Ideally, your workspace should be a separate area of your home that you can go to and leave as if you were going to work, whether that’s an office, desk or seat at your dining room table. This prevents disruption to the rest of your home and helps you psychologically to feel ready for work in that space. 

Step 2: Give your environment some love 

It’s amazing the difference that a few small touches can make to your work environment. Do you have access to natural light? Do you have a plant that could provide you with a more natural environment? While we’re in a state of uncertainty about how long lockdown could last, it’s important to create a space where you feel comfortable working. 

Think also about how to set up your desk to support your posture – could you put a few books under your laptop, or place a cushion behind your back, to help sit in a way that won’t lead to back or neck pain? Physical and mental health are closely linked, so by taking care to avoid aches and pains, you’ll be helping your mind too. 

Finally, scan the area to make sure it’s safe – are there any stray laptop wires that could be trip hazards to you or a family member, for example? 

Step 3: Define your working hours 

Without the physical boundaries that come from commuting to work, it’s tempting to just work around the clock. To ensure you take time to rest and recuperate, set (and stick to) a time to finish work each day. This time may have changed from your usual hours to accommodate other commitments – you could specify your new working hours in your email signature, so people know when you will be available. 

If possible, try to use separate devices for work and leisure – if you have been provided with a laptop or phone line for work, turn these off at the end of your working day to avoid the temptation to keep connected. 

Step 4: Be kind to yourself 

The situation we’re living through represents a significant period of readjustment, so don’t be too hard on yourself if working from home still feels alien. Set yourself goals, but be prepared for those to flex sometimes. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others and let’s help each other through until we meet in person again. 

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