1. It’s not just brain-smart, it’s discipline-smart
It takes a lot of discipline to complete a PhD, and this starts with time management. Humour me and put a rate on your time by the hour – you might find that you are throwing a substantial sum away on most days. For some, imposing a strict 9-5 schedule is best, while others sleep like babies during the day and emerge refreshed at night. I found it helpful to create a schedule of sorts and discipline myself to stick to it most times. All the knowledge, brilliant arguments and ideas can be in one’s head or scribbled across countless notebooks, but until it is written into a thesis, there is no PhD.
2. Read a lot, but read strategically
It’s easy to be busy doing nothing on the PhD. There is no one there to monitor you on a per second basis, so no one will necessarily tell you “that’s a waste of time.” The first year is understandably taken up in reading “far and wide” in order to identify the niche for your new research. However, from the second year onwards, one needs to learn to read-smart. This will save you time, a commodity that will appear to be available to you in abundance until your submission date is 5 months away – and then…!
I say, to read-smart is to skim everything possible, but only deep read the essential bits of the material in your hands. My university ran a workshop on Effective Reading & Note-Taking Habits, and that revolutionised my approach to reading everything – including fiction. Here are some interesting articles that might help – The Art of Dissecting Journal Articles & Knowing when to stop.
3. Be involved in life outside the PhD, but don’t get swamped by it
Pursue the PhD, but by all means have a life outside of it. I found this important because it kept my mind fresh. I was able to unplug from my thesis when I needed to. I would find another activity to be engaged in, and then return to the thesis with a somewhat clearer mind. For instance, I would go to the gym, volunteer to speak at university events, travel to the north to spend the weekend with a good friend etc.
The downside to this is that one can then get carried away with these other activities. Procrastination can make it really difficult to return to reality. This is where discipline becomes key once again.
4. Have PhD buddies – companionship & accountability
While being involved in life outside of the PhD is a great idea, I found that having friends around me who were also on the journey was helpful. They were from different departments to mine – Sciences, Law, Languages and more, but we bonded in the struggle and served as a support structure for one another. It is no wonder our Viva dates were only months or weeks apart for those with whom we began the same year. When you want to rant and cry, they are the only people that would GET YOU, and it’s therapeutic. I didn’t have anything near the isolated journey i’ve often read about – not because they are untrue tales, but because I decided to reach out instead.
5. At some point, realise it’s enough and hand it in
I was not quite willing to let the thesis go towards the end. I feel like the end snuck up on me and suddenly I was done. I cannot refer to that one moment I typed the last word of the final paragraph, banged on the desk, and screamed HURRAH. It didn’t happen. What happened was that “enough was enough”, no new readings, hand it in and let the examiners deal with it. Sooner or later it was over for good.
To strive for a perfect thesis is an ideal that sadly may not be realised. There will always be something that can be improved on. Have a satisfactory thesis and accept that you can build on it towards future publications.
I learnt many more lessons on the journey, but overall, it was worth every challenge it flung my way.