Rugby-tackling baby elephants: my tips for thesis survival

Writing a thesis can feel like a truly daunting task. At the start, it seems like you’re standing at the bottom of a mountain that you know you have to climb, but the summit is cloaked by clouds and you haven’t even reached your first base camp yet. This thesis-shaped mountain also comes with its own unique set of metaphorical obstacles – rock slides, high winds and decidedly grumpy mountain goats. These roughly translate into problems like dead end research paths, project deadlines and other tasks like compulsory modules, conferences and paper submissions; all of which, whilst enjoyable, always take up more time that you anticipate.

To stay with the mountain metaphor (which has turned out far better than I thought it would) – you are expected to climb this mountain which no one has ever climbed before and you have to do it alone. That’s not to say that others can’t meet you at points along the way, even join you for a while on the trail, but ultimately you will spend the majority of your time traversing the crevasses and rock faces of Thesis Mountain solo. It would be wrong to say that there aren’t points when you want to turn back, but that is the challenge of doctoral research: it is hard. This is total research.

My first tip is to help battle possibly the hardest part of doctoral research – isolation. Make sure you have a good support network in place, whether that be friends, family or a research group that can provide a point of contact and interaction. The University network is wide and far-reaching, and it’s easier than ever to stay in contact with others in the same situation. It’s always reassuring to compare research techniques, asking “how did you?” and “what is this?” and, in my personal experience, I’ve always found people more than happy to offer advice and guidance.

If you’re just setting out on your doctorate, the University runs some great PhD mentorship schemes – which offers support to those just starting out but also a great chance for those further on in their work to meet new researchers and expand their sphere of contacts. Extra-curricular seminars and conferences are also a good way to do this; even if you’re just remotely interested in a subject it is always worth trying to get to a fair few of these a year. You never know who you may meet.

Stay active! It’s important not to live and breathe your thesis, recreational and sports groups are a great way to do this. They allow you to put to one side your work for a while, both physically and psychologically, which is important as it keeps you feeling fresh. Most crucially, it sociable – and helps to combat those hours and hours sat at a laptop with nothing but obscure French philosophical theorists for company. Not only that, but when you’re in the thick of it you’ll spend around 8-9 hours (maybe more) sat down at a laptop, which definitely isn’t healthy!

I’d also recommend keeping an idea of allotted “down time” in your head, though obviously this is entirely flexible, depending on approaching deadlines and personal work preferences. I’ve found that if I have in my head a time, say 6pm, to finish every day it makes me a) more efficient with my working time and b) enjoy my down time more as I know that’s me done for the rest of the day. I try not to deny myself anything either, if I want to meet friends, go to the pub or even have a weekend away – I do it. I write the thesis; the thesis does not write me (thanks Leo in Man in the Iron Mask).

Another useful tip, as I begin to accumulate what amounts to a small library around me, is organisation. Trying to find a useful quote you half remember from a book amongst 30-40 texts is incredibly depressing. So having a note pad handy at all times to act as your unofficial index – it certainly helps me anyway. I change notebooks whenever I start a new research task, helping me to keep things separate and manageable in my head. I’m also a relatively new owner of a white board, which is by far the best thing I’ve bought in a long time – I am the King of Mind-Maps. It helps me lay out a basic plan, but easily add or remove things that I discover don’t work well or work slightly better than others and generally stay on track. Thesis research is fluid, and rarely ends up to be the thing you set out to investigate and write up.

Make the most of your supervisor sessions – this is crucial. Any supervisor will tell you to break down your thesis into smaller, manageable size pieces that, in the end, will come together and create an overall research thesis. This was certainly the message in my first meeting with my supervisor and, as I progress through my work, is an endlessly helpful approach. It’s easy to be daunted by writing a piece of work just under one-hundred thousand words long (I know, right?) – so break it up and take it on piece by piece. Look at it like this: writing a thesis is like someone asking you to rugby-tackle an elephant. Where do you start? It’s impossible. Instead, treat it like several baby elephants – which are not only heart-wrenchingly adorable, but slightly easier to take on.*

*(Please do not seek out and/or rugby-tackle infant elephants. It’s much harder than the above imagery suggests)

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