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Getting through sticking points in your PhD thesis

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

Sticking points can occur at any stage of a PhD, but we don’t really expect them near the end. Writer’s block is usually associated with getting started; the doldrums tend to happen around the mid-point. Yet even if the end is in sight, it doesn’t mean the final leg of the journey will be smooth. At this late stage, unexpected setbacks can feel overwhelming—for example, negative feedback from a supervisor or from peers, or spotting a contradiction. Indeed, many of the problems encountered near to completion can come with their own special brand of despair. I wonder if it’s that view of the finish line: when it’s so close, tasks not yet done can seem like unwieldy obstacles.

Late-stage sticking points are best approached in practical ways that distract from the doubts.

1 Find a part you like

If you’ve lost confidence in your writing, or you’re tired of the sound of your voice or style, select a part of your thesis that you’re happy with. I’m not talking whole chapters here. A page will do. A paragraph even. Do this before you sit down to write. You might like your chosen section for any number of reasons—perhaps it contains an exciting or surprising finding or your voice is strong and assertive. Maybe it reflects what you hoped to achieve in the early stages of your research.

Read the passage out loud. You could even print it out and stick it up somewhere close to where you work. This confidence-building technique can work in two ways. At the most basic level, it’s a reminder of what you can do—of what you’ve already achieved. But more practically, reading that polished, assured part of your work can be a great motivator. After you’ve read your selected passage out loud, return to the parts you’re struggling with and try again. Re-write in the voice or style of your best work.

2 Write an abstract

Write an abstract using informal language. It can help to imagine a specific reader – a friend or sibling, your neighbour, a radio audience – and imagine you’re speaking directly to them. Your abstract could be for your whole thesis or for the chapter you’re working on, whatever is most helpful. If you’re struggling to integrate a chapter, use this opportunity to state its relevance in the context of the whole. Go for fresh words and try an active voice. Keep your language simple and direct and aim for just three or four sentences.

This technique works in several ways. A good abstract will state the significance of its topic. By writing it, you’re reminding yourself of what’s at the heart of your work. And using informal language and addressing a non-academic audience keeps you focused on the act of communicating. You’re explaining what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This technique can help to clear up any uncertainties you may not have recognised or admitted. It can really help you move past them and towards completion.

3 Make lists

Lists are brilliant. When all the things you still have to do are an amorphous mass in your head, it’s hard to know where to begin. Writing a list helps you to order them. Every time you sit down to work, make a list. What are you going to do in this session? Be realistic about what you can get through and make each item specific. Things like:

  • Tidy up paragraph three on page 62: it needs some evidence from the data to support the assertion.
  • Chapter 4: highlight and then revise topic sentences on pages 93–102.
  • Check all references in bibliography for correct publication dates.
  • Check all references in bibliography for consistency: commas, and names with initials.

It’s surprising how satisfying it can be to tick things off a list. These are your markers along the way to that finishing line. Achieving even minor goals will give you a much-needed boost and a feeling of accomplishment.

4 Break down tasks

If you’ve had feedback such as ‘This needs more development,’ or ‘This contradicts what you said earlier,’ you might feel doubtful, or defensive—much more so than earlier in the project when you expected to be developing themes and dealing with contradictions. Near the end, you’re likely to be tired, and problems can feel bigger than they are. Approach each issue step by step. For example, if you’ve contradicted yourself, use a highlighter to circle exactly where it happens, then fix it.

5 Do the easy jobs

Don’t be too sniffy about the mindless tasks, like the bibliography. They get you closer to finishing. It’s better to do them at times when you’re too tired to do thinking work, rather than leaving them until right at the end, when they might be unexpectedly time-consuming and you are up against the deadline. Keeping on top of them earlier in the process can help provide those positive feelings of achievement you’re looking for. It’s strategic time management.

Finally, schedule breaks. You might reward yourself after dealing with some sticking points by taking a little time out to consider what’s up next. What do you hope to do after you finish? Research post-doctoral opportunities? Apply for a job or a grant? Alternatively, you could simply make a list of fun things you might do when you’re finished: see a movie, go for a day out or a week away. You’ll get there.

25 November 2021

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