I’m going into my final year as a PhD student; it’s 1 year until I hand in my thesis. I’ve been working on my project for 2 years. On one hand it feels like I’ve been working in my department and with my current colleagues for much longer, but on the other it feels like I’ve been here for 5 minutes. Having 1 year to go until hand in has made this PhD thing a lot more real. That sounds stupid – of course it’s real, I’ve been turning up to work for 2 years and learning more and more about clinical trials methodology, but starting to write the thesis is making all of that settle in.
I thought I’d do a few blog posts to track my progress with thesis writing. Primarily I think this will be a nice thing to look back on after the whole process is over, though I also hope these posts are helpful to those who aren’t yet at the writing up stage, or those who are writing up alongside me.
So, how far have I got?
About 6 months ago I wrote out a skeleton structure – this included chapter titles, headings, and notes/pieces of text that I had from other documents.
For me, this process has been invaluable. I feel much more relaxed with this skeleton structure than I did without it; I know what I need to do, and what text needs to go where. It’s as if I’ve created a template of how I’ll write the thesis in the end, and that’s very comforting when you’ve got the task of writing such a huge document ahead of you.
The literature review is the thing I’ve been dreading most about the thesis. I read a lot, and I feel well informed about my topic and the wider literature around it, but the task of demonstrating that feels both daunting and honestly, kind of boring. I’ve put the literature review off for long enough now, and I’m aiming to make a decent dent in it over the summer months. So far I’ve worked with the Information Specialist that’s based in my Unit to create a search strategy, and I’ve got all the sections and headings sketched out. Now it’s a case of screening the results of that search (~4,000 abstracts!), putting the relevant results into the right headings, and then knitting everything together. Sounds simple right? Probably not. I think this will be the bit of the thesis that takes the longest, largely because I keep trying to avoid it.
The best thing my supervisors did when I was planning my systematic review, was encourage me to get the protocol published – I would 100% recommend you do this if you can. It meant I had to really think about what I was going to do, and keep a written record of when, why and how each decision was made throughout the process. I published my protocol this time last year, which also gave me a huge confidence boost, and a much-needed win in the middle of the PhD – often a time period that gets lost.
Now I’ve made a decent dent in the writing up of my results. I’ve sent the first draft of my systematic review chapter (without discussion) to my primary supervisor for him to have a look over, so hopefully over the next few months I’ll be able to edit that and then write the discussion for it. After that I’ll have a chapter done and tied up, and I can then work on reformatting and editing that chapter to generate the final systematic review paper before my PhD is finished.
Side note – zooming out of really big Word documents always makes me realise how much I’ve actually done, so I do this pretty often to ensure I don’t get lost within the pages of edits and text I’m finding tricky to write.
My qualitative study is the thing I’m most nervous about writing up – I’ve never written up qualitative findings before so I’m thinking it’s going to be a case of write, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, write some more, edit again, etc. That said, I think once I get to grips with this chapter I’ll really enjoy writing it; I need to get over the initial hurdle first and allow myself to write some rubbish without feeling too proud. The qualitative component of my PhD project is the thing I enjoyed doing the most, I loved being able to get away from my desk and go out to speak to people. It made the reasoning behind my project much more real, and confirmed to me (again..) that my work is valuable. As a PhD student you sometimes need those confirmations, and qualitative research allowed me to see how my work will make a difference to people once it’s complete, published and disseminated.
Aims for the next 6 months
- Literature review – get all of the abstracts screened and the relevant references sorted into the headings I’ve already sketched out, write at least 2,000 words (whether these make it into the final thesis is irrelevant – I just need words to start with, I can edit and tweak that text once I’ve got a starting point).
- Systematic review – get this finished and make a start on pulling a paper together out of it.
- Qualitative study – seek out some training on writing up qualitative findings (I suspect this will be useful in terms of a confidence boost, and will force me to start writing), and then make a start.
- I am also on the look out for a PhD writing retreat around December/January time. The prospect of moving away from my desk, inbox and phone is strange to think about, but I think I could make some real progress with thesis writing towards the end of 2017/start of 2018. That will then set me up well for the final 6-month push before hand-in.
Have any of you starting writing your thesis yet? If you’ve got any tips or resources that you’ve found helpful, please pass them on!