Thesis Update – T-Minus 6 Months

I’m now 6 months away from handing in my thesis, so that’s terrifying. That means I’ve been working away for 2 and a half years, which feels so strange. I wrote a blog post when I was 12 months from handing in, and looking back on that has helped me keep some perspective on how much I’ve done since then. So here’s an update with 6 months to go – there’s work to be done but I think it’s doable!

So, how far have I got?

Structure

In my last post I explained that I had a skeleton structure – that remains relatively unchanged, apart from adding an additional results chapter. This doesn’t include any new work, it’s just made the write-up process easier and less messy, and hopefully the contents of the thesis will flow better as a result.

Again, I’ll reiterate; getting a skeleton structure together early on has been so, so helpful, and I would highly recommend doing one of these if you’re doing a big piece of writing too; whether it’s a PhD thesis, an undergraduate dissertation, or even a novel. Splitting the writing into manageable chunks makes the entire task much less daunting, it feels a bit like you’ve written an instruction manual that you can then follow to get to the final piece.

Literature Review

As I said in my last thesis update post, the literature review is the bit of the thesis that I’m looking forward to writing the least. I have made a decent amount of progress in the last 6 months though, which is a relief!

I have screened the results of the literature search – a total of ~4,000 abstracts, and each of the papers that I want to include in the review has now been allocated into one of three very broad categories:

  • General trial recruitment stuff (a huge mixed pile of literature that is interesting, and links well with my topic generally; e.g. why poor recruitment is bad, how many trials suffer from poor recruitment, what types of trials are at the highest risk of poor recruitment etc)
  • Ethics of clinical trial recruitment
  • Perspectives and opinions on trial recruitment (from both healthcare professionals, patients, members of the public etc)

In my last post I mentioned that I wanted to have written at least 2,000 words of the literature review – this hasn’t happened. The abstract screening took quite a long time, and then I had to go through the pile of screened papers to find full texts which was something I hadn’t factored in time-wise.

Systematic Review

This is the part of the thesis that I feel I’ve made the most progress with. In my last update I’d written a draft of the entire chapter without the discussion, and the document looked like this:

After my primary supervisor had taken a look at this, we decided that the results section needed to be rejigged a bit. The way I’d written it initially was in quite a traditional way, and it just wasn’t flowing as well as I wanted it to. After a few different ideas and conversations with my supervisor, we settled on a new way of presenting the data that made it much easier to follow, and cut down the word count too.

I then went on a writing retreat, where I focussed only on the systematic review chapter of the thesis. This was the most productive time I’ve spent on the thesis so far, and it’s really got me excited and enthusiastic to write the rest of it. During the 2 and a half day retreat I finished the results, and wrote a first draft of the discussion too – bearing in mind that I started the retreat with a blank page for the discussion, I was really happy with that.

This is what the chapter looks like at the moment:

It’s sitting at 33,496 words, and it’s gone to my primary supervisor for comments. This feels like a huge weight off my shoulders – obviously, the chapter will change after comments, and then probably change further down the line after more comments, but it’s really nice to have a big chunk of words on the page at this stage in the write up process.

Qualitative Study

As I said in my last thesis update post, the qualitative work is the part of the thesis that I’m most nervous about writing up. I still feel like that, but the structure of this part of the thesis is much more clear in my head now. I haven’t done any formal training in writing up qualitative research, but I read snippets of books on the subject, and of course papers reporting qualitative studies – after that it felt like I was reading in an effort to avoid writing, so I just needed to get started.

I have just about completed the first draft of a results chapterĀ  for this section – though this needs splitting into 2 distinct parts, but there are words on the page and that’s good.

This is what my qualitative document looks like at the moment:

There’s 15,437 words there which is decent. Our grant funding for this part of my project runs out at the end of January, which is perfect timing as it requires us to submit a final report. I’ll be focussing on this report throughout January as it needs to be submitted on January 31st – this will give me a really good starting point for the rest of the qualitative chapter too.

Aims for the next 3 months
  • Literature review – Sort out the categories of papers into more manageable subsections, and work them into a sensible order. Get at least 3,000 words written.
  • Systematic review – I’m leaving this with my supervisor for at least the next few weeks, I’ll take a look at comments when I get them back and then re-assess when I’ll get to the edits. Hopefully the first round of edits will be back with me and completed within 3 months, but that might be pushing it.
  • Qualitative study – Get a full first draft together and off to my supervisor.
  • Attend another writing retreat – I’ve booked another one for the beginning of March, and I’d like to focus on the qualitative write up for this one.

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!

My First Writing Retreat

Last week I attended my first writing retreat. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but found that the experience really helped with my confidence in terms of thesis writing, so I thought I’d explain what the retreat was like, where I went etc in case there are any soon to be thesis-writers reading this who would like to know more.

Who, Where and When

Myself and a group of other academic writers from various institutions across the UK; a really good mix of PhD students, post-docs and established researchers, with a diverse range of backgrounds too. The retreat itself was facilitated by Rowena Murray, she’s published a tonne of books on writing and runs writing retreats through her company, Anchorage Education, about once a month.

Retreats are usually based at the Black Bull Hotel in Gartmore, with attendees staying at the hotel or one of the surrounding guest houses. I stayed at Craigmore Guest House which is only a few minutes from the Black Bull Hotel. I was really glad that I was staying at the Guest House – purely because it forced me to get up and get ready earlier, meaning by the time I’d got to the Black Bull Hotel I was properly awake (I am very much not a morning person!).

The retreat started on Wednesday evening (6th December), which meant we got an hour of writing in before a long day on the Thursday. We finished on Friday afternoon at about 4pm. Honestly, that was long enough I think. My head was feeling a bit mushy because of the amount of concentration that writing requires, and I was glad it was the weekend – having a retreat towards the end of the working week also meant that I went into the weekend feeling like I’d achieved a lot, could have a guilt-free break, and then get back to work again on Monday.

What
Retreat programme, taken from the Anchorage Education website.

Rowena’s writing retreats are structured, they have a very clear programme and we don’t stray from that. At first this intimidated me; I was thinking ‘what if I don’t feel like writing?’ ‘what if I need to look something up?’ ‘what happens if I run out of things to write?’. By the end, I was totally converted, and plan to bring some of that structure to my thesis writing over the next few months.

Before I went to the retreat I had planned out what I wanted to achieve, I’d downloaded a squillion papers and resources because we were told that the wifi would be patchy – also, you’re not allowed to use wifi when you’re in the ‘typing pool’ (i.e. where you sit during your writing slots), so took a tonne of stuff with me in case I got stuck and needed some inspiration. In the end I didn’t use many of the papers I’d brought with me; I read a few in the evenings so that I felt more prepared for the following day’s writing, but ultimately the writing slots were brilliant for doing just that, writing. I didn’t find that I wanted to look up references or double check facts – I simply wrote, and added comments or notes where I wanted to check things later. This method meant that I got much more done than I thought I would; when I’m at home or work I tend to write for a bit, stop and check something, and then write a bit more, editing as I go. This retreat demonstrated that my previous way of working was much less productive than I had ever thought possible.

The hour-long writing slot on day 1 was particularly useful as it set the tone for the rest of the retreat. It also showed me what I needed to prepare for the following day – day 2 is a much longer day so it’s important to have clear goals set out.

The typing pool – a desk, lamp and charging points for each attendee.

As well as this practice of consistently writing for an hour or an hour and a half at a time, we were told to set very clear goals – goals based on words; number of new words, number of edited words etc. I was largely aiming to generate new words for the discussion of my systematic review, and came away with 5,500 words more than I arrived with. Without recording my word count at the end of each session I doubt that would’ve happened. More words is great, but they were high quality words too (I think anyway, we’ll see what my supervisor thinks!) – because I was sitting there with no distractions, I felt that I could make connections and get to grips with my data much better than I had done previously. The entire process actually made me much more confident in myself. Data analysis and discussion writing is the bit of my thesis that I was feeling most insecure about, but now I feel like I’ll actually be able to do it, which is good considering my hand in date of next June.

A walk to Gartmore House on Day 1.

The way I’ve described the retreat so far makes it sound as if it was all work and no play! Luckily that wasn’t the case, Rowena structured the retreat so that we had defined breaks and time for walks etc too which I think added to how productive we were in the writing slots.

Overall, I found the writing retreat to be exactly the boost I needed to get going with my thesis. The setting was beautiful, accommodation was comfortable, and the hotel staff were absolutely brilliant. We were treated to delicious food at every break time, and the fact that we didn’t have to worry about other things like food or chores made the process of writing much more enjoyable. I’m already looking at dates for my next retreat and would highly recommend looking into writing retreats if you’re feeling a bit stuck and need to give yourself some headspace for writing.

 

 

Thesis Update – T-Minus 12 Months

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?

Structure

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.

Literature Review

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.

Systematic Review

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.

Qualitative Study

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!