Thesis Update – T-Minus 3 Months

I’m now 3 months away from handing in my thesis. 3 months sounds a lot friendlier than 12/13 weeks, so I’ve going with that. I’m coming strangely close to the end of the PhD process, and to be honest I am feeling a bit sad about the whole thing. This PhD has been brilliant – even the bits that have been tedious or boring, I’ve enjoyed because I’ve found a subject I’m passionate about. It will be very, very strange to have this thesis done and handed in, but I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to secure a short term contract that will keep me working with the wonderful team at HSRU until the end of 2018 at least. That’s a big weight off my shoulders, and means that my thesis needs to be done! Anyway, here’s an update with 3 months to go; I wrote a blog post with 6 months to go and said “there’s work to be done but I think it’s doable!” – that’s where I’m still sitting now, I know that I can get this done and handed in on time, I just need to really knuckle down for the next 3 months.

So, how far have I got?

Literature Review

In my last update post, I aimed to:

  • Sort out the categories of papers into more manageable subsections, and work them into a sensible order. Get at least 3,000 words written.

I’ve sorted the categories of papers into various folders that will help me to write sections of the literature review, and they are in some sort of sensible order. Confession time – I have not written 3,000 words. To be honest, I have done absolutely everything in my power to avoid writing this literature review; my flat is spotless, there is no dirty laundry at all, I’ve seen all the films that I’m interested in that are currently showing at the cinema, and I’ve found complete strangers to puppy-sit for on Borrow my Doggy (if you don’t know what this is and you really like dogs, I suggest you go and sign up asap) – proof below.

There’s also an unfinished 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzle taking over my living room floor. Seriously, the jigsaw thing isn’t a joke. It’s been there for over a week now.

ANYWAY. This week I’m locking myself in my office at home, and I’m getting a first draft of this literature review written. I am done messing around, avoiding it and finding literally anything else in the world to do instead – this thing is getting done this week – pinky promise.

Now, moving on to a more positive part of thesis progression..

Systematic Review

Last time I checked in, my systematic review was sitting at 33,496 words, and it had gone to my primary supervisor for comments. The comments were pretty limited, which I was pleasantly surprised about. The majority of the comments were related to changing the presentation of the results section to cut down words and make the chapter as a whole flow more easily. I made those changes and the chapter is pretty much done – it’s now 25,387 words which I’m much happier with.

I’ll have a final read through it when I put all of the thesis chapters together to ensure there’s no repetition in the introduction/background sections etc, but for now, it’s off my to do list (hoorah!).

Qualitative Study

I’m pretty happy with where I’m at with this – I handed in a first draft and got comments back from both of my PhD supervisors with lots of brilliant pointers of how to build on what I’ve already got, expand my points and set my findings in context with the wider literature. Next steps are to go through these comments and make improvements etc. I feel pretty confident with that though, which is nice; I had a meeting with my supervisors to talk through changes etc and they were really helpful so it’s just a matter of me making time to do it, and getting on with it.

Currently, it’s sitting at 15,610 words and it will undoubtedly grow by another thousand of two by the time it’s finished.

User-testing Study

In my last update I mentioned that the qualitative document that I had then, needed to be split up into 2 separate chapters – I’ve now done this, and I have a ‘qualitative study’ chapter, and a ‘user-testing study’ chapter. I used the writing retreat that I went on at the beginning of March to work exclusively on this user-testing chapter, and I made some really good progress. I handed in a first draft to my supervisors in the middle of March, and already have comments back to work on (side note: having supervisors that actually engage with my work and want to help me develop my skills is the absolute best thing; if you’re looking for PhDs at the moment, please, please make supervisor choice a priority – it makes a huge difference to your experience).

This chapter is currently sitting at 8,384 words, and I expect it to increase to ~9,500 words or so once I’ve gone through and addressed comments etc.

Aims for the next 2 months
  • Literature review – STOP MESSING ABOUT AND WRITE THE BLOODY THING!
  • Systematic review – Slot into final thesis structure.
  • Qualitative study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • User-testing study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • Thesis introduction – Get a first draft written for the beginning of May.
  • Thesis conclusions – Get a first draft written for the middle of May.

I want an entire working thesis draft by the end of May – that’ll give me a month before hand-in to ready through it a million times, tweak things, ensure I haven’t repeated myself a million times, and then make sure that the formatting and referencing is correct. Phew. This is all getting, very, very real.

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!

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!