When to Write Your PhD Thesis

The patron saint of PhD writing is the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope. He wrote many novels, including some of the famous Barchester and Palliser series, while working at a full-time management job in the Post Office. How did he achieve this output? He wrote for three hours in the morning from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., and he repeated that the next day, and the next, and carried on and on. As he explained in his autobiography:

When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied . . . There has ever been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.

(Trollope 1883)

Trollope aimed to write 2,000 words in those three hours, which is rather more than many of us can expect to achieve in that amount of time. But it is not the number of words, but the regularity with which he wrote that stands as the exemplar to us all. Trollope’s ‘secret’, if you can call it that, was that he regularly allocated time to writing and nothing else, and allowed nothing else to interfere with this time allocation. He did not fit his writing around his other tasks, but fitted them around his writing.

You should be regularly carrying out academic writing from the start of your time as a research student. But there is always the problem of how you fit writing into all the other activities you have to undertake.

Our final advice on timing is not intuitively obvious, and thus all the more important. When you come to the end of your allocated time and have to stop writing, do not carry on until you reach a natural break – the end of a section, a chapter, etc. You should deliberately leave your work in the middle – mid-design, mid-chapter, mid-paragraph, even midsentence.

Your psychological need to complete the task provides you with extra internal pressure to return and finish what you have started. It also makes re-starting easier and quicker.


PHILLIPS., E. M. &  PUGH., D. S. (2010). HOW TO GET A PhDA handbook for students and their supervisors ( 5th ed). Open University Press.

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