In this Article we shall examine the task of writing your PhD. First, note that we do not say ‘writing up your PhD’: that formulation wrongly gives the impression that writing is what you do at the end of the process. You certainly do have to write up your results at the end. One of the skills that you have to acquire in order to become a fully professional researcher is that of being able to communicate your contribution effectively by writing and presenting academic material to the appropriate standard. As with all skills you need practise in doing this, so writing becomes an important part of your research activity from the beginning.
What to write
Students often find the task of writing difficult and, indeed, try to postpone the evil day. Well, it is hard graft and most writers admit that. A common beginner’s reaction is the feeling that, ‘I don’t really have anything to write; my ideas aren’t good enough yet to write down.’ But this is not the case. There is never any shortage of issues to write about at all stages of your research.
So, what should you write about? In the beginning there will be much reporting through reviews of relevant literature. Subsequently there will be analysis through detailed critiques of previous studies. Then come the more creative elements in your own research proposals, alternative designs of the investigation and so on. Later comes development of hypotheses, and evaluation of the data collected. At any point you could always attempt the first draft of a chapter in your final thesis. The details of the topics chosen must vary with the subject and should be agreed in discussion with your supervisors.
Our advice is always to be writing something during your time as a research student. In the last stages of your research, when you finally get to writing up, tackle the easiest parts of the thesis first. This may sound so obvious that it seems unnecessary to mention it, but it is surprising how many people believe a thesis should be written in the order that it will be published and subsequently read. Not true. In an article entitled ‘Is the scientific paper a fraud?’ Medawar (1964) explains the process of writing up research as an exercise in deception. By this he means that readers are deceived into believing the research was conducted in the way it is described and the report written in the logical and sequential manner in which it is presented. He maintains that this is misleading and might be discouraging to others who wish to conduct research and write scientific papers, but who find that nothing ever happens quite as systematically for them as it seems to do for the experts.
Consider writing the Method section first. You know what you did, and how you did it, so it is a good way of getting started on the thesis, even though this chapter will come well into the body of the finished work. Alternatively you may prefer to start with the literature review, which is a safe way of reminding yourself of what has already been written about your topic. If you do start here, remember to check at the end of your work for important subsequent publications.
When to write
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.
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 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.
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., & Pugh, D. (2010). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (p.72). McGraw-Hill Education (UK).