counting down to #thesis completion


Many PhDers are under pressure to complete their research and thesis within set time frames.

In the UK where I work, studentships are generally only for three years with a fourth unpaid year of ‘thesis pending’. This roughly equates to: the first year getting ready for the research, doing courses, and literature and design work; the second year being the field work and some analysis: and concluding analysis and producing the thesis in year three.

So if you’re in the UK, it’s helpful to have this kind of shape in your head. But it’s actually much better to try to sort out the reading, researching and writing timing in more detail. And it’s good to do this no matter where you are or how long you’ve officially got to finish.

That’s because another reason for focusing on the finish line is that there is nothing worse than having only a few bits and bobs written and suddenly realising that you aren’t going to get done before your money, commitment, enthusiasm and energy runs out.  Well, of course, there are many worse things than this, but this is up there with bad.

And realistically, most of us can only do the doctorate for so long before we get tired of it. But I see too many PhDers doing four really risky things, things which potentially jeopardise completion:

  1. they underestimate how much time it takes to analyse data, and
  2. they underestimate how much time it can take to produce a good text, and
  3. they haven’t factored in how long it might take their supervisor to read whole drafts, as opposed to chapters and
  4. they actually haven’t worked out in detail how long they – as opposed to anybody else – will take to analyse and write.

It’s really good to try to sort out the time it will take to complete relatively early. Don’t leave it till late in the piece. This might take a conversation with your supervisor. And this is a conversation you might need to revisit. Regularly.

So, completing in a timely way. I reckon it’s really helpful to count backwards from the time of submission. You start with the actual date where you “hand in” and work out what you need to do to get there.

And in this post, I’m going to offer you a bit of help in working backwards.

Here’s a set of things you might need to think about, starting from the triumphant very end and then working backwards. Do remember that the things on my list won’t be exactly on yours. You need to sort out what goes in your very particular individual list: this is just an example to help you think about what could happen. So rewrite my list to suit your research and writing strategies.

  • Finessing the text – fixing up the layout, proofreading, finding missing references, last minute grammatical check
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads draft with examiner’s headset looking for omissions, things that need clarification or extension, missing references that the examiner will expect to see, consistency in reference list style, thesis abstract
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads draft looking for relatively small textual issues – small restructurings, additional readings, some reformatting, rewriting some sections, authoritative voice
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads for major issues such as argument flow, structural glitches, additional sections needed, theorisations, claims, chapters that need major rewrites
  • Hand in whole first draft
  • Corrections to chunks, smoothing over the whole text, signposting, getting rid of repetition, moving things around, getting reference list together, contents page, revising thesis abstract, sort out appendices, illustrations and figures.
  • Supervisor sees discussion and conclusion, the last of the individual pieces
  • Write discussion and conclusion – 20 – 25k words
  • Corrections to introduction
  • Supervisor reads introduction
  • Write introduction – 8-12 k words
  • Revisit abstract.
  • Corrections to second results chapter
  • Supervisor reads second results chapter
  • Write second results chapter 10-12 k words
  • Corrections to first results chapter
  • Supervisor reads first results chapter
  • Write first results chapter 10-12 k words
  • Revisit storyboard and abstract
  • Corrections to literatures chapter
  • Supervisor reads literatures chapter
  • Write literatures chapter – 12 k words
  • Update your literatures
  • Corrections to methods chapter
  • Supervisor reads methods chapter
  • Write methods chapter – 10 -12k words
  • Update your methods literatures
  • Write the thesis abstract
  • READY TO WRITE. Storyboard and write tiny texts for each chapter, sort out your written chunks and support materials into chapters
  • Supervisor reads results “chunks”as they are written
  • Analysis and writing “chunks” of results – add on a couple more months here than you think it will actually take
  • FINISH FIELD WORK – and you have been doing some preliminary analysis during this time

Now put dates against all of these items again starting from your target hand in date. Put the year, month, day and date against each and every one.

Once you’ve done that, go back and be honest with yourself.

  • How long does it really take you to write 12 k words?
  • Have you organised this so that you will actually be onto the next writing task while your supervisor is reading?
  • Have you built in any down time? Do you think you might need and deserve a break at any point in this schedule? Where are the holiday seasons? Parenting and caring?
  • Are there conferences you need to put in here? Or courses?
  • Have you thought about where writing retreats and thesis boot camp might be helpful?
  • Can you schedule in shut-up-and-write sessions with colleagues to help break the back of initial chapter writing?
  • Have you accounted for how long it realistically takes your supervisor to read and respond?  When might they be away?
  • Is there anything that might disrupt this schedule that you might be able to plan contingencies for?
  •  Is your space and technology going to last this distance? Do you need to plan for changeover?

Once you have finished thinking and charting you may be surprised by how close you already are to having to do analysis and writing. But you can now calendar your target dates, perhaps incorporating them into your diary or making a big timeline to pin on your office wall. And/or you might draw yourself a Gantt chart (play with this Gantt chart app to see if this approach works for you).

And don’t forget. Plans do go astray. We have lives, loves and bodies that call us to do to other things. So having a bit of slack in the schedule is helpful. But it is important to revise your timelines when they slip so that you always have a realistic idea of what is ahead.

And do remember this is just A version of how to complete. It is not THE version. My point here is simply not to leave completion to chance – work out what you need to do, when, and plan to make that happen.


Photo by Heather Zabriskie on Unsplash


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, completing, thesis abstract, thesis introduction, thesis revision, time and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to counting down to #thesis completion

  1. linwinn says:

    Helpful as ever. I successfully completed my part-time PhD in 6 years. I had several setbacks including close bereavements. Your post highlights the work and investment the superviser makes. I recall once when I had travelled up to the university (300 miles). After our meeting my superviser sat me in a room and asked me to write for an hour and she would come back and see how I had done. Although it felt a bit like being in school (I was nearing 60) it was right for me at that time. Looking back I underestimated the time the complete draft would take. It did help to have a timeline.
    It also helped to follow your Blog. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jane S says:

    Every PhDer should have a portable ‘Pat’ at their elbow, to lean on when the going gets tough. Which it does from the off.
    I went the P/T route, and am v. glad I did. I was assured that I could hand in early, if I wished to.
    Great! Piece of cake?

    I’ve needed every one of these last 6 years to even get close. But I did build in just enough slack for life’s curve balls. *Just.*
    I also drew up a reverse timeline. Twice. (Hollow laugh.) AND included the end-of-thesis admin / protocols. Notice of intent to submit, soft-bound copies, hard-bound copy, non-editable, single .pdf file electronic copy, cleared / uncleared 3rd party copyright material …
    But the panic alarms will go off this year, if I fail to find a route around the Four Risks. While I don’t have data to analyse, and began working backwards at the beginning of January, points two, three and 4 are only too real. Organising oneself is fairly simple, esp. on paper; it’s organising other people that tends to go awry.
    The writing-up phase really does bring it home to a researcher, that she’s on her own.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kate Mukungu says:

    Very helpful and coming at a point in my journey when it is most needed. Thank you.


  4. Eva says:

    Thank you very helpful. Could you please specify how many words means the “k” behind 12, 20 etc?
    Thank you


  5. prateeksha sharma says:

    Dr. Thomson, thank you. This is such a useful post, among many others, that I have in fact noted down your points by hand on a notebook for myself- not wanting the easy option of copying and pasting it into another piece which gets lost in the numerous documents on the hard disk.
    I am into my third year (which ends in July 2019) and interestingly I have followed at least to a certain extent intuitively your schema itself- I sent my first chapter to my supervisor recently, it was over 13k words and I still have to write about the ‘approach to analysis’.
    So I have the rest unfolding now, three journal publications coming this year and a good bit of other work all lined up. I am in a bit of a daze because my supervisor retires in 2020, which is just a little over my fourth year (and a quarter!). I am trying whatever feasible to give the stuff in while she is around, because she is a specialist in the field I am working. I would not want another supervisor later…so this post from you is very timely, and in a way helps me organize with greater focus.
    Thank you, much appreciation

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Paul says:

    Very useful timeline and a very good way to look at those final years/months. It is surprising how much longer everything takes than you think and giving yourself lots of time around final proofreading and editing is crucial. It is very, very difficult to do that sort of thing quickly, in my experience.


  7. Debs says:

    Thank you for this. I have spent a great deal of time trying to persuade my own PhD student that the detail of the work takes so much time, it’s hard to imagine. The biggest risk, as you wisely say, is underestimating how long writing the thesis takes.

    Liked by 1 person

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