2: So you want to finish your PhD on time?

Do you sometimes daydream about the day your PhD is done? The very moment you proudly turn in your dissertation to the faculty and realise you are finished? Your PhD is completed! Such an elevating, happy and memorable moment! But then you slide back into the daily reality of your PhD . . .

You’ve been working on your PhD project for some time already and, with one eye on your work and the other on the calendar, you get the first inkling that you may not make it in time. And if you think a bit further – you feel that creeping fear of what would happen then? No more funding, maybe no supervision, and a scenario of writing up the final bits of your thesis at home? 

Or,  are you a PhD student who is just starting out and you know that your contract is limited to 3 or 4 years, and you’re 100% committed to and optimistic that you will hand in your dissertation on time? Well, go for it! You can do this. 

We’ve got something for everyone here: Get a quick overview on the 5 factors that are the most influential when it comes to PhD completion time

1. Decide early on project-goals

PhD students often lose an awful lot of time in the beginning months of their PhD projects. Here are a few reasons: 

Feeling as if you’ve got lots of time?

Funny, but at the start of a PhD, 3-4 years may seem like an awful lot of time. We often meet PhD students who just started and tell us that ‘there’s not a lot they can do right now . . .’! Are you among those who feel no urgency to get a head-start on the important work for their PhD?  

Not feeling ready yet?

Or, do you think you’re not quite ready to identify your project goals and start working, because you don’t know enough about your topic yet, and you want to read more, and more, and then more . . .! Or you’re lining up potential topics for your project but you can’t make a decision which one will be best? So you do a few trials here and there, you look around at what other people are doing and that only creates more ideas, and further confuses your goals!

Do you really believe you will know a lot more after reading a few additional research articles, or waiting two more weeks to make a decision? Well, most of the time the answer is no. Because all you are doing is postponing the decision and potentially delaying your PhD. 

Better get a head-start …

Take a few weeks at the beginning to do focused literature research on the state-of-the-art in your field.  Be as specific as you can. Then start outlining your project ideas, gradually narrowing them down to the most promising ones. Discuss with your supervisors and further refine your ideas, until you can develop a clear goal for your PhD project

2. Design your research project to be appropriate

Are you approaching your PhD from an angle of ‘I want to do research on this topic until I know everything about it’? Well, the more you discover, the more you will realise that there are still tons of things that you don’t know. The more questions you answer, the more new ones will pop up. And that’s ok. But you can’t learn it all in your PhD years. If you are enjoying research and you make it your career choice, you can spend a lifetime researching the topics you are interested in, and dig in really, really deep. But PhD projects often are so big and time-consuming, that even if you were a superhuman it would be virtually impossible to complete on time.  

Make your project fit the time you have available for it

For your PhD project, the smarter way to approach it is to say: ‘Alright, I’ve got 3 years’ (or 4 or 5 depending on your country, funding, contract etc.) time to do my PhD. I need a project that fits to that!’ You need a sleek, smart, and innovate project that can be completed in this time span. Pick research questions and experiments that will yield enough promising and publishable results to allow for timely completion with high quality. Make sure your project is the adequate size so that you can manage.

3. Be focused

Are you enjoying the freedom you have to decide what to work on and how you spend your time? Do you feel like  it’s a massive bonus to be able to work at your own pace and preferences? But maybe you also realise that it’s  sometimes a bit of a challenge. 

Do you know how your days pass by?

How do you currently spend your time? Yeah, seriously. We know you’re doing research for a PhD, but how do you spend your time in a more narrow sense? How do your days pass by? On a weekly basis, how much of your working time is devoted to advancing your PhD? 

We’re asking, because many PhD students struggle to spend their time in the most meaningful way. Are you among those doing a bit of work here and there, trying out stuff that might or might not end up in your PhD project? Or do you catch yourself daydreaming, surfing the web, or spending a lot of time on social media? Do you join interesting but (for you) irrelevant meetings or activities, and spend an awful lot of time chatting with colleagues, answering simple e-mails, or preparing another party with your roommates? 

Are you postponing important stuff?

We know that it is so easy to go astray and busy yourself with easy-to-do tasks. But it is much more difficult to sit down and tackle the difficult stuff surrounding your PhD. It takes courage and discipline to sort out your research questions, and it takes willpower and a sharp intellect to work on difficult tasks for your project every single day. 

The problem with this kind of work-pattern is that you’re losing time fast. It doesn’t take a  dramatic turn of events to suddenly postpone your research. Simply  losing a few hours every day due to unfocused or unnecessary work is steadily eroding your time budget. And without even noticing, you pile up a big delay.

Focus on the most important tasks

The good news with this problem is that your work-behaviour is in your own hands. You can change it – and it’ll boost the speed with which you can make progress. They key to solving it is to sharply focus  on the crucial tasks and develop a crystal clear sense of what is the most important work that will bring your PhD project ahead. 

Photograph by Chase Clark at Unsplash

Ask yourself at the start of every single work day: What is most important task for me to do today so I can get on with my project? What has the biggest impact? Plan your day using a schedule so you know when to do which task. Start with the most difficult or most important task first. Work on this in a 1-2 hour session or for as long as you deem appropriate. For most people this is easiest in the morning and it has the great side-effect, that early in the day you’re done with the most important work! What an amazing confidence booster!

If you want to dig deeper into how to improve your efficiency and daily planning, download our free expert guide ‘How to boost your productivity as a researcher?’.

Work with a project plan

In order to better estimate the  overall demands on your time, work out a project plan for the remaining months of your PhD time so you know what to  work on during each period of time. Sit down at the end of each month and take stock. What was your progress in the past four weeks? Are you working according to your schedule? Are you working on the most important tasks? 

You may also want to develop the ability to say ‘no’ to unnecessary tasks, irrelevant activities and any other distraction that comes your way.  

4. Start writing early

Sure, we know: You did this PhD to do research, and you love and enjoy doing that. Well that’s how it should be and it’s great to hear! But there’s another crucial component of doing research: writing. Researching without reporting is like a banana cake without bananas, or chocolate fudge brownies without the chocolate – it does not exist! 

Writing about your findings, insights and discoveries is an essential part in any PhD. One does not exist without the other. This is the way to communicate your interesting results to the scientific community, make your findings available, and help to advance research in your discipline. Ahh yes, and without it you won’t get your degree. 

Do you want to keep writing into the later stages of your PhD?

In spite of its importance, there is not enough emphasis on writing or developing writing skills right from the start of a PhD. There’s a very persistent belief among some PhDs (and some supervisors) that first you do your research, then you ‘write it up’. You save it for when you’re done with your research. This is a super problematic approach, because your PhD time is often running out or up by the time you think you can start to write. And then you end up in chaos, and experience an extremely stressful period, where you hastily write as much as you can in a short time span, often producing  lower quality work. 

Get into the habit of writing regularly

But it does not have to be this way! Writing is a skill that you have to develop. It’s like a muscle that you train up so it’s ready when you need it most!

You’ll achieve the best results and find writing much easier, if you make a habit of writing regularly, e.g. write every day at a particular time for an hour or two. We suggest you adopt a pretty broad attitude as to what constitutes writing tasks that you perform during your writing time. A writing task would be anything that you do that will eventually help you to get your papers for your dissertation or your monograph written. 

Here are a few examples: Making notes or excerpts from scientific papers that you read. Also searching for literature, or setting up a reference manager,  making a shortlist of journals in which you could publish your work, working on the overall topics for your papers . . . Include all of the above as writing tasks because you need to do them to get your dissertation written. 

Get used to writing right from the start of your PhD and writing the essential parts in your dissertation or publishing individual papers for it will literally feel like a piece of cake: Banana or Chocolate – the choice is yours! 

5. Line up support

Let everyone around you know that you want to finish on time. If no one knows that this is important to you, because you never speak about it, they’ll assume that you don’t care or it is not a priority  for you to complete your PhD at a certain date. So try to get everyone around you to acknowledge your goal of finishing on time and supporting you as far as possible. 

Get everyone on board

Tell other PhDs around you. Tell your friends, aunt Annie and your granny and they will take you up on it! Speak about it with your partner or spouse, as it is important for them to follow up on that goal , so you will have their support in difficult times. There will be weeks with a higher than normal workload and you will want to ask them to run for  groceries, or drop the kids in pre-school, or do the laundry. There will be times when you’re down and you’ll need them to motivate you, support you, and reinforce your belief in yourself that you can make it in the end.

photograph by rawpixel at Unsplash.com

Get help from your supervisors

Be intentional and purposeful with your work. In your workgroup, with your boss or PI, whenever the discussion about additional tasks or new ideas comes up – emphasise that you want to complete on time. Let your supervisors know right from the start that it is your goal to do a great PhD and complete on time. Explicitly ask for their support and help. Ask them to hold you accountable for what you want to produce and to deliver it in a given time. Ask them to check-in with you regularly to review your progress and the quality of your work. 

Yes, you can complete on time!

Now visualise the moment you turn in your dissertation. It will feel so great! You’ll be so proud of yourself and your research. Saviour the feeling of that moment! From now on, tune into this thought every day so you know that one day you will be gratified by your extra effort! Then make sure you put everything in place to move yourself towards this goal. You can make it happen. You can be among those completing on time! Good planning makes a for a happy PhD!

Related resources:

Expert guide: 5 reasons why PhD students delay and how to avoid! 

Expert guide: 5 steps to boost your productivity as a researcher! 

More information:

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