Friday, April 30, 2010

CRA-W Grad Cohort: Tips For Finishing Your PhD

What does finishing a PhD mean and what will it take? Prof. Padma Raghavan, Pennsylvania State University, gave us a fun and informative session on taking it from proposal to thesis to defence in as pain-free a way as possible.

First, a note on the thesis. Remember to never throw away writing. Let's say you wrote a really nice background section for a conference paper that you later have to shorten due to page count constraints. Don't just delete text - save the old version! You might be able to use it later in your actual thesis. Also, even though you might write your introduction chapter last, be sure to always keep a general vision for it in the back of your mind. Finally, plan for around 3-5 major ideas, which will likely be individual chapters in your thesis.

On to the ten tips for finishing...

1. Take Charge
  • Be self-motivated. It's just you and your thesis.
  • Make things move along, be active, take charge - don't wait on others.
  • Program yourself to do the tedious things, and reward yourself afterwards.
  • Figure out what your motivation is for getting a PhD. Get excited about what comes next.
  • Don't compare yourself to others - just because your lab mate finished in three years doesn't mean your topic is conducive to doing so as well.
  • Think in active language. Tell yourself "I will finish my thesis by...." instead of "My thesis will be done by..."
2. Balance Life and Work
  • Remember: there are only 24 hours in a day!
  • Know the point at which you are too frustrated or tired to be doing your best work.
  • Know your body rhythms (sleep, etc) and work with them instead of against them.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Take time to do other things that make you feel creative, entertained, happy.
  • You are balanced when you (usually) feel happy about all parts of the day, from school to personal life.
  • Be sure to make time for other things.
  • Don't be half-hearted about time off. Stay focused on enjoying it.
  • Don't hesitate to seek help.
3. Leverage Your Proposal
  • When working on the actual thesis, start with the results of your proposal.
  • Incorporate feedback from your proposal defence, where you should assign a scribe to take notes so you can fully engage in conversation.
  • Think about whether the proposal reflects a viable plan of work.
  • What are the sub-problems of your research? How many of them have you solved?
  • Should you do the easiest sub-problem first, or the one with best results so far? If something doesn't work out as planned, do you have alternatives?
4. Leverage Your Committee
  • Committee members can offer different perspectives on your research.
  • Be on the look-out for any misfits and try to work around it.
  • If an advisor leaves or is otherwise no longer able to work with you, one of your committee members might be able to take over (or co-supervise as the case may be).
5. Set a Target Date, Work Backwards
  • Start with a deadline and then work back to figure out what you have to do to meet it.
  • For example, if you set a graduation date, you have motivation. You can set milestones for each semester leading up to it, including defence dates. (This isn't always possible, such as when you want to have a baby during the PhD.)
  • Be sure to allow time for committee reviews and job searching.
  • Don't pack your last year with too many activities since job searching can take a lot longer than you might think.
  • Allow time for delays and setbacks.
  • Keep a game plan posted at your desk: a one page list of major activities and their time line. Writing it down makes it more important.
6. Manage Your Time
  • Use your game plan from above to prepare tasks and goals for the week.
  • Include internal deadlines (i.e. your own soft ones) that are based on (hard) external deadlines.
  • Assess and adapt as needed.
  • Check: are you making progress? Are you off on your semester plan, and if so, why?
7. Start Writing!
  • Most don't budget enough time for writing.
  • Don't need to write thesis from scratch - reuse writing from conference papers, etc.
  • You may need 2-3 major revisions to the overall structure before it's accepted.
8. Engage in Your Career Search
  • Which career path is right for you?
  • Your grades don't really matter (they're in the past). Your vision for the future matters!
  • Tune your interviews to the place you are applying to.
  • Keep working on your thesis!
9. Prepare for the Next Step
  • Take a leadership role in your research group.
  • Travel to conferences, engage in lots of professional networking.
  • Seek out and take advantage of resources available to you.
10. Prepare for Your Defence
  • Sit in on other defences.
  • Practice.
  • Communicate with committee members, address serious concerns early.
  • Defend, but don't be on offence.
  • Be rested and refreshed.
  • Defend on a Friday - apparently that helps. ;)


Unknown said...

THANK YOU!! I really needed this! reposting on everything i am on :-)

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