The complete and universal guide to finishing a PhD

So I’ve recently submitted my PhD thesis for examination and, as is customary, it is now time for me to explain to you the best way to finish a thesis.

This might be news, but PhDs are really hard. You spend three or four or five-plus years reading and researching and writing and, eventually, you end up with a full-blown thesis. It’s laborious stuff, folks.

Now, there are countless blogs, articles and books out there offering advice on the skills and tools you need to tackle a PhD. Some of these are quite good, like my wife’s article this week about her writing routine. My advice is better. This is the only article you will need to read to be PhinisheD. Heard of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? Well this is my ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective PhDs’. Sure, this is based only on my own experience, and I haven’t even received my examiner’s reports yet, but I’m dead certain these seven steps will apply to every other person doing a PhD.

1. Have a supportive partner

Living alone is hard. You have to do all your own washing, shopping and cooking. You have to pay all your own bills and magazine subscriptions. It can be lonely—no one is there to hear your troubles or laugh at the really funny jokes that I’m always coming up with. Having a partner makes things so much easier. From my own experience, I would recommend one who is kind and outgoing, who is great at cooking and, if possible, also has a bunch of degrees in a field related to your own (this comes in handy when you need someone to proofread your entire thesis a week out from submission!).

2. Get a stable second income

Let’s admit it, the Australian PhD stipend is dismal. If you work 40 hours a week on your thesis, you’re being paid less than half minimum wage. And while that might seem like a lot to those of us conditioned to grungy share-houses and Mi Goreng, it’s barely enough to pay for both the adult and fun things in your budget. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a stable secondary source of income to supplement your stipend. I would recommend a job that is enjoyable and intellectually stimulating, one that isn’t too stressful, and is well paying. Also—and this is important—make sure the people you work with are kind and supportive, and are really flexible with deliverables. This makes things much easier in those more stressful times of the PhD. Personally, I went with a three-year fixed-term academic contract on a really interesting ARC project. I also had a wife with a good income. I would definitely recommend something like this.

3. Have a fun social group

When the weekend rolls around, you need to put your books down—and your hair down! This is where a few good friends come in handy. It helps heaps if you stay in or close to your city of birth, so you don’t need to make a bunch of new friends during your PhD. If possible, make sure your main friends are all at least middle class—this means they’re more likely to be tertiary educated, too, and a few of them might be able to help you through any financial tough spots. Relatedly, as cool as they are, don’t have small kids. From what I’ve read online, they aren’t that fun on Friday night, they can be very demanding, and might interrupt the eight hours of continuous sleep you need to feel alive each day. It also sounds like they usually aren’t capable of being very supportive. If you already have some, I’d recommend coming up with some alternative arrangement for a few years (this could also work as a good external motivator to finish your thesis fast!).

4. Belong to the dominant social group

Now this might be the most important step on the list. I can’t explain just how useful it was to be white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied and heterosexual during my PhD journey. There are so many benefits to belonging to the dominant social group. For example: people automatically think you’re likeable and trustworthy and capable, and you don’t even have to do anything to deserve it. You never really feel out of place or excluded or anything like that. It does wonders for your confidence levels, which is important in a highly competitive and stressful environment like academia, where you’re constantly receiving paper rejections and the like. Being in a dominant social groups means these rejections come less often and, when they do, they don’t really hurt because you know more opportunity lies just around the corner. To achieve the dominant group ‘look’ I would recommend: some facial fair, $150 flannel shirts, $500 ‘work’ boots, and a few tattoos to show that you also have a deep, complex inner life—this seemed to work quite well for me.

5. Have a stable place of residence

Material stability makes or breaks a PhD. In undertaking a PhD, your sense of self-worth and very existence is called into question—for like four years. That’s why it’s important to stay grounded. And, as all geographers know, the home is the most important space in grounding us in everyday life. It’s often said that, after bereavement and divorce, moving is the most stressful life event. So you don’t want to get kicked out of your place by a parasitic landlord in the hectic last few months of your thesis. To prevent this, make sure you have rock-solid tenure. I’d recommend a nice stand-alone house in a beautiful area where you can easily access your university and nature—forests and oceans are great, both are preferable, and preferably both within walking distance. It’s also good to have a spare room dedicated as your own writing space, so you don’t need to travel all the way into university every day—if possible with views of small birds foraging in grasses. It’s for these reasons my partner and I simply decided to get out of the rental market, buy a beautiful house in an incredible location, while also making sure the mortgage repayments weren’t going to be too stressful—and I’d suggest you do that, too.

6. Have a supportive institutional environment

I don’t know how many PhD candidates I’ve talked to with horror stories of absent or aggressive supervisors, or universities that feel like truly hostile rather than supportive environments. My advice: have good supervisors and a good university environment. Personally, I picked one supervisor who is warm and intelligent and always ready to help me with whatever intellectual, professional or emotional troubles I had; and another who constantly offered incredible, provocative insight into my topic. You, too, will want to achieve a good balance like this.

7. Maintain your health

Finally, while a PhD is an apprenticeship in thinking, that doesn’t mean you can neglect your health! This means being physically fit by working out at least four times a week. It means not having any physical ailments, particularly chronic and painful ones that might make sitting for long periods or getting out of bed difficult. It means not having any mental health issues, especially those that might make it hard to cope in really stressful or isolating situations. And it means at absolutely no point should you get seriously sick. I managed to achieve all of these things throughout my PhD, and you should aim to do so, too.

Now, of course you don’t have to follow all the seven steps. But what you’ll find is that one each one tends to ramify others. For instance, having a partner makes it way easier to have a stable place of residence; and being part of the dominant social group helps secure secondary income, institutional support, and all kinds of other cool benefits. It’s basic stuff. And as my own experience shows, by achieving all seven steps simultaneously, they will begin to sing together in stunning chorus, whisking you along on a fun, exciting and even blissful PhD journey towards PhreeDom!

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