There’s a red door in Cambridge, UK. It’s on Mill Lane, and it’s the most famous door in the city — at least, among Ph.D. students. It’s where students submit their dissertations. Before you go in, the tradition demands that you stand in front of the door and take a photo. There are countless pictures all over Facebook, capturing the ‘red door moment.’ In fact, “I’ve been to the red door” is code for “I’ve finished my thesis!”
I’ve made it to the red door five years after I started my Ph.D. In one arm, I held my six-month-old baby. In the other, my dissertation. My husband took the photo. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
That same evening, I jotted down some notes. I wanted my future self to remember how I managed to climb that mountain — and the strength I gained in the process. I also wanted to remember the times of writers’ block and low confidence, which were so painful that I almost didn’t submit my thesis.
Here’s how I managed to overcome my fears and procrastination to get to the finish line.
Rule 1: Write before you’re confident
“Am I doing it wrong?” — I asked myself that question on a daily basis. For example, I was never sure if my data analysis was correct. I had attended many summer school sessions at the University of Essex, one of the best places to learn statistics in the UK. But my data didn’t behave as the textbook said.
So, I kept re-running the models and creating new figures. And I put off writing up my results — because, what’s the point if it’s possibly wrong? I wanted to feel “ready” before I start writing.
But at some point, I ran out of time. My funding had run out, I had a newborn baby in the house, and I needed to move on with my life.
So, I sat down and wrote.
The feeling of uncertainty was almost unbearable. I started producing words by simply describing my figures (which looked ugly). I described the steps in my statistical models (they seemed wrong). I started interpreting my results (they seemed inconsistent). The inner critic sat right there with me and whispered in my ear every day.
I got used to writing with discomfort.
But I also started telling myself simple mantras:
- “I’ll just write all my research up and tell the examiners what I did”
- “I’ll just say what I learned and what the field can do with this.”
- “I’ll just say what the difficulties were and where the limitations lie.”
And slowly, I noticed that my confidence grew. With every word, with every page written. I started feeling like an academic writer.
All I had to do was to write before I was ready.
Rule 2: Don’t write alone
I felt isolated. Most other students did qualitative interviews, while I learned statistics and worked with data sets. Others went on fieldwork, while I sat in front of the computer and ran simulations.
One day, I went to a seminar series in my Department, and during the coffee break, I noticed: the other students are feeling exactly the same! So I founded the Cambridge University Writing Group together with my friend Moira Faul. We decided to meet with a group of interdisciplinary graduate students every day. We used the 25min Pomodoro timing technique to start with, and later we wrote for 50 minutes at a time. When we got stuck, we talked about it during the coffee breaks. This writing community still lives on today, and it has saved many Ph.D. students’ thesis.
What I learned for life was that community is key to staying productive in the long run. Without my writing group and Ph.D. friends, I wouldn’t have made it.
Here’s what you can do: Find a weekly writing group at your university. Start one if there is none. Sign up for an academic writing retreat. Find out how structured writing works. Ask one other student today if they’ll meet you in a cafe or library for two hours to write together.
Break the curse of isolation now.
Rule 3: Don’t solve problems, tackle them
Problems will be in your way almost every day. For example, no one might answer your survey. Your study participants might cancel. Your method might not work. You might find that someone else has already published your great idea. Your supervisor might say you don’t have a good argument.
None of that should stop you.
The best-kept secret in academia is: You don’t have to solve all problems.
Even during my five years as an Assistant Professor, I didn’t solve all problems in my data or in my writing.
What you do instead is: tackle them.
There’s real joy and satisfaction to be gained from tackling a tricky problem — especially when you know that you’re only meant to contribute a small advancement in the literature (rather than having to solve everything).
Real academics have to be pragmatic: Find a problem, tackle it the best you can, be transparent about your process, and keep going.
And stay in the gain: Instead of constantly thinking of what you haven’t yet done, celebrate your small wins, as the book The Gap and the Gain explains.
Rule 4: Emulate others without plagiarising
All research builds on the shoulder of giants. All new articles and books bounce off earlier work, extend it, or even argue the same but with different data and methods. In short, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
In fact, emulating published work, or other Ph.D. theses, will help you get started, and it helps you to get better, too.
For example, when I couldn’t apply statistics from textbooks to my data, I replicated existing studies instead. I downloaded other scholars’ replication data and ran the same models on their data and then on my own data. I compared the results and decided if I wanted to improve their methods by changing some of the statistical tests. This is the replication and emulation approach to learning statistics, and I ended up teaching empirical methods in that way later in my career.
The same is possible for any academic work: What survey questions have others asked? How have they selected their cases? How does a famous article structure its argument? How have other Ph.D. dissertations laid out their literature review?
I have often taken the headlines and sub-headlines from published articles and used them as writing prompts (and rewrote them later to avoid plagiarism). I’ve come to regularly start with data that were not my own to learn statistics. I’ve downloaded other theses to learn from their structure. I emulated whenever I didn’t know how to do something. That got me out of my writers’ block many times.
As long as you don’t plagiarise, you can use previous work as a template to avoid the fear of having to produce something from scratch.
Rule 5: Trust your supervisor, but trust yourself more
Many of my coaching clients are frustrated with their supervisor or thesis committee. It might sometimes feel that your supervisor is, in fact, pushing you to write a completely different thesis than you want.
From the perspective of an Assistant Professor who later supervised Ph.D., MA, or BA students, I can tell you that anyone who came to me with their dissertation topic ended up writing something closer to my own research agenda than they had intended. The reason is not malice or manipulation. My own research agenda was simply the filter through which I saw the world. Students’ ideas triggered excitement when my brain could bring their argument into the bigger puzzle of my own research field. I’m sure I have nudged students in directions they had never intended.
At the same time, your thesis is yours. If you feel your supervisor is suggesting that you take a path that’s leading you away from your passion, tell them early on. You are — or you will become — the bigger expert on your topic, and you need to stay engaged.
From the perspective of being faculty, I have found that confident students are easier to work with. They needed to give me a clear message of why they wanted to go another way, which was often eye-opening for me. They earned my respect by standing up to me. And then I tried to support them on their journey, learning from them.
That’s why one of the best ways to finish your thesis is to trust your supervisor, but trust yourself more.
Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash