Posted by Filipa on 31, May 2016

This is academia not a company

Tips to write your PhD thesis without being afraid.

 

I believe that everyone should be able to get to the PhD finish line in due time. Writing your PhD thesis when your financial support runs out is miserable and this is clearly not the right mindset for success.

Sometimes you feel, that you have to quickly find a job to support yourself and if you eventually find some source of income, you might have so much stuff to do, that your thesis writing gets postponed.

It happened to me, I ran out of funding when I had to finish my thesis, I had a huge problem with the “scary blank page” and I got petrified.

 

I got so insecure about the future, questioning if I ever should continue doing science. I was miserable and as a solution I started to rent spare rooms at my apartment to earn extra income. Being a “business woman” helped me to feel useful again, but removed me from what should have been my number one goal: finishing my PhD thesis.

 

Eventually I finished my thesis but it was with so much pain and frustration much of which could have been avoided. It is important that we remain aware about the traps that could remove us from our goals.

 

In Academia it is commonly accepted to postpone the ending of the PhD.

Sometimes, the supervisor (Principal Investigator – PI) needs the student to finish lab work or maybe sometimes the PI is not available to provide the support the student needs.

 

During my professional life I have often discussed, with other academics, strategies that help students complete their dissertation before the $ runs out. In one of these conversations, a professor told me, “ this is academia not a company”, meaning that it is perfectly normal for students not to finish their PhD in due time. The problem is that should this happen, the supervisor should be very clear about their willingness to support the student until the end of the PhD. By support I mean: provide financial support. This does not always happen.

 

“Academia is not a company” this sentence resonates with me and reveals how most academics see themselves as above mere commerce. Whoever wishes to make a steady living is labeled as a sellout.

If you look at Oxford and Cambridge the standard time to finish your PhD is still considered three years, although four years is not unusual. Well I believe Cambridge and Oxford are not companies and they encourage students to finish their PhD in 4-5 years.

According to Joseph Berger of the New York Times, 10 years ago, the average length of a dissertation program (sometimes Msc & PhD)  in USA took 8 years.

 

Consequently, universities in the United States, Canada, and UK have been exploring different ways to decrease the time their students take to write their thesis.

Some Institutions are incorporating writing training on their doctoral programs, others tend to change to an “integrated format” where the student can incorporate her or his published publications to avoid writing all the thesis from scratch (1). In addition, most universities in North American and UK are setting stricter timelines and demanding that faculty advisers meet regularly with their students.

Some Ivy League Institutions provide and fund a 5 year doctoral program where the student is excused from teaching during the PhD studies, however this is not the rule and the way USA students fund their PhD studies is to teach regularly undergraduate classes (2). In addition some labs have their own funding to pay students until they finish their thesis. In Europe, it is slightly different where students have their own fellowships (around 4years) and these are provided by European funding.

 

It is not uncommon to see fellowships running out and the supervisors not being able to financially support their students.

 

There are some tips to avoid the trap of running out of funding.

 

  • Plan ahead: Explore what you want to do after your PhD. When you have a plan for the future your thesis writing gets easier. More about career planning here www.cienciaclara.pt/services
  • Discuss with your supervisor the timelines and goals and what you should accomplish in both: If you are stuck in an experiment and if the experiment is going nowhere, establish a plan when to finish that experiment (e.g. “if in 4 months we don’t get these results we drop it”). This should be discussed with your supervisor.
  • Get used to writing: This can be done by writing a blog or by starting to write your methods section or table of contents, small steps at a time.

Yes, academia is not a company but academia would benefit immensely if Masters and PhDs students as well as postdoctoral Researchers could have the same tools as  those corporate employees use on a daily basis. Project & time management, scientific writing, leadership - these are some of the most valuable skills you can have today.

  1. Joseph Berger. Exploring Ways to Shorten the Ascent to a Ph.D. The New York Times. OCT. 3, 2007
  1. Paul Jump. Last Era's Model. Times Higher Education Ed. 2, 204. 21-27 May 2015

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