How can doctoral students complete their theses timely? A number of factors facilitate timely completions including the availability of tailored feedback, a support network and being organised. These were highlighted in my recent enquiry with Hilary Burgess of what helps doctoral students develop their writing, published as an Open Access article in the journal Studies in Higher Education. In terms of being organised, we interviewed students and graduates across disciplines and found many examples of resilience. Most interviewees could detail stories of producing chapters within tight deadlines. These included writing early in the morning or during the night:
I would always write at night as during the day I was either at work or looking after the children. When the children were not at home, I would often go to the university at 10pm and return home about 4am… there is something about writing in the early hours. (PhD graduate)
I would get up at quarter to five so I could get some writing done in the morning…maybe four days a week. (PhD graduate)
Once participants started writing a number of times weekly, work seemed to flow and writing bred the necessity for more writing. Making the most out of periods of high productivity could drive participants to the point of exhaustion. However, beyond the ‘resilience’ theme there seems to be an unresolved issue: how can research time be carved and maintained out of already full personal and social spaces? This is colloquially referred to in graduates’ accounts as ‘burning the candle at both ends’. Particular cognitive processes allowing for productive study in difficult settings could shed light into this issue. These processes are linked with creative production and characterised by increased concentration and lack of awareness of personal needs: ’sometimes I forget eating…I just keep writing, keep writing’ (PhD student). In other creative activities such as music composing accounts of sustained work appear underpinned by motivation and emotional engagement.
Motivation is something that interviewees had in abundance, as well as an emotional link with their chosen topics. While absorbed in focused studying, motivated students’ perception of time is minimized, a situation described in the literature as being in a state of flow. In summary, if you are in the midst of thesis writing you need to try to find an appropriate work environment as well as the motivation and emotional engagement to reach a flow state.