The Recipe for Sweet PhD Success - Part 2
So our perfect PhD is taking shape, and if you’ve been following the recipe carefully you’ll know we’ve already added a spoonful of communication, a sprinkling of collaboration and a big dollop of commitment to our PhD mixing bowl (see The Recipe for Sweet PhD Success - Part 1).
Now let’s continue to step 4 where we’ll be adding planning and focus to help make your dissertation as delicious as possible.
Step 4: Bringing your dissertation together with focus and self-care
We are getting closer to finishing this wonderful PhD cake! Now it’s time to add your final ingredient before baking the cake: eggs. Eggs play so many roles when preparing a cake. They add protein, liquid, provide structure, and overall, they emulsify all the ingredients we have added so far. So, in a way, your dissertation acts as the emulsifier of your PhD. Think about it. You’ve studied the literature for years, you’ve acquired countless skills as a practical scientist, you’ve shared your science, and now it’s time to bring everything you’ve learned to the table. It is time to write your dissertation!
Plan and focus for dissertation success
My dissertation was written during the first Covid-19 lockdown, and living by myself I found it tough. To write your dissertation you need organisation and discipline, which luckily I’m pretty good at, so I eventually managed to create a plan and follow it effectively.
Try to think about your dissertation as the culmination of a marathon you’ve been running for three or four years. You can’t give up just now! Your dissertation will reflect all the work you’ve been doing, yet it can be very overwhelming when you sit in front of a blank Word document for the first time. So it’s good to come up with a plan before staring at that empty screen. In my case, the first thing I did was to organise a meeting with my supervisor in which we briefly outlined what each chapter would be about. This was incredibly useful in helping me to see the ‘bigger picture’.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Start with the automatic formatting of titles, subtitles, and lists of figures and tables. I beg you... do not leave this to the very end! The order of your figures will change frequently, and you definitely don’t want to edit these by hand every single time!
Next, it’s time to start writing, and it really is up to you how you organise yourself. The best advice I can give is to follow any plan that works for you. Don’t copy others, just get to know the methods that are most productive for you. Some people start by writing the introduction, others start by making figures. In my case, I started by writing my materials and methods chapter. As I previously mentioned, I adore following a protocol and I really like focusing on details such as reagents, concentrations, etc. It was quite motivating for me to write about those, and sooner than I expected I’d finished writing my first chapter, which ramped up my enthusiasm for the rest. I focused on one chapter at a time, reviewing all the figures that needed to go in that particular chapter and adding them as they were, or modifying them if needed. Sometimes the layout of your figures will change after writing a paragraph or a section, so don’t panic if you’re not sure about how they look at first. This comes with time, and writing will give you clarity on the best possible layout for your work.
After adding the figures and writing the captions, I drafted the storyline with very raw sentences. What do you want to tell in that chapter? What are the figures telling the reader? How would you link each figure? How does that fit within the literature? I know it seems like a titanic effort, but you know more about those figures than anyone in the world, so it should come naturally. With time, it should be easy to link each chapter. After writing my results chapters, I wrote the introduction, and I left the conclusions for the end.
Pro tip: Be sure to save some time for final formatting. This can be time-consuming and is often overlooked.
A spoonful of self-care helps the dissertation flow
Another important tip is not to push yourself. Because I wrote my dissertation from home, it helped to set up a schedule as though I was at work. Wake up early, breakfast, write, lunch break, and then write until seven or eight pm (after six years in England I still keep my Spanish dinner time!). This helped me to keep a track of time, however, I made the mistake of pushing myself a lot at the beginning and I blamed myself if I didn’t hit my daily writing goals. Here is the thing, each person is different. Some people will write a lot, some people will write less. You have not written a PhD dissertation before, so it will take time to find your pace. In my case, sometimes I needed to read lots of papers before writing anything, hence my page was blank that day. Other days I was on fire and I wrote six or seven pages. Some days I wrote one page only to delete it the next because my writing was awful. In conclusion, go with the flow. Trust your pace. You do not have to write one chapter per day (as if!), and you definitely do not need to be producing a final version the first time you write. Keep going, reward yourself, and take regular breaks from writing. And please, do not compare your writing “speed” with others. It will only harm you. If someone tells you “I wrote mine in one month”, or “Wow, you are still writing?”, leave those comments behind. It is your dissertation, and it does not belong to anyone else.
Another great tip is to find something fun to do when you are sick of writing. Yes, this is going to happen, and more often than you think, especially towards the end when the submission date gets closer and closer. Because I was in the middle of a national lockdown, I couldn’t go out as much as I’d like or meet with friends. As you know by now, I like baking, so I decided to investigate new recipes and cook with healthier alternatives. I also started to exercise at home. Another thing that helped me was to make diagrams. I love creating figures, not only containing results but also explaining a concept. When I was overwhelmed by my dissertation, I played my favourite music out loud and drew the figures for my introduction. And before I knew it, by distracting my mind I’d drawn every figure and diagram for my dissertation!
Keep your supervisor involved in the process
The last tip I want to mention is to maintain communication with your supervisor and keep them updated with how you are getting on. I kept my supervisor informed of my progress, and it was helpful to hear his encouragement. It’s also important to agree on how the corrections will be done. Would your supervisor prefer to receive one chapter at a time? Or the whole draft at once? It’s important to chat about these options at the beginning of the process so you know when you will get corrections, and how to fit them in with the rest of the dissertation. And speaking of corrections, do not take them as criticisms… they will only make your dissertation better. It’s tough when you’ve been writing for ages, and now you need to keep revising, and modifying. It is daunting, but corrections are there for you to benefit from the experience of your supervisory team, and to evaluate those changes from a positive perspective. It’s also beneficial if you can proofread your dissertation with colleagues. Sometimes we are so immersed in our writing that we miss a line that’s been written twice, or a simple word rearrangement that could make a paragraph much clearer. Remember, input from multiple people will only enrich your work. There can never be ‘too many cooks’ when it comes to proofreading!
Sooner than you expect, you will have that dissertation ready to print. Exactly one year ago I was still dealing with corrections and cursing that unfinished book that I had in front of me. And now I am writing tips for other people with the same laptop and my PhD diploma hanging in my living room. Trust the process, keep writing, take breaks, and enjoy watching your PhD cake gently rise.
Step 5: Surviving the heat of your dissertation defense... and adding sprinkles!
Your cake is baked and it’s time to take a look at the final results. Facing the heat of a dissertation defense can be daunting, but with the right advice (and a sturdy pair of oven gloves!) you don’t have to get burned. For me, the dissertation defense represents the final touches of a PhD project - the sprinkles, the frosting, the icing on top - and believe it or not, it can be enjoyable! My defense was one of the best days of my life. I loved every single minute of it, and it was so much fun!
In terms of preparation, again, every person is different. I had one month between my dissertation submission and the dissertation defense date, so I didn’t have too long to think about it. First, I took a week off from my dissertation and focused on my lab duties. Then, I started reading it again page by page and circled any grammar mistakes. Yes, you will find mistakes, but don't panic! I read my dissertation numerous times before submission, and still, I found mistakes afterwards. It’s completely normal and you should not feel dumb. In terms of content, I didn’t study anything. This is not a test or exam. This is something you have been dedicated to for the last three or four years, and you will know more about it than anyone else in the world. Revise the basic concepts, such as how your assays work, chemical reactions, biological processes, etc, but the rest is in your head, trust me!
What can help a lot is a mock dissertation defense. I had one with my supervisor one week before the big day. It lasted for five hours and once we’d finished I rested my head on the printed copy of my dissertation and sat in silence for at least ten minutes. I felt like a truck had run over me! To be fair, I think my supervisor felt the same way! But it was the best thing I could have done. He asked me so many questions and made me think so much that on the day of my dissertation defense I was absolutely prepared for any kind of discussion. If you have the opportunity, arrange one with your supervisory team, or even with your lab mates.
Don’t be afraid to indulge yourself
The evening before the big day, try to relax and avoid anything related to your dissertation. Do not revise it compulsively! Just do something for yourself (I went for a three-hour gym session), and go to bed early if your defense is in the morning. Surprisingly, I fell asleep early and woke up the next morning feeling incredibly confident. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, my dissertation defense was virtual. Still, I booked a room at my university as I did not fancy being alone in my living room during the aftermath. My defense lasted for four hours, and I will be forever grateful to my examiners. It was an incredibly motivating discussion about my work, literature, and science. I got some wonderful input, minor corrections, and overall, happiness. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer to every question, you’re not there to prove you know everything. You’re there to talk about your work, discuss its potential, and how it fits with the literature. Your examiners are curious about it, that’s why they ask you questions. If your dissertation defense is virtual, I’d recommend having a printed copy of your dissertation so you can follow the corrections from your examiners. Have some snacks to hand, and be sure to wait for the examiners to finish their questions before you speak, so there is no overlap in conversation.
Pro tip: Make sure you have the best possible internet connection. Tech problems will fluster you and break your concentration.
When I went back to my house late that night, after many ovations, text messages, celebrations, champagne, and of course... cake…. I realised it was all over. Deep down, I’d been scared that my imposter syndrome would present itself at my dissertation defense and it would make me doubt my performance and the overall outcome. In fact it was the opposite. I felt proud, content, and excited for what was to come. And I’m not ashamed to say I cried when my examiners told me I was a doctor. Believe me, after all those efforts, late nights and weekends in the lab (with more than a few tears along the way) it is incredibly worth it.
So I hope these articles have helped you to think about your PhD a little differently. Every PhD is unique. Some are stressful, others are fun. It really depends on your attitude, your environment, and your disposition to commit to it. But overall, a PhD is a unique opportunity that will prepare you for your future as a scientist. And the best part is that you get to decide what type of scientist you want to be. What type of cake you want to bake. There is no such thing as a ‘correct path’. If you don’t like academia, leave it. Move elsewhere… into industry, science communication, medical writing… whatever you like! In the end, there are all sorts of cakes in the bakery with flavours to suit every taste. Enjoy every moment of your PhD!
Dr Noelia D Falcon is a senior research associate at the School of Pharmacy, University of East Anglia, UK. She completed a BSc in Marine Sciences and an MRes in Biomedicine back in her home country of Spain before moving to the UK to undertake work experience and eventually complete a PhD. She works in Dr Aram Saeed’s Lab carrying out research on tissue engineering and biomaterials. She is also the host and creator of the I Belong Here podcast, which aims to showcase and share the stories of women in STEM from all around the world.
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