The PhD Thesis Committee meeting that I thought would never happen
My palms were sweaty as I sat in the classroom waiting for my committee members to arrive. I had been trying to schedule this meeting for over 3 months, and I couldn’t believe that it was actually going to take place.
I had three brilliant professors in my committee and they were so busy traveling that there was literally only one hour in the entire Spring semester when they could all show up at the same time.
If one of them didn’t show up…well I couldn’t imagine when I would be able to reschedule this meeting and when (if ever) I would graduate.
Finally they arrived, chatting with each other about department events.
It probably did not matter to them whether I would graduate that semester, but for me graduating would mean an end to suffering from an inflammatory condition that I developed as a result of stress 2 years earlier.
I knew that I would not recover from my condition as long as I was in graduate school. In fact, the pain kept getting worse with time due to the long hours typing and doing lab work
I was not sure my body would be able to handle another semester if they asked me to do another series of experiments. Yet, dropping out after nearly 6 years would make me feel like a complete failure.
I had to ace this committee meeting.
I was fortunate that one of my friends, who had defended earlier in the year, warned me that their decision to let me graduate was not just based upon the results that I presented but how I negotiated that my data was enough for a PhD thesis.
I made significant progress in the previous 9 months, developing a new experimental system that generated reproducible and publishable data. As expected, my committee did not let me off the hook easily. They probed me with questions and suggested more lengthy experiments to verify the data.
If my friend had not mentally prepared me for this meeting I would have probably just given in and agreed to more experiments even at the expense of my physical and mental health. But this time I stood up for myself, citing data from the literature to show that indeed this was original data, and would lead to at least 2 publications.
It was a heated debate, but my chair finally agreed to let me defend given that 1) I would finish my thesis by the deadline for that semester and 2) I would do one more set of short experiments.
My relief was quickly dampened by the realization that the deadline was 20 days away – I had 20 days to not only write my thesis but to run another set of experiments.
I walked out of the room shocked that I had a defense date scheduled, with no idea how I was going to produce a finished thesis AND run another set of experiments in less than 3 weeks.
From Paralysis to a Finished Thesis in Just 20 days
Where do you start the analysis of 5 years of data comprised of hundreds of experiments and do a literature search to show that this is an original contribution? I felt so paralyzed by the amount of data I had to organize that I did not know where to begin.
My best friend, who lived in New York City, called me the night of my final committee meeting and she was beyond excitement to hear that I had a defense date. She was not an academic, but she worked in the medical field and was always eager to learn more about cutting-edge research.
What better way to learn about science than go to your best friends’s thesis defense? Never mind that she was more than 200 miles from the Boston area. She told me that she was taking the day off so she could see me become a “doctor.”
After she hung up, I sat in silence for a moment. I knew how little vacation my friend had, and I could not believe that she would use one of her days to drive 400 miles to see me defend my thesis. Since she worked in a hospital, once she submitted a request to take a day off they filled her spot with another staff and she could not “retrieve” her vacation day if her plans changed.
She was coming to Boston on the day of my defense no matter what, and I couldn’t imagine what would happen to our friendship if I let her down.
I had to find a way to finish my thesis given the short time frame I had. For the past 2 years I was experimenting with different productivity strategies so I could make progress despite my medical condition. It was time to put these strategies to a test, and make every day count.
I decided to “purge” everything from my life that was not essential to survival or finishing my thesis for the next twenty days, including emails, web surfing, and social events. I am not suggesting that you isolate yourself completely from the outside world in graduate school, but during crunch time you might need to drop some hobbies (which you can pick up later after you graduate).
The key to reducing overwhelm is to simplify your daily agenda, channel all your energy into your highest priorities, and purge all irrelevant commitments from your life.
Here are the 5 principles I used on a daily basis to smash my thesis into manageable bits and finish it in 20 days
1. Clearly define what has to be done for each chapter and section in order to say it is “completed”
Based on the discussions I had with my supervisor and committee members I knew what I had to do to finish each chapter. In order to be motivated and productive, you need to know your end goal with as much clarity as possible. Your thesis will evolve as you write it, but you need to define your main question or hypothesis, and have an estimate of the length of each chapter.
If you have not defined what needs to be done for each chapter, fill in the following blank: “The purpose of this chapter is to_____”
Once you summarize your chapter in one sentence, you will know what belongs in that chapter and what does not. If your chapter consist of multiple sections, summarize the purpose of each section.
Be sure that you and your supervisor agree on the scope of your thesis, so you include everything relevant, without doing extra work that is beyond the requirements (especially if you are in a time crunch).
2. Set no more than 3 priorities for each day the evening before
This is a toughie. As academics we are overachievers and we want to get 10 things done every day. The reality is that we have limited time and on most days there are unexpected interruptions. When you have unrealistic goals you are setting yourself up for a disappointment, and may lose motivation to complete even one of those goals.
If you set a maximum of three priorities for the day, you are forcing yourself to put your energy on the most important goals that will help you make progress. Note that I said a maximum of three priorities. On some days you may have such a massive project that just that one priority alone will take up your whole day or week.
“If you have more than 3 priorities, then you don’t have any.” Jim Collins, best-selling author
3. Pick the highest priority and start your day with it before doing any other work
Look at your list of 3 priorities and pick the one that will make the most impact on your progress. What do you want to make sure gets done if you don’t have time for all three?
Once you pick your highest priority, commit to starting your day with that – before you even check your email or social media. If it is a massive project that will take up most of the day, work on it at least one or two hours before you check your email.
During the 20 day crunch time, I checked email only once a day in the late afternoon. I replied to only the most important ones and I got done with email in 5-10 minutes on most days.
4. Chunk down your priorities into smaller actionable items that can be completed in 1 hour or less
Let’s say your priority is to finish your literature search. Writing a literature search can take weeks, and just the mere thought of it may overwhelm you. It is tough to stay focused for more than an hour, so why not chunk down your big project into smaller bits?
For example, instead of “Work on literature review”, commit to “Read paper by Smith et al. and incorporate it into my literature review.”
The latter is an actionable goal that can probably be completed in about an hour. What if you don’t know how long something will take? Just take a guess.
In general, most things take longer than we expect. If you did not complete what you wanted to, see what you learned about your work habits (maybe your office has too many distractions and you work better in the library), and include your goal in your priorities for the next day.
This is my favorite strategy and it will be yours too if you have a busy schedule. A microgoal is something that can be completed in 15 minutes or less.
Students who work part-time or have families may not have several hours in a row to work on their thesis. But almost everyone has 15 minutes here or there to read a paper or write 1-2 paragraphs.
Over the course of just one week, you can make impressive progress if you follow through on your microgoals. Just 3-4 microgoals a day adds up to almost 5 hours of work in a week – not bad if you “have no time” to work.
Microgoals are also excellent to pick up momentum if you have not been writing for a while or if you feel unmotivated. Motivation comes with action, as long as the action is in the right direction. A microgoal can be as simple as emailing your supervisor a list of questions so you know what to include in a chapter.
In the final stages of thesis writing it is important to write every day, and if you have other commitments such as a job or parenting you can keep your creative juices flowing if you set a few microgoals for the day.
Use microgoals during the times when you are most overwhelmed or unmotivated to pick up momentum and literally smash your projects into manageable bits
The combination of clarity of what had to be done for each chapter, setting priorities for each day, and chunking down each priority into 1 hour bits made it possible for me to finish my thesis on an ambitious timeline – and you can use the same principles too no matter how busy, overwhelmed, or unmotivated you are.
Now it is Your Turn: How you can Use these tips to Follow Through on Any Plan
The great thing about the process that I outlined above is that you can apply it to any project to simplify it and get it done quicker.
When you define what needs to be done to say that a project is complete, determine your top 3 priorities for each day, and you break each priority down into small bits, you gain so much clarity that it is nearly impossible to not be motivated to work.
I used this paradigm to get all of my big projects done including publishing papers during my postdoctoral fellowship, writing a research grant, and finding an industry job.
Think of the biggest project that you need to complete within the next few weeks: it can be a presentation, a paper for a course, a research proposal, or a publication.