We gave Amy a standing ovation at her thesis defense.
I was in my fifth year of graduate school and it was the best defense I had ever heard.
Throughout her whole thesis defense Amy was confident as she described her meticulously planned series of experiments which generated strong and reproducible data.
After her defense I congratulated her, and asked for her “secret recipe” for such an awesome thesis.
Her answer surprised me.
She said: “Dora, my thesis came together when I realized that my committee would not hold my hand during this process. I really had to fight to get my thesis approved. You can’t let them put you down – you need to keep standing up for yourself and negotiate your graduation requirements and eventually they will give you the green light.”
This was a real eye-opener for me, because I realized that I had to take leadership of my thesis.
Showing up at work and generating lots of data would not guarantee me my PhD degree.
The reason that some students take so long to graduate is that they go with the flow, follow their supervisor’s advice blindly, and just keep generating data, without having clearly defined their thesis question or hypothesis.
Thomas H. Benton, author for The Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a list of important virtues of successful students helps to point out some habits that you can acquire to help aid you to success on this journey.
Don’t leave your thesis up to chance
After my conversation with Amy, I became laser-focused.
I talked to my thesis supervisor until we had clear requirements for my graduation.
I then planned a realistic timeline with milestones and scheduled my next committee meeting.
My committee members disagreed on my graduation requirements, but this time I took a firm stance.
I remembered Amy’s advice and I prepared well for this meeting by having answers written down for their usual objections and having backup slides with more details.
My committee members tried to push me as hard as they could, and they all had different opinions on which direction would be most relevant for our field of research.
Thanks to Amy’s advice, I was able to express my ideas assertively and get my committee members on the same page so I could graduate on time.
By the end of the meeting I had negotiated my graduation requirements, which consisted of a series of experiments that could be realistically completed within the following year.
If I had not taken a firm stance, perhaps my thesis would have taken an extra 3 years, or maybe I would have dropped out altogether.
5 Shortcuts to Finish Your Thesis 6 Months Earlier
My confidence soared once I realized that I had to become my own project manager.
I had one year left before my anticipated graduation date, and there was a lot to do – there was no time or energy to waste.
1. Don’t be “everyone’s helper”
I used to pride myself on responding to everyone’s emails quickly and being “everyone’s helper” in the lab. It made me feel good that my expertise was helping others.
The problem was that more I helped others with their work, the more dependent they became on me, and the more they sucked up my time and energy.
Once I started tracking my time, I realized that I spent an unreasonable number of hours responding to other people’s demands.
I was not doing my thesis a favor, and I was not doing the other people a favor either.
If I wanted to graduate in a year, I had to prioritize my thesis.
I was still available to help others, but I found a way to “protect” my thesis time by working in the library, not responding to emails right away, or just telling people that I was in the middle of something.
Pete Leibman, author of Work Stronger, suggests not responding to emails immediately, instead, try delegating a specific time of day for checking and replying to emails to help you to be productive and not lose focus by trying to multitask.
2. Map out the path to your finished thesis
Your thesis will not write itself.
The idea of creating a map may seem intimidating for a few reasons.
First, if your graduation is very far in the future, you may not know what you need to do to finish it.
Students who graduate first in their class ( for example 4 years instead of 6 years) usually start mapping out a plan as soon they begin research.
Your plan will change (because research and life are unpredictable), but having a plan will help you to gain clarity about what you need to do and by when.
The second reason it may seem intimidating to create a map, is that you may discover that you need to do more than you want to, or that you don’t have enough time to complete everything.
If you have reservations about creating a map remember that a plan will help you take leadership of your thesis.
The American Psychological Association discusses the importance of auditing your time, finding what works best for you, and rewarding yourself as important factors for finishing on schedule and not allowing yourself to fall behind.
Remember to use a time management tool that works best for you!
Don’t leave your thesis up to chance. When you map out a plan, you will automatically start taking charge of your thesis.
3. Start every day fresh
After I clarified my thesis requirements and created a map with long-term goals, I came to work every morning with the question:
“What can I do today to make progress on my thesis?”
On some days I had to set up a new experiment, on other days I had to write parts of my thesis.
However, I did not check my email until I got at least one high priority task done – and sometimes that took a few hours.
I later learned that this simple shift (from priding yourself on helping others to prioritizing your thesis) is the number one strategy that helped students graduate first in their class.
The average length of the program in my department was 6 years. In almost every cohort there was a student who graduated in 4 years.
How did they do it?
Instead of working harder, the “quick graduates” simplified their lives.
First, they prioritized their theses and their health (interestingly those who graduated quickly also exercised regularly).
Since they were on track with their theses and were in good health, they were able to show up for others (their family, their peers) with more energy and creativity.
Randall S. Hansen, PhD and author of My College Success Story, says that eating well, regular exercise, not sweating the small stuff, and setting realistic goals are all a part of simplifying and finding balance in school.
4. Look at the shoreline, not the horizon
Do you ever feel guilty that you didn’t get more done? Do you ever ask yourself questions such as:
“Why have I not accomplished more?” “Why am I behind all the time?” “Why am I not more productive?”
Asking yourself these questions is not only meaningless, but it also holds you back from progress.
The more guilty you feel, the less motivated you will feel to do work, and this leads to more guilt.
This is a vicious cycle that will exhaust and frustrate you, and hold you back from making progress on your thesis.
Instead of feeling guilty about what you didn’t accomplish, focus on what you have done. Maybe you committed to writing 3 pages, and you only wrote 1 page.
When you accomplish less than what you planned, you have two choices.
You can either feel guilty (which as we know will only lead to more guilt), or you can acknowledge the progress that you made.
If you catch yourself beating yourself up, think about how much progress you made in the last week or month.
I call this “looking at the shoreline” because it shows how far you have come.
“Looking at the horizon” is an analogy for thinking about how much work you still have left to do, and this can feel overwhelming.
5. Turn to-do’s into results that will be part of your finished thesis
Do you feel like you are being pulled in 47 different directions each week?
Most grad students (and people in general), operate from a to-do list.
They write down all the work and non-related things that “should” do, but they give little thought to the tangible result they want to see.
When you let a “to-do” list run your life, you will always feel exhausted, and playing catch up.
In fact, the more to-do’s you cross off your list, the more to-do’s you realize you need to get done.
As long as you live your life by a to-do list, you can’t win, no matter how efficient you are.
It’s time to try something new.
Instead of following a to-do list and cramming as much as possible into each day, write down what is the end result that you want.
For example, instead of writing in your calendar “Work on slides for committee meeting”, write “Create an outstanding presentation for committee meeting to show them that my data is solid, and I am ready to move onto the next phase of my research.”
Then, you can list the actions necessary to achieve that result.
An action plan with a well-defined goal is much more motivating than a random list of chores.
With a results-oriented action plan you will be able to prioritize better and take the actions that will help you to make the most progress in your thesis.
After all, you don’t want to become a slave to your to-list – you just want to finish your thesis.
For more tips to help you get your thesis DONE and be more productive in graduate school, click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”