How to complete a PhD

Like the previous post, this is a document I created to help my own students with their work. Again, I think it serves as a useful tool for potential students, I’d appreciate feedback from other professionals, and if nothing else, might be interesting to those on the outside of academia. I am well aware that PhD’s can vary enormously in style between individuals in the same department, let alone in different universities or countries so don’t treat this by any stretch as an absolute. I strongly suspect many of these points are not entirely relevant to people working outside the UK or Ireland or at least would have to be highly modified – the fundamental interaction between students and supervisors is (I believe) rather different between the two. One thing (I think) said by Dr Vector (sauropod supremo Matt Wedel) is that you are not ready to try and do a PhD until you have finished one, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. It is first and foremost (for me) about the learning experience – learning how to do research (and all that that entails) not just *doing* the research. How relevant this is outside of palaeo and / or geology / biology is another matter as well. Anyway, enough babbling, here it is:

This is supposed to be a guide to get you through your 3-4 years of completing a PhD thesis and progressing in scientific research. I can hardly claim to be an expert but I have done one and have seen plenty of problems of my own and that of my friends and colleagues so hopefully I can warn you away from many of them. There are a great many aspects to successfully completing a PhD, not just the basic work itself, but handling meetings, writing and reviewing papers, dealing with supervisors and the rest. So, in no particular order here is some advice. Not everything works for everyone and there is a huge variation in how you want to work, how your supervisor (s) work, what is expected by the university and more so use this not as a set of instructions, but as a few hints and tips.
The cover of my PhD

Get ahead while you can:
Many PhDs start from scratch (especially in palaeo where people can be going into a very biologically based thesis from a geology background for example) and have little or no background knowledge at all of their supposed subject. This may happen to you and if so, don’t worry. But if you happen to have a month or two before you start then use it to read as much as possible to get a head start. If you are already familiar with the subject or methods then use that to try and get ahead early. It will make a big difference in the long run.

Don’t start any serious work until your are familiar with the anatomy, taxonomy and systematics of the group you are studying. If you do not, much of what you learn will not make sense to you, or you will find it hard to interpret.

Do keep records of all your data. Ensure than any specimen numbers are correct and refer correctly to the right fossil etc. Keep your computer and paper files ordered, dated and referenced. I suffered badly from not doing this properly and it cost me a huge amount of time – lesson learned. Make sure you have backups of everything important and do this regularly. Keep them somewhere separate from your workstation in case of an accident.

When examining specimens take as detailed notes / drawings / photos etc. as possible. Some feature may become very important to your work later on and you may not have the money or time to travel and see it again. Don’t make the mistake of running round seeing everything in your first 6 months and then realising you did not know the anatomy as well as you thought and that all your ankles are backwards or something.

The literature:
Do try and keep up with this throughout your PhD. In addition to doing the basic reading for your work, keep up with other areas of research that you may need to branch into, or might want to follow for a postdoc. Keep your papers filed and if you use endnote keep it up to date. Do set up mail services with Web of Science to get alerts on important papers, reviews etc. for journals or key words.

Your peers:
Everyone works at different speeds, will start their respective projects with different backgrounds and experience and will be doing different styles of project (research based, review types, analysis types etc.). So do not get worried if you appear to be far behind, and do not get complacent if you think you are far ahead. You are writing your own thesis on your own subject in your own way. That is the important thing.

Still there is much to be gained from your peers and colleagues so do talk to them and help each other out. If you have an issue with a method, computer, taxon etc. then ask – people may well have solved this already and can save you a lot of time. Cross-training or networking almost always pays off in the long run, so make sure you know who is doing what, and when, and why.

Work your way:

Similarly, make sure you do your work in your own way. Don’t try to keep up with other people who work fast if you are normally slow. Don’t work 9-5 if you are better doing 1-10 or working weekends etc. Your duty is to your research and to get the job done. That will mean working hard at times, and taking it easy at others when there is little to do. Do keep working though‚ too many people do not try hard early on, and then have to work hard throughout their 3rd and 4th years to make up for 2 years of not trying. Try not to fall into that trap as it has claimed many people and made things far harder than they needed to be.

Keep writing:
Do always keep notes and make sure they are up to date. It is not uncommon for someone to not being formal writing until half way through their thesis, but if you have not kept up with what you did, when and why, and what you think it means, writing will be much harder. If you can write as you go along (even if they are just key words or odd sentences, putting chapters and the thesis together will be much easier.

Get some experience:
PhDs in Europe do not usually require that you do anything outside of producing a thesis. However if you want to work in science in the long term (or even just be competitive looking for a job) then additional experience is vital. Try and teach the odd lecture, take a seminar, help arrange a conference, take tutorials, make websites, arrange fieldtrips etc. Any of these things can be put to good use.

Do also take advantage of courses on offer through your research like media relations, statistics or computing. These are often cheap or free depending on you grant and parent institution, and again can be used to build up your skills base. Even if you want to leave academia (shame on you!) or are struggling to find a job, you will be far more employable with additional skills than just a thesis on trilobite taxonomy.

Communicating with other researchers:
It is well worth getting on good terms with other people in your field. Some may have data that is critical to your work, they will have all kinds of obscure papers that you may not be able to get, and inevitably if it is a small field they will end up reviewing your papers and grants for years to come. You also want to make sure that you are not treading on anyone else’s territory with your research, and they can give you excellent advice about specimens or collections. Go out of your way to contact them early on and let them know someone new is joining the field.

Typically you will have 3 years to do your work with an additional year to write up if necessary. However this last year is usually unfunded and practically the sooner you finish the more time you will have to apply for jobs and grants, so don’t plan to use the 4th year if you can avoid it. Obviously the time taken to do things (plus availability or specimens, travel, problems with research etc. etc.) will vary enormously, but broadly your three years will break down like this:

Typically the majority of your 1st year will be taken up by reading and doing background research. You will have great trouble progressing without having done the basics, so do them well.

In your 2nd year you will be able to do all your data collection and analysis. Almost everyone I have ever spoken to has had major problems in their second year. It seems to be part of the deal that you have a bad second year. I think it is because you never appear to make any progress. You have been going for 18 or 20 months with nothing (apparently) to show for it and only a year or so to go. Everyone seems to get really depressed, but if you fight through it you will be OK. Most people drop out in their second year but do persevere.

Obviously the main part of the writing will occupy your 3rd year. Still, do not be alarmed if you are still reading (though you must keep up with the literature), still collecting data or revising analyses. This is still very common so don’t panic.

Your project:
This is your project and you are responsible for its content, progress, and methods. Of course you have a duty to your supervisor, and unless something has gone dramatically wrong you need to keep your research to the confines of your grant project and title. However, within that scope you should take the project where you want to take it. You will not get very far if you stick rigidly to the project outline and might get bored and frustrated. It is not supposed to all be fun, but your work will improve enormously if you enjoy it and are doing the work you want to do (equally, it’s a mistake to take on something that you strongly suspect you will hate doing, or are utterly unprepared for – hold out for something better rather than wasting time and money failing at something you never expected to succeed).

Don’t forget that the official title of your thesis is likely to bear only a passing resemblance to that which ends up on the cover of your dissertation (mine even changed substantially between my viva and it’s final publication). On occasion the original project proves unworkable and you may be forced to take a dramatically different tack to the one originally intended. Don’t try and force a piece of failing work. Stop and think and seek help from your supervisors or colleagues.


Obviously your supervisor(s) are a key part of your PhD. Clearly they are there to provide you with help, support and advice at all levels and to keep you on track. However, although you are important to them (really!), of course they have their own concerns outside of your research and duties that may not mean they are always available when you need them.

Do use their experience and knowledge. They can help you with finding papers, books, administration, where to apply for grants, specimens diagnosis, contents of collections, give you connections to other researchers or curators, help with writing papers and chapters and with progressing your career. On the other hand, do not overload them with questions and your work‚ you must learn to be an independent researcher, but do not be afraid to ask for help and instead waste time and effort pursuing a futile cause. Strike a balance.

Don’t forget your peers and colleagues can also help out with many questions and if you have more than one supervisor do make use of them. If you have formal supervisors in other institutions or even other countries it is very easy to feel cut-off from them, so do make sure you involve them and seek their help where appropriate.

Don’t forget that your supervisor may not be a real expert in the area in which you are working. By definition you are expanding (hopefully) the boundaries of scientific research so do not expect your supervisor to know all the answers. He will only be able to point you in the right direction (very useful in itself!), but you will have to do the work.

Submitting manuscripts:

Different fields will give you different options for submitting papers before you complete your PhD. However, you should really try to get some published, either from your own research or included on projects of your supervisors. Again, if you are looking for postdoc having a couple of papers published or even in press or in review when applying will make you a much stronger candidate. Consider publication times, the style and rank of the journal and the nature of your work before submitting. It can take several years to get something properly published, so unless something falls off the page in the first six months of your PhD, do not expect to be in print by the end of 3 years!

You should try and get to at least one meeting a year throughout your PhD. ProgPal is excellent in your first year, and small meetings like EAVP and PalAss are useful. You must get to SVPCA or SVP at least once each as well. Meetings are important for a number of reasons all of which will directly affect your work and future.

You can gain valuable experience by submitting both posters and talks to these meetings. Again this is good for both jobs and postdocs and getting a few abstracts in the meetings will boost your publications list.

More importantly you can get to meet other people, both other PhD students and also researchers. It makes a huge difference when you want to request papers, see collections or use someone‚’s data if they know who you are and what you are doing. When looking for future employment, reviewers on papers or grants, potential collaborators, you need to meet and talk to these people. See where their research is going and why, who do they work with, how did they get their jobs etc. Getting different perspectives on research and careers is valuable experience so do use the opportunity and don’t be afraid to talk to senior people just because you are starting PhD student.

I made the huge mistake of largely missing out on these (mostly through circumstances beyond my control, but had I known, I would have made a much bigger effort or cancelled some of my conflicting plans) and it made life hard. No-one knew who I was or what I doing, despite the fact I had effectively been in the field for several years. Make the effort and go, and make the extra effort and take a poster.

Grants etc.:

Although your research should be fully funded, there will be opportunities to apply for additional grants or small bursaries to travel to meetings or collections, or to attend special courses, exchange programmes etc. Do take advantage of these. Even if you fail, you will get to practice your applications and learn about what money is available where and for what purpose.

You will probably need to visit collections as part of your research. If so try to arrange them quickly, it’s no good seeing a vital specimen 2 years after you started your research. Contact curators to ensure that the collections will be accessible, collections or specimens are often moved, loaned out, or put on display and simply cannot be seen. Try and make sure you have a good idea of what you will see and what you are likely to get from it, and how long it will take.

You are not paying directly for this, but the cheaper you keep your travel the more money you will have from your grant to spend on other areas or extra travel. Don’t travel on weekends or at peak holiday times etc. and ask people to recommend local hotels etc. Think ahead about putting trips together – it is silly to go to Europe three times if you can fly to Germany and take a train to Austria, another to the Netherlands, and fly back out of Germany.

Writing up:
Of course you *should* have been writing throughout your three years, but obviously the closer you get to the end, the more writing and less anything else you should be doing. Obviously there is a lot to attend to‚ don’t fool yourself into thinking you just have to finish the text – you need to format all your data, images, tables, references, the index, etc. etc. Every university and even department can have a different way of producing a thesis, so do make sure all your formats are correct.

This is, understandably, a very stressful time so try to plan ahead and make sure you know exactly what tasks are required of you (formatting, printing, binding, forms to be filled in, signatures required from others) and by exactly what date and time. Try to be methodical and complete one thing at a time. I lost a lot of confidence in myself trying to finish all my chapters simultaneously. By doing them one at a time and in order I discovered just how much work I had done and I rapidly finished a huge amount of work inspired by my own productiveness. It worked for me anyway.

Despite the pressure, try not to neglect other important jobs like submitting or revising papers, or applying for postdocs or going to meetings. If time is tight these can be delayed or ignored of course, but do keep up where possible.

Post docs:

Don’t make the mistake of waiting until you have nearly finished your PhD before applying for postdocs or writing grants for one. They may take months to come through and leave you unemployed (though that time can be used productively with corrections and writing papers, it does not help really). If you apply early and are not finished grants can generally be delayed a few moths without any problem if you require more time to finish your work.

Ask around to see what is available‚ don’t rely on finding a funded postdoc advertised as there may not be any and you will be competing with other people who may have been working as postdocs for several years. Ask researchers if they would be willing to take you on with a project you have in mind, or if they have any ideas for work you could do with them. Researchers are often looking for people to come in and work with them, but don’t have the time to go looking or write the applications so just ask. Don’t be afraid to write a dozen or more applications‚ you really can’t rely on one or even five.

That’s about it. It might be worth commenting on the viva, but there is very little to say given just how variable they appear to be and the huge range of rules and regulations between different universities. Make sure you read them and make any arrangements and preparations that you can. Now good luck, and get back to work!

13 Responses to “How to complete a PhD”

  1. 1 Manuel Hernández Fernández 03/09/2008 at 3:08 am

    From the Spanish point of view, I only can say that I must agree in most of the post.

    Good summary!

  2. 2 Roger 16/03/2009 at 6:47 pm

    Sound advice. How far into your PhD were you before you started writing? Did you start straight away with a literature review?

    There was a bit of a chicken-or-egg paradox of my recent trip to museums in Europe. Although it makes good sense to see the relevant material early on in your PhD, it also pays to first be thoroughly familiarised with the published descriptions. In my case, I was also interested in learning what analytical techniques could be applied to the specimens—dependent, of course, on the forms of information that could be extracted—but it can be quite hard to make sense of all this without having first seen the specimens! I suspect it’s only too common for students to find they need to make return trips because they were not aware of exactly what to look for the first time around… Photographing every square centimetre of a specimen from all angles certainly helps in this regard!

  3. 3 David Hone 16/03/2009 at 7:45 pm

    Yep, there are a bunch of ’22’s involved in this kind of thing. Obviously if there are some easily accessible specimens (a local museum, university collections etc. of fossils or extant taxa) then these allow you to get around this problem since you can use them for ‘training’ and get back to them later.
    For my thesis the literature review was largely the first step to getting things organised in my head as to what to do when and how and what was important etc. In terms of formal writing this was mostly done in my third year, but I did have sections of chapters, odd paragraphs and pages done and completed as I went along. It was more a jigsaw of writing really.

  4. 4 confusedphdstudent 20/07/2009 at 10:28 am

    thanks for this. i’m in my second year and i’ve hit the wall…thanks I needed this…

  5. 5 Tor Bertin 04/10/2009 at 4:30 pm

    Nowhere near the point of working on a PhD (currently at the halfway point of an undergraduate), but I’m finding that many of the suggestions here apply quite nicely early on in the Great Educational Scheme. I was talking to a professor of mine the other day who will be teaching a Vertebrate History course next semester–he offered to allow me to give a lecture on the effect that the continental fragmentation had on dinosaurian evolution (when it did indeed have an effect). Since one of the things I am hoping to do at some point in my professional career is teach at a college level (whether it be paleontology, biology, or geology), it’s going to be a great opportunity.

    Same idea with papers–I’m in the process of working on a pair, one of which I can certainly get done by the end of the year (a review on the Spinosauridae) and one that’s probably going to take quite a bit longer, and require quite a bit of help (the statistical analysis of sauropod body size).

    I think the earlier I can jump into these things, the easier it will be as I advance in my education/career. Great write up!

    • 6 David Hone 04/10/2009 at 7:19 pm

      Good luck with all of that, but I will add again here (in addition to my pieces on paper writing), that writing papers and getting them published is a lot harder than it looks. Don’t be afraid to get help and do be prepared for setbacks – it took me quite a few goes to get my first papers in print and I still regularly get rejections. Don’t give up, but do be prepared for it.

      • 7 Tor Bertin 05/10/2009 at 2:24 am

        Absolutely. I’m actually planning on sending the manuscript to a few different people ‘in the know’ before I submit it for formal review, but I know that that stuff happens fairly frequently.

        Didn’t mean to come off as quite so ultra confident of immediate success. 😉

      • 8 Tor Bertin 05/10/2009 at 3:52 am

        In fact… if you’d be willing to give the manuscript a look through when I finish I’d greatly appreciate it.

        Not sure exactly when I can get an initial draft completed, but with luck it will be within a month or two depending on how quickly I can dig up various references.

      • 9 David Hone 05/10/2009 at 4:13 pm

        You didn’t come over as over confident, don’t worry. Hope I didn’t stomp too hard on it.

        I’m always happy to help people out if I have time, though I do have enough of my own papers and students to worry about first so they naturally take priority, but feel free to let me know when it’s done. And if there is lots to be done, or this sucks up a lot of time for other people, do consider bringing them in as additional authors. Good luck!

      • 10 Tor Bertin 05/10/2009 at 9:23 pm

        Sounds great! Appreciate the advise–I’ll definitely keep you updated when it’s ready to be looked at.

  6. 11 Colin reveley 13/10/2012 at 9:48 pm

    I’ve done well by following my nose in terms of research. I’m now several miles from the area I was hired to work in. There isn’t even anyone in my university who works on what I work on.

    The way that works is by forming a collaboration. You don’t just go out and do it it develops naturally and as you push forward in your work the relationship strengthens (assuming you do good work)

    At this point my collaborators are at least as much my mentors as my advisor.

    And I have a job, in fact so far ahead of submission time that I’m under a lot of pressure from them to just submit anything acceptable and move.

    i did two things: I drove my research agenda, and I also work absurdly hard at times.

    Not everyone will have an advisor who’d support this. In my field understandably many have specific projects they want done. In the us that’s a near certainty.

    Having the advisor I have was very lucky (it wasn’t luck I knew him. Do that if you can) . Forming the collaboration I did was very, very lucky.

    So there’s luck. But if you can do it this way, do it. Just find a line of enquiry that’s yours and clamp on to it like a bull terrier. You never know where you’ll end up.

    Speaking as someone who pulls in long hours I would disagree that working from 1 to 10 is a good idea. It’s best to work when it’s light. Keep hours as regular as possible. You’ll have to do that as a postdoc or lecturer, and weird hours aren’t good for you. And one day off a week.

  1. 1 Hone on getting a PhD « FoundOnWeb Trackback on 04/10/2009 at 10:14 pm
  2. 2 Useful Links | Dave Attempts a PhD Trackback on 08/10/2012 at 1:45 pm
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