20 Quick Tips to Increase the Speed of your PhD
By Tara Brabazon 塔拉·布拉巴赞著
Office of Graduate Research 研究生院
Flinders University 弗林德斯大学
Adelaide, South Australia 南澳大利亚阿德莱德
Finishing a PhD is all that matters. An unfinished PhD remains a wound in a life. It can heal. But there is a scar. So how can you finish a PhD at speed, even in difficult times?
1. Write all the way through your candidature. 尽早开始，贯穿全程地写作
Assuming you can write up at the end is a pathway to madness. From the first week, nay the first day, write. It may be 500 words on a concept, a discussion paper, a synthesis of five different articles, basically journaling the journey. Keep writing. This not only creates content, but also creates form: we learn to write by writing. So keep writing throughout the candidature.
2. Find a community of experienced PhD students. 找到组织，与有经验的博士生社群建立联系
Doesn’t have to be in your institution, or discipline, just a group of like-minded people online or offline. Talk to them. Learn from their experience and expertise. Help them carry you through the journey.
3. Quality of supervision matters. 磨刀不误砍柴工，仔细选择导师
Spend the time and do the research on your supervisor. Talk with their students. Check out their CV and publications, and the timeliness of their students’ completions. If you sense dodginess from the start, don’t go there. In the final year, if the supervisory relationship falls apart, you don’t finish quickly – you may not finish at all.
4. Learn to take feedback. 积极听取反馈，尤其是批判性反馈
Taking feedback is tough, especially when it is offered in robust language. The best students hear the big critiques early in the candidature. So if your supervisor, or a referee of a paper, offers you early incisive, big critique of your work, address that and address it early. It’s very easy to ignore uncomfortable truths. But these early critiques about research design, methodology and theoretical engagements, they can save you weeks, nay years, going forward.
I see so many students in the final three months where they haven’t taken a critique for years and the critique doesn’t go away, it stays there festering in the thesis until it an often exasperated supervisor says, “Please. If you leave this in, it will fail.” And they’ve told them that for three years. So hear it early, and do something about it.
5. Small theses are the best theses. 博士论文选题越小越好
Keep the dissertation topic or area as precise as you can. I often talk about a PhD as being like a well – it’s small at the top, but deep. In other words, you research something very narrow, but you do it very well. So get your research questions right. Get them as tight as you can, and as early as you can. And aim for a strong and narrow research design.
尽你所能地将论文题目或研究领域精确聚焦在一点。我经常用一口深井来比喻博士的专业研究 – 一口井很窄，但是很深。你的研究就是这样，聚焦到一个很窄的领域内，但是你对它的掌握几乎无人能及。所以把握好你的研究命题，尽你所能地在最开始将它的边界束紧，并在这个收敛的领域里释放你的研究强度。
6. Aim for regular meetings with your supervisor. 建立与导师定期沟通的机制
This is because regular meetings with your supervisor is the characteristic of the fast completers. Students that finish quickly have weekly meetings, and research around the world shows this. Now, that seems beyond the pale for a lot of supervisors, and indeed a lot of students, but what actually happens is it creates an accountability cycle.
快速毕业的成功者都具有一个共性 – 与导师定期会面和沟通。他们通常与导师约定每周见面，这似乎成为一个放之四海而皆准的规则。当然，对很多导师——以及不少学生来讲——每周都安排时间沟通是不可接受的，但如果能做到的话，你就可以建立一个跟踪、量化的循环。
Note however that, as a student, you have to front with work or at least some ideas. Also, the meeting doesn’t have to be long. The research shows that if it’s a Skype meeting, the speed of completion is the same. So it’s the accountability cycle of the weekly meetings that matters.
7. Give yourself a word-count deadline every single day. 每日给自己定下一个字数目标
For some students, particularly part-timers, those who have caring responsibilities or those in full-time work, giving yourself a hard word deadline every single day makes the difference. For some people that is 250 words a day. That seems like an incredibly small amount but 250 words a day will get you home.
There’s a reason why this type of writing is important to a PhD candidate. As Prof. Theresa MacPhail once put it: “Because writing is thinking, brilliant thoughts do not just appear on the page after long hours of arduous musing on a subject. In my experience, the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself.” I think this is a brilliant quote. If you follow this advice, you can avoid the “writing-up-at-the-end” disaster that we discussed earlier. You can also ensure that you remain connected with your PhD every single day.
8. Stay connected with your PhD every single day. 与你的课题保持每日的接触
I recently had a student in my office who was seriously overtime in her candidature, and we were making a decision of whether or not we were going to terminate the candidature or try and find a way to get her home. They’re challenging meetings those ones. She said to me, “Tara, all I’ve got left to do is the introduction. And it’ll take me two days.” Now, I tried to be as empathetic as I could be. Doing a PhD is tough – that’s why it’s a PhD. But I also had to tell her a really, really tough truth. I replied, “It’s October. You’ve been trying to find two days to finish that introduction since March. Something that takes two days, and you’ve found those two days in eight months. So what’s going to change now?”
And that’s the point. Hoping to write on the weekend, or write a morning a week, those commitments are going to dissipate. Life infuses your days. Stuff happens. So what happened with this lass is, not only did she not write regularly, but she lost connection with her thesis, so it was very easy to simply park by the side of the road. So the best strategy is a little and often. Stay connected with your thesis by writing a number of hours or words each day.
9. Do it now. 兵贵神速，即刻行动
Do it now. There’s no point waiting for the easy months. The easy week. The easy weekend. Don’t wait until the Christmas holidays, hoping for a reconnection with your thesis. That will never, ever happen.
There is no “right” time to do a PhD. Every day, every week, every month, every year poses challenges. So find half an hour – and right now. Right now. Don’t wait. Do it now. Do not wait for a good time to read. Read now. Do not wait for a good time to write. Write now.
10. Don’t focus on the big picture. 不要过于关注全局
Now, I know this seems incredibly counter-intuitive. All the talk is on the story of the PhD. What are you doing? What’s your original contribution to knowledge? The students who get through have that. But then they park that nice and early.
The best theses, and the best candidates, focus on the next task. The next job. Not the entire thesis. What am I going to do now? And so every day give yourself one job. One job. A small, discrete, controllable task. Start it, and finish it. Do not become overwhelmed. Finish that one job.
11. Stop social media notifications. 不要关注社交媒体
To finish that job, you need to start that job. And you need to concentrate. But if you’re working within reach of your phone, or you have social media notifications on your screen, you are distracted, and you are deflected from your key tasks. I see this happen when I walk through the library every single day.
If you’re at a point where you need the stuff around you, and the endless distractions, then use a series of apps, and force yourself to learn a bit of discipline. Stop the notifications. Focus on your work.
12. Use social media as a study break. 仅在空闲时使用社交软件
If you don’t want to block social media then what you have to do is find a strategy to remove it and then integrate it into your life in a productive way. And when you’re writing, don’t leave social media sites up. I can’t believe people do this. Because that means you’re endlessly flicking between your actual PhD – the most important thing – and, for example, whether someone likes your picture on Instagram, which doesn’t matter at all.
So what I suggest is choose when you go to those sites. Give yourself a deadline. Do a series of tasks. And then when those tasks are done, give yourself a ten minute break – and time it – to go to Facebook, or Instagram. So that’s a nice leisure moment after completing a task. So control your use of digitization. That control enables you to complete your thesis. It also allows you to understand the difference between work and leisure, which is increasingly blurring in our culture, and problematic. So don’t confuse digitization for work and digitization for leisure. Understand the difference, and bring in the digitization once the work is done.
13. Recognize that there’s never a perfect time to do a PhD. 认识到没有最佳的时间做博士论文
If you’re waiting for that perfect moment. It’s never going to happen. Dreadful things happen to good people all the time. Three years – let alone the four or five years in some systems – of one’s life something terrible happens in every three-year cycle. People die, people get sick, bad stuff occurs, you lose your job – all sorts of things occur.
So don’t aim for perfectionism. Don’t aim for the perfect time, the perfect year. Just aim to finish that task. The great researchers – the truly great scholars – fight their way through the difficult times. They don’t wait for the good times, they fight their way through the tough times. They persist when times are tough. Don’t procrastinate. Persist. Work through the bad times.
14. Use the library, use librarians, and gain information literacy really early. 充分利用图书馆，与图书管理员打交道，趁早掌握信息技术
I am always stunned when a student says to me, “I can’t find any research on that topic.” I then gather up their keywords and a couple of key researchers in that field, and turn to my computer and I go to Google Scholar and I type in about eight or nine keywords, click results from 2019, and I find about 850 to 2,000 refereed articles on the topic, where they’ve said there’s nothing. Often the student looks at me in shock, like I am a wizard, and, look, I wish I was a wizard. I wish it was sorcery. But it’s not – it’s just information literacy.
You can save months, and even a year of your PhD, if you make friends with your librarian, and learn information literacy skills. Open access journals deliver high-quality, international, brilliant minds to our desktop, but we can only sort and sift through them if we have the information skills. So let librarians teach you those skills, but more importantly, for beginning students, why not do a MOOC or some kind of online course about information literacy? That’s a great use of your month before you start a PhD.
15. Remove something from your life. 给自己的生活做减法
You cannot add a PhD to an already full life. I’ve seen so many students do it and they don’t make it through the first year, to be honest with you. I treat life like a bucket. And if your bucket is already full, you can’t add stuff to it. So you have to take some stuff out of the bucket to put something into it. So ask yourself: what are you going to take out?
This will probably involve a very difficult conversation with your loved ones. What it involves is you looking at the shape of your week and seeing something that take two or three hours and moving it. It might be taking the kids to school, or grocery shopping for example. And you have to discuss the matter with your partner, and say, “Would you be able to give me those two hours a week?”
State that this is a temporary change, and be accountable for that change. Remember that your partner is really taking on a heavy burden there. So you be the accountable for those two hours that they are giving you. Show gratitude to your partner, to your kids. Their sacrifice is allowing you to do that doctorate. That’s why you see relationship breakups are so common during a PhD, because people have a bucket, the bucket’s full, they add a PhD and the bucket just splits.
16. Select a note-taking system early, and stick to it. 尽早选择一种笔记方法，并坚持下去
At the start of the PhD, select a way of taking notes, and stick to that method. There are plenty of strategies. Find one that works for you, and stick to it. Now, also use external hard drives to back-up those notes. If you’re doing a PhD, you need to be backing up your work in the morning, and at night, every single day – twice. Because the way you finish quickly is you don’t even lose a day’s work. Back up morning and night. Great note-taking saves you months, it might even save you a year. Particularly, it enables your writing, and the speed of your writing.
Be sure, also, to have the notes and everything you have done during your PhD stored for the rest of your career. I have thousands upon thousands of pages of notes that started when I did my Research Masters back in 1991. I have notes on everything I have read since 1991. So now I can pick a topic and I have detailed notes on it already available.
17. Work out the best time of the day or night for you to write, read or research. 善用一天中效率最高的时段
What are your best two hours of the day? Put your most difficult tasks into those two hours, and that will create peak efficiency. By the way, that’s the other reason I’m getting social media away from you, because that’s your peak time, why would you be going to Facebook during your peak time? This habit will enable you to complete your PhD really quickly. It also allows you to understand what is your worst time of the day.
I do this with great clarity because I don’t have a lot of time. I have a full-time job at this university, so any research I do has to be done around a full-time job. So I also know my worst times of the day, and I insert pretty low-grade tasks into those hours. So that might involve spelling checking of documents, moving text around, formatting or doing a bibliography.
18. Keep fresh in your drafting process. 尝试一些新的改稿方式
So much of research – particularly writing and editing – is incredibly boring. But a thesis is finished, not only through continual writing, but also continual editing and drafting. Therefore, make sure you use the full range of platforms available for you to draft. So, yes, use spelling and grammar checkers, but also draft on paper. Print out your drafts. Use your bus trips, train trips, flights, to engage with those print-based drafts. By drafting on paper, you can find completely different errors than when drafting on a screen.
Also, even though it feels a bit weird, another great strategy to freshen up your drafting is to read stuff out aloud. Particularly for the abstract, your introduction and the conclusion, this a great way to find really unusual errors and defamiliarize your relationship with your own words. This way, you don’t read the same stuff the same way, over and over again.
19. Put your entire thesis into one document as soon as possible. 将整篇论文都置于同一文档中，越早越好
I cannot tell you what putting all your work into one document does for you intellectually, emotionally but also socially. I’ve had students who were enrolled 8-10 years, and they didn’t know if they had a thesis. The first thing we said to them was, “Let’s see what we’ve got here. Let’s just put it all into one document and see.” And this person who didn’t know if they had a thesis, or if they would stay in the program, looked at it and went, “I’ve got a thesis”.
Now it’s a big relief to do this. It’s also a moment when you can start to work on the entire document. if you’re writing 250 words a day, you can write it anywhere in the document. So it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling like doing today, write your 250 words, walk away.
With my students that start with me, I actually get them to have a full document for their entire thesis from the very start. So it starts with: there’s the title page, there’s the contents page, chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, so the headings start to fill in from there. But the sense of achievement is clear because you can see the task being completed and the gaps being filled.
20. Celebrate each micro success. 每前进一小步，都为自己喝彩
This is so important. Doing a PhD is a real struggle. By breaking big jobs into really small tasks, you can celebrate each of those little tasks. This morning I finished the rationale of a book proposal, which is always the hardest bit. It felt great, and I patted myself on the back for having done it.
For every micro success you have, tell yourself, “Well done!” I say it out loud. Acknowledge that you’ve completed the task, and tell yourself you’re rock star. For example, if you’re reading five articles a day and taking notes, celebrate each article that you read. Make sure you take that pause to acknowledge what you have done.
So there’s our 20 quick-and-dirty tips so you can complete a thesis quickly. So you can increase your speed, but also if you’re becoming a bit stale in your candidature, one of these jobs or tasks can be inserted into your program and freshen you up just little bit.
Content adapted for educational purposes from an excellent vlog by Tara Brabazon, the Dean of Graduate Research and the Professor of Cultural Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, posted on YouTube on 1 November, 2019. See the video here.