By Susan Carter

Years matter to doctoral progress, with increasing pressure to finish within a certain number of them. The idea of New Year’s resolutions implies that you are not satisfied with your own performance in the year that you are leaving behind. Even if you are, it seems reasonable to take up a seasonal sense of deliberate progression at the cusp of a new year when you are thinking about doctoral writing.






This post is built on a seminar that I previously hosted for doctoral students each year in January. Here I am suggesting activities addressed to the doctoral student as ‘you,’ but with the intention that supervisors, academic developers and learning advisors could use the exercise as a seasonal tool to support doctoral students.

Before drawing up resolutions, those in the process of doctoral writing could do a self-audit through a few exercises of introspection. They might

  1. Acknowledge successful working practices by listing the things that they have done reasonably well.
  2. List bad habits that might be rectified.

Weighing up the previous track record could lead on to New Year’s resolutions, and asking what might make this time round more successful in terms of follow-through. In this post I suggest a few strategies for changing habits. I agree with Curry and Lillis (2013: 3) that ‘the ways that people do things often become part of their implicit routine or habitual patterns of activity,’ that is, the real goal of changing how we do things just a little is to build better habits into our regular (implicit) routine. Reflecting on what you do, might do differently, and will do with the goal of doing things better is fairly sensible.

New Year’s resolution exercise for doctoral students


Time management

Make a time frame for the year ahead. What progress you want to make over the coming year? What is the realistic time frame for each foreseeable step forward? Where do you need to be by January 2016? So where do you need to be by July 2015? What will you need to do each month to get there? Take the first month and plan each week. For 2015, at the end of each month plan ahead for the next.

Changing habits

If you do something consistently for two months, you will have established a habit that you will be able to maintain. But if two months seems like a long haul, a good beginning is to start with a two week time frame. Just two weeks—that is not a lot to ask of yourself. What is the first item that you might give two weeks’ consistent effort towards? Are there rewards that you might viably give yourself if you achieve the metamorphosis that you want? Pencil these promises to yourself into your diary too.

Motivation strategies

Many thesis writers, particularly doctoral students, experience problems part way through the degree and find it hard to stay motivated. Here are some suggestions:


  • Revisit your research proposal and outline of thesis structure.
  • Remind yourself of your initial ideas (and enthusiasm) for the research project.
  • Re-examine this proposal: are you still working toward this goal? Has anything changed?
  • Does your initial idea for the structure of the thesis seem viable? Has something changed to make this form less applicable? It can be a really good idea to try and picture the thesis as a whole so that you have a better sense of how each of its parts function in the overall context.

Written work:

  • Re-examine your existing written work / chapters written so far. Write a summary or précis, noting the key elements of chapters you have already been working on.
  • How is the next stage in your thesis going to draw on or link to prior sections? Pick up the existing threads with a mind to reworking them into the writing to be done next.
  • Focus on an element of your research that most interests you.
  • View writing quantitatively—how much do you have? How many words will be in each chapter? How many within each section? Now every month do a word count so you can see the growth.
  • Make a writing contract with a colleague—we will both turn off all distractions (email, cellphone etc.) and write for one and a half hours on Monday morning (or whatever).

Help from others:

  • Make a plan for where you want to go after completion and talk to someone about it. This could be your supervisor but could also be someone else.
  • Plan towards giving a seminar or conference paper. Having a specific target can really help to get you motivated, and writing a discrete entity like a conference paper is a good reminder that you can in fact produce polished and finished work.
  • Maintain contact with others: your colleagues and other doctoral students. Put dates into your calendar so that you participate in departmental seminars. Initiate meeting for coffee or lunch with doctoral friends.
  • Participate in (or set up) a reading group with other doctoral candidates in your discipline in which you discuss particular articles, readings, theories or methodologies.
  • Join or set up a writing group, in which you review, edit and comment on each other’s work—this one need not be limited to those in your field.
  • Book for central seminars provided by the graduate school.
  • See your subject librarian and ask if there are any new data-bases that you could use, .
  • Email a world expert to ask advice on a small point. Then insert them, referencing ‘private conversation, date’.
  • Join Twitter #phdchat and use it to ask and answer questions.
  • Link to a blog that might inspire or sustain you, like Thesiswhisperer.
  • Review the supervisory relationship, and plan a strategy for improving the relationship. Think of how to have a better relationship with your supervisor—how to get what you want by communicating better, producing more writing, knowing your own weaknesses and strengths as well as your supervisors’…then try thanking them for the previous year’s support, emphasizing what worked really well.


A lot of doctoral students find it helpful to work at a particular place and for a regular (and reasonably consistent) time. You will find it easier to achieve the tasks that you set yourself if you have regular work habits.

Having specific times in which you work (at specific places) will also help you to maintain a balance with the rest of your life. You must get enough exercise and social interaction. Value and nourish yourself—you are most probably your own most significant resource.

Finally, in the seasonal spirit of goodwill, send us your recommendations for our New Year’s resolutions.

DIGITAL CAMERACurry, M. C., and Lillis, T. (2013). A Scholar’s guide to Getting Published in English: Critical Choices and Practical Strategies. Toronto: Multilingual Matters