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Dr Kay Guccione (@kayguccione) works at the University of Sheffield. Kay designs mentoring programmes for researchers and her work is centred on linking people together to talk about the things that matter to them.

By Kay Guccione

Writing a thesis of 80,000 to 100,000 words is something we expect of everyone in almost all forms of doctorate. In a PhD it’s impossible to avoid doing some writing — our writing is what we are assessed on and how we communicate our research in conventional forms. With ‘publish or perish’ resonating down every corridor, our attitude to writing is our gateway to the currency of research careers. We are emotionally preoccupied with the fear, excitement, dread, satisfaction, guilt and elation of writing (Wellington, 2010) — see #AcWri #AcWriMo #shouldbewriting #shutupandwrite…

But for some, writing in thesis form seems a futile endeavour at first glance. In my work coaching stuck PhD thesis writers I often hear this frustration playing out as: ‘It’s totally pointless, I’m writing a book no-one is ever going to read!’ It seems like so much effort for so little recognition as a writer.

There’s an assumption in that statement, though, that the point of the thesis is simply to record what’s already completed. Echoing back to our school days (and in some cases even our undergraduate days) where we did the science experiment first and the writing after, we expect to record What I Did, What Happened, and What I Found Out.

The thing about these lab experiences, though, is that they were set ups. There was one possible experiment, and one probable outcome, and no-one needed you to say what it all meant. So experiment—>result—>write it down, big tick and off you go. In real research we don’t know the answers — that’s the point of doing it — and you have to start describing your results to even begin to understand what you think of them. It becomes more like: What You Did, WTF Happened?, and What Does THAT Mean?. This is why leaving it until the last minute brings pain; it’s a big task and it’s way more critically involved than things you’ve done before. This time you have to experience the process of writing to find out what you want to say.

Not knowing what you want to say (not feeling ‘ready’ to start) can be paralysing. But if you wait to feel ready, you’ll wait forever. And since you can’t realise the ‘Oh, THAT’S what I want to say’ value of the writing process until you’re already nearly finished, it’s not surprising we find it hard to cultivate motivation for a task we don’t feel ready for. This is even harder if we presume that writing has no value beyond making PhD researchers jump through hoops. But there’s another point too: writing a thesis trains you to write, to be a writer. And you need to be able to write for most jobs you will encounter post-PhD in academia or beyond.

Billy Bryan (@billyb100) and I have been working on a study designed to look at concepts of ‘value’ in the PhD. We interviewed doctoral graduates in different career areas, asking them what made their PhD experience worth having.

Across the board, most of the ‘value of the PhD’ was described in terms of social capital and personal or professional network building. But when people were asked to drill down and talk about specific technical skills that transferred to their current role, writing was what they talked about. Writing quickly, writing for different audiences, writing a synthesised account from multiple combined sources, writing in an unbiased way, writing to make a case for or against something. Post-PhD, people value the fact they had to write a thesis.

It might help, if you’ve lost motivation for writing, to spend a few minutes finding your own mantra about why you are writing. Think about what works for you and helps you reconnect with a sense of motivation and excitement about getting to the end of the PhD. Do any of the following appeal?

I am looking forward to:

  • Putting my research experiences and expertise into practice in my next role
  • Meeting new people in a new job
  • Reconnecting with hobbies and interests I have put on hold to finish my doctorate
  • Leaving behind colleagues who take a lot of energy to manage and work with
  • Just really enjoying doing the writing
  • A sense of completion and closure of a long and complex process
  • Being known for the good research I have done, and sharing my achievements
  • Seeing my research recommendations making a real-world difference
  • Moving to a new city, or back to my home city
  • Introducing myself as Dr, and changing my bank cards to reflect my new title
  • Writing my thesis in record time, faster than others
  • The feeling of drawing a line under my doctoral experience and having the opportunity to start again
  • Having more time to myself, to spend on whatever I choose
  • Moving on to write articles and promote my work more widely
  • Getting a job or promotion and earning more money
  • Having more energy and finding more joy in life
  • A sense of succeeding through a difficult process, and overcoming challenges
  • A holiday or a travel break
  • Moving my research into its next phase, taking the next steps in finding out more
  • A career change, translating my experiences into a new context that is more suited to me
  • Beating my own daily/weekly word targets
  • Beating my colleague’s daily/weekly word targets
  • Being the kind of person who can say they get things done
  • The satisfaction of pushing myself to succeed with tasks that I’m not enjoying, gaining a useful life skill

Find a way to remind yourself daily of what you gain by working on and finishing the thesis — set your computer desktop picture or your phone lock screen to remind you of why you are doing this, set calendar alerts, or head your To Do Lists with what you stand to gain.

Wellington, J (2010) More than a matter of cognition: an exploration of affective writing problems of post-graduate  students and their possible solutions Teaching in Higher Education, 15(2): 135-150.