By Ian Brailsford, Postgraduate learning adviser, Libraries and Learning Services, University of Auckland.

The rose-tinted view of the leisurely doctorate taking as long as it needed to complete (if it ever really existed) has been consigned to history with global drivers for ‘timely completions’. But it’s fair to say that doctoral candidates have more flexibility in determining their work schedules than most other ‘knowledge workers’. So, in determining this schedule, how much time should doctoral candidates devote to the business of writing a thesis?

I facilitate doctoral workshops and orientation sessions where my university’s expectation that doctorates must be completed within three to four years full-time underpins much of the discussion. New full-time candidates are informed in no uncertain terms that they have signed up for 40 hours per week, 48 weeks of the year (we signal that they also need to take four weeks’ annual leave for rest and recreation). For part-time candidates everything is halved; 20 hours’ study per week over 48 weeks for six to eight years. This timely completion formula mechanically calculates a University of Auckland doctorate as between 5760 to 7680 hours of study.

In my ‘Getting started with writing’ workshop I’ve been asking doctoral candidates (most of whom are in the first few months of enrolment) if they keep a record or time-sheet of the hours they spend writing; over the years a handful say they keep a log and typically these are candidates who are working full-time or have been employed in professions like accountancy or law where their productive time was charged out to clients. Spurred by excellent blog posts that have attempted to quantify the time spent completing a doctorate and tracking writing productivity I’ve been asking participants as an ice-breaker activity to estimate how many hours they think they will devote to writing for their doctorate.

How long is a piece of string?

This is how it works. I present the notional figure that, on paper, their doctorate equates to approximately 7000 hours of study: this on its own is quite a confrontational tactic that raises a few eyebrows. Each work-table has a Post-it note (and, an aside, the greatest workshop teaching device created, thank you Arthur Fry). Each group of two or three participants has five minutes to write a number of estimated hours on the Post-it note with the instruction that I will collect and then display them for everyone to see. I give a few prompts:

  • Think about the hours you’ve already spent writing for your doctorate, such as the initial application to the University with the project outline or early versions of your literature review or thesis proposal.
  • How long did it take to write your honours dissertation or master’s thesis?
  • What actually counts as ‘writing’ for you – does thinking about writing or planning your structure count?
  • What kind of thesis are you planning to write: a conventional monograph or one including publications?
  • Are you going to have side projects such as blogging, writing for professional association or community group newsletters or forums etc.?

I recently ran this activity with 15 candidates and immediately there was animated discussion. Several groups pulled out pocket calculators and started doing ‘back of the envelope’ calculations. Some had to make a mid-point compromise estimate as their individual hourly calculations were poles apart. The seven Post-it notes ranged from 1500 hours’ writing time to 3700 hours. The de-briefing plenaries are enjoyable. I ask how they calculated their figure. Answers varied. Some groups guesstimated they would allocate a ‘ball-park’ 30% of their total time writing, leading to 2100 hours. Others described 10 hours per week spread over the doctorate as a reasonable estimate, leading to a 1920 hour total. Yet again others were working on a 70000 word length thesis and tried to calculate how many words per hour they could write of high quality text. I round off this activity by doing the ‘rabbit out of hat’ workshop trick of revealing the Post-it notes from previous workshops where the range is from a low point of 500 hours to an expansive 4000 hours’ duration with the majority of historic Post-it notes between 1000  to 2000 hours.

What’s the point of measuring the piece of string?

Why do I run this activity? It allows us to discuss the overall strategy for writing. If they are ‘writing through’ the doctorate there should be an even spread of time writing over the three to four years; however, if they are planning to ‘write up’ the thesis they might do 70% of the writing in the final six months or so. Seventy percent of 1000 to 2000 hours is a lot of time to squeeze into a few months. And depending on which strategy they adopt (and in reality it’s often a combination of both writing through and writing up) I emphasise that finishing up a thesis is a different task: ideally there’s no significant new writing in the final few weeks before submission. My perception as the facilitator is that the activity is at least a good ice-breaker with potential to discuss the process of writing but I have had one doctoral candidate who emailed after a session to say they found it a demoralising experience (which was not what I intended).

The Post-it note activity allows for a proper conversation about how many versions of a chapter or section they will need to draft and then edit and revise before it is ‘fit for human consumption’ in the next phase of the workshop. This phase of the workshop also opens up (inspired by Barbara Grant and Linlin Xu’s chapter ‘Framing feedback expectations: A “pedagogy of explicitness”’ in Developing Doctoral Writing) a grown-up conversation about the role of their supervisors in reviewing written work: are they editors or proof-readers? How many times should a supervisor comment upon the same piece of work? What’s the plan for converting the working draft of the thesis into the final examination copy? Without sounding too patronising I do remind them that in the same way most people underestimate how many calories they consume, many thesis writers underestimate how many hours are needed to get a finished copy of the thesis together.

I let the participants know that this estimate of time spent writing is mechanical and is focusing primarily on quantity over quality. But I think getting people to face the probable amount of time they will spend writing is a good spur to invest further time into becoming a more self-aware writer. Two hours in my workshop and perhaps 10 or 20 hours of self-directed professional development is a small proportion of time compared to the hours they have estimated for the whole task. I link them in a post-workshop email to this Doctoral Writing SIG and The Thesis Whisperer, recommend Paul Silva’s  How to write a lot and Joan Bowker’s Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day, plus the work on academic writing by my colleague Professor Helen Sword and the excellent ThinkWell writing and time management resources developed by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner.

Squaring the circle

The workshop take-home message is this: If they are planning to become an academic, then writing will be a key component of their working lives, especially finding time to write while juggling research, teaching and academic service commitments. For those going into business or the public sector there might be much shorter time-frames to get reports written than the flexibility the doctorate affords (we do say between three to four years). And for those thinking of self-employment and consultancy post the doctorate, then time is money!

I have written this blog post partly to share the Post-it note idea (although I can’t believe someone else isn’t doing something similar) but also to solicit some comments. For thesis writers out there, has anyone got an Excel sheet or note-book that can answer my unanswered question: how many hours’ writing for a doctorate?

I’d like to thank the participants in a recent iteration of this workshop who gave me permission to describe the session for this blog post and to Dr David Parker at AUT who gave feedback on the first version.