How long does it take to write a PhD thesis?

My short answer is 68 days, but please read the detail below…

Bold resolutions PhD comic

Bold resolutions: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

As a PhD supervisor I have often been asked ‘How long do you think it will take me to write up my thesis?’ My answer always begins ‘It depends…’ We then continue the conversation with an audit of material already drafted that may contribute (in edited format) to the final thesis. These include the initial literature review from the first year transfer report, and posters, conference papers and journal articles presented and/or published from the on-going work.

For example third year PhD student John Mowbray, who is currently based within the Centre for Social Informatics (CSI) at Edinburgh Napier University, has a strong basis for his literature review chapter in the form of a conference paper delivered at CoLIS 2016, which is due to be published in full in Information Research later this year. Similarly John’s fellow student Frances Ryan has already published an account of research design for her study. This paper will underpin the writing of her methods chapter.

Then we consider less formal sources, such as any discussions or debates that the student has documented publicly elsewhere, for example in blog posts. See, for instance Lyndsey Jenkins‘ recent thoughts about the importance of research domain at http://lyndseyjenkins.org. These may well contribute to a section of Lyndsey’s methods chapter when she comes to write up her work in 2018.

The students also have ‘non-public’ material about their work that will be adapted for their theses. These include interim reports for their supervisors and/or other stakeholders. For example, last semester CSI PhD student Iris Buunk wrote a report on some of the empirical work that she has conducted for the body that gave her access to survey respondents. Handwritten ideas and remarks kept in notebooks over the course of PhD registration are also very valuable ‘private’ resources.

Once we have completed this audit, the challenge of transforming all the work completed to date into an 80,000 word thesis appears not to be so great – but of course, it still all needs to be done!

Records from writing up my own PhD have also recently served as another source for answering questions about preparing the main output of the doctoral study. I undertook my PhD part-time over a period of just over four years while working full-time. Throughout this period there were weeks when I could not progress my work at all. This was largely due to other commitments in intensive periods related to teaching such as the marking season towards the end of each semester. There were other times when it was much easier to devote myself to my PhD. For example, I took annual leave in University vacation time for this purpose (rather than went away on holiday). To guard against losing track of my PhD at times when I was too busy to devote any time to it I kept detailed notes of my progress. As a result of this, I know exactly how much time I spent writing up each chapter for the final version of the thesis. Although all PhD theses are different, the proportion of time on each type of chapter may be helpful to those who have resolved to submit their theses in 2017.

In total it took me 68 days to write up my thesis (NB 68 to write up the work, not 68 days to complete the PhD!) This is the equivalent of approximately 14 working weeks, assuming a five day week. It needs to be borne in mind, however, that I was a part-time student. In practice the writing up was done over the last seven months of the four and half years in which I worked on the entire doctoral study.

The largest portion of the writing-up time – around three quarters – was spent on the two chapters that related the findings of my research, and about a fifth on the discussion chapter. My literature review took very little time to write up (just 5 days) because I had already presented much of it in published form. The methods and conclusions chapters did not take very long either (3.5 and 2.5 days respectively) largely because their content was straightforward. My introductory chapter was very short at a page and a half and was thus drafted in just a couple of hours.

As might be deduced from the time allocations given above, I found the results and discussion chapters most heavy-going. The former was due to the quantity of empirical data to convert into a fluent account of the findings, and the latter because of the intellectual challenge of expressing the meaning of the findings and how the outcomes of my study represented an original contribution to the domain. However, once these two elements were ‘cracked’ it was a relatively easy task to pull all the other chapters together.

If you are reading this blog post as a PhD student in the later stages of your work, I would advise you to be prepared for the long haul of writing up your results and the discussion chapters, and ensure that you allocate a high proportion of your write-up time to these accordingly. It is also worth noting that I found that the closer I came to the target of completing my write-up, the more important it was for me to avoid other distractions. You cannot control for all of them (for example, illness), but I would caution against getting actively involved in anything that will take you away from your PhD at this intensive stage, such as planning a big event (for example, a major holiday, a house move, or a family wedding) or starting a new job.

If you are still in the early stages of your doctoral study, my first piece of advice is to plan your conference participation and journal paper publishing activity with the final thesis in mind. Be selective and strategic so that you prioritise engagement in external events that are valuable to the completion of your thesis and/or your future career. Each piece of work that you present externally should progress your study by encouraging you to write-up as you go along (for example in the form of a poster, a set of slides, a full paper), defend your ideas in person within your academic community, seek feedback on work completed to date, and solicit advice on the later stages. You should also be documenting any thoughts or ideas that may be valuable to writing up in a format that make sense to you, whether this be in a set of handwritten notes or in a more public format such as a series of structured blog posts.

Good luck to all those who will submit their theses in 2017!

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