Tips for coping with writing up a PhD

19 Dec

mugsI have worked with many PhD students and have several friends who are in the middle of the process at the moment, or about to start off (exciting!) so here are some top tips for how to cope with the dreaded end stage: writing up, gleaned from my experience over the years.

Think of this like a chat over a cup of tea. I’m here to help, to reassure you that everyone goes through the same stuff – and that you WILL get through it.

Yes, it’s difficult, so don’t beat yourself up

Not everyone gets to do a PhD. It’s an achievement to get onto the course, it’s an achievement to gather all your data, do all your literature review stuff, grapple with statistics … and then start to write it all up.

Hopefully, nobody said it would be easy. Because it’s not. But if it was easy, everyone would be doing it! A big achievement like a doctorate isn’t worth it if there isn’t a struggle. No one’s goes smoothly, even if they say it is. I have worked with lots and lots of PhD candidates. Even the most organised and seemingly perfect person has underlying panics, lost texts, confusions, chapter sections that just won’t go right …

If you accept that it’s difficult, that it’s going to be a struggle, that it’s a major achievement you’re aiming at, you can get your head down and bite away at chunks of it until it’s done.

Everyone goes through the same stuff

I thought this one was obvious, then I realised that not many people are privileged to work with and know so many people starting off on their research career. Almost every time I tell a student that what they’re going through is what everyone else goes through, they’re incredibly relieved.

  • It’s not just you
  • Everyone gets through it
  • There is normal life at the end

It’s a bit like when I’m doing the Birmingham Half-Marathon, which I do every year. At a certain point, around Mile 10 (of 13), you start to look around and see the pain, slight sicky feeling and effort etched on everyone’s faces. But then you see the finishers walking back down the route with their medals and silver foil cloak things and you know that the end is in sight!

You will experience this

From my experience with PhD students, I can pretty well guarantee you will experience one or more of these phenomena:

  • You will get quite a lot fatter or quite a lot thinner
  • You will get paler and a bit bug-eyed. This is because
  • You will go outside less and less
  • A frown will start to etch itself on your forehead (this will go)
  • Your hair will get really long (boy or girl. Haircuts? No time! I could write a paragraph in that time!)
  • You will eat odd things
  • At odd times
  • You will get no sleep and wake up tired
  • Whenever you get a slight break (you’ve handed in a chapter!) you will sit down and fall asleep
  • You will make excuses not to see friends
  • You will see friends and end up in a frenzy of self-flagellation about not being at your desk
  • You will wake up with heavy eyes and a feeling of dread
  • Everything about the entire document will be wrong
  • You will sit down and be unable to write anything
  • You will feel like your supervisor either hates you or pities you so much – either way, they’re sending you coded messages not to continue via the comments they make (they’re not)
  • You will feel that your supervisor doesn’t care / understand (they do: they’ve seen it all before so they’re not panicking because they know you can get through it)

I can guarantee you that everyone in the whole world of research experiences many if not all of these phenomena. You are not alone!

What can you do?

This is going to sound boring, but when I tell people to do this, and they listen and do it, it does, honestly, make it better.

  • Eat as healthily as you can. Accept that offer of a casserole or a vat of soup from your housemate or friend. Take an evening to make up batches of good sauces that you can freeze and re-heat. Keep healthy snacks around.
  • Take breaks. No one can work for more than about an hour solidly without needing to refocus their eyes, get up, stretch, and think about something else for a few minutes. This will NOT eat into your writing-up time: it will make it more productive. Every hour, stand up, stretch, look out of the window.
  • Get outside – at least once a day, in the daylight. Even if you just go into the garden and jump around a bit – but preferably get off the premises and go for a walk around the block. Again, this will NOT eat into your writing-up time: it will make you more productive.
  • Take some exercise. If you are a runner or a gym bunny, keep it up, even if you have to do shorter sessions than normal. This is not the time to take up a new sport or activity, but even a good, brisk walk is great. You need to keep your body active as well as your mind. This will help you sleep better, too.
  • Give yourself a treat. Once you’ve finished a chapter or achieved something specific, have a chocolate bar, a read in the bath, an evening off. Simple things can mean a lot at this time and really help.
  • Don’t just start at one corner and work your way round. Oh, hang on: that’s ironing a shirt. Anyway, have a plan for how to write up, don’t just start at the beginning and try to write it straight through. Set up the headings and fill bits in as you go, sure, but have those headings and structures in place so you can do that (see my post on top tips for dissertations and theses for more on this).

These seem both dull and obvious, but they are obvious because they work. They work in all sorts of contexts, actually: they’re quite similar to my Home Working Rules, for example. But when you’re concentrating on a big project, you do need to be reminded of these!

No one is superhuman, no one can just sit down and write the thing, and the more you look after yourself, the more you will get done.

Get help

It’s not weak to ask for help. If you need help, ask. People will be happy to help you, and for some of this stuff, you can help yourself, too.

  • Your supervisor – if you’re really struggling or panicking, talk to your supervisor. They might act like they’ve seen it all before, but then they have. But they do care about you: they have a professional duty to you, if nothing else, and they can’t help you if you don’t tell them you’re struggling!
  • University resources – the chaplaincy, departmental support services, University support services, services for foreign students, drop in sessions at the Library – use them.
  • Proofreaders and other professionals – if you’re struggling with your writing, whether you are using assistive technology (e.g. dictating rather than typing), have issues with dyslexia, or are writing in a language that’s not your native language, there are people who can help you. If the issue is to do with your need for technology or extra support, you may be able to talk to your department about defraying part of the cost. Note: research this carefully, try to make sure you’re talking to the real person who’ll be working on your document, and get references and examples. People like me won’t look down on you: even if English is your native language, you’re fluent and have no issues it’s easy to make mistakes when you’re mashing sentences together and mixing things around. We’re here to help.

In addition, it’s worth setting up the following at the beginning of the writing up process and during the first stages.

  • Know how to use Word – I can’t say this enough – if you don’t know how to do these things as a minimum, find out before you start writing up. You do not want to be in a big pickle about this at the end of the process when you’re rushing to hand it in. I talk about lots of these in my handy Word tips blog posts and there are lots of other resources around, too.
    • Setting up headings levels
    • Automated contents pages
    • Tabs and margins
    • Page breaks and section breaks
    • Placing images in text (if you have images or figures)
    • Tables
    • Spell checking
    • Track changes (if you are going to get the document proofread)
  • Get used to saving your work regularly
    • Press that Save button all the time. Better to save too much than lose it
    • Make multiple back-ups – on a pen drive or whatever. Save the most up to date copy each time
    • Version control – if you want to keep previous drafts, number your versions so you know which is the most up to date, which has been checked by your proofreader, etc.
  • Sort out your referencing. I have a post on this for you to read. Whatever you do:
    • Keep a note of what you refer to
    • Use a notebook, Excel, Word, a specific referencing system – but keep it all in the same place
    • Record ALL the information – book publisher details; journal page numbers
    • If you’re unsure of how to reference something, do a Google search and find out how others have done it (this particularly applies when you can’t tell which is the first name and surname of an author – easily done!)
    • Find out what referencing system your department uses and learn about it now, not right at the end. You should be given information on this at the beginning of your course. If not, talk to your library rep or supervisor
  • Make a style sheet for yourself. Stick it all down on a note pad or Word document. This seems like a fussy thing to do now, but it will make everything consistent and save you having to decide each time. If you don’t use a proofreader, this will make your examiners exclaim over your tidiness and organisation. If you do use a proofreader, it will save them (and you) time.
    • Decide what kind of spellings you’re going to use (ise / ize).
    • Decide how you’re going to number figures and tables (1, 2, 3 throughout, or 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, 2.2 per chapter – I recommend the latter)
    • Decide how you’re going to number headings if you decide to do that
    • Decide how you are going to refer to common words and phrases – initials with a key at the beginning?
    • Decide what you’re going to capitalise
    • Decide if you’re going to use footnotes or in-text citations
    • Decide how you’re going to format longer quotations and make a note (e.g. 2 cm left and right margins, italics)

You can do it

If you’re at writing up stage, you will get there. I admire you, and so do lots of people. Remember …

  • It’s not easy but no one finds it easy
  • Everyone goes through the same stuff
  • Get outside
  • Seek help when you need it

Good luck!

If you’ve found this post useful, please share it using the buttons below, and/or make a comment – I love to get feedback about my posts. Also, if there’s something I haven’t covered here or a top tip for this stage, do add a comment. Thank you!

You might find these useful: Top tips for students and Word users


Posted by on December 19, 2012 in New skills, Organisation, Students, Word, Writing


Tags: ,

7 responses to “Tips for coping with writing up a PhD

  1. TB 303 (@tb30303)

    February 22, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Know how to use Word?
    Are you kidding?



    • Liz at Libro

      February 22, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      While I agree that LaTeX is extremely useful, especially for subjects that need a lot of formulas, I find that the average PhD student can manage with Word, and can find some of the subtleties of Word a little hard to understand; plus it’s much more difficult to edit LaTeX documents for the average proofreader. But yes, it does have many uses and can be a powerful tool when used correctly and appropriately.


  2. Maria

    April 9, 2014 at 9:57 am


    I started my PhD project this year. I have no scholarship nor any kind of financing, so I’m doing it while working. I wanted to write it in English, as the topic is about English literature, but my director is not sure about it and wants me to write it in my native language (Spanish). I’d like to know if you could recommend a book or website that can help me make my language a little bit more academic, as I think that is the main problem.




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