"Finishing your PhD thesis is simple..."

SAID NOBODY EVER. Last week I submitted my PhD thesis and before the post-submission jubilation fully erases all memory of the trials and tribulations of finishing, I thought I would try to describe some of things that helped me through the stressful finishing process. Some of these are things you might be able to start at any time (the sooner the better) whilst some, naturally, just have to be done at the last minute. (Quick disclaimer - I did my PhD in Switzerland and know that there are some serious quirks of the system here that may not be the same wherever you do your PhD so make sure to double check whether things are appropriate to your university/system too!). Here are my top tips for making it through the long slog to the finish line with as little pain as possible:

1. Start thinking about the finishing process early - know the formal requirements of your PhD, the expectations of your supervisors, and the admin required 

I put this tip first because over the last couple of years I thought I had a pretty accurate idea of what was needed for my thesis. Little did I know that whilst writing up, only a couple of months from my deadline, I would find myself clicking through the depths of the (frankly crap) University of Bern website to clarify the requirements of the structure of my thesis, the paperwork I needed to fill in to submit and defend, and the myriad of deadlines for this paperwork. These deep dives resulted in a lot of tutting, sighing and at times a barrage of expletives, as well as emailing people who have recently defended to double check I'm not totally missing the point. I beg you to save yourself this fate and enquire early about what is expected of you from the university. Here are a few of the university requirements that surprised me the most:

  • the time between handing in and defending - I had estimated (and scheduled my writing up timeline accordingly) that this period to be something like one month based on things that I had heard around the department. I was pretty surprised to find that I needed to actually provide my examiners one month to read the thesis followed by three weeks for the university to... do something...that would then allow me to defend. This SEVEN WEEK gap between submitting and defending set my schedule back a bit but I was glad to have caught this early. Especially if you have a hard deadline for finishing completely such as a new job or having to leave the flat/office/country that you're in then be aware that this period between submitting and defending might be longer than you think.
  • paperwork and signatures - although this went smoothly for me it might be worth enquiring about who you need to sign what bits of paperwork and when the deadlines for all the different forms are. Whilst organising this for myself I realised that it could end up being a total nightmare if one of your supervisors was unavailable to get a signature from before one of these 'critical' deadlines. The last thing you want to delay the process after all your hard work is that someone isn't at their desk to sign something. I was lucky that the Dean's office in Bern has super helpful administrative staff that I ran everything by multiple times (to make sure that in the brain fog I didn't overlook something important) but I'm certain this won't be the case for every university.
  • the cost of submitting and what this involves - perhaps naively, I thought that my department would pay for me to print my thesis - at least the 4 copies I was required to send to the university. However, according to the university, these copies could not be 'ring bound' and instead had to be 'properly' bound together which we did not have the facilities to do at my work. I was told that I would be allowed to print the pages themselves at work (this would have been 1000 pages in total for my thesis) but would then have to get them bound myself. Because of the, *gestures around* global situation... I ended up sorting this myself with a company and had to pay around CHF 200 (~£150/~$215) out of my own money for these four copies (on top of the obligatory nice copies for my bosses and parents). I have since heard that other departments here have a budget for this, so it might not be a problem for everyone, but it was an extra annoying thing that I could have done without after months of super stressful work. 
  • the cost of defending - here in Switzerland lots of things are different to how I imagined them or knew the system worked in the UK but this one really got me. I have been paying tuition fees throughout my PhD (CHF 200 per semester) and kind of assumed, since I was getting very little from the university, that this amount (CHF 1600 total over the four years) would cover the cost of defending. NOPE. The university requires a payment of CHF 400 (~£300/~$430) with the paperwork to arrange your defence. I don't know what this pays for - 'admin' I suppose, but finding this out late in the depths of writing up stress was not ideal. It would perhaps be nice when you enrol onto a PhD program that someone (this could be the department or a supervisor) gives you a break down of what you will be paying and what that money is actually for... A pipe dream I know. (also PhD students here in Switzerland are paid well so I don't honestly think this money should be a problem for anyone but having to fork out over half a grand and not being told about it up front definitely wound me up).

2. Start thinking about the thesis early - have a vision for how you want/need the finished document to be structured

It's critical to get the sign off from your supervisor(s) before submitting your thesis. I suggest that early in your PhD and as you go along (ideally in a yearly review which I think all students should have with their supervisor(s)) you should discuss what they envisage your thesis as looking like and how your work fits together. There are often expectations about the number and quality of chapters and that it's best to find out about these sooner rather than later. Reading other people's theses from the group can also be helpful and give you an idea of what will be expected of you too - although do this with caution since there is nothing worse than having a self doubt/imposter syndrome meltdown in the final few weeks/months of your thesis (this will certainly happen at some point but we don't need to add fuel to the fire do we). In my case there was a lot of discussion early in my PhD about how, to submit and defend, we were required to have one paper published, one submitted, and one in 'manuscript form' for a three year PhD (and an extra year would require an additional chapter). 

Discussing what constitutes a manuscript or whether one 'big' paper is equal to one paper published and one submitted are things you might face and then have to discuss and  come to an agreement on with your supervisor(s). But its best to do this as you go along - but don't leave it until the last minute. In addition to these chapters I had to write an introduction and a synthesis part of the thesis which could be relatively short but were considered important - I actually found these some of the more time consuming bits to write since they required reading much more broadly than I had been doing for the chapters themselves (something I definitely could have done earlier was think about my work in the broader context and already come up with a list of theoretical work for example that complemented the empirical investigations I had carried out).  

I recommend that you check the requirements from both your supervisor(s), and the university with regards to:

  • thesis structure (special start/end pages/forms)
  • is a specific introduction/synthesis/conclusion part required - how detailed should these be?
  • number of chapters
  • completeness of chapters (e.g. manuscript/submitted to a journal/published)
  • are there aspects of my work that might not be counted as a chapter (e.g. papers that result from the supervision of a student might not constitute a chapter - yes this happens, and it can be frustrating for everyone depending on how much work has been put into it)
  • overall length (often not a requirement but something I found helpful think about when writing especially with regards to the introduction and synthesis chapters)
  • can published manuscripts be put into the thesis as they are (I was lucky to be able to do this which definitely saved a bit of work but have heard stories from others that they had to use the submission manuscript or something - ask your boss/university administration about this specifically as early as possible)
One of the things that definitely helped me as I went along was thinking about my project in terms of chapters. For the last year or so each time I worked on an analysis or writing I was considering which chapter this would be a part of. Sometimes these got re-categorised as the stories of each chapters were shuffled around a bit, but it definitely helped me to feel like I was making progress, especially when I could tick of sections of chapters, or even later whole chapters, as complete. I also found it easiest to have a separate google doc for each section of the thesis e.g. Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 etc. and this way I could keep adding to each section separately as I went along whilst still seeing how each of the chapters fitted together.

3. Breakdown what is left to do in categories such as lab-work, analysis, and writing, and come up with a time frame for each 

I think most people at least have a vague idea of when they want/need to finish their PhD and I definitely found that having this mental deadline and working towards this date helped me come up with a schedule to finish (as well as reinforcing that the write-up stress was only for a finite period). Fortunately, by the last year of my PhD I was working on a new exciting dataset and there were so many analyses we wanted to work on - Unfortunately this meant that my to-do list of avenues of analyses was getting longer and longer to the point were it seemed like my last two chapters were never going to come together. Luckily for me, one of my supervisors continually pointed out that these chapters definitely would get finished and we just needed to decide on the 'main' story for each of them and then go from there. It also became apparent that at some point I would have to stop doing new analyses and just write. I think this point probably comes at a different time to different people but I think it is important to realise that your PhD work will never be 'done'. Eventually you have to stop what you're doing and write up what you have (although I'm sure that some supervisors, particularly those that continually have PhD students work on their project way past the deadline do not agree with this. At some point your interests and your supervisors interests may start to diverge and you need to be aware of this). I think the experience of this process is likely to be different depending on your personality, and in some ways more importantly, your supervisor(s), but if you can mutually agree when you have enough to write up this will make things a lot less stressful. I was very lucky in that my supervisors and I discussed this point a number of times before settling on a broad schedule that included a few last analyses and then a focus on writing. 

I think that for me the most helpful strategy for approaching each of the remaining tasks was to break them down for each chapter and set deadlines for each part. Although I find that having deadlines helps to motivate me I have also had others tell me that ambitious or unrealistic deadlines actually have the opposite effect. Maybe it's a case of finding the right balance of a deadline which makes sure you're done with enough time but not so ambitious that it totally freaks you out! For some reason it seems fashionable these days to hate on Gantt charts but they could be the thing that saves your sanity. Set deadlines but be prepared to overrun a bit, I'm a firm believer that you cannot factor in enough redundancy with timeframes, at worst you're done with time to spare! 

4. Try to find a writing strategy/routine that works for you - write a little each day as soon as possible

In the end I think I set aside the last three months for writing (and of course panic re-running a number of bioinformatics analyses and plotting and re-plotting figures). This ended up working well and I definitely found that I got in a 'writing' flow when I was able to stop working on other aspects of my project. Although it is undoubtedly an advantage if you have written or contributed to manuscripts and papers before, a substantial amount of most peoples PhD thesis is made up of writing they have done in the months, weeks or even days leading up to their submission deadline. I definitely had a romanticised image of being done with weeks to spare to ponder over each chapter but the reality was that I was writing up until the deadline with pretty substantial changes to the discussion of one of my chapters in the last week. If you know me you know that this is my idea of a nightmare but I think it's safe to say that most people go through a similar experience. 

Since writing is so personal I don't think I have many broad tips other than to write a bit each day - consistency is key. Even if this includes bullet pointing a section or listing references that you want to use for a particular part of one chapter, this will all save time and help get your ideas in shape. Try to find out your own personal writing strategy. For writing my thesis my approach was to get down a first draft (as crappy as that might be) of each chapter as soon as possible and then work on each refining paragraphs, moving things around, and deleting and re-writing sentences as many times as needed. There are a loads of great resources out there on writing itself and also approaching scientific writing and particularly if you're not yet at the writing stage then now is the perfect time to check some of those out (one great example is The Scientist's Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career by Stephen B. Heard) 

5. Get feedback from friends and colleagues and supervisors along the whole way - not just at the end!

Another thing that helped me remain somewhat sane for longer was getting feedback from others. I have been lucky enough to have friends and colleagues who I have always offered to give feedback and found that whilst writing up it was the ideal time to ask them what they thought about my writing - particularly whether ideas or sections were explained with enough detail. I tried to use this to my advantage by always working on one part of my thesis whilst another part was being read by trusted colleagues or friends. This way I didn't have a load of feedback all flooding in at once. I also think that the sooner you can get feedback the better - the last thing you want is multiple (sometimes conflicting) suggestions that you are trying to integrate into your work at the last minute. 

As well as feedback from friends, both of my supervisors provided me with a reasonable amount of comments on the chapters of my thesis (although they preferred not to comment much on the introduction and synthesis as they considered this my chance to put my own work in the context that I saw fit and didn't want to influence that too much). One thing to remember with your supervisors though is that their timeframes might look different to yours and so be clear on the level of detail of feedback you need since you never know when it might be given to you. I would always try to making it clear how detailed you would like the feedback to be. Although if you have plenty of time before your submission you have time to integrate more detailed comments like restructuring sections, the last thing you want at the last minute is comments about structure or whether specific analyses/figures/paragraphs should be there or if you should have included something else. 

6. Do not underestimate how much of a pain formatting can be

I think this was easily the thing that frustrated me the most towards the end of the process. I have heard of people getting frustrated that they had a vision of how they wanted their thesis to look and that they wanted it and have everything laid out perfectly and be nice to look at. In a way I had the opposite problem. By the time it came to formatting everything I had written, I couldn't care less how it looked, but I realised that I didn't want to look back on my thesis and think that whilst the content is good it looked terrible and as a result I had to really push myself to invest some time in the formatting. 

I wrote my whole thesis first in Google Docs (since I use Paperpile as a reference manager) and then when I was pretty happy with the content I moved everything to Word documents to do the final formatting. I didn't use LaTeX because had no formulae and wanted people to be able to give feedback in the most convenient way - it really seemed unnecessary. Some people will tell you not to use Word because it is a pain with figures but quite frankly I don't know what those people are doing to have such a bad experience. I just put figures and figure legends in a table with two cells and nothing ever jumped around to other places in the document. I then exported each section separately as a pdf and then combined them as pdfs into the final thesis which all ended up working quite smoothly. That was, until I found typos in multiple sections in the week leading up to submission and I had to export each section hundreds of times and recombine them... don't @ me LaTeX users.

7. Make the time to stop, look after yourself, and reflect

This one is pretty self explanatory. More than likely at some point you will get sucked into a spiral of stress - but keep reminding yourself that it does have an end point. Make sure you are being kind to yourself and are doing the things you need to keep you in a good frame of mind. This could be going for a run or working out, taking the time to cook some good food, baking, meeting with friends to have a drink or even taking time away from your thesis to watch a movie. For me (especially given the current situation) I tried to go on a long walk (away from people) once a day just to make sure I was getting some fresh air and didn't feel like I was glued to my laptop. I also found it helpful to keep reminding myself that when the time has come to write up you may not have much of your thesis ready to be submitted but you have done the vast majority of the actual work. Remember to reflect and be mindful of everything you have already achieved!

There you have it, a detailed breakdown of all the things that have caused me sleepless nights over the last six months and some of the ways I tried to overcome them. Hopefully these tips save you a bit of stress too, and soon you too can have monumental PhD-thesis-submitting-bags under your eyes. GOOD LUCK!



- understand the formal requirements for your thesis and the admin you need to do

- understand your supervisors requirements to finish and how they envisage you getting there

- continue to evaluate what is left to do and how much time you can confidently allocate to different things

- figure out how to write a lot as painlessly as possible and get it done

- ask for advice and feedback from people you trust - the sooner the better

- take time for yourself and maintaining some degree of mental and physical health


- panic 

- leave things to the last minute to figure out

- forget how much work you already did

- (or at least try not to) get overwhelmed - loads of people have gone though this process and soon you will have finished and you will be proud of what you have achieved!