PhD reflection: getting it done

I (finally) submitted my PhD dissertation last week, after a rather arduous journey. Self-funding a PhD with no permanent income is hard enough. To complicate matters, 2 years in, I abandoned my initial topic choosing to focus on a topic that I felt was better aligned with who I am, my interests, previous experiences and future trajectory.

The decision to change the topic was tough, carrying financial, time and career costs. Not to mention self-doubt and questioning whether I had it in me to complete a PhD. Having already spent two years doing odd jobs to ensure flexibility and maximize PhD time, I knew that the change meant that time was not on my side and I had to make every minute count.

By setting the intention to work smart and not to waste time, resulted in submitting just shy of two years after sending the draft of the ‘new’ research idea/topic to my supervisors.

Below I outline seven tactics that helped me to get it done:

  • Eat the elephant one bite at a time. I dedicated one hour a day, every day to PhD work. I set an alarm and eliminated all distractions e.g. phone calls, messages or email notifications for that focused time.
  • Swapping outcomes-based plans for broad goals. Even as a compulsive planner, I experienced the traditional Gantt-like charts with outcome-based timelines as futile. The number of dependencies and constraints outside of my direct control was to significant to stick to outcome-based time-lines. I preferred broad goals e.g. one hour of reading every day for seven days, keeping a visual board that only showed the progress for that week. By chunking my progress into broad weekly goals, I experienced a consistent sense of accomplishment, where before I felt demotivated and despondent when detailed goals with external dependencies was unmet; whilst only reviewing progress occasionally reduced my ability to remain motivated.
  • Flexible strategies. Sometimes getting into the flow is easy, at other times there is no flow, no focus and no inspiration. I dedicated my good days to writing, cognitive tasks and conceptualizing. Bad days was used to ‘support’ the good days e.g. downloading articles, checking references, searching for specific articles, sorting out admin, etc. The commitment to only do one hour a day came in handy on days where I felt overwhelmed with other work and tempted to push the PhD hour aside.  Convincing myself to only do one hour always felt manageable and possible (even if I had to do it in four 15-minute slots).
  • Productive commuting. I saved reading time by listening to podcasts whilst driving. These podcasts included conference talks, lectures and interviews held with key thought-leaders. Listening to audio explanations and discussions provided me with a better grasp of the written materials and underlying theories.
  • Using queues and waiting times. Another trick was to never be caught without reading material. I stashed hard copy articles in my car and in every bag that I own. I was always prepared for some unscheduled reading time!
  • Fiercely protecting my time. Scheduling PhD time during my most productive hours was a non-negotiable. There will always be demands and conflicting interesting, and I learnt to (aggressively) protect my most productive time.
  • Breathe. Learn to breathe (properly) and do yoga. There are studies demonstrating the benefits, and I’m not going to cite those. Personally, yoga helped my concentration levels, sleeping and ability to deal with stress.


This is what worked for me. I would love to hear some other strategies – please feel free to comment!