How to write your PhD thesis (without going insane)

no matter what stage you're at or no

matter what field you're from stress

when writing is incredibly common and

even the smartest most hard-working

students can find it incredibly

stressful or even completely

overwhelming so why does this happen why

is it so hard why do so many people

struggle well there are a few reasons

the first and perhaps most obvious is

the sheer scale of the task so for most

people it will be the longest thing that

you've ever written and for a lot of

people it will be the longest document

you write in your entire life and that

long document it comes with a huge

amount of pressure so the way that a PhD

is examined everything rests on that one

document so it's not like when you were

an undergraduate where you could afford

to screw up one exam and then your

average grade would kind of you know

make up for it so is a huge amount of

pressure on this enormous document and

also of course writing is quite a

difficult complicated skill and even

professional writers can struggle

sometimes but in addition to these kind

of basic circumstances you might also be

writing in a second or third or even

fourth language you might be writing

while you're still doing the research so

you don't quite know how it's going to

pan out or you might have so much

knowledge about your subject you might

have so much to say that you don't know

where to start and you might also have

other unique circumstances that make it

more difficult so when you combine even

just a few of these factors it isn't

really surprising that so many people

find it so hard but just because there

are a lot of potential difficulties that

doesn't mean that overwhelming stress is

inevitable and just because a lot of

people suffer through the writing that

doesn't mean that we have to so to

illustrate this point

let's compare thesis writing to another

difficult skill for example brain

surgery so brain surgery is obviously

incredibly delicate and difficult work

it demands intense concentration and in

some circumstances you might have to

work very quickly with very little time

for preparation and the slightest

mistake can have devastating

consequences but most brain surgeons are

not so overwhelmed or so stressed that

they can't do their job it might be

stressful but they can manage the stress

to stay calm under pressure and get the

job done and there's a really simple

reason for this so if you or I had to

cut someone's head open it would be

absolutely terrifying

but brain surgeons are trained to do the

job so they've built up a range of

skills which mean that they recognize

the kinds of problems that are can arise

and the complications that arise and

they have a range of solutions that they

can adapt and apply quickly and this is

really the key to managing the stress of

a difficult situation it's just a matter

of building up the skills and all of

that knowledge all of the knowledge that

brain surgeons have is built upon

generations of brain surgeons who've

gone before so people who have figured

out the solutions to those common

problems and the complications that

arise they then pass on that knowledge

to the next generation and so every

subsequent generation then has a

slightly higher level of skill so the

first person to do something finds it

very difficult but then what was once

pioneering and incredibly risky work

becomes standard practice now I'd like

to ask a quick question so of all the

people in the room how many people have

had any kind of formal training in

writing zero literally zero there was

one kind of like maybe okay so one kind

of maybe out of 6070 people we have this

situation where even though there are


thousands of PhD students graduating

every year and every single one has to

write a thesis in order to succeed and

nobody has any training in how to do it

there is no standard consistent way of

teaching academic writing so the vast

majority of students have to just figure

it out on their own so everybody is in

that position where everything feels

kind of risky everything is kind of

pioneering everything's going into the

unknown instead of having a situation

where generation by generation the

writing actually improves so this means

when you face any kind of difficulty in

your writing and you will inevitably

face difficulties you have no training

to fall back on

you have no principles to guide you and

no framework for figuring out what to do

and of course it is possible to work it

out on your own and lots of people have

done that and basically it's a process

of facing the same kind of writing

problems again and again so you figure

out common solutions to the kinds of

problems that arise so then you can

recognize the problem when it comes up

and you have solutions that you've

already worked through that you can

adapt and apply to this new this new

situation and it gets a little bit

faster and easier every single time so

good writers are basically just people

who have spent enough time solving

writing problems that they recognize the

kind of problem that they're facing and

they have a range of solutions that they

can adapt and apply quickly so these

people exist but the problem is a lot of

people who have this level of skill

don't necessarily know how they're doing

it and don't necessarily know how to

teach other people to do it

so they might recognize good writing

when they see it but they don't know how

to help somebody get to that level or

they might recognize that this is bad

writing but they don't know how to how

to fix it and so generation after

generation just struggles and struggles

and struggles so for me writing my

thesis was one of the easiest parts of

my entire PhD so there

which was really difficult and once I

had the results it was just a matter of

getting it all down on the pat down on

the page and I wrote my entire thesis in

just three months

I passed my advisor with zero

Corrections and I actually enjoyed the

process so I then went on to do

postdoctoral research and I noticed that

there were countless PhD students who

were much better physicists than I was

but when it came to writing they were

terrified so I figured that if I'd

written well and I'd written quickly and

I'd enjoyed the process maybe there was

something that I was doing that was

different that could help other people

but of course I was in that same

situation where I didn't know exactly

what I was doing I didn't know how to

help people so over the last nine years

I've worked with more than 400 PhD

students from all kinds of different all

kinds of different backgrounds and I can

tell you that the problems that you face

in writing they are not unique no matter

what subject you study the fundamental

problems that you're trying to solve are

exactly the same problems that everybody

else faces and there are common

solutions to these common problems so

what I'm going to try to do over the

next 30 40 minutes or so is to share

with you some of these common solutions

to these common problems so that you can

build up your skill so that you

recognize the situations that come up

and then you can apply some of these in

your writing and write your thesis

without going insane so what are we

trying to do at a basic basic level so

fundamentally writing is all about

taking the information and knowledge

that you have in your head and putting

on the page in a way that somebody else

can follow but the problem is that

writing is linear so you have one page

after another you have one paragraph

after another we have one sentence after

another but the knowledge that you have

in your head isn't stored in that nice

neat linear order it's more of a kind of

tangled mess of in-turn interconnected

ideas and insights

one of the first things that you have to

do is figure out a way to take that

tangle up mess and put it on the page in

some kind of structure that somebody

else somebody else can follow so let's

start with just the introduction so a

lot of people say that you should write

the introduction last but the

introduction sets the context for

everything else that you're going to

that you're going to do and it also

contains some useful principles that we

can apply to other sections as well and

here's the structure that works for

almost any project regardless of the

discipline first you describe a

situation of some kind or an event next

you describe a problem or a question

that arises from that situation and then

you can describe how others have

approached that problem or question you

explain the need to approach it in a

slightly different way or expand upon

what has already been done and then you

say what you're going to do this works

for as I said for almost any projects

and I'll give an example so let's say we

have a situation where worldwide the

number of PhD students is increasing

okay but there is also evidence of

disproportionate levels of stress among

PhD students so we have a situation and

then a problem that arises and rises

from it then we have some kind of

response to that how other people are

approaching it so while there have been

a limited number of studies to date

which have highlighted the scale of the

problem and individual institutions have

made efforts to provide better supports

there's been little research into the

effectiveness of different interventions

this research will do this so you can

adapt this to almost anything so once

you have this basic structure you can

then add details to it so once you've

got an idea of the flow so we can expand

upon some of these points so instead of

saying you know the number of PhD

students is increasing you can say over

the last ten years there's been a huge

increase in the number of students

enrolling in doctoral degree program

worldwide you can back it up with some

kind of statistics so recent UN

statistics estimate that and then you

can even say why this is happening why

governments and trying to trying to

increase the number of students so you

can say while the increase in the

numbers of doctoral students is seen

globally it's even more marked and inner

developing nations such as this is in

part due to the concert to a concerted

efforts at government level to do

something and then going further

although increasing engagement in

doctoral research has a number of

benefits recent evidence has shown

evidence of disproportionate levels of

stress among PhD students so we have the

same basic structure but we're adding

detail we're hanging detail off that

structure even though we're adding extra

information we don't need to change the

underlying narrative and what this does

is it makes it so much easier to edit

your writing than if you have no

structure at all

so if you were to just sit down and

write whatever comes to mind which some

people advise then you have no links so

everything's just this tangled mess so

how do you know way where you can move

something because if you take one piece

and move it somewhere else

what are you moving it relative to

you're moving it relative to all this

tangled up mess so it still doesn't work

but if you have a basic structure in

place it's like a scaffold that you can

hang ideas on and if you have a solid

structure solid scaffold then you can

take bits off and you can move them

around and the rest of this structure

doesn't fall apart okay so we can

generalize this okay so it's no good

just giving you a format for the

introduction we need to generalize this

and look at the underlying principle so

what we have is a cause or a stimulus to

start with so worldwide the number of

PhD students is increasing so it's a

situation okay from that situation you

get a problem or a question that arises

from it and then you have certain

effects so you have people responding to

it either in the real world with some

kind of response or an academic response

investigating what's happening and then

you end up with partial answer

and other consequences which in turn

leads to more problems or questions and

so you always want to be aware of

whatever information you're presenting

how it fits into this kind of structure

is it a new situation or a new event

that you arrive at is it a problem or a

question that a right arises from that

or is it some other some other kind of

effect okay and we can apply this to any

section of the thesis okay now if we

take this further and so expanding upon

the introduction once you've set out the

basic aim of what the thesis will do and

what it's responding to you might want

to give some extra background

information and what a lot of people do

is in this new section they will say

they will repeat the aim of the thesis

so they will say this thesis aims to the

previous section introduced some of the

background and why this research is

interesting this section will present a

detailed description of Theory X Theory

X is defined by Simpson and the reader

at this point is basically going to

sleep okay so if you try something like

this instead and describe a situation so

we've set up the context we've set up

what the research is trying to do and

then we set up a new situation so until

the late 1960s it was widely believed

that so you have some situation that

existed and then it was only with the

discovery in 1967 of something by

somebody that so we have some kind of

change some kind of response some kind

of new information and then this led to

so we have an effect the development of

an entirely new theory of X based on the

idea that whatever whatever it happens

to be so the theory instead of just

defining it instead of saying a theory X

is defined by this person as this we

have a reason why that theory exists

okay we have we have the theory as a

response to this this discovery in 1967

or it could be a response to a problem

with a pre-existing pre-existing theory

so everything is placed in context

everything is placed within a kind of

narrative narrative structure so moving

on to literature reviews because that's

one of the areas that people

struggle with the most there are three

key things that you need to know first

of all you do not need to show how much

you have read so a lot of people when

they come to writing a literature review

they see it as kind of being like an

undergraduate an exam where you have a

syllabus you have this massive

information and your job in the exam is

to reproduce as much of that information

as possible if you miss anything you

lose marks in a literature review that

doesn't work because you might have

10,000 or 20,000 papers on a particular

particular subject so it's inevitable

that you'll miss miss things so your job

is not to worry about trying to show how

much you've read but rather to put

together an interesting narrative

selecting the best and most relevant

sources to support that narrative okay

so it's an important change in in basic

mindset in terms of the way that you do

you approach it

then in terms of how you frame the

information that you do select the

easiest way to do it is to think of

every single paper as a response to

something to either a problem or a

question or a situation or a previous

paper and then you can set these within

the context of a general situation of

something that's happening within within

the literature so instead of starting by

just trying to summarize papers we can

start by describing a situation that's

happening within the literature within

your academic field so you can say

something like research into insert

subject here has gained pace in recent

years so it's a situation that's

occurring especially since the

development of new techniques allowing

something one of the main aims of this

research has been to so we're describing

what's happening and then you say this

chapter will outline the most recent

developments key discoveries in current

state of the art so we're setting the

kind of the scope of what you're what

you're doing another example so

following the discovery of something

there has been some kind of activity so

following the discovery of this kind of

phenomenon this kind

the effect this kind of technique there

has been something or you can say this

has led to a great deal of debate in the

field so again we're describing things

that have happened so it's all about

setting up this setting up this context

ok another a quick example so while it's

been some interest in something in

academic literature since the early 20th

century a concerted research effort only

began in earnest in the last decade in

our time however there have been

remarkable breakthroughs in both our

theoretical understanding and practical

applications so again we're just

describing something's happening the

field some kind of some kind of

situation or you can divide the

literature and you can make an

observation of how the literature is

divided so these if it's can be divided

into two broad categories then you can

have that as a starting point then when

you're describing individual papers they

fit into this context and they're all

responding to some problem which is in

which is just a part of this broader

context that we're talking about so a

good example would be how do we define

or measure X ok what happens is you

start with this problem or question and

then one author proposes a solution so

you can say the first the first major

attempt to study this or solve this was

conducted by Smith who developed this

technique and then that initial paper it

has some kind of effect maybe the I the

idea gains influence in the field or

maybe it sparks a debate or maybe maybe

it's widely adopted until something else

better comes along so then you have the

problem or the question you have a

response to it and then the literature

that follows on from it responds to that

in some in some way ok so might be that

that original technique is really good

in some circumstances but then it has

some drawbacks so then somebody else

develops develops something else so we

create a narrative around these around

these around these sources ok so it's

all about putting it into a structure

rather than just focusing on the


individual papers themselves okay this

is just another example of variation on

the same on the same thing if you can't

identify one initial source that

everyone else responds to you could

divide it into different approaches so

there are three main ways this is

approached the first and perhaps most

widely used was proposed by this person

and then you you have kind of a partial

solution which then other people kind of

refine and respond to an approach

approach in different in different ways


so again just want to reiterate you do

not have to show how much you've read if

your narrative makes sense and it

accurately reflects the trends and key

events in the literature or in your

field it will be obvious that you've

read a lot so if you go in and your main

aim is I want to show the examiner how

much I've read that's not interesting

for the examiner but if you put together

a good structure and you select the best

sources the examiner will automatically

be aware that you've read a lot and you

understand understand where you're what

you're doing another part of this as

you're selecting what to include as part

of your narrative is to focus on your

strengths not what you think the

examiner wants to see so as a PhD

students you will always be aware more

than anybody else of your own

limitations and that creates this

natural worry about what if I get found

out in this particular thing what if the

examiner wants to see you know this

detailed explanation of this kind of

theory which I don't really know about

so then because of that fear a lot of

people focus on trying to fill that gap

in their writing so then what you're

doing is you're putting most of your

efforts and putting lots of extra words

into an area that you don't really know

about so then if the examiner knows more

about that subject and you're a little

bit weak then you're attracting

criticism you're attracting difficult

questions so one way of thinking about

the writing in this sense is you're

selecting your own syllabus you're

deciding your own syllabus you're

choosing the ground that you're going to

defend so it makes sense to set you

ground set the area that you're going to

defend and your strongest your strongest

areas so if you write the things that

you know the most about you're bringing

the examiner onto your strong ground

instead of going onto onto that okay so

it may be that you know who your

examiner is going to be anything I so I

need to write all about what they what

they know they're not interested in that

they want to know what you're strong in

and you bring them onto your ground and

you can show them something that maybe

they don't know so this same idea of

structuring information in terms of

problems or questions or responses to

situations or events it also applies to

writing about your methods so you can

think of every experimental or research

method that you use as a response to a

problem so having set the aims of your

thesis you then have new problems to


in order to answer your research

questions so you might need a way of

measuring a particular particular

variable so that's a problem or a need

that needs to be solved so in order to

solve a we need a way of doing B and

then you have various different options

you might have various practical

constraints and then that becomes the

starting point for then describing

describing what you do so I'm not going

to spend more time on this but we can

come back to it indeed and the QA but

really the key point is just that this

idea of structure applies to everything

and once you get that idea everything

else becomes much much easier okay so

once you have some idea of how to

structure your ideas and put together

these kinds of narratives how do you

actually put it together what's the

process so I always advise starting with

the introduction this is a little bit

controversial some people say that you

should write the introduction last

because it's only then that you know

exactly what you're going to what you're

going to do but then if you write the

introduction last where you actually


so I think if you start with the

introduction you don't need to think

about where you're going to start so you

have this specific problem how am I

going to introduce the reader to this

particular this particular topic okay

and as we've seen if you know how to

structure your ideas if you know how to

structure an introduction it's not that

difficult not that difficult to do so if

you focus on the starts your challenge

is to get the reader get the reader

interested and it's a matter of staying

with that problem until you find an

appropriate solution you find the

situation or the context that you want

to that you want to set up and then the

challenge is how to then move this

forward so if you start on page one with

the introduction and then you'd work in

sequence you work in the same sequence

that the reader is going to read then

you always know where your focus needs

to be so you have this unbroken chain

from the very beginning up to whatever

you're writing now and that's where your

focus needs to be and if you jump around

if you hit some kind of block here at

this point it's very very tempting to

just leave it and start writing about

something else and if you're focused on

increasing the word count if your focus

is on productivity that's kind of the

natural thing to do it's the obvious

thing to do but what then happens is you

start writing about something else you

maybe get a little bit more momentum but

then you hit some other kind of block

and then what do you do you start

writing about something else so all of

those problems that stopped you in your


suddenly you end up in a situation where

you've run out of easy things to say and

all you're left with is all the

difficult stuff that you left for later

when you're under the most time pressure

and what's happened is because that's

become your default response you haven't

developed the skill of solving those

problems that have arisen so it's

absolutely crucial to spend time with

those problems as they arise so the

challenge if you're at this point is how

to link this idea that you've written to

the next idea and

the next one and the next one it's all

about narrowing your focus onto one

problem at a time considering your

options and then making a decision and

this forces you to deal with the

problems that arise but it's just one

problem at a time so instead of jumping

around you've got all your attention on

one on one problem and it becomes it

becomes solvable so when you're in this

kind of situation you have a number of

options so what you can do is if you

have this unbroken chain and then you

have this idea that you want to put on

the end of the chain sometimes it's a

matter of just finding the right words

it might be a difficult idea that you

just have to play around with words

until you find the right way of

expressing it but sometimes that doesn't

work and what you have to do is consider

is this idea even going in the right

place does it belong to it does it fit

into this context into this narrative

that I'm trying to set up so then what

you can do is hold that idea back say

okay I'm not going to put this here and

maybe try some other idea in its place

and often what you find is when you put

something else in there then it helps

you to make that make that step forward


so just just deciding not to include

something at this point can be a

solution to that block but it's only

possible if you slow down to think about

it other times what might happen is you

realize that this idea it's actually

more fundamental it's something that you

need to say earlier in the process so

sometimes you need to go back and find a

place to insert that particular idea in

order to in order to keep things keep

things moving okay sometimes it's a case

of deleting the last thing you said

because that's where the block comes

from because it's kind of it kind of it

did it okay so you have these various

various different options now sometimes

you might hit a block where you just

can't you know find your way forward and

you need to step away from it but that

should never be your first option okay

you can always need to spend a little

bit of time give yourself the space so

you try to solve it so the way I think

of this process is a bit like digging a

tunnel through

Mountain so you can go back over a

section and reinforce it or insert

something but you can't jump forward you

have to find a solution to the problem

that you're facing that helps you helps

you to make progress it's not always

easy to do because it means that you're

in that uncomfortable state where things

aren't necessarily moving you have to

slow down relax and give yourself time

to solve that problem so when I talk

about this people ask well what about

perfectionism because this can be a real

real issue I think that you need to

think of perfectionism as being a scale

so on the one hand you have total

carelessness where you just write as

fast as you possibly can you defer all

thinking for later and you abandon all

problems as soon as they arise and only

focuses on getting words down as quickly

as possible the natural consequence of

this is that you give zero attention to

detail zero thoughts to the clarity of

communication and the writing is

guaranteed to be rubbish so you can end

up in a situation where you've got tens

of thousands of words but none of it's

actually finished none of it's actually

really any any use the other end of the

scale you have total perfectionism where

you have this kind of excessive revision

or hesitation and you feel like nothing

you write is ever good enough you have

this fear of judgment fear of what the

examiner will say and so nothing ever

gets nothing ever gets completed nothing

ever gets submitted so the two extremes

are obviously pretty bad but it's not a

question of total carelessness or total

perfectionism the solution to total

perfectionism is not to just write as

fast as putt you possibly can but to

adjust where you are on the scale so you

can find kind of a sweet spot where

you're giving a bit of care and

attention to your writing but without

overly worrying too much about the end

result and as you're writing you can

adjust where you are even within this

within this range so if you find that

you're going way too slowly that

nothing's really happening that you're

overly worried then you can go a little


faster you can set yourself the target

of saying okay in the next hour I'm

going to write 150 words so it's not

going as fast as you possibly can but

it's taking the focus away from the

perfectionism tap to this to this other

goal at other times you can make

yourself a little bit more perfectionist

so if you have a point where you're

saying for example the aim of this

thesis is that's a point where it's

really important to be accurate in what

you're saying because that determines

what the examiner is going to judge they

judge you against the aims that you

state so at that point is really

important to slow down and take a little

bit a little bit more care so you want

to be operating somewhere here so it's

sort of leaning toward perfectionism

it's taking time and care but without

being so worried about it that you never

actually never actually do anything okay

so most problems are solvable if you

slow down and give them time focus and

this is where you develop your skill so

this model it's the flow model by

Csikszentmihalyi it tells you how your

level of skill in relation to the task

affects your mental state so on the

x-axis here we have skill level so high

skill or low and then on the y-axis we

have the level challenge so if you have

a very high level of skill in relation

to the challenge so it's kind of a

medium level of challenge a high level

of skill then you feel in control of the

process so this will be where you have

ideas that you know really well things

that you've spoken about before things

that you've written about before you

know you feel kind of in control and

process it goes much faster but if you

have an area where maybe the difficulty

is quite high but your skill level is

low so this could be some some idea

where you're not entirely familiar with

it where you know you're not quite a

hundred percent sure about what this

what this particular thing thing means

then you can feel anxiety

and possibly the most important state is

this one here where the difficulty level

is high but you have a medium level of

skill so you're almost good enough to

solve the problem right so it's good but

it's very very difficult to do so it

requires your full attention now in this

as csikszentmihalyi call that this

arousal state this is where if you put

all of your attention and focus on that

problem and you work at it and work at

it and work at it then you find a

solution this is where you improve so

this is where your skill level is pushed

just beyond where it where it currently

is but not to the extent that it's

overwhelming right so it's possible with

your full with your full attention this

is where you improve so a lot of the

time when you're writing you will be in

this very uncomfortable state where it's

just beyond what you can do easily but

with your full attention you can

actually solve the problem and then it

speeds up again so part of the writing

process is accepting that discomfort

becoming okay with that discomfort and

not kind of getting distracted not

working on something else

the same thing applies by the way in

your research you know it's not just not

just related to writing this could be

related to any kind of research or

analytical analytical skill as well so

it's being able to slow down take time

to think and give yourself time and

opportunity to solve to solve that

problem okay so we're going to get into

the QA pretty quickly because there's a

lot of people here and have covered a

lot of ideas quite quite briefly sort of

all kinds of things that you can ask

that I've just touched upon or not

mentioned and not mentioned at all but

before we get to that just want to kind

of kind of sum up a couple of key things

so as I've mentioned if you slow down

and you can develop the skill and we can

we're working towards this this state

we're having solved the problems that

have arisen you then recognize the kind

of problems that are

next time you get faster and you have

this range of solutions that you can

adapt and apply quickly this helps to

build confidence which is really crucial

to being able to write quickly and write

well but skill is not the only factor if

you want to be confident then you've got

to consider the outcome and how that

affects your mental state so if you want

to be certain of the end result then

you're never going to have confidence

because it's not like the undergraduate

exam where you knew what the syllabus

was and you knew that basically the

answers to the questions in advance so

with a PhD you cannot be certain of the

end result but what you can do is have

confidence in your ability to cope with

whatever happens so if you're terribly

worried about what the examiner will

think and that's taking up all of your

attention that's going to affect your

ability to actually do the work that's

necessary to pass but if you accept that

maybe it might not work out maybe the

examiner won't like my work

maybe there's something I've missed but

I'm going to accept that if that happens

however bad it is I will cope with it if

I fail my PhD vie ver then you know I'll

have all these problems I'll have to

deal with I have to find a job you know

I'll have to you know explain to my

family all of these kind of things but I

can deal with it I'll find a job somehow

you know I'll get through it's not gonna

be the most important thing that happens

in my life so if you take that attitude

when you're writing I don't care what

the examiner thinks it frees you up to

just focus on the ideas instead of

thinking about what they will think and

that is where the confidence comes from

accepting that things might not work out

the way you want they're giving it your

best shot anyway okay so we'll get into

the Q&A my name's James Titan thank you

very much


so any questions

okay so first of all I'd say there is no

perfect solution so if you can find an

adequate solution that accurately

reflects what you want to communicate

then that's good enough

so with when you're facing one of these

problems in your in your writing you can

think of it as kind of a problem of

expression which has multiple valid

solutions and what you're trying to do

is put together something that helps you

link to the next thing leads you in the

direction that you want to go so often

what happens with perfectionism is

you're assessing your own writing which

is a good thing but you don't know

what's good enough or you haven't

decided what's what's good enough and so

you get kind of stuck in this stuck in

this loop where you don't make a

decision where you don't where you don't

make forward we don't move forward too

so when you look at it just say well you

know does this accurately communicate

the idea the idea that's it that's in my

head one way to force yourself to do

that as I said is to give yourself a

timed word count target so you still

want to communicate communicate clearly

you still want to write well but it's

balanced against this against this other

target so if you say in the next hour

I'm going to write 150 or 200 words then

if you aim for that target then it stops

you worrying quite so much about is this

exactly the right word to use in this in

this in this particular case

so yeah it's altering where you are on

that on that perfectionism scale I would

never say some people advice just write

as fast as you can I never advise that

because you just end up with a mess

you've increased the word count if you

do want to just get words down for you

to give yourself something to work with

give it use pen and paper so do a

mindmap dump everything down and you can

still select ideas so yeah just go a

little bit faster with that time - word

count target try that out and it should

it should help

yeah so I think it's good to have a

daily target so that you can have an

objective measure of whether it was a

successful day or not okay so when I was

writing my own thesis I had a target of

500 words a day as a minimum and I knew

that you know if it was going well that

wouldn't take me very long at all you

know it might take me a couple of hours

to write 500 you know reasonably

reasonably okay words so I set myself a

target that I knew I could beat every

single day so some days I would write

2,000 words you know a fantastic day so

wow I've smashed my target other days I

might really struggle to reach that 500

so those days when I'm writing about you

know some aspects which I maybe don't

know so well but I work through until I

reach that 500 500 target and then if

it's really difficult you can break it

down into smaller targets so before

lunch I'm gonna get hundred words and

then you know so you've got this success

to build upon if you set the target as

something that you can barely achieve

then most of the time you're not

reaching that and so you just feel bad

it might have been a really good day you

might have written you know 900 words

first I didn't meet my target so you're

gonna be that little bit less a little

bit less motivated so some people write

faster than others so if you're a native

speaker then probably it's going to be a

little bit faster if you have a bit more

writing skill if you've practiced it

more if you've just got whatever natural

talent you may be a little bit faster so

set a target that's appropriate

appropriate for you and you can work

that out over over a couple of days if

500 is too much you low lower it's a 300

set a target that you can that you can


so in terms of the depth that you go

into no matter what subject no matter

who it is you should vary the amount of

depth that you give on each individual

idea so you will have some areas where

you're really really really strong and

generally speaking those should be the

areas where you say a little bit more

but in order to get to those points

maybe you need to mention some other

areas which are not exactly your your

main strengths so what you can do is

mention them relatively briefly refer to

other sources and then that frees you up

to give more space to the things with

which you're really interested in so one

example of this from my own from my own

thesis as I was very very much an

experimentalist so my maths for a

physicist was you know pretty

embarrassingly bad but I was pretty good

at the practical side but in order to

talk about the practical side I needed

some theory right the the basic problem

that I was working on in order to

explain it I needed a little bit of a

little bit of theory so what I did was

had basically one paragraph that said

something like in 1928 this person came

up with this theory for overcoming the

diffraction limit you know etc etc but

then brought it very quickly to the

practical side so you had this theory in

1928 and then I think it was only in the

1950s that it was proven experimentally

but it was only in but it was then in

the 1980s with the discovery of scanning

tunneling microscopy that this other

thing became practical so I covered that

ground so from 1928 to the early 80s

more than 50 years in one paragraph and

then just focused on the practical stuff

okay so there's almost no depth to the

theory at all it was just this is this

is the equation this is the consequence

and then straight into straight into the

practical so very the amount of depth

and the guiding principle is say more

about the things that you know more

about and do it that way sometimes you

can give almost zero detail at all so

another example that

technique that I used it also had

applications and say biology so all I

did was say you know this technique has

found applications in a number of

different fields including biology and

something else in something else and for

each one I just had a quick reference

and all I was doing is naming the fields

where it's been applied no depth at all

but it sort of indicates that it makes

the point that this has a lot of

applications and then bring it right

back to to the area that I was actually

actually interested in so don't lose

time going into depth on areas that

there you don't know don't know so much


so if you're writing a literature review

for example you need to have a base

level of knowledge of what is happening

in the field before you write anything

so what some people do is they take a

stack of papers first paper and then

they try to summarize it in one in one

paragraph okay but then you don't know

how that paper fits into the context of

everything else which is happening in

your field you don't know what role it's

playing so it doesn't quite fit into a

into a narrative and then it's very hard

to edit that when once you have all

those all those all of those paragraphs

so you need to have the very minimum

enough knowledge to say well there's

this general trend in the literature and

that could be there's a lot of debate

about this subject or you know there's a

million different applications of this

particular technique or this is a

long-standing problem in the field which

has had all of these different all of

these different approaches you also need

to know what are the kind of key

influential papers within that field

okay so that the highly cited things

that you can broadly divide the

literature into two categories so you

have the groundbreaking stuff that has a

massive influence on the field so if

somebody invents something or discover

something new that then triggers a whole

load of other research by other people

okay so if you know who the

groundbreaking people are you can then

set that up as kind of like an event you

know there was this discovery which then

triggers other things so then all of

those following papers they fit within

the context of that initial discovery as

a sort of consequence of that initial

initial discovery so you need to have

kind of a broad picture of more or less

what has been happening within within

the field okay which just comes from

come from reading and a little bit of

little bit of experience then what you

can do is read specific papers to fill

in some of the gaps as you're writing so

if you're putting together this


so let's say you want to talk about the

development of a particular technique so

you kinda know who made the big

discoveries you sort of know you know

what the different variations of that

technique are so then you can look at

look at different papers for specific

for specific details to fill in some of

those some of those gaps so it's not

quite as simple as saying right as

you're reading or do all the reading and

then write I'd say do a lot of reading

and then as you're writing refer back to

the literature multiple multiple times

on this point I have seen some people

say I saw one person say I only believe

in ever reading an article once and that

was just kind of blew my mind because it

made no sense whatsoever and basically

the idea being if you take good enough

notes then you never need to look at it

again but the thing is that different

papers will be useful to you for

different reasons at different times so

if you read something in your first year

and you might not be ready for it or the

thing that they say maybe it isn't quite

relevant to what you're working on at

the moment but then two or even three

years later maybe you remember oh yeah

there was that paper that I read or you

stumble across it again and then it

becomes very very very relevant so you

all constantly be kind of referring back

to literature time and time and time

again you know that just that just never

and never ever ever stops but it all

comes from there having this sort of

contextual knowledge of what is

happening in the in the field and sort

of broad strokes thing and then the

individual papers kind of serve as

examples of a lot of things that are


okay so the mindmap it's kind of an I

see it as sort of an intermediate step

so you guys big tangled mess of ideas in

your head and then you ultimately want

to put it in this in this linear fashion

so that's basically what I what I use

you can do you can do it online I'd

prefer to do it with with with pen and

paper and then what you have is kind of

a stock of ideas it may be that you have

too much for one sheet of paper in which

case you kind of try and focus in on one

topic and then mindmap around that

around that particular topic but then

what you can have is sometimes an entire

chapters worth of ideas on one page and

it's very very quick to to look at that

and review it and then pick out ideas or

as you're writing refer to it and say oh

yeah I need to I need to remember to put

that particular thing in the next

intermediate step that you can do has

just create some some bullet points so

from that mind map you can plan okay

this is the basic problem that weird

that we're addressing this was kind of

the first major discovery

this was the consequence of that

particular that particular thing the

other intermediate step is that the mind

mapping might expose some gaps in your

knowledge so you might think I think

there was that paper by this person I

can't remember who exactly it was or

when it was I need to double-check that

so so in addition to the bullet points

for what you're actually going to put in

sometimes it can help you to identify

things that you need to look up or other

other preparation work that you need to

that you need to do as well so basically

you're from mind map to bullet points

figure out where the gaps are and then

only then can you I would suggest

starting starting so starting to write

and again you can repeat that process

multiple multiple times that's really

quick and really really easy

when you're at a relatively early stage

of the PhD you don't necessarily know

what literature is going to be most

relevant to you at their very end so the

the literature review that you put

together will almost certainly change by

the time you get to your final year or

when you're when you're preparing to to

submit so what you can do is take some

of these difficulties that you have with

the literature and turn them into useful

observations about the state of the

field so if lots of people are

approaching this problem from all kinds

of different different angles and maybe

there are lots of contradictory theories

or maybe in some areas there's a total

lack of literature what you can do is

instead of saying in this area there's

like 10,000 papers and in this area

there's none what do I do just make

those into into statements that you put

in your literature review so you can say

this problem has been approached from a

multitude of different different

perspectives in different in different

fields including a and B and C and D


then you can say one of the most

influential approaches or one of the

most commonly used approaches is is this

okay and then you so you can explain you

know who the big thinkers are in that

area but then maybe there's a problem

with that approach okay

so or it doesn't take account of some

other aspects of behavior in your case

so then you can introduce another strand

of research which addresses that problem

so again we're trying to frame the

information as a response to a problem

so we have one approach you know which

is used by some people that's pretty

good at some things but less good at

this so in order to address that

deficiency we can approach it in this in

this other way so you can make these

kind of these these these observations

about the literature and then figure out

how to put it into

kind of structure where everything is a

response to a particular problem or or

in need and at the moment honestly I

would say see it as just praxis this is

not the final literature review that

you're gonna that you're gonna do get an

idea of the kinds of things that are

happening get an idea if the key papers

and then as you as you go about your

research you will find some things which

are absolutely gold dust you will find

some papers that really influence the

way you think and then later on you can

work those in you can work those into

into the final version of of the

literature review as a more sort of

general point when you look at the

literature in addition to different

pieces of literature being useful to you

at different times some papers will be

massively more useful to you than others

so if you have like a stack of ten

thousand papers maybe ten of them

actually influence the way that you

think and so you can sort of filter the

literature according to its usefulness

and relevance so on the one hand or at

the top rather you have so that the

aerated papers so these are things which

had a massive influence on your field or

a massive influence on you okay so there

may be be sort of 10 or 12 possibly 20

of these which would you find throughout

the course of your PhD then there will

be some things which are sort of

relevant they provide some useful

background information it's good quality

research so there'll be more of these

but you'll say a little bit less about

them in your literature review and then

you have even more papers which are

possibly relevant but you don't really

see how they fit into the big picture

they don't have a big influence on the

field they don't directly influence your

your research so these are kind of the C

rated papers and then you have the D

rated ones which are either poor quality

or just irrelevance and they'll be

thousands of these so it's recognizing

as you're going through the literature

of this one's really good and you want

to spend more time with those papers

and in terms of understanding them and

also in the literature is literature

review as well in terms of emphasizing

those in your in your writing

so so balancing the sort of reading and

learning and basic stuff against getting

and getting results okay so I think that

obviously the reading is really

important but you you need to know what

has already been what has already been

been done partly to provide context for

your for your work but also because a

lot of the practical problems that you

struggle with they're already solved in

in the literature so you can find find

useful you know useful information but

in order to fully understand the

literature you can't just read you need

practical experience as well so this

happens a little bit more in the in the

social sciences I think but a lot of

people spend too much time reading and

reading and reading and trying to get

you know a complete theoretical

understanding before doing any practical

work and you have to be willing to just

try doing some experiments and making

mistakes and letting things go wrong so

that you know you gain a lot of that a

lot of that skill in order to get your

get your results so you mentioned in

terms of getting results to show your

supervisor I think initially it's about

getting the skill to get the results

okay so don't put yourself under

pressure to have a result immediately

it's more about getting the getting the

basic techniques down learning making

mistakes and then you can you know

you'll find you get you get more results

later in my own case I'm in my in my own

PhD I made exactly this this mistake I

was constantly frustrated by the lack of

results and when things went wrong which

they did pretty much constantly I got

kind of dispirited but because the

equipment that we were that we were

using it was breaking down all the time

I could see kills my smiling at the fact

he remembers it well because the

equipment was breaking down all the time

and I was constantly having to solve

these problems what was happening was I

was developing pretty good level of

skill and understanding of how the

equipment worked but I

wasn't getting results and it was only

in sort of towards actually at the end

of the third year that things started

coming together and once I had some

results I had the skill to kind of

exploit them quickly okay

so focusing on getting the skill

allowing yourself to make mistakes

rather than having results to show

initially their balance with reading you

know that will change throughout that

throughout the course of the PhD that we

times when you're doing more practical

stuff times when you're reading more but

the reading never stops you don't want

to be too much focused on one or the

other so you don't wanna be doing all

practical stuff and no reading you don't

be doing all reading and no and no

practical stuff so they're very it

depending on on what you're trying to

boy you're trying to do

okay so writing in a second language

this is extremely common because pretty

much every PhD students with some

exceptions pretty much everybody

worldwide has to write in English

because English is the language of

academia okay so you know that what

stage you at what year are you in almost

second year so you have time so it's not

a surprise to you that in two or three

years you have to submit a thesis in

English so what you can do is work on

that basic skill so work on your work on

your written English and the best thing

to do is get a tutor right who can work

through with you so see your common

mistakes and and correct those if you

leave it another year or two years it

gets harder and harder and harder

because you're under more time pressure

you can't and you'll have other things

other things to do so I would say start

now start taking taking those English

lessons you'll you know there are plenty

of English tutors around find one who

can who can help you specifically with

writing and yeah it's just another skill

that you can that you can that you can

add you know it's coming up so you know

you you know that it's a point of stress

so yeah start working on it

I think it's better to

multiple times than to try to say

everything about a paper you know the

first time the first time you mention it

so as I said different papers will be

useful to you at different times and

sometimes the same paper will be useful

to you in different ways at different

points throughout the throughout the

thesis so maybe initially you can set it

up if you're giving a bit of background

about your field you can you can mention

that paper and say you know one of the

one of the most influential papers

regarding the subjects is the paper by

whoever and give a quick overview of

what they what ate what they said and

then later when you're perhaps

presenting your results you can say this

is similar to the results observed by

you know that person you know whatever

whatever it happens to be this yeah

that's absolutely absolutely fine you

can refer to the same once multiple


so the short answer is that writer's

block doesn't exist and the reason why I

say that is that there is no there is no

single thing that is right as writer's

block it's an effect that has multiple

different causes okay so if you think of

just solving writer's block in terms of

I'm not producing enough words or no

words at all then the obvious solution

is just we'll write more words right but

instead you have to look at the

underlying cause why you're struggling

to find those find those words so it

could be simply that it's a difficult

idea that you're trying to express so

it's just a matter of taking the time to

first of all fully understand the idea

to make sure that you know what you want

to say about it and how it fits into it

into the context so that's one kind of

problem which is basically you know just

spend a little bit more time with it

think about it don't take the pressure

off in terms of in terms of writing and

writing what writer's block could also

come because you're tired right so if

you've been writing all day and you're

just to kind of end up at this point

where you just can't think straight then

the solution is not to carry on working

or to slow down it's just to take them

take a break it could also come because

of fear so it could be that you're

really worried about what your

supervisor will say about a particular

particular thing in which case it's just

working on that all that confidence of

saying well okay I don't know what my

supervisor is gonna think but I'm gonna

give it by giving my best shot anyway

there were all kinds of different things

so you've got to figure out what is it

that's actually causing the writer's

block and then address address that okay

so figuring out what you're what you're

what you're feeling it could be as it

came up in a in a different question it

could be perfectionism in which case

setting that sort of timed word count

target is it is a good thing to do it

could be that you need to do some other

preparation work so you need to complete

your analysis or double-check your end

they so look something up whatever you

know whatever it happens to be so yeah

don't think of it in terms of in terms

of writer's block but think of writer's

block as a symptom of some other

underlying thing than if you can

identify that then you can find you can

find a solution

there's two aspect to aspects of it one

is organizing your time in turn in terms

of what you decide to read at a

particular time the other aspect is how

you organize the the literature itself

and the copies of the papers that you

that you have in terms of organizing the

copies of the papers that you have the

way that I did it or the way that I

eventually did it was I had this at this

huge stack of paper on my on my desk

that was completely disorganized I also

had a bunch of stuff stored

electronically and basically what I did

was I took this stack of papers and I

sorted them into folders by subtopic so

I had ring binders and ever so

everything on hydrogen termination of

silicon surfaces for example was in one

folder so I could then just reach out

and grab it and I had everything on that

topic in one place

there were some papers which spanned

multiple topics so I just had more than

one copy or I had a note in there saying

see also this one in this in this folder

if you have physical copies then what

you can do is you can highlight

important papers by just drawing a star

on the front so as you scan through you

know it's really easy to find and also

any notes or anything that you want to

highlight you keep it in context with

all of the information so instead of

taking separate notes like in any in an

Excel spreadsheet or something where

you're extracting the information from

its context instead you keep everything

and you just highlight the highlight the

important parts that you want to want to

remember okay so if you organize it into

physical folders you can do the same

thing digitally

I think physical is better so if you

have that if you have that option in

terms of organizing your time in terms

of around reading it depends what you're

trying to do at any given at any given

point so if you're embarking on some new

kind of sub projects or some new branch

of research then a lot of it will be

focused around getting getting to grips

with basic principles or basic basic

techniques then you have to identify the

papers that will help you to do that the

difficulty is that most papers are not


to teach they're written with the

assumption that you you're already kind

of expert so sometimes what you have to

do is you find a paper you identify the

kinds of ideas that that paper or lots

of papers are talking about and then you

go somewhere else for an explanation

sometimes going to Wikipedia is really

good Wikipedia is fantastic for academic

subjects because the only people who all

writes 10,000 words on some obscure

statistical technique are the nerdy

academics who are obsessed with that

particular topic

so sometimes Wikipedia is way better

than any any individual paper sometimes

or you have to look at a textbook or

just ask somebody other times you'll be

looking for specific results so you know

you're looking at papers for those kind

of for those kind of things to compare

your results to or just to see what's

been done sometimes you're just trying

to get an overview of the kinds of kinds

of things that are that are happening in

which case focusing on on pre-existing

literature reviews is the best the best

way to do it but it really depends on

what you're trying to do at any at any

particular time and whenever you're

looking at the literature having that

idea in mind what are you looking for is

is really really helpful otherwise you

just get lost in this in this massive

massive paper okay so I think that's

about all we've got all we've got time

for so if that's it for me thank you

very much