Updated: Aug 27, 2019
Almost eight months ago I made a list of tips that could lead to a happy PhD experience. I still believe that list, but now, ten days away from actually getting my PhD, there are definitely other things I need to add to that list. Mostly, these are things that helped me in completing my thesis and hopefully, could help someone else.
1. Know your data.
This was the chief advice given to me by my supervisor. Work on getting all your data first, get it cleaned up and ready for analysis. In my case, I had both quantitative and qualitative data, so it was legislative actions and interviews to categorise. Even after I thought it was all perfect and done, during my writing time I had to spend almost a week fixing bad data.
2. Ask for help.
My data needed to be downloaded using R, something I'm still getting the hang of it (which reminds me, good code is a running code). I reached out to package authors, people on StackOverflow, and in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies. Most people want to help. Don't waste precious hours beating your head against the wall.
3. Give yourself a hard deadline.
Depending on where you are, that's not really a choice. But most programmes suffer more from having quitters than having people who ask for extensions. One very good motivator for me was a job I wanted to apply to and I had to have my PhD by the application date. I could have applied for an extra semester, but having this hard deadline really pushed me.
4. Let go of other concerns.
My original list had a lot of work-life balance stuff. I stand by all of that, but especially with a hard deadline, at some point, exercising, eating properly, going out, all lost their importance. I even gained a few pounds, to my dismay.
5. At least a few weeks for only writing and writing alone.
Part of that came of the incredible privilege I had of essentially going on a writing retreat for three weeks. My aunt was travelling and allowed me to use her apartment across town to write; in addition, a cousin lives in the same building and invited me to have lunch every day that I wanted to, with his family. I wrote for 10-12 hours everyday, including weekends.
I realise that this isn't a possibility for most of us. There are children, jobs, and other responsibilities that prevents most people from doing what I did. Even my dog was taken care of by my mother. However much time you are able to take, if you are able to take it, I recommend it. Either staying at a friend's or renting out an AirBnB. Being able to focus for that extensive amount of time was extremely helpful.
While going to an office or a library might do the trick, the extended stay helped to take my mind off of everything. I wore pajamas the whole day, unless I went to my cousin's for lunch. I woke up, made coffee exactly how I take it, set it beside me on the desk and didn't move except to write and pour. I ate whatever I like, whenever I felt like it (although I didn't cook much). When I was done, I watched something stupid and/or relaxing.
7. Academic Twitter, wine, and chocolate.
I was mostly alone for those three weeks. But Academic Twitter made sure I was never lonely. Find your peeps. I also had wine at the end of the day - not everyday, but, you know. Chocolate, yeah, everyday. You don't drink? Diabetic? Hates sweets? Just find something relaxing to end the evening.
After those three weeks I went back home and my family gave me plenty of space for the following week. I finished and the first words out of my mother's mouth were "So now you can gather all the books spread around the house, right?".
These tips, they're not for everyone, not in every detail. I was able to do them because I have no kids and I'm unemployed (another reason for that hard deadline). The thing is, by the time you reach the last year of your PhD, you just want to get it done. Being able to focus on it and not feel guilty about letting go of other things - not doing the dishes, not washing your hair, not hanging out with friends and family - makes a tremendous difference. Being comfortable and selfish, just for a little while, eating what you want and worrying about your comfort level, as much as possible. Mind you, afterwards it's a hard mindset to get out of. I'm still getting used to getting back to my routine, walking the dog, not waking up and immediately sitting down at my computer. But I'll get there.
P.S.: 8. Edit and let go of perfection.
With the deadline coming up and data issues to figure out, there were things I had to let go of doing. You won't use all the data you collected. You won't implement all the ideas you had. You won't cite all the literature you read. And that's okay. Just finish this.