How to Deconstruct the PhD

Facilitating an Ideation session with PhD students

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.

Mark Twain 

Doing a PhD can appear a daunting prospect from the start. It’s like looking up at a sheer rock face — it’s hard to know where to begin. At the start of my graduate studies I approached a friendly Professor to ask his advice on doing a PhD. “How do you eat an elephant?” he asked. The answer: bit by bit. Like eating an elephant, you need first of all to deconstruct a large project (like the PhD) into manageable bite-sized chunks. This is what this post about – how to break down the process of doing a PhD so that it no longer appears so overwhelming.

It’s good to question assumptions and common practices when it comes to the PhD. The best-selling author Tim Ferriss provides a formula for accelerated learning which is equally applicable to doing the PhD. The formula is: DSSS.

D = Deconstruction (how to break down a large project into its basic, constituent parts).

S = Selection (what are the most important parts to focus on).

S = Sequencing (in what order should we work on these parts?).

S = Stakes (how to make this project compelling so that we follow through).

I would also focus on what Ferriss terms MED – the Minimal Effective Dose. How can we get our desired result (in this case the PhD) with the minimal amount of effort and thus the most effective way possible?

Much of the conventional wisdom about doing a PhD advises to do the research first, take lots of notes, and then “write it up”, usually in your final year. The premise is that you can’t write about something you don’t know. Here’s how we could adapt Ferriss’s formula to doing a PhD:

  • Find your field based on your academic interests
  • Narrow the field down to find your specific topic + interview experts
  • Do a literature search
  • Discover the gap or an avenue of research to pursue
  • Form a working thesis
  • Write a thesis statement in one paragraph
  • Break it down into topics
  • Create chapters and sections and sub-sections
  • Research and write section by section
  • In light of new research, revise hypothesis and interpretations
  • Repeat revising until you and your supervisor are satisfied 
  • Create stakes that make it impossible to fail 
  • Limit time and focus on essentials 

Eating the elephant – Small Assignments

If I had 8 hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend 6 hours sharpening my ax

Abraham Lincoln

Good planning (project management) is key to successfully completing your PhD. Stress and anxiety stem from working on a major project like the PhD without clearly defined steps and interim goals. Research is a process of discovery and uncertainty, but it need not be stressful.

Mastering your PhD first involves breaking the PhD process down into bite-sized chunks and taking the long view. It’s like running a marathon – you need to pace yourself because you are going for the distance. The idea is not to work harder, but smarter. The prevailing culture in academia and in the modern workplace is that you have to put in long hours in the office – this can often be counterproductive.  

Focus on the process rather than the finished product (the PhD thesis). You do this by breaking your topic down into sections and sub-sections that you can work with. This will give you structure and make it easier for you to monitor your progress. This outline can change as you progress with your research but it helps having a working outline that structures your research.

Start out by developing a strong Table of Contents – you can brainstorm headings and subheadings by mind mapping, or by organizing your ideas on index cards or post it notes. Be flexible in your approach and adapt your plan as your research progresses and you refine your thesis. You don’t have to stick with a predetermined plan, but it helps to start with a plan which you can adapt over time.

Don’t get too caught up on the idea that the PhD should be an original contribution to knowledge. This can seem a bit overpowering. Think deep and narrow – think niche and how you can drive the debate in your field forward. Work with the literature in your field and try to spot gaps in it or critique interpretations. Doing a good literature review where you review the literature written on your subject in chronological order (of publication) with an argument thread running through it is a good way to gain an overview of what has been done in your field while trying to find your place in it.

You develop original insights by incubating ideas and being open to different disciplines. Attend your departmental seminars but also attend other seminars when you can in other fields. Expose yourself to different fields and ideas. Some of the best breakthroughs in a field can come through this cross-fertilisation. This has certainly been the case in my field.

You will often find that you get the best ideas when you least expect it – when walking, sitting in a café, taking a bath, on a train, or during a conference. It’s a good idea to keep a pocket notebook with you for such occasions so you can jot down thoughts or, if you are more technically inclined, you can use Evernote on your mobile. As was the habit of the great composer Beethoven, it doesn’t matter if you will use these ideas later, but jotting them down captures them and will spark new ideas and connections that you might otherwise have missed.

There are a lot of misconceptions about writing and what this process involves. This stems from the way that we were taught how to write at school – in a linear, sentence by sentence approach where we think carefully about what we want to say and try to get it down as best we can. The brain, however, doesn’t work this way. Writing this way is stressful and disorientating. It needn’t be. Writing will be the skill that you will most likely have to unlearn and to question your assumptions in order to develop a more effective method of writing. 

One method that you may find useful is the Snowflake method. This method devised by the best-selling fiction author Randy Ingmerson is based on first creating a detailed map of your writing project which you add to gradually as you progress and get deeper into your project. It is very effective in orientating and structuring your writing. Here is how you can adapt this method to help you plan and write your thesis:   

  • Write a one sentence summary of your thesis
  • Write a one paragraph summary of your thesis
  • Create a list of the points that distinguish your thesis from previous research
  • List the (possible) results or new interpretations of your thesis 
  • Outline the topics that your thesis will cover
  • Make a list of your thesis chapters (from your topics)
  • Make a list of the headings within each chapter
  • Make a dot point list of what needs to be covered within each heading/subheading 
  • Note your thoughts for expanding each dot point
  • Start filling in the dot points section by section 

I know one senior academic who follows a very similar method to this who has published over 150 articles and four books so it is deadly effective. (He prefers to focus on one writing project at a time but might, for example, write an article after finishing a book chapter. He also follows a writing schedule of writing a little bit each day in the afternoon and in the evening after dinner).

Once you have broken down your topic into its component parts – chapters, sections, sub-sections – you can begin work on one section at a time. I would start with the literature review first as this will serve to orientate you within the field. Leave the Introduction and Conclusion until last.

Pick a section you feel comfortable with and dive in. You can start with chapter 1 or work on a later chapter if you prefer – whatever gets the momentum going. Focus on one chapter at a time. You can add references or ideas on another chapter as they occur to you but I find it best to concentrate on one chapter at a time and not chop and change between chapters or writing projects (like writing an article for publication). 

Create one master document with a detailed table of contents – this will form your PhD thesis. Create another document that you can use for notes, research, and jotting next steps and any thoughts that occur to you. While researching make notes in the second document that you can review and use for outlining when writing the particular section you are working on in your PhD master document. You don’t need to footnote comprehensively as you go (as this can break up the flow of your writing), but do put in abbreviated references so that you can provide the full references later.

By breaking down the PhD into bite-sized chunks and focusing on small assignments that build flow and small daily wins you will build momentum and confidence to achieve your PhD.

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