Dissertation Time — It’s a marathon, not interval training

Rome wasn’t built in a day but they worked on it every single day.

In a recent meeting of PhD students and professors (hmm, and there were also two post-docs), I was struck by how many of them had tried out working a day in the week on their dissertation thesis. It’s an understandable strategy. After all, if you are paid by a research project (or two, or three) and have a clear project and schedule to adhere to, it’s very hard to find the time and energy for a rather unstructured dissertation.

So, why not reserve one day in the week for the dissertation thesis?

Well, because it likely will not work. Not only is one day a week too little time to dive deeply into a topic (if you take the rough measure of 10.000 hours to become an expert, you’d be there in about 24 years, given 8 hours per week, 52 weeks in a year.) You’d also lose a lot of time getting back into the PhD work. After all, it was a week since you last worked on it. Then there are the weeks when there is just too much to do, or you are too tired, or something else is more important. It’s very tempting to use the one day in the week that you control for it.

So, if one day a week for the PhD topic likely is a bad idea, what are better ideas?

Well, a PhD thesis is not an interval training, it’s a marathon. And in a marathon, slow and steady wins the race. Or, rather, slow and steady arrives at the finish line. You need to work on the thesis each and every day. For at least a few hours. This will allow you to quickly resume the work, it will be in the back of your mind during the whole week (great for spontaneous ideas), and you will finish faster.

Sounds impossible, given your commitments? Not really.

You have 24 hours, of which 8 hours are occupied by sleep, eating and hygiene, and 8 hours are occupied by work (if you have a full-time position). That leaves you with 8 hours. Given that you also need a life — you need to do something else to have incubation times for ideas and to relax — you can’t use the remaining 8 hours fully. At least not each and every day. (It might actually be easier regarding the work if you cut down to a half position. That is, if you can survive on the money and you don’t negotiate a 50% pay-cut).

But of these 8 hours, you might be able to use 4 hours. At best in the morning, before work. It is actually possible to become a morning person, or rather, a person who gets up early in the morning. I changed from being a night-owl to getting up at 5 am. Doing the dissertation work before work itself means you are still fit (once the coffee started working). And if work takes longer, it will not cut into your PhD time. (And if work is slow, you might be able to extend the PhD time a bit.)

And yeah, that means cutting down on other things. But I would be very careful in removing hobbies you love, esp. social hobbies like choir practice or sports. You need pauses, and you need something else for the times when the PhD thesis gets difficult and frustrating.

But, yeah, I’d strongly recommend the four hours a day. At a minimum (given the calculation above with the 10k hours, it will still take 7 years, less if synergy effects with the work itself kick in, which is likely to happen once your PhD thesis gets a life of its own).

And yeah, it will suck, but only for a while. Then you have your PhD. Well, at least, if you also work in an environment, in which the people (mostly: the professors) have an interest in you finishing your thesis. And this might not always be the case.

After all, dependable, steady workers (on the funded research projects, that is) are useful, and as long as you are also working on your thesis, you work very cheap for your qualification. It’s an understandable, but very short-sighted perspective, for both sides. For the student, because it wastes time (especially in Germany with a law restricting how long you can work at the university, unless paid by third party funds). And for the profs, because while a useful idiot is nice, a colleague in academia whom you know and can trust is nicer. And if that colleague becomes a professor at another university, it becomes even nicer for collaborations.

So it pays to make sure people actually finish theses where you work, and if not, then at least that your advisor has an interest in you finishing soon.

And overall, yeah, I strongly recommend working on the thesis each and every day — for a few hours at least.