Tips for finishing a PhD

As I (Rachel Mc Ardle) have recently finished my PhD, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on some tips which helped me survive the last few months and weeks of my PhD:


Mental health/ well-being tips:

  1. There is light at the end of the tunnel, even when it often feels like there isn’t.
  2. You will have to ask for help and get comfortable leaning on other people, it is an incredibly stressful time and the people closest to you will become your support network.
  3. As much as you can, take breaks, walks, journal/ brain dump, and look after yourself in terms of time off. If you don’t take breaks your brain simply will not be as productive the next day.
  4. Be kind to yourself, allow yourself to feel free to eat whatever food is handy or you want. Prioritise the PhD over other demands and don’t feel guilty about doing this.
  5. Know that the important people in your life understand what you’re going through and will understand your inability to go places or do things with them. They will be still there when you finish.

Writing tips:

  1. Set up a calendar with specific dates and share it with your supervisor (and maybe a friend or colleague), so that even if you don’t meet the deadline you are still working towards a deadline. Constantly revise (at least once a month). Schedule it as realistically as possible, for example if you have to attend a conference that could take over a week out of that month with attendance, travel and work for the conference.
  2. Set up a style sheet on word so that all formatting is the same. Hugely important and can save you time in the end.
  3. Create a master checklist of what formatting needs to be done and add to as you progress.
  4. A clear schedule of every hour- include breaks!
  5. Make a very easy list of what tasks you know are achievable, i.e. read five pages from 9am-10.30am and then when you achieve this, you get a sense of achievement and are motivated for the day.

Sample timetable (that I definitely did not always stick to):

9.00-10.30: read five pages of Chapter 1.

10.30-10.45: coffee, get some air.

10.45-1: read five more pages of Ch1.

1-2: lunch and walk.

2-3.30: 3 pages of Ch 1 and work on 5 edits.

3.30-4: coffee and break.

4-6: five more pages and check emails.

6-7: exercise/walk/watch TV- whatever you do to relax.  Your brain needs downtime before you try and sleep and when I didn’t do this, I couldn’t sleep.

  1. Do not check emails until the end of the day and do not check them every day. Your priority has to be your PhD and everything else is secondary in terms of work. There is no email that needs to be answered within 24 hours. Use the FAB method, file it (later), action it (answer now), bin it (not necessary).
  2. When you’re too tired to write or really heavily edit, work on smaller tasks such as formatting, quotes or your bibliography.
  3. Set up a writing group for Chapter feedback, I found mine super helpful and it meant I was consistently getting feedback from people other than my supervisors.
  4. Shut Up and Write sessions are similarly helpful and often a coffee and chat after can help the stress levels.
  5. Grammerly and Hemingway are useful tools to check your writing other than word.
  6. If you are consistently getting the same feedback about your writing, try focus on that problem and fix it so that you are pre-empting the feedback you may get. If you don’t know what this is, ask your supervisor for advice.
  7. Don’t take feedback too personally. Your writing, while it is you doing it, is not a reflection of your value as a person. Your reviewer or supervisor may say something which can seem upsetting or hurtful but they’re just a comment about the words you have chosen, not your work, your ideas or you, so let them just be that. If you find feedback difficult or dread it or it feeds into your anxiety or stress in any way, open the feedback, look at it, then take a break-even a day, and then go back to it and I can promise it will not seem as bad.
  8. It just has to be good enough- a perfect thesis is never going to happen. Don’t agonise over perfection, keep editing and submitting to your supervisor as often as possible and don’t hold onto a chapter waiting for it to be perfect, it will never be.
  9. Bibliography- use a software tool, such as Zotero, or a more traditional method, but start using it early and do not leave till the last few months. Some references become so obscure and hard to remember and chase-make it easy on yourself and do the best you can!


Finally, you’re about to or are close to completing one of the hardest things you will ever do. I can reassure you that the relief and euphoria you feel on the other side will make it all worth it. Not only that, you learn so much about yourself as a person through this experience. You learn many different things, everyone is different so I won’t give a list.  Although your support network and your supervisors are crucial to you completing this work, at the end of it, you do it, so you should be proud and rest assured that you wouldn’t have gotten this far if you couldn’t do it. And remember: “happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”.

Rachel Mc Ardle. 


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    A lot of very good advice here


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