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Help Needed -- Time Management

I am in a difficult position with my thesis.

I am 2 years into my PhD and have one funded year left. I have collected all of my data but have undertaken very little analysis. I have about 18,000 words written but in extremely poor-quality and fragmented drafts. I know for certain I have not undertaken enough work for the stage I am at. Like many people, I have wasted weeks, perhaps months at a time on blind alleyways. I spent almost 2 months this year developing a methodology that I ended up not using.

My marriage broke up 6 months into my PhD and I was given a lot of extra support. Those issues were resolved in 5-6 months, and since there are other students with far greater issues who have still managed to achieve much more.

At the moment, it feels like far too much for me to complete in a year. I don't have anything written and have done very little meaningful analysis. Moreover, my primary experiment didn't work so it isn't clear now what my 'original contribution to knowledge' could be. My field is very different to that of my undergraduate degree and I still lack a lot of background knowledge. There's nothing specifically wrong. I just haven't progressed.

The emotional aspects are just as difficult and I hate struggling without reason. I don't want to quit, but I don't see how I can possibly finish this. I've tried many time management techniques without success. Does anyone have any advice? I would struggle to forgive myself if I had to give up.

Changing focus halfway through PhD?

My supervisor said something very similar. He said that I was free to pursue any avenue of research I wanted, but that I should make sure I finished analysing the data I had already collected first. He said that my proposal sounded interesting but it was more like 2 or 3 PhDs, rather than something that could be achieved in 16 months. He thought that I could do some preliminary work for it once I've done what I needed to, but aim for it as a post-doc. The really nice thing that he said was that if I invested some time now into really looking at the possibility of that work, he thought that would be a good use of my time -- as long as I get my main experiments finished and written up. He does have a point, since I already have year-old data sitting on my hard drive.

I'm happy with that outcome. This morning I think I thought that if I didn't change focus entirely, I would lose the ability to follow the research stream that interests me. Now I think that perhaps doing the ground work and trying to get a post-doc is much better, and would give me more of a chance to focus a project specifically related to those interests. I feel like I can take the lead on my own research and ultimately follow my interests, without actually endangering my PhD qualification by abandoning a solid project for the sake of ideas which haven't had enough time to germinate yet.

Changing focus halfway through PhD?

I have 16 months until my funding runs out. I am expected to submit my thesis at that point since my University does not allow for an unfunded "writing up" year. I have struggled in the last 18 months to keep motivated -- I like my department, research team and supervisors but I struggle to see the relevancy of my work.

In the past two months I have found a stream which interests me a lot more than my main one. It could be a side chapter to my thesis, but when I think about it, this "side topic" is what interests me the most. I have two options: one is to keep working the way I am now, keenly interested in a small part and frustrated with the main output. The second option is to change focus and make my interest the main subject, which means that my other two chapters will be about something very different to what they are now.

I've scheduled a meeting with my supervisor but I'm not sure what to say. He isn't going to like the second option. I know it would be better to present a well-thought-out idea but in a few days I will start my last field season. My PhD is part of a large grant but I am not funded directly by a research council.

Part of me thinks it's a little late for a major topic change. Does anyone have any experience with this? How did you approach it with your supervisors and / or research group? Did you find that, at this stage, it's best to just knuckle down with a less-than-interesting project, or change your work to something that interests you the most?

question about referencing code...

======= Date Modified 12 Jan 2012 17:27:03 =======
If someone else makes a major suggestion on a piece of work, such as fixing a significant piece of code, do you have to acknowledge that person even if the help was only verbal?

The example is that I had an idea for something but couldn't get it to work, and another person managed it for me. I can't see how to reference without saying something like "...using the above algorithm (developed by random bloke across the hall, 2012).

Or what if you see a solution to your exact problem online, on a forum or file exchange, but you can't remember where?

There is one line in one block of code which is particularly problematic because it is quite an important topic for my thesis but I didn't write it myself. I came up with the idea, and another person got the code to work brilliantly. It's quite new in my field and I'm hoping to publish a paper based on it. Everyone who has helped will be in my acknowledgements, of course, but it still seems to imply that I did all of the programming myself, when I didn't.

I don't really know what to do.


Haha, not some pervy fetish thing... it's a document typesetting program, an alternative to writing a 300 page thesis in Word or OpenOffice. Unlike Word, which is a WYSIWYG ("What you see is what you get") editor where you import graphics, change font sizes etc manually as you're going along, LaTeX formats documents according to a script. So instead of just typing your results into Word, you do have to think a little bit about the structure of what you're writing and what you want to say, but the benefits of that effort is having 100% control over every part of your document and being able to change document style, headings, fonts, table numbers, generate tables of contents and bibliographies, very quickly and without fear of accidentally forgetting a page number or reference because LaTeX adds it all automatically. It also makes adding equations, code and tables really easy.

If you're using Word, a good LaTeX editor and compiler can be downloaded from TeXworks:


I use pdflatex which allows me to output my work automatically as a .pdf document, and include jpgs without worrying about them.

Like I said it takes a lot of getting used to but I think it has quite a lot of benefits over writing in Word.

providing examples vs. padding the reference list

======= Date Modified 04 Jan 2012 13:36:18 =======
I think it's fine to use three or four references but I'd make more than just passing references to all of them. I think it is probably better to contrast different studies rather than go into detail about just one, even if they do all say the same thing. That way you're proving you've actually read the papers you're mentioning. An example might be:

"It has been well established that chocolate is good for PhD students (Green, 2011; Black, 2004; Cadbury, 1959). Green (2011) and Black (2004) agree that the flavour and variety of chocolate helps lift the mood of postgraduates. However, Cadbury (1959) argue that palatability and texture is responsible for this effect."


Wheeeeeee! Thanks very much :)

The pdf is perfect since I basically live in a technological black hole with no wifi (or even a smartphone). I also run away on fieldwork a lot. I have a USB full of every reference manual I could ever need when I'm away from the internet, but over xmas and new year I realised I didn't have one for latex. Guess I never bothered to download one since there are so many great websites.

But thanks! Now I can properly type up my thesis even in the cold darkness of my wifi-free flat. Yippee :)


Hey, a question for anyone writing their thesis in latex... does anyone know of a good reference manual that is specific to theses? I haven't been using latex long and whilst most of the general advice is more than enough, would be good to know if there are any resources which are specific to overcoming problems with large bibliographies, keeping separate files different chapters, packages useful for PhDs, appendices etc. I'm sure I can find all the help I need on various sites but it would be good to find a reference manual that has it all in one place... particularly in a pdf I can read when not online!

Just a vague hope? Happy New Year all x


======= Date Modified 27 Dec 2011 15:03:08 =======
Aww, thank you Eska and Delta. Eska, sorry to hear about that situation, it sounds like the type I try hard to avoid. Actually I really enjoyed spending it alone, I was determined to neither a) make a big deal about being alone on Xmas or b) ignore those feelings by pretending it was just another day. I did cook myself Xmas dinner, although not turkey because I'm vegetarian. Actually I did do something which was truly amazing which I never would have done if I'd spent Xmas with others -- I went for a walk around the city I'm in (I live in the middle of town). And it was absolutely incredible, I've never seen any city so completely empty, with only a few people sitting around in the scattering of bars that were open. I really got to see my city in a very, very different way, and I took some amazing photographs of empty bridges and streets that are normally full of people and cars. So it was actually quite special in the end, I'm glad I chose to brave it alone rather than accepting any of the awkward last-minute offers to go and stay with peripheral family members who I don't know all that well.

what if I'm doing just fine?

I'm quite happy with this attitude change right now -- I spent the whole of my first year in a needless panic when I would have got more out of my research (and other researchers) if I'd just chilled out. I think my fear is that if I feel secure now it will be worse in the future if / when I go wrong. Like I'm not allowed to let my guard down.

But I really think that's a load of BS -- of course there will be tough patches in the future but actually, stressing about them doesn't guard against them in the slightest. It's really hard for me to take a positive view of my work because, like others have said, I'm a critical person by nature and that's a good quality for a PhD.

I'm slowly starting to see that cautious optimism doesn't actually make me a bad researcher.... and that enjoying my work and not panicking about it is going to get me a lot further.

what if I'm doing just fine?

Now, there's a scary thought.

What if I'm actually on track with my PhD? What if my supervisors think I'm reasonably competent? What if the other students aren't miles ahead of me? What if my finances are actually pretty well under control and I have everything I need?

WHAT IF EVERYTHING MIGHT TURN OUT OKAY!? What would I do all day?? I might actually do work instead of sitting and worrying! What would that be like -- to not feel so stressed? What if I actually achieved something I was proud of instead of thinking everything was on the edge of a disaster? What would happen if I felt secure in my PhD -- would things automatically go wrong in some kind of karmic backlash? Does anyone have any advice??

I'm not completely joking, by the way...


Thanks everyone for your suggestions, they are really useful.

I'm planning on seeing a few friends on boxing day, history has shown me that this is the time people are most likely to get bored with the in-laws and holiday ennui. But most of my friends in this city are either going back to their families or have partners / young children / are having family over. This is my first real Xmas by myself. I'm not depressed about it exactly, just a little sad.

You could go on holiday over the Christmas, depending on what kind of holiday you like.

If you're into more adventurous stuff (depending on your budget), you might want to look at availablity on various trips with the following companies:



Just a thought. The former is the better IMHO. Lots of people on their own go with these companies and just make friends with people when they arrive.

That's a really good idea. Those sites look great, I hadn't thought of anything like that before. I don't have any savings though so unfortunately it's not an option financially, but I will certainly consider those options in the future, and any others like it. Most of my overseas travel has been work-based, I forget to look for holidays.

These organisations tend not to take on people just to help out on Christmas day for some good reasons, although I don't think that the person who spoke to you had any need to be disparaging or patronising.

Thanks. I would volunteer with shelters Xmas day when I was a teenager. But that was a long time ago and I hadn't realised that the "volunteering at Xmas" thing had become very mainstream. I suppose even volunteering has necessarily become very competitive.

Spending the day alone is fine really. Just make sure you have some good food and drink and other treats. Just make sure you get some good company on the surrounding days. Don't haul up for the entire holiday period or you will go a bit mental - I did this a couple of years ago - not good. Make some arrangements with friends.

Christmas is so tricky if you're single and have a difficult family, you have my empathy - I would say sympathy but I'm confident that you can make it wok and still enjoy the day on your own so long as you manage it right. I feel much better about the whole thing after my solo Christmas. The actual day doesn't matter so much to me an more, even though the family stuff still hurts.

Thanks. I guess I just feel slightly weird, it's the first single Xmas of my life. Even though I've never cared about Xmas it just seems really weird to be alone. Well, since it looks like there's not much volunteering and I can't afford to go away, I'm just going to have to make the most of it through looking after myself and buying a good book. It probably won't be anywhere near as bad as I thought!


It has just occurred to me that the xmas break is just around the corner. I don't have plans and can't cope with the thought of going back home to my family (Bridget Jones meets Nightmare on Elm Street). I'd intended to volunteer but my local volunteer centre rather sneeringly informed me this morning that ALL volunteer places had filled up weeks ago. I might be intelligent, highly motivated and well qualified, but so is half the city.

I'm not sure what to do. I definitely don't want to visit the relatives, and would rather not spend xmas day alone in my flat trying to make turkey-flavoured tofu burgers.

does anyone know of any voluntary programs, in the UK or abroad, who might take last-minute volunteers? Or... anything? Now I'm thinking about it, the idea of doing nothing all xmas is not great. Yes I have some great friends, but they'll be spending xmas day with their families and partners.

This has really sneaked up on me! Any ideas?

the %*$!ing research question

How important is it to have a specific, well-defined research question (in the sense of an actual one-sentence question which ends in a question mark), vs simply knowing the area you're working on.

I guess I see my research question as looking at the influences of x on y, during z. But I find that if I write this as actual questions, the focus changes slightly. eg I would have two different theses depending on whether I was asking, "How does x affect y," or "What controls x?"

For the work I'm doing, both are valid topics. Do I choose a particular, specific question... or does "the influence of x and y on z" count as a research question in itself?

This might influence my next set of experiments. I'm about a quarter of the way through my second year.

Living alone?

I split up with my husband in Feb and spent about six months living with other people. The first two months was basically during fieldwork and that was awful. Then the rest of the summer I lived with undergrads -- they were lovely, but it's hard to retain patience when people start banging on your door at 4am drunk because they've lost their phone and need to borrow yours. They also don't understand the need to occasionally work 16 hour days.

I've lived alone for about 2 and a half months now -- yes, my flat is expensive. Not only is it expensive, but it's the cheapest flat I could get -- meaning that there is no central heating, single glazed windows and quite grim carpets. But I LOVE it. It's my own space and, yeah, I am becoming very hermit-like (I no longer understand how to even MEET other people) and occasionally feel a bit lonely but it's my space and is convenient for Uni and I can do what I want there. I can even invite people over for dinner, something which has never occurred to me to do before and certainly wouldn't have been possible if I'd been living with other students.

I do look at my rent (exactly 1/3 of my studentship) and my bills, especially the electricity bill, and start to feel a bit faint. I'm making sacrifices on things like clothes and holidays. I too wonder if I'd have more fun sharing with other professionals... but it's such a gamble and for the short term at least I'm really enjoying my freedom and independence. What is most important to you?

Can you do something to make your house feel more of your "own"? Like put up some pictures or buy a new rug? Seems trivial but even just rearranging the furniture in my flat really helped to make me feel like it was "mine" for the time I'm renting it.