Help! First months of study and really confused


Crikey, hope someone can help. I started my PhD at the end of October. I have two lovely supervisors. We have so far had 2 Zoom meetings. In the first one, one supervisor asked for a literature review. The other asked for a 10,000 word introduction.

We settled on the latter. Of course I found I could not just write 10,000 words, never mind a lit review. I am only starting! Also I have multiple caring responsibilities, an exhausting part (sometimes full) time job, and have been really ill several times with flu like infections (not Covid).

I explained all of this in the second meeting but it felt like I was trying to weasel out. I am not! I have been reading and making notes but not produced any proper words at all. Now I have two more meetings coming up and am apparently still expected to produce thousands of words. I have been ill again and had two long stints caring again. And have still been working in between.

My supervisors suggested taking leave of absence but I'm quite reluctant to do that as I worry that the student loan will stop.

My question is, is this sort of expectation normal - the PhD is arts based? Surely the start of a PhD is when you read in-depth, make notes, get your ideas bouncing. And then, eventually, you start writing? It's 3 years for heaven's sake!

Feel out on a limb (I have yet to have the space to move to where my course is which makes it worse). Would be very grateful for feedback.


Okay, deep breath. It's completely normal not to have anything substantive written by the first two months. (I didn't draft my introduction chapter until my final year!)

It appears they are trying to observe your writing style or at least ascertain your intentions for this study after reading a little.

Normally it is best to write the introduction last after, your data has been processed. However, what you can do is an indicative chapter of where you intend to take each chapter.

An introduction normally looks like,

Background of study
Aims and research objectives
Literature Gap
Theories and substantive concepts
Summary of Findings
Introductory conclusion

Obviously at this point you can only proceed on the first three, possibly four chapter sections. So why not show them something like this? Break the sections down and write without thinking too much about it. Go back and edit. Read bit more and go back and edit.

It is better that you show some form of literature related understanding of your study approach, even if you show what approaches you will not use and why. So show which theories/scholars have symmetry to yours and those who provide tensions for your arguments.

As a doctoral candidate you need to demonstrate control of your methods and resources. Being sure of what you want to do and how you will do it will make everything easier at the end.

I hope this helps. Protect your mental health first ๐Ÿ˜Š You are obviously talented beyond belief. We all are ๐Ÿ˜Ž

Ps, Im a PolSci PostDoc and have a MRes in social research methods. Trust me, your self belief is your strongest weapon.


Hi Erm,

Although it sounds like a lot, I don't think your supervisors have been unreasonable to ask for 10k words. From my experience, the process of writing your thesis begins from the very first day because writing is an effective way to understand what's out there and organise it all in your head. I did an Arts-based PhD and I was constantly writing, re-writing, editing and writing again. It's possible that your supervisors feel the same. Don't forget that what you write now will have almost nothing to do with what you actually publish, I read back what I wrote in my first year and it's really bad and mostly irrelevant, but that's the point! It's a process - not an outcome.

The main question I'd be asking yourself is will your commitments outside your PhD hinder your ability to complete the thesis, and what can you do now to ensure you have enough time to do everything. Three years goes by very quickly and a leave of absence might not be such a bad idea, as it effectively pauses your studies and pushes out your submission date. You may thank yourself later.

I hope that helps.

Avatar for rewt

When is the deadline for 10,000 words? Explicitly asking for 10,000 words is a bit extreme but doing a long literature review in your first 6 months is not unreasonable. Acquainting yourself with the literature now will build a good foundation for the rest of your PhD. If you are worried about the writing, don't put yourself under too much pressure, none of it will be thesis quality and your supervisors will not expect that of you. Just having something written of any quality is good long term as the earlier you start improving your writing the better. To make it less daunting phrase it to your supervisors and yourself as a literature review/introduction and ignore the word recommendation. Once you start writing you might find it easier than you think.


I'd try and put yourself in the supervisor's shoes and think what they've seen in experience.

Some students like yourself will legitimately work on it but struggle to coherently write until things start to click.

Others will play Fortnite and scribble a few words when sufficiently threatened.

I'd always advise against showing nothing and saying you were struggling. Any academic has heard that BS from countless students that have put no actual effort in. Just whack the stack of reading notes on their desk and say you've been taking notes but struggling to consolidate them. They should be able to help with that. At the early stage it is more about proving yourself in the sense you're engaged with the subject and working on it, and any experienced supervisor will know tangible written evidence of that is more important than waffle in a monthly meeting. They will also know that written stuff will likely end up in the bin ultimately, as you learn and shape the PhD, but it's the evidenced effort that matters.

I would, as an important note, agree you should take sickness leave if you are sick. Too many PhD students think they will be viewed more favorably if they soldier on; the reality it's administrative and to have been sick for 6 months will (in most systems) guarantee you the leeway to submit 6 months later; having been ill and struggling instead, unreported, will not. There is nothing stopping you working whilst off sick and submitting early, but there might be considerable barriers if you have no recorded absence and try to argue down the line an unreported illness affected your work.


You started in October and it's now December and you only had 2 meetings with your supervisor??? I would have expected your supervisor to guide you more than that, especially at the start. Are there any other students who are further along that you can talk to? Is there a reference introduction that you can look at to guide your writing structure?

One thing I am more concerned about than your PhD is your health. You are working while doing your PhD and had been ill. That's a lot. A leave of absence sounds like a good thing to do to ensure you are healthy again. Check with your PhD coordinator to address your concerns on student loan. You can always come back when you feel better. Health comes first