Tips for writing a PhD thesis

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether or not I regret undertaking a PhD. This is mainly because today is my deadline. My writing up year has finished. I haven’t though. I still have a lot of writing to do, and although I’ve done a lot of work over the past six weeks or so, the finish line doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Thankfully I have very supportive supervisors, who are very much on my side, and have been really understanding with how much I’ve struggled to balance full time work and PhD writing, and with the mental health difficulties I’ve had over the past four years.

If you’d have asked me at the beginning of summer whether I regretted starting a PhD, I’d have definitely said yes. I was working the most stressful and poorly paid job I’ve ever had, and I’ve never felt so undervalued. I loved working with children, a lot of the adults less so.  If you ask me now about whether I regret starting a PhD, I’m less certain. I’ve landed in my dream job, that would have been impossible without the unpaid work I did while I was studying, the only time I’ve been able to consistently volunteer, because I was fortunate enough to be fully funded for three years.

Either way, I can’t wait for it to be over, it’s drained so much from me, and I can’t wait to be able to sit at home doing nothing without feeling guilty about not working, to be able to look forward to leaving work knowing that I can relax, I mostly can’t wait to start tackling the massive stack of books I haven’t read for the last four years.

I’ve also been thinking about how many pieces of advice I’ve ignored, or wish I had heard, and thought perhaps I can use this weird reflective moment to try and be of use to other people. So here are my top tips, specifically for writing the thesis. (I’ll give you a bonus tip about applying: THINK VERY CAREFULLY ABOUT WHETHER A PHD IS THE RIGHT THING FOR YOU- can you get to where you want to be without? if so, do that instead):

  • Every time you read an article, book or chapter, or hear an interesting conference paper or lecture, don’t just write a list of quotes, try and immediately formulate some writing in response to it, even if it’s just a summary of ideas. Basically just write write write from the start.
  • Agree regular deadlines for written work with your supervisors from the start. If they’re quite laid back, impress on them how important it is for you to have strict and regular deadlines to work to. 
  • Make friends with the university librarians and library assistants. I was lucky in this respect, as I worked in the library. They are your best PhD allies. 
  • Find a good way of managing your physical and digital work. Scrivener is great for organising documents, unfortunately I acquired it quite late in my PhD. Writing such a lengthy piece of work is an inherently fragmented process, try and keep your files and papers organised, even when your head isn’t. When reading/ editing I work better from paper, if you have loads of printouts of your own work at various stages of completion, make sure you date it or recycle it if it’s no longer needed. On the front of printed articles, it’s useful to write a one sentence summary, not about what the article is about, but about how it’s useful for you. 
  • Don’t try and reinvent the conventions of a thesis. Yeah the standard formula of PhD theses is tedious, and the temptation to try and make the process more interesting and creative is high, but only like three people are ever going to read it, so just tick the boxes and get it done, you can write your masterpiece later.
  • Speak at conferences, write articles/book chapters, but make sure anything you do can be reconfigured with minimal effort into your thesis- don’t make more work for yourself, likewise with any upgrading written work early on, try and use it as an opportunity to draft an introduction or a methodology chapter.
  • Teach if possible. Try and leave room in seminars/lectures for conversations. MA students are good at giving feedback without even realising it, plus they’re not too jaded by academia yet, like other PhD students.
  • If you find high theory dense, inaccessible, dull and unhelpful- don’t try and write it.
  • If you have a good relationship with your supervisors, always take their advice. They’re trying to help you get a PhD. 
  • If you have a good relationship with your supervisors, tell them when they’re wrong. (obviously contradicts previous point, but hear me out). Towards the end of your PhD (maybe even from the start), chances are you’re more of an expert in your specific field than your supervisors. It’s okay to say “actually, I’m not going to take your suggestion, I don’t think it’s important to focus on that”, “that’s not really the direction I want to take with this” etc.
  • Talk about your work with your friends, especially those also doing PhDs, as you can offer each other advice, and they’re more likely to humour you. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have been from conversations with friends from different disciplines over a pint.
and these are the most important ones:
  • If you are working full time, and writing your PhD full time, seek help from the doctoral school/administrators, it’s not feasible, and it’s not usual. don’t kill yourself trying to make it work.
  • Mental health always trumps PhD. Don’t cut yourself off from friends, don’t stop doing the things you enjoy out of guilt. You don’t need to devote every waking second to your PhD. Look after yourself.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Unless you’re becoming an actual real doctor, no one cares you’re doing a PhD except for you, and nor should they.
  • And finally, some advice for those who spend a lot of time with people doing their PhD: if they say “fine thanks” when you ask them how it’s going, it means “don’t ask me any more questions about it”, PhD students spend so much time thinking about and talking about their work- don’t feel you need to show any interest, they probably appreciate the break.
On the plus side, when this is all said and done I will have earned a gender neutral title at last.
Wish me luck, but don’t ask me how it’s going.


Apologies for the radio silence recently, I’ve been working on a conference paper for an upcoming event in Taiwan (I’ll blog about that soon). But in the mean time, some words:

I’ve been thinking a lot about academic writing using autobiography, and about the difficulties of striking a balance between anger and scholarly rigor (whatever that is, I’ve yet to achieve it). The book Why are faggots so afraid of faggots: flaming challenges to masculinity, objectification, and the desire to conform – a collection of essays edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has prompted this, as well as my disenchantment with a lot of academic writing which is, frankly, unreadable and pitched in its humanless tone at a privileged few, one of which, in spite of being half way through my PhD, I (thankfully, or perhaps, worringly) don’t consider myself to be. I heard recently a fellow PhD student say that during the research process, the thought of being a ‘writer’ doesn’t occur until the final stages. This is far from my experience. For me, writing is as important, if not more important, than the data collecting, the reviewing of literature and a whole host of other rather shudder-inducing bullet points in the thesis recipe.

I thought I’d try writing, quite informally about my own experience as a queer person, as a particular type of queer person; someone who presents themselves as gender neutral/gender queer; someone who feels marginalised (thankfully, or perhaps, worryingly) from mainstream gay male culture; someone who feel marginalised within academia (or, at least, in my own higher education institution); someone who constantly carries around class guilt at referring to myself as being from a ‘working class background’ but having found myself, having tumbled down the rabbit hole, in the very privileged position of studying a funded PhD; someone who feels perpetually underequipped for higher education, due, partially to this guilt, partially to my queerness, and partially to my constant eye-rolling at the absurd world of academia. I said once in a queer reading group (eye roll), that I thought that writing a thesis, particularly in the arts and humanities is an act of narcissism, that essentially we spend three years researching and writing, about ourselves. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, I think there is real value in research that is rooted in the personal, that’s angry and involved, and a bit bruised and damaged. That said: I will now write about ME.

I think constantly about gender. It’s pretty much my main preoccupation. We were sat in Soho square one summer day, and a drunk old woman, who we assumed had been sleeping beside us, suddenly arose and crawled towards us (like Sadako mounting the inside of the well in Ringu) and exclaimed to me “you think you’re a woman, but you’re not”. A violent start to an uncomfortable and incoherent conversation. My friend later said, of the rather unusual exchange: “It’s weird that she said that, it must have been the only time we’ve ever not been talking about your gender issues.” While this was said in jest, like most funny things, it was based somewhat on the truth. What is it about me that day that said to a woman – with her eyes closed – that I believed myself to a woman? My appearance often elicits a double take (sometimes welcome, othertimes an awful intrusion, stop looking at me, get a grip etc.), because I happily present myself as femme, but she couldn’t see me. My voice, to the unenlightened is a man’s, camp and sibilant at times, but I’m not softly spoken; I bark. And bark even louder when I’ve had a few cans of red stripe in the sun. Not to mention I swear like a fucking trooper. I think ultimately, what stumped me and my friends that day was that my gender presentation is fast becoming an afterthought to us, there isn’t, I’d like to think, anything contrived about it (or at least no more so than anyone else’s), for the past ten years I’ve worn makeup and had long hair, and while at first it was an act of some delayed teenage rebellion, and a plea to be noticed, it is now something that I don’t really think about- unless someone else’s response to me makes me think about it. The act of putting makeup on is no more or less part of my routine than brushing my teeth. My close friends, too, are taken aback if someone says something offensive or stares or nudges a friend on the tube to point at me, because they don’t see anything else other than Sean. What is everyone else seeing? And why are they interested?

An interesting thing happened at work today. Three or four of my colleagues, who have all seen me present as femme for many years now, commented on me wearing a bright pink tshirt. My response was, perhaps defensively, perhaps self-deprecatingly, “I thought I’d go for something a bit more masculine today.” Would they comment on a cis woman colleague wearing a pink tshirt? Maybe. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. I probably am. But I can’t help but think that people who compliment what appears to be a boy who presents as femme are really saying “I get it, I’m okay with it.” A round of applause all round. It’s just a pink fucking tshirt. I know I’m defensive about this, but I’ve been conditioned this way (spit on me in Manchester as you cycle past on your bike, take a picture of me on your iPhone on the bus, called me a tranny etc. etc. etc.), much the way that my colleagues have been conditioned to make doubly sure that I know that they ‘accept’ me, just the way that boring oafs on the tube have been conditioned to resent women, and anything/anyone feminine by proxy.

I do think about gender all the time. I have to, I’m constantly reminded about it, whether I want to be or not. When I was an undergraduate, I was asked to leave the men’s toilets in the student union club because they thought I was a woman, a bouncer then removed me from the women’s toilet. My friend, who remembers the event more clearly than I do, told me the next day I had said to the bouncer “where am I supposed to piss then? A pint pot?” the answer I’ve learnt, is not a pint pot, but the disabled toilets, which I feel incredibly guilty about using, because I am able bodied. I am reminded about gender every time I need to use a public toilet, because of other people’s discomfort. Not my own.

I’m reminded of gender when I’m in gay bars. Where women and trans people are cast aside, where gay men aspire to be seen as ‘straight-acting’, where beards have become currency.

I was reminded of gender on the bus the other evening, I was going to my friend’s for dinner. I could hear a group of school boys behind having a very involved conversation about whether I was a ‘man or a girl’ (funny that I become infantilised if the latter is the case). I didn’t really think much of it, aside from being mildly irritating (and a bit surprising; for once I had no makeup on, my hair was tied up and I was wearing a bloody hoody). But afterwards I thought about it again and about how intrusive the conversation was, because, since they didn’t seem to be able to glean any idea of my gender from my appearance, what their curiosity ultimately boiled down to was about my genitals. I expect more from kids usually, they tend to know better than their parents, but on the other hand how long can we excuse people’s behavior because of youth? When they turn 18? 21? When they have a child? When they or someone they know is a victim of misogyny, transphobia or homophobia? (to borrow a phrase coined by Nigella Lawson – intimate terrorism).

I’m constantly aware (and feel guilty about- I am part of the twitter generation after all) of my privileges. Even as a queer person, I am very privileged. I am able to be very visibly and unapologetically queer, I’m not sure I’d be afforded such a luxury if I still lived in Sunderland. But until people stop thinking about my genitals, I won’t be able to. I’ll keep banging on about my gender identity and about gender inequality until I stop being reminded about them by other people’s incapacity for critical thought. Sometimes I’m happy to engage with people who are curious about gender variance, but other times, I wonder why it’s my fucking place to educate them.

I’ll finish with a song.