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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I've been asked, by Salma Patel and The Thesis Whisperer to write a post on finishing a Ph.D. under the UK system within 3 years. I have to confess, first off, to feeling slightly uneasy writing this. My thesis is yet to be examined. I will, however, have completed a work that both my supervisors feel will pass the Ph.D. examination, within a three-year timespan.

So, with the disclaiming preview out of the way, here's a few ideas as to why my project was do-able within this timeframe. I have also published six journal articles/book chapters and three reviews during this period. The following pieces of advice only apply if you want to do the project within three years. I appreciate that there are many good reasons for wishing to take longer. NB: my project is in English Literature.

Read

Pre-Planning

This advice will not really be of much use to those already mid-way through a Ph.D., but is worth considering before you start out. My project was extremely clearly conceived before I began. I spent a long time writing an AHRC funding proposal that clearly set out a structure for the entire work. I planned the focus of each chapter. I set a specific timeframe for each chapter. I planned a three chapter structure, with eight months for each chapter. I intended, next, to spend eight months examining the interrelations between the themes of each chapter, thus leaving four months for a re-write/contingency. With three months left to go, it's panned out bang on. The message of the story is: of course your Ph.D. will take you four years if you spend the first year searching for the right question; do the planning beforehand.

Pre-Knowledge

Again, more of a consideration for those about to start, but, make your thesis work the continuation of an extant research trajectory. If I had known nothing about my topic (Thomas Pynchon in relation to Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno), the project would have been a great deal harder. However, I was already familiar with Pynchon's work, having written an undergraduate dissertation and MA thesis on different aspects of his work. Furthermore, I had done some preliminary research on Wittgenstein during my MA and a course on Foucault during my undergraduate. The work is entirely new, but I had a great deal of background knowledge under my belt. This pre-preparation also substantially reduced the literature review work (the Vheissu database currently lists 3559 articles/books on Pynchon). Your thesis work is doable in three years if you know at least something about the topic beforehand.

Write constantly

I worked on a hypothesis basis. By this I mean that I started writing well before I was ready. I would write a speculative hypothesis based on what I thought from the current state of my reading. This would then be constantly modified as my thoughts changed and I read more. From this basis I was writing from almost the very start. The very first sentence I wrote on this project has stayed within the work, only slightly changed in the final version ("Perhaps one of the best reasons to begin a study of literary-philosophical interaction with work on Ludwig Wittgenstein is that he calls into question the very nature of philosophy"). Conversely, some sentences have completely vanished (thankfully: "It can be remarked, without much controversy, that one of Pynchon's enduring, and most frequently recurring, motifs is an incredulity towards cause and effect"). I wrote between 300-800 words every day. In short: write a lot, every day; do your thinking on paper/screen.

Work constantly

Perhaps unwelcome as advice, but true. If you can get it done in three years, you won't go crazy if you're working all the time. I'm an early-morning person, so I get up at 6.30 every day, do reading/admin for two hours, then head to the British Library. I work there until 5.30 to 6.30pm. I then come home, try and do some exercise, then go back to work to deal with the day's admin. I spend the commute to the BL reading peripheral material, either for teaching or general interest. I work every weekend. I don't watch TV (occasionally a film or a box set of a series that I already own). Try and increase your mental endurance by relaxing through puzzles; I'm a big fan of cryptic crosswords and the mental contortions involved therein. Sleep well, though; I go to bed at 10pm every night to get a good eight hours of sleep. I had to be especially aggressive with time management because I lose a certain amount of time for hospital trips and treatment for my rheumatoid arthritis. I have spent several days working on my thesis while on a Rituximab drip. In short: treat your Ph.D. as though it's a highly paid job in which you are expected to work long hours, all the time.

Read functionally

I have come to the belief, over the course of my thesis, that it is very hard to read academic material (and indeed, works of literature and philosophy) in any way other than functionally. By this I mean that we come to works with pre-conceived ideas of what we are looking to extract. This is highly utilitarian, but consciously making this decision will allow you to be more ruthless in your reading. In short: read for your current project, not trying to read so that, if you did another project, you wouldn't have to read the work again.

Enjoy it

Some days were very tough but, overall, I have enjoyed my Ph.D. immensely. Having the space to think and write has been a privilege that I know I will rarely, if ever, have from now on. Remember that when things are hard.

Featured image by Kevin Dooley under a CC-BY license.