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6 tips for completing a PhD at Durham University

By Alexander Abichou

PhD student

The prospect of spending multiple years on a single piece of work can be an overwhelming prospect for even the most astute students at Durham so, as someone nearing the end of that road, I offer some advice through which to alleviate any mental and emotional fatigue.  

1. Every teacher is a student: Although being a Teaching Assistant will invariably detract from your own writing, the process not only encourages you to keep your mind engaged with a much broader range of works and topics (helping reassure you that there is an intellectual life beyond the niche confines of your chosen subject) but also, if you maintain a level of rigour in marking essays, you will invariably become a more efficient editor.  

2. Better out than in: Presenting papers at conferences around the UK or at postgraduate seminars in Durham provides a space within which to exchange ideas in a more sustained and rigorous manner than a general coffee chat whilst mitigating the arduous solitude of completing a chapter in silence. The most productive conference I ever attended was also the most negative in terms of reception since it granted me enough time to pivot my ideas into a more intriguing direction as a response to the constructive criticism. 

3. Going nowhere fast: Do not be disheartened if you have not found your core argument or written a substantially finalised portion within the first year and a half of the project since further reading inevitably encourage you to consolidate a wider breadth of information and in turn, further distil your key ideas into more unique concepts. As you curate the discourse surrounding your topic and sculpt a voice from these intertwining discussions the key terms used to determine your critical approach will shift over time. Remember to continuously refashion the introduction so as to avoid any discrepancy between the journey taken throughout the main body and the pre-emptive sign-posts signalled at the start.  

4. Peer-pressure: Before sinking time into reading an entire book for research take a few minutes to survey any peer reviews so as to gain a greater sense of why scholars recognise this arguments as beneficial. This precautionary tactic is less crucial if you intend to revise a particular approach but it can be demoralising to read through an entire text (noting a range of ideas that appear valid) only to find a critical consensus that undermines those points. Even if you disagree with their counter-arguments it provides an alternate discourse against which you can offset your own critical inclinations. 

5. I like to move it, move it: Alternate the environments in which you write otherwise the stagnation of working on the same project will inevitably compounded by working within the same setting. There are many places to clear your mind: studying from home, taking your notes to a park or café, booking research study rooms at Durham, sitting at different areas inside and outside the library, and applying for funding to look at archives around the UK. Aside from keeping yourself moving, remember to save your documents on multiple USB drives, emails, and laptops as there is always a high chance that some piece of equipment will break during this process (I know). 

6. Reuse and recycle: Given that you will cut of a large number of words (potentially the equivalent of entire chapters) it is important to both be content with that purging process as well as recognising if and when those ideas can be repurposed. Does it work as a conference paper abstract? Can it be more powerful as a footnote? Should it be reframed as an introductory remark rather than a consolidatory one? If the general sense is incorrect, are there key words worth retaining that might inspire a more substantial point? There are many avenues to refining a piece.  

In writing your thesis, you will experience various forms of enthusiasm and elation as well as denial and despondency but producing a book-length piece of writing to call your own is an opportunity and achievement that will remain with you both professionally and personally.