21 Rules of getting your PhD done quickly

1. Your goal is to get a PhD. Write it down, Dr John Smith PhD. Visualise yourself on stage with your robe getting your PhD from the Vice Chancellor. How would it feel to have it already? See you parents, family and friends really proud of you and congratulating you on your magnificent accomplishment. Smell the perfume or aftershave you are wearing. See yourself dressed your very best on the day of the graduation. Feel as if it is happening right now.

2. Break the goal down into much smaller tasks from yearly, monthly, weekly and daily lists. Work backwards from the day of graduation to set medium term goals.

i)              Graduation July 2013

ii)             PhD Viva March 2013

iii)           Hand in thesis Dec 2012

iv)           Start writing June 2012

v)             Transfer Report June 2011

vi)           Literature Review Jan 2010

vii)          Registration document Oct 2009

Break down these goals even further into monthly and weekly goals. Best way to do this is to create simple lists.

3.   Plan you day in advance.  Think on paper. Every minute you spend on planning may save you hours of wasted time in practical implementation. Your daily goals list may look something like this

i)         Read research paper

ii)        Summarise key finds

iii)       Carry out experiment 12

iv)       Analyse, plot and write up results

4. You may have a very long list of things to do. Apply the 80/20 rule or the Pereto principle to everything. In general a small proportion, such as about 20% of your activities will account for 80% of your results. This is not an exact rule. Generally there is an imbalance between inputs and outputs. Always concentrate your efforts on the top 20%.

5. Consider the consequences of doing something. Your important priorities are those that have the most impact. Reading the latest research papers will have an impact on the experiments you carry out, your transfer report, final PhD thesis and ability answer questions at the viva. Also consider the consequence of not doing something. If you don’t do enough experiments then you will not have enough experimental data to write a good thesis and you may end up failing the final viva. If your project involves practical work then a key task is to spend enough time in the lab and do the experiments. So focus clearly on those tasks where the positive and negative consequences are the greatest.

6. Prioritise your tasks with ABCD method. Assign A to the post important and D to the least important or to a task that can be delegated. Before your start work assign the degree of importance to each task on your list. Work on the most important ones first.

7. Focus on key areas. Identify areas that you must absolutely have to get done to complete your PhD and write them down. For example, you must read research papers and do a literature review and depending on the type of project you are doing you must do experiments in the lab or modelling on the computer. Spend the majority of your time on these key activities.

8. Practice forced efficiency. Parkinson law says that the task expands to fill the time available or allocated to it. For example, for about four years I wrote a monthly column for a trade magazine called Product Finishing called “Advances in Surface Engineering”. Initially I thought it would take me minimum of two weeks to complete. To research the materials, write, edit and submit. This seemed like a logical time scale. I just about made the deadlines of Monday mornings at 9:00am. However, months after starting the column I had a hectic month between work and a family wedding. Asian weddings seem to go on for months with preparation and activities every day. They are very colourful and exciting but somewhat tiring. In the euphoria I had forgotten about the column. On Sunday at midnight I remembered I had to write the column by 9:00am. I decided to write and submit by 9:00 even if it took me all night. When I made that commitment, it actually took me about 3 hours to research, write, edit and submit the article. I had forced myself to be efficient. After that experience it always took me between 2-3 hours to write it because my belief system had changed and I forced myself to be more efficient.

9. Preparation is the key to success. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. If you are going to write up the results you have obtained in experiments into a proper format and have the correct arguments and references you must make sure you have all the relevant research papers, data, software for analysis and the correct materials available. If any key components are missing you will not be able to complete the task.

10. Leverage you special talents. Work out exactly what you are good at and concentrate of doing these as much as possible. Choose projects that will use your special abilities and you will increase your chances of success massively.

11. Identify your weaknesses or key constraints. You may identify the key tasks which at you are weak. You must then identify people who can help you and convince them to work with you to get them done. Perhaps another student is very proficient in NMR and you need to use it to get your data for a key result area. It is faster for you to get help and leverage their knowledge and experience for your long term benefit. You may have to do another favour in return later. Focus on overcoming the key constraints and weaknesses.

12. Take it one step at a time. Even the most complicated tasks can be achieved easily by concentrating on one-step or task at any time. Single task everything because the focus will enhance the quality of the work you produce.

13. Put pressure on your self to finish as quickly as possible without compromising the quality of your work. Don’t assume that if you take longer then it will be of higher quality. Pretend you have to go home for the weekend and you have to complete a chunk of work. For example, this may be to complete a set of experiments or complete a research paper. Try and finish it within your own deadline.

14. Maximise your powers. For example, if I have to concentrate on writing a report or paper I wake up at 4:00am and then start. I have no disturbance and my brain thinks more clearly. Others are night people and work best late into night or early morning. You have to decide when your powers are at their peak and use them as efficiently as possible.

15. Getting into action. Focus on the rewards and benefits instead of the problems. Celebrate even the tiniest of achievement. Reward your self. Human being move towards pleasure and away from pain. So focus on the pleasure of achievement and rewards instead of the pain of process.

16. Procrastinate on the unimportant things. Put off everything else and focus on anything that is helping you finish your PhD. Put off watching TV and instead stay in the lab a little longer. Don’t answer the phone instead finish reading the research paper you have started.

17. Do the hardest task first. Start the day with the most important task and then stay with it until it is finished. Pick a task that will make the biggest contribution to your PhD.

18. Make large chunks of time for the most important tasks. For example, free up your weekend for concentrated writing such as writing transfer report.  Or Saturday morning to edit your research paper.

19. Do it now. Practice a sense of urgency. Do things quickly and focus on action. Do things well and quickly. However, don’t be careless and compromise quality of your work.

20. Single handle every task and don’t do several things at the same time. Don’t text, answer phone calls, surf the net whilst doing an experiment in the lab or writing a transfer report.

21. Have as much fun as possible focused on tasks that will take you closer to finishing your PhD.

Above have been modified from “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy,

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