How To Finish Writing Your PhD Thesis While Accelerating Your Job Search
When I started my PhD program at MIT, I assumed that there would be a clear path to my finished thesis.
I thought that if I followed all of my supervisor’s advice I would be guaranteed to graduate on time, and I would have multiple high-paying job offers from industry.
Fast-forward to the beginning of my sixth year in graduate school.
I was working 15-hour days in hopes of collecting enough data to complete my thesis by the end of that year.
After 5 months I was finally able to generate promising data, and I had a draft of my first publication.
But my excitement quickly turned into panic when I realized that I would be unemployed after graduation, unless I started looking for a job.
I had been so preoccupied with my thesis that I hadn’t thought about my career.
How could I have spared time to go to networking events and apply for jobs when I was under so much pressure to finish my thesis and publications?
As my deadline for my thesis grew closer, I recognized that I had to develop a job searching strategy if I wanted to put my PhD degree to good use.
Trying to “balance” thesis writing and job searching in your last year of graduate school can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.
You don’t have to double your work hours to keep both your thesis and job search on track.
In fact, starting your job search while you are still in graduate school will help you to finish your thesis faster, and attract better job offers.
Why A PhD Is Worth The Effort In Top Industry Positions
Almost every student considers quitting graduate school, and you may also have wondered if it is worth finishing your PhD.
According to a study from the US Census Bureau, using data from the most recent comprehensive national census, PhDs earn more than those with just master’s degrees.
The difference in salaries between Masters and PhDs range from a 7% increase to a substantial 33% increase.
A PhD degree is an especially valuable asset in industry, particularly in industrial research and development.
The journal Science recently reported that PhD holders in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences, can earn as much as $20,000 more per year working for private companies than those who stay in academia.
Over the course of your lifetime, the difference in earning between PhDs and Masters is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
How To Finish Your Thesis And Get Hired In Industry
Trying to find a job while working on your thesis is not only time-consuming, but it is mentally exhausting.
You may question which career path is “right” for you, especially if you are just beginning to explore the non-academic job market.
Ironically, as the deadline for your thesis gets closer, it is common for students to question if they are worthy of a PhD degree and PhD-level job.
This lack of confidence will not only cause anxiety during your committee meetings, it will also jeopardize the impression you make during phone and in-person job interviews.
So, how do you get out of this vicious cycle of self-doubt that’s keeping you stuck in graduate school without any hope of future employment?
There is no “secret” to getting your thesis done during your job search; plenty of freshly-minted PhDs have 6-figure job offers (with signing bonuses) at the time of their defense.
These students are NOT smarter than you.
Most of them do NOT have industry experience, either.
They probably aren’t just lucky, because they coincidentally sat next to a hiring manager during a networking event.
You can also witness your thesis finally blossoming into a cohesive story, while getting calls back from potential employers.
It all comes down to removing the mental barriers that keep you running in place and burnt-out, and executing a step-wise plan to graduating and getting hired…
Here’s how to finish writing your PhD thesis while advancing your career…
1. Write the most important part of your thesis first.
NO – your abstract is not the most important part of your thesis.
It’s not the part you should write first, either.
Neither is the introduction or literature review.
Starting the writing process with the literature review (which involves surveying hundreds of papers in your field) will overwhelm you before you even get any words on paper.
You can spend hours (or weeks) reading without having anything to show for it.
No wonder you start doubting whether it is possible to ever finish your thesis, or if you are capable of handling a PhD-level job.
What if instead of getting tangled up in the details of your literature review, you took a step back, and created a vision for your finished thesis?
The most important part of your thesis is not your literature review, your methods, your results, or your abstract.
The most important part is your table of contents.
Your table of contents is a snapshot of your finished thesis.
It will help you organize the parts of your story that you already have in place, and significantly reduce the overwhelm that leads to writer’s (and job seeker’s) block.
The great news is that you can create your table of contents and start writing before you finish collecting your data.
This may sound like heresy, if you have been told that you need to have a complete story before you can begin writing your thesis.
But, just think about how much of your thesis you have already completed: you can probably write up your methods, and start your results section as well.
Once you start seeing progress on your thesis, you can create more mental space for your job search too.
Your table of contents will also help you craft a 30-second elevator pitch of your technical and transferable skills for networking events.
Potential employers value the big picture and the practical applications of your thesis much more than the minutiae of academic research.
This simple shift in your approach (starting with your table of contents instead of Chapter 1), will not only speed up the writing process, it will also give you the confidence to set yourself apart from other PhD candidates in the job market.
2. Expect to find gaps in your data and to change your story accordingly.
The biggest mental barrier that leads to writer’s block is not caused by thinking about the research that you still have to do.
It is easy enough to create a timeline for doing experiments, analyzing the data, and then writing it up.
But it’s a lot more scary to try to make sense of the research and data you already have.
What if after digging through years of data, you discover that you have no story worthy of a PhD thesis?
How embarrassing will it be to tell your PI that after carefully evaluating 5 years of data, you realize that you have no statistically significant results?
As you start analyzing your data you may, in fact, discover gaps in your argument, lack of proper control experiments, and mistakes in your data collection — this is okay.
These unpleasant surprises don’t have to diminish your confidence: you can pull together what you already have into a cohesive thesis.
Don’t let these surprises make you feel like impostor.
The perfect thesis doesn’t exist.
Expect to make changes to your story and table of contents as your thesis unfolds during the writing process.
Almost every graduate student realizes that they could have improved some parts of their research.
Unfortunately, these discoveries frequently lead to guilt, instead of insights on how to move forward to wrap up your thesis.
The only way to finish your thesis is to own what you have so far, mistakes and all.
Most of the time, you will realize that you already have more parts of your thesis in place than you thought.
This can be a big relief.
When you come to terms with what you already have (and what is still missing) it will be much easier to craft a realistic timeline to finish your thesis and create a job searching strategy.
You will also have more confidence to follow up with job leads because 1) you will know what you need to do to finish, and 2) you will have a better idea of when you will available for work.
3. Negotiate at your committee meetings (yes, it is allowed).
In my fifth year of grad school, I went to a thesis defense that I thought was one of the best presentations I had ever heard.
To my surprise, my friend told me that she wasn’t sure she would graduate on time, until her final committee meeting.
“My committee had super-high expectations,” she said. “But I negotiated with them until their requirements became reasonable.”
Your thesis requirements are not set in stone.
It is up to you to negotiate reasonable milestones and timelines at your committee meetings.
If you want to graduate on time and have a job lined up, you must take leadership of your thesis and your committee meetings.
So, how do you do that?
First, prepare thoroughly for each committee meeting, and then decide in advance what you think is a reasonable plan and timeline for your thesis.
Professors will actually have more respect for you if you come to your meeting with a proposal.
They may not agree with you on every point, and they may suggest more experiments or data analysis.
This is when you can start negotiating.
By the time you are close to graduation, you know more about your topic than anyone else in your department.
Discuss openly whether the additional work they are suggesting is necessary to complete your thesis, or if what you already have is enough for a story.
Remember, you are not at the mercy of your thesis committee.
You can negotiate.
In the best case scenario, they will agree with your proposal, or perhaps they will ask you to do a bit more.
Either way, you will have clarified what you need to do to finish your thesis.
When everyone is on the same page about your thesis requirements, you can also plan your job searching strategy accordingly.
You can confidently follow up with recruiters and hiring managers, without worrying about letting them down because your thesis is still not done.
4. Write for 1 hour a day only (no, that’s not a typo).
How many times have you created a detailed plan for your day, just to have it all fall apart because of an unexpected interruption or an emergency?
Is it even worth creating a plan when there is so much uncertainty?
Yes, it is worth it, but you need to do it strategically.
You have no control over what other people do at your work or home.
They may interrupt you and ask for favors, disregarding the time you have blocked off for your thesis.
You may have already resigned yourself to a 15-hour workday, so that you can get some work done after you have already said “yes” to everyone else’s demands.
If you have pulled 15-hour workdays, you probably already know that this schedule is not sustainable.
You feel burnt-out and you accomplish much less than you hope for.
The only way to ensure that you make progress on your thesis on a reasonable schedule is to protect your time.
What does that mean?
This means protecting your time.
This means you do everything possible to ensure that you can put 100% of your focus on your thesis.
You may think this is impossible.
But consider for a moment how much time you spend on social media, web-surfing, and texting.
Can you protect just one hour every day, and commit 100% of your attention to the highest priority in your thesis research or writing?
Better yet, can you commit one hour every morning to your thesis before you even open your email or look at any text messages?
I’ve helped hundreds of PhDs finish their theses and those who adopt this one habit are the ones who finish on time.
You have to develop this habit.
Ninety-nine percent of people check their email first in the morning, and they spend their precious first hour of the day diligently responding to everyone.
This habit leads to wasted time, and it wastes mental energy.
By the time you are done responding to everyone, your mind will be too exhausted to focus on writing.
This is a problem because your ticket to the outside world is a written and finished thesis.
If writing your thesis for an hour before checking your email sounds overwhelming, start with just 15 minutes.
You will be amazed at how much you can get done before you get distracted by an avalanche of emails.
This simple strategy, committing an hour every morning to writing before the craziness of the day sets in, is so powerful that even professors use it to improve their performance.
Imagine how relieved you will feel the rest of the day, knowing that you already got the highest priority done for your thesis.
Not only will this habit help you to make tangible progress on your thesis every day, it will also open up time and mental space for your job search.
You don’t need 48 hours in the day to finish writing your thesis while also focusing on your career advancement. Just a few simple shifts in your writing strategy, time management, and communication skills will give you the confidence to take leadership of your education and career. In fact, if you can package the challenges in graduate school into learning opportunities to drive you to finish your thesis, you will become the independent, assertive, and proactive person that all employers are eager to hire.
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