Between a Rock and a Hard Place

How to finish a PhD in three years*

Welcome to our blog! Between a Rock blog is a multi-author effort, comprising five (and counting) PhD students from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. We’re pretty excited to be welcomed into the EGU network and look forward to sharing our PhD journeys and science stories with you. To get a feel of what we write about, you can check our old material at

You’ll notice by the title of this post that we’ve started bold, particularly as none of us writing for the blog actually have a PhD; however, we reckon we’ve picked up some tips from our efforts so far…

Here is your unofficial guide to getting a PhD from those who don’t have one yet!

1) Make the most of your first year. Ok, so everybody knows you won’t actually achieve much in the first twelve months**, but this is the best time to learn the skills you’ll need in the coming years. Take this opportunity to teach yourself how to code, plot and calculate like a demon. You’ll thank yourself later.

2) Find out what the anatomy of a thesis looks like. Preferably before the last three months of your funding. In our research we found one article titled “how not to write a thesis” – this article reassures us that we may not be that bad a PhD student. Their top “don’ts” include “submit an incomplete, poorly formatted bibliography”; “use phrases such as ‘some academics’ or ‘all the literature’ without mitigating statements or references”; and “submit a PhD with a short introduction or conclusion”. The idea of doing any of these makes us shudder but nevertheless they are important ‘tips’.

3) Go to conferences. Talk to as many people about your project as you can. No matter how knowledgeable your supervisor is, they too are heavily invested in your project. Sometimes it really is a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees, and there is nothing better than an informed, objective opinion.

Office Motto

Our office motto

4) Procrastination is a killer. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, news websites, YouTube, Buzzfeed…and these are just the internet-based distractions. Add in Angry Birds, WhatsApp, gossiping office mates, people walking past your window, clicking on all of the above links and AARRGH, it’s a constant battle between your prefrontal cortex and limbic system. Legitimate breaks are ok (see number 5) but too much procrastinating will dent your resolve and diminish your productivity. As the sign in our office says “JUST MAN UP AND DO IT”.

Find your Zen

In times of stress, why not try an office Shirshasana like Sorcha does (that’s a headstand, to the uninitiated)

5) Find your zen. When your office is noisy, when it’s sunny outside, or when writer’s block hits, you need to discover something that gets you back on track and re-motivates you. Some of our suggestions include yoga, listening to drum and bass, going for a short walk, fetching a cuppa, retail therapy and a YouTube break. As long as these activities don’t last longer than fifteen minutes, it’s officially not procrastination! When the weekend does come, make sure you take time to completely switch off from work. Although, this is often easier said than done.

6) Learn to love to hate your PhD. This speaks for itself and a handy tip picked up from here. It’s hard to explain to people, but it is possible to simultaneously love and hate your PhD. However you feel about it though, you’re stuck with it for at least three years, so learn to embrace the challenge. Having a good moan can also be strangely satisfying but it only works when there is something tangible to moan about!

7) In the words of Richard Butterworth, “Finished is better than perfect”. Which again goes with the “Man up and just do it” moto. Perhaps from that we should conclude that those of us blogging at Between a Rock should just get on and finish our PhDs. But rest assured, we will. We’ll still blog along the way proving that there is such thing as having a life during a PhD!

8) Write yourself a good soundtrack. Most PhD students work in large offices and as friendly as you might be, there’ll no doubt be someone doing something that’s audible and irritating. A good pair of headphones and a song for every mood is supremely helpful.

9) Read around the subject. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the little niche that is your PhD and (apparently) when it comes to your viva it helps to know the research wider than your reference list. Join or set up a reading group. Not only are these legitimate breaks, they’re a good way to chat through and understand topics you’re not familiar with. Plus, there’s often cake involved.

10) Look back and smile. Until you’ve passed your viva, submitted your corrections, and sunk that first glass of post-graduation champagne, it’s all too easy to look forward and feel like the end is always just out of reach. But look back, reminisce, and remember all you’ve achieved so far. Be proud, give yourself a pat on the back, and smile.

PhD memories - not all bad!

PhD memories – not all bad!

*In this case, three actually means four…or if you’re in the USA, five.

** There are some lucky folks who actually do achieve lots in their first year but they make us jealous.



Elspeth is currently undertaking a PhD in Geology at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of ground deformation seen at a number of Kenyan Rift volcanoes. Elspeth tweets as @eamrobertson.

1 Comment

  1. Great tips!

    All I’d add is: Make the most of opportunities that come your way – such attending workshops, free training etc… Is a great thing to do, but research them early on and try and get them done before your final year!

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