Thursday, April 16, 2015

How to write a PhD thesis the hard way

Now, I'm not sure that I've ever heard a PhD grad refer to thesis writing as easy, but I'm guessing my experience was nastier than most. As a form of therapy and in case it might prevent future suffering for other thesis victims, I thought I'd share a few lessons learnt and words of caution from my rather tortuous experience.

If you dislike writing essays, you'll detest writing a thesis

I was one of those people who largely enjoyed school. Gym class was always my favourite class (if you exclude lunch time), but I genuinely loved Math and Physics, and to a lesser extent Chemistry, Accounting and History. However, there was one period of the day I dreaded: ENGLISH! I liked my teachers, by the subject matter just made little sense to my logical way of thinking, and writing just wasn't much fun. When I enrolled in a PhD 6 years ago, I knew that the fun of researching a topic I was passionate about would eventually be consumed by the dreaded thesis writing. I guess I figured I'd just suck it up and grind through it, which turned out to much more difficult than expected BECAUSE...

Building a business while doing a PhD part time is crazy!

When I started building Code Avengers I did up a spreadsheet and it all seemed quite manageable. Keeping Sunday as a day of rest and setting aside 7.5 hours sleep per night (I wish!) leaves 100 hours per week to be divided as follows:
  • Exercise: 5 hours
  • Code Avengers: 60 hours
  • Thesis writing: 20 hours
  • Family time: 15 hours
  • Commuting: 0 hours
While this seemed reasonable, there was something I grossly underestimated. Building a sustainable business requires all of ones focus and attention. While I technically had the time to work on both, my brain really struggled to focus on both. Juggling a 70k word thesis with 100s of thousands of lines of code, along with marketing strategies etc. was a nightmare. I would set aside 4 hours to write my thesis... but all I could think about was Code Avengers! But it gets worse...

Starting a family and building a business while doing a PhD part time is insane!

A month after I started Code Avengers my wife gave birth to our first daughter, who I decided to feature as the star of the level 1 web course (they were the only decent images I had on my computer at the time). A couple years later we had our 2nd beautiful baby. Once again time wasn't the biggest issue, it was disruption of sleep patterns. Staying awake for more than an hour while working on my thesis was a massive challenge.

But, I guess it was worth it all in the end

Looking back, despite the difficult circumstances, I am glad I did a PhD. It enabled me to study something I am super passionate about (computer-assisted education) to a level of detail that there is no way I could have done if I worked in industry. And now that its all over, I'm actually somewhat glad to have experienced from improving my writing through writing a thesis!

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