Thesis TipsThesis Tips - PhD Students

Why you cannot write a PhD thesis in 3-6 months

It is misleading and harmful to claim that a PhD thesis can be completed in 3-6 months. Many people who spread these claims make false promises to sell their products or services. Good research takes time and writing a PhD thesis is not a numbers game or a linear process. Learn more.


People claiming they wrote their PhD thesis in 3-6 months are out for clickbait

There are many people on the internet and #AcademicTwitter who claim that they wrote their PhD thesis in just 3-6 months. I am sorry to break it to you: these claims are unrealistic and misleading.

I am writing from a social sciences and humanities background. Yet, the data clearly shows that the average length of a PhD across various disciplines is 3.5-4.5 years. Thus, I would question if it is possible to complete a PhD thesis in 3-6 months in other disciplines.

One thing I can say with confidence is the following: People who claim they completed their PhD thesis in 3-6 months are likely to attract attention and promote clickbait content.

While there is nothing wrong with providing tips and tricks on how to write more efficiently during a PhD, it’s essential to recognize that completing a thesis is a long-term project. I provide my own ‘thesis tips’ on my blog, but I am increasingly frustrated by the growing promotion of unrealistic expectations regarding thesis completion times.

If you come across someone who claims to have completed a PhD thesis in less than 6 months, dig a little deeper. Many individuals who make such claims are often out to sell you something, such as a course, e-book or webinar.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with selling products or services, promoting unhealthy expectations of how fast a PhD thesis can be written to increase sales is not ethical. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of such claims and approach them with a critical eye.

Debunking counterarguments on writing a PhD thesis in 3-6 months

What about different PhD programme structures?

PhD programmes differ in terms of structures and requirements, which can have an effect on the length it takes to write a PhD thesis. Some programmes place a lot of emphasis on coursework while others prioritise the thesis from the beginning.

However, even when a lot of coursework is required, it often serves as preparation for the PhD thesis. It cannot be completely separated from the thesis writing process.

Furthermore, some PhD programmes require a monograph, while others allow for a cumulative dissertation based on individual journal articles. Both thesis types, however, take considerable time. In addition, there are often regulations that one or more articles of a cumulative dissertation have to be published before the PhD thesis can be completed.

Thus, while PhD programme structures do affect the time it may take to write a PhD thesis, 3-6 months remains unrealistic.

What about differentiating the research and writing phases of a PhD?

When people are challenged on their claim of completing their PhD thesis in a short amount of time, they often respond by saying that they spent more time on research and were referring only to the actual writing phase. While this may be true in some cases, there are two issues with this response.

  1. Firstly, this clarification is often not made when the initial claim is made. Thus, we come back to the problem of people spreading unrealistic expectations, often in order to sell their services or products.
  2. Secondly, at least in the social sciences and humanities, writing a PhD thesis is not just about writing up ‘results’ or describing experiments. Academic writing involves analysis and argumentation, which takes much longer than simply presenting results. Therefore, in the majority of cases, completing a PhD thesis in under six months remains unrealistic.

What about the smart use of AI technology and other tools to speed up the process?

In a previous post, I discussed the ethical use of AI technology in academic research, which can lead to improved efficiency and productivity. However, it’s important to note that AI and other tools should not replace human creativity and originality.

Online tools can be useful for tasks like summarising articles to decide whether they are worth reading, or notetaking. Yet, relying on them to condense several years’ worth of work into a 3-6 month period goes beyond using them as support and can be considered unethical. It’s important to use these tools responsibly and not rely on them too heavily.

Reasons why you cannot write a PhD thesis in 3-6 month

1. Good academic research takes time

Writing a PhD thesis requires hard work, dedication and perseverance over the course of several years. Why?

The objective of a PhD thesis is to contribute to scientific knowledge. This is not an easy task and requires time.

A 2019 survey by the European University Association concluded that the average time to complete doctoral studies is 3.5-4.5 years. However, 28% of surveyed higher education institutes across Europe indicated that their PhD students take on average more than 5 years to complete their doctorate!

Unfortunately, academia is increasingly prioritizing speed over groundbreaking scientific insights. A 2023 article published in Nature showcased that ‘disruptive’ science has declined with fewer publications changing the course of directions of scientific fields. The pressure to publish is high.

PhD students, who often find themselves in precarious situations, are often not able to fully commit to what some people call ‘slow science‘. However, the slow science movement which emphasises that good academic work needs ‘time to think, carries a valuable lesson: It makes sense that writing a PhD thesis takes much more time than 6 months!

2. Writing a PhD thesis is not a numbers game

Many PhD thesis range from 70.000 to 100.000 words. Six months is approximately 182 days. The calculation often goes like this:

100.000 words / 182 days = 549 words per day

Sounds doable, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there is a flaw in this type of thinking.

PhD students are no machines, and cannot produce a predictable amount of words every day.

Don’t get me wrong. These types of calculations can be helpful for PhD students who feel overwhelmed by the task of writing 100.000 words. It is important to stay realistic though.

Writing is not just putting words on paper. Producing low-quality 549 words per day will not result in a PhD thesis after six months.

While it is important to follow the length requirements of your university for your PhD thesis, remember that quantity does not equal quality. A PhD thesis relies on the quality of academic insights, key arguments put forward, depth of theoretical discussions, etcetera.

3. Writing a PhD thesis is not a linear process

Not only is writing a PhD thesis not a numbers game, but it is also far from being a linear process. Therefore, writing a good PhD thesis over the course of 3-6 months is quite unlikely. Instead, academic writing looks like this:

The PhD writing process

In my opinion, being stuck for several weeks and not knowing how to proceed is a necessary part of doing a PhD. It is not enjoyable, but it happens to almost all PhD students. It is part of the process of figuring things out.

Moreover, continuous editing, feedback and discussions with supervisors and colleagues, are all required parts of writing a PhD thesis. All of this takes time.

4. Writing a PhD thesis requires skills that are learnt along the way

Most PhD students, who begin the thesis writing process, have not written such an extensive piece of work before. In fact, unless they write a single-authored book in the future, this may be one of the few times they focus extensively on writing such a long piece of work in their career.

Like all skills, it takes time to acquire them. Learning by doing is a classic approach, and it is important not to expect oneself to be an expert before even starting. It is difficult to become an expert in just 3-6 months starting from a beginner level.

Concluding thoughts: Claiming a PhD can be written in 3-6 months is harmful

Many PhD students experience mental health issues, and are struggling due to unrealistic expectations. While there are obviously other factors at play that lead to this mental health crisis among PhD students, let’s stop pretending that a PhD can be written in 3-6 months!

Many PhD students may feel stressed, anxious, or inadequate because they cannot live up to these unrealistic expectations. In some cases, they may not even realize that these expectations are unrealistic.

Thus, instead of spreading unrealistic expectations (especially to sell products or services to struggling PhD students!), let’s share what a realistic PhD thesis writing process looks like.

For example, when I was a PhD student myself, an established professor told me that her daily limit for writing valuable content was 250 words. I remember the relief I felt when she told me. We need more stories like this, and better role models.

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