Do the opposite

Sendai, Japan 

Start at the end. 

Walk backward. 

There are many instances in life when doing the opposite pays off. 

This is one of those instances.

Day one of your PhD is the perfect day to start writing how it ends. 

Create a new file and name it “Final Dissertation”. Write a basic outline of the idea you have today of what your PhD could one day be. Much to my regret, most of the writing done in academia follows the same structure; so this should be fairly easy even without a precise understanding of what any of the chapters are about or will entail.

Once you have a rough outline, skip the intro and main chapters, you will fill those over time. Now it is time to write the conclusions. 

Describe how you envisage your thesis ending. Don’t rush, use your rigor and current viewpoint, and make it as detailed as you can today. Write it in the past tense as you would in your final dissertation: the experiments you did, the findings you made, the implications of your work, and your contributions. This is not just an exercise. This is your final dissertation.   

This isn’t about forcing the outcome. You know nothing at this point. You are just hypothesizing based on your current understanding of what your PhD is about. To imagine what your contributions might be from a place of partial ignorance will help you stumble upon questions that will be hard to think of a couple hundred papers deep into a topic. 

Starting your PhD by thinking, and consequently creating and purposefully educating yourself, instead of blindly consuming somebody else’s work, I believe, will set you off on the right foot.

This is the best chance you have to write the story of your PhD the way you want it to be. Let yourself wander. Be creative. No one is going to read this but yourself.

Write about how one of your findings shuddered an idea upheld by part of the academics in your field. Note what parts of your research ended up being published in a journal or presented at a conference. Imagine how the different aspects of your research, those that appeared independent and unrelated at first, connect in a perfect ending. Visualize the intricacy of years of research yet to be conducted.

As you write, think about the things that went wrong or that you struggled with, either due to personal or material limitations (i.e., motivation, money, time, mobility). Note them down. These should make up the list of things to avoid, your not-to-do list.

Be aware of the questions that keep popping up in your mind. The hows and the whys; these are your leads, your compass. These are the questions people struggle to find the most during their PhDs, when no one is around to ask for directions, and you seem to be facing the same void, over and over. Feel the excitement or vertigo that emerges within you with each new question. Note down the questions you feel most excited about. These should make up the main chapters of your dissertation, your to-do list.

Once you start reading, digging deep, and experimenting with some of the things you wrote about, you may find that your views on the topic have changed or the outcome no longer supports your initial hypothesis. This is the time to start filling the middle chapters. Use the initial conclusions and your new observations to describe what you have found and what has changed, why it is relevant, how it refutes or validates your early viewpoint, and how others can benefit from the process you followed and the outcome you obtained. 

Once you finish writing the conclusions of your thesis, step away, and look at it from a (metaphorical) distance. 

That is it. 

That is all you need to do to finish your PhD. There, in front of you, are the wrong decisions, the bad questions, the struggles, the frustrations, all the things that you should remove from the actions you will undertake in the next 3, 4, 5 years; all written there, in front of you. In the same place, you will find the good stuff, the excitement, the good decisions, the right questions.

Of course, many times you’ll need the experience to learn to differentiate between the two. But how different of an experience would it be if we took the time to imagine the good and the bad from our current perspective and planned to act upon it? How would it affect the outcome?

It turns out you could do the exact same thing about any other professional or personal endeavor.

For a change, just do the opposite.

The amazing photo on the cover was taken by Alex Fu, check Alex’ s work here.

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