Helping doctoral students finish on time

Åsa Burman, like many humanities researchers, struggled alone with her thesis in philosophy. Now she helps other doctoral students to finish on time, and to feel better during the process.
“However, I would never have made this idea a reality without my experiences as a consultant in the private sector and my practical experience of writing a thesis at Berkeley”, she says.

Asa Burman

Åsa Burman runs the company Finish On Time, which provides doctoral students with tools to help them finish their thesis on time. Photo: Gunnar Menander

Åsa Burman’s company is called Finish On Time and is an example of social innovation. She runs the company part-time with psychologist Johanna Clausen Ekefjärd. They both work at Lund University as well – Åsa as a temporary senior lecturer at the Division of Human Rights, Department of History, Johanna as a researcher at the Faculty of Medicine.

Many doctoral students have difficulty getting finished on time; there is a relatively low completion rate in the humanities, social sciences and engineering. Doctoral students are also often stressed, which leads to time off sick, especially among female humanities students.

Finish On Time offers a one-semester course that aims to remedy this situation. Johanna Clausen Ekefjärd teaches stress management, while Åsa Burman contributes with her experience from the business sector and Berkeley.

After completing her PhD in Lund in 2007, she worked for a couple of years as a management consultant for a global strategy company in Copenhagen.

“I learnt how to lead projects, break tasks down into parts and set goals.”

She thought she could have done with that knowledge when she was working on her PhD. Models from business cannot be copied directly; research differs too much from other processes. It is more creative and involves searching for new knowledge, she realised afterwards. However, at the University of California in Berkeley, where she has spent several extended periods, she understood how the project thinking from business could be adapted to academia.

In the US, it is common for doctoral students to receive help with practical strategies and techniques for writing a thesis, and Åsa Burman worked with a retired lecturer, who had spent over 30 years helping doctoral students with the research process.

“Usually, people focus all their energy on what the research will be about. This Berkeley lecturer moved the focus to how to do a PhD, and the entire journey to the goal of the completed thesis. This could mean how to plan your day, structure your work and set interim goals to help you make it to the final goal – a bit like the structure of a business project. It was a Eureka moment for me, a key to success in research studies.”

At Berkeley, it also went without saying that philosophers were of interest to the business sector, and many went into high-flying roles.

“It was the ability to think logically and dissect complex problems that was in demand. For me, this was inspiring, and it was therefore a small step for me to work as a consultant in business after graduation.”

When Åsa Burman returned to Lund University a few years later, she was keen to share her experience and help doctoral students. So far, Finish On Time has trained over 50 students, mainly in the humanities, where it is most common for them to work alone.

“The course breaks down the isolation. The doctoral students get a forum, and they have homework to do together. They change their way of working”, says Åsa Burman.

The course means more control and focus. The question is whether there is a risk of it impeding creativity. According to Åsa Burman, clearer boundaries often make it easier to be creative and get finished.

But isn’t it the responsibility of academia to create good conditions for the doctoral students – this course is offered by consultants outside the realm of the university?

“The university has a lot of talented and enthusiastic supervisors – a number of them in the humanities have taken our course and the method is spreading. That is gratifying. Our aim is to improve the working environment, release innovative energy and have an impact across the board”, says Åsa Burman.


Folder clears away mental blocks

The Finish On Time course is inspired by techniques for practical thesis writing from the University of California, Berkeley, classic project management and cognitive behavioural therapy. It offers a number of techniques to make progress on one’s thesis. One example is focusing on the final product using a standard folder to represent the completed thesis.

Each doctoral student has to make a qualified guess of how long his or her thesis will be and then put the appropriate number of blank sheets of paper into the folder. The blank pages are then gradually replaced with real thesis pages that the doctoral student has written during the course.

“The folder becomes a physical representation of the thesis, and simply by moving often vague projects into reality, many of the mental blocks that hinder the work disappear.”

The doctoral students use their folders throughout the course, as well as when working with their supervisors.

“They alter their perspectives and automatically work more on the whole and the various parts of the thesis. Instead of just reading more and more that is of general interest, they receive help to evaluate how information fits into their particular thesis”, explains Åsa Burman.

The folder is just one technique among many. There is also a lot of work on stress management. The course evaluations are positive. The doctoral students have provided important support and a clear majority of participants experience less stress and more satisfaction in their work, as well as becoming more productive.