The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis

The halfway milestone: the transfer thesis

Welcome to blog post number two of my new feature “PhD SOS”. To start this off I wrote my top 10 survival tips for a PhD – go check that out if you haven’t seen it already! This feature will now be focussed on various aspects to the PhD, going into more depth, and I’ll be giving out some useful advice for you researchers out there. Not a scientist? Some of these tips could be of use to your job or studies, so don’t run away just yet!

I’ve been busy brainstorming ideas for this feature and trying to decide what my next post would be. I was umm-ing and aah-ing for a while, but then it became clear. Last week I was working in the office analysing my very pretty multi-coloured fluorescent images of muscle cells, and I soon discovered that quite a few fellow PhD students are in the process of doing their transfer thesis. One friend was messaging me about the stress of balancing lab work vs. trying to get the report written. Another friend asked to look at my report for structural/writing style inspiration as she’s starting to write hers now. A guy from a different research group was submitting his final draft to his supervisors and another girl in the office was getting her final printed copies bound ready to give to her examiners. It therefore seemed the perfect opportunity to dish out some advice and pointers on how to get it done.

The transfer/upgrade – what is it?

What is a transfer thesis I hear you say? So in the UK a PhD takes 3-4 years and at The University of Southampton we have a halfway report named the transfer thesis. It’s exactly how it sounds, a report based on our current findings 18-24 months into the PhD journey.  Once the report is written we have a viva (oral examination) which involves two examiners from the university questioning us on what we’ve done. It’s a big milestone for us and can seem like a mountain of a task to complete, and complete well. This comes with some stress!


I went through the transfer thesis process about a year ago. I was in my second year PhD slump at the time due to struggling physically and mentally with 18-hour lab days, and some how needed to find the motivation and positivity to smash the transfer thesis and viva. It was a big learning curve. So whether you’re writing a transfer thesis or another report somewhere along your PhD here is my advice to you…


1. Stop comparing yourself to others

Not everyone’s PhDs are the same, so not everyone’s reports will be the same. Yes this sounds like common sense but it’s very easy to start comparing the amount of data you have to the amount your friends who started at the same time have. First day of my PhD I was right in there dissecting the teeny-tiny soleus and extensor digitorum longus muscles from the mouse legs and then straight into electrophysiology experiments where I was measuring the peak contractile force generated by those muscles. As a result, I had a lot of data from my first year so I had a lot to include in my report. On the flip side, I know people who were predominantly reading background literature for the first few months, and some people who worked for a long time on setting up their methodology. This meant generating data was a slower process for them and therefore less data in the report. That is ok! After all, it’s a report to show what you’ve done so far. Science is science, and some times things take time!


Completion of transfer reports and vivas can happen at different times. For my cohort there was a very hazy deadline of 24 months from the grad school, but I had important mouse experiments at this time and for about 3 months after. This was one of my very long lab day phases, so writing the report at the same time was never going to happen. Too unrealistic. I took a long Christmas break to refocus, in January 2016 I concentrated on the transfer thesis alone, and 36 months into my PhD I finally passed my viva. All my other housemates had written their reports and were viva-ing before me but I made sure that didn’t get me down. Don’t let it phase you that you might be going through this process slightly later than other people, it happens at the right time for you.

Take home message #1: stop comparing yourself to others! It will drive you crazy if you do. Focus on your work and your project alone.


2. Play to your strengths

Understand you and understand how you work best, and be clever with it.

When are you most productive? What time of day do you struggle to keep your concentration? I know I work a lot better in the morning so I’ll get up early and be one of the first in the office. This means by lunch time I’ve got a lot of work done (make me feel good!) and I’ll allow myself to have the evening for ‘me time’. PhDs have flexibility, if you work best in the evening/night don’t force yourself into a 9-5pm routine – you won’t be as efficient.

Are you a multitasker? Or do you work better having one day to focus on one thing? I’m not one of those people who can switch between lab work and writing multiple times throughout the day. It takes me a while to get into the writing. I took three weeks out of the lab to write the report, to then solely focus on research afterwards. That meant overall I got a lot more work done in a given time frame. So understand you! Some supervisors will be happy with you taking time out. Some won’t like this at all – it’s all about generating that data in their eyes. But play to your strengths, if you work best taking time out to write than that’s overall a lot more productive and less stressful. Just have an honest conversation with your supervisor and come to some agreement.


Where do you work best?

Write in the best place for you. I wrote at home so I didn’t have the office chat distractions but it can get a little lonely. My plan for writing my actual thesis is to do bits at home, bits at work and for those less brain-intensive tasks like making graphs I’ll be chilling out at the local coffee shop. Perhaps mix it up?!

Take home message #2: do what works best for you


3. Make a plan!

Again, sounds like common sense right? It’s surprising how easy it is not to do this when you are stressed about the large volume of work ahead. Making a plan is the number one thing on your report to do list. Set yourself a deadline to hand in your first draft, and work out your stepping stones in order to get to that final deadline. Set smaller daily goals to make the report more manageable. It will make the transfer thesis mountain easier to climb. First step: make a document with your chapter headings and subheadings.



Take home message #3: realistic planning and small steps makes it a lot easier


4. Arrange regular meetings with supervisors

Regular meetings with your supervisory team are extremely important. They keep you accountable and regular deadlines/meetings forces you to get the work done! It also means if you are struggling or losing focus you have a regular time slot to talk about these struggles. They allow for discussion which will help with the write up. You and your supervisors may think about results in a different light, and talking through this can be very beneficial to how you discuss your results.

Calendar vector

Take home message #4: meetings mean you don’t go off track

5. Sit down and write!

You do just have to sit down and start writing. Something I find really useful is starting with bullet points in each section. I’ll show this to my supervisor so she can check the flow of logic before I spend a lot of time in forming the points into paragraphs. Once you’ve done this and have your foundations to a section, writing into prose is a doddle. Trust me, this makes it seem so much easier.


Take home message #5: Bullet points first help you to start engaging your writing brain


Now that got your attention! This is a tip from my mentor. As someone who values a good work/life balance I absolutely loved it when she started talking to me about treats. It’s as if I’m a little child, but hey it works for me. Treat yourself when you reach your small daily/weekly goals. Go out for dinner, chill with friends, go and exercise, something fun for you. Also, if you achieve that daily goal earlier on in the day than planned, why not allow yourself to have fun – even if that’s just slobbing on the sofa watching the next couple episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. You have a plan of how to get to your deadline, so as long as you stick to it allow yourself treats on the days you get the work done quicker than you anticipated. Alternatively, if you’re in a good work zone you could ‘treat’ yourself with getting onto the next day’s goal!


Take home message #5: Treats and self indulgence helps a lot!




Urm, what’s the point?

So you’re writing a transfer thesis halfway through your PhD (or another type of report) but you have so much lab work to do and it feels like it’s just getting in the way. Is it a waste of time? No! Here’s why, and focus on the benefits of doing it:

  • Makes the final thesis/writing research papers that little bit easier.
  • An opportunity to really think about your data so far and what it means.
  • Allows you to assess your PhD – what are the strengths? Where are the holes? What else needs to be done?
  • The viva is a discussion about your work. Your examiners aren’t just there to ask hard questions, they can be of use and suggest potential research ideas to help guide you.


Viva time!

The report is handed in (yay!) and you are waiting for the viva day. It’s normal to feel nervous. I think people make it into a bigger deal than it actually is. Some say it’s when examiners “grill you” on your PhD topic and results. I think this is a bit extreme. Yes, some examiners can be unnecessarily harsh, but if done right, it should be more like a nice discussion and should be relatively relaxed. The examiners aren’t there to catch you out. They are there to discuss the data, make sure you understand what you are doing and ask you questions, but also a chance for them to learn something new. They’re scientists too, and although you’d ideally have examiners in your related field, you are the expert in your project. Naturally (as good scientists) they’ll want to learn from you. Remember this! After all, it’s not your final PhD viva, they should be there to encourage you to do well in your PhD and give you confidence, not make it hard for you and cause extra stress and worries about the final thing!

Top tip for the viva – prepare a three-minute summary of your thesis. This seems to be a popular request from the examiners!


So there we are, my advice and tips on how to get through the transfer thesis process!

Don’t have to do a transfer thesis in your PhD?

I was surprised to find out that not all UK universities have a ‘transfer thesis’ and in fact other countries have a completely different PhD structure. So, if you’re reading this and you are from a different university/have a different system please comment below as I’d love to hear about your experience! And of course, if you have any other useful advice please share it below.


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