Don’t get it right; get it written

Insights from the Postdoc Takeover Week, 27 - 31 March

Postdoctoral researchers from The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) are taking over our Insights blog this week – sharing advice and tips on the things that matter most to today’s researchers.

Browse the full list of posts.

Lecturer in History and Tutor for Study Skills at the University of Oxford, Margaret Coombe, shares her tips and advice to help you get underway with your latest research project.


For new postgraduate or early career researchers, the desire to ‘get it right’ can cause a huge amount of worry and stress. But good enough is, erm, good enough.

Of course, it’s easy to say ‘get it written’, but how?

Here are my tips to help you get underway with your project

  1. Don’t jump straight in. Your research idea got you your place, but take time to reconsider and change it if necessary.
  2. How does your idea fit into existing scholarship and what will you contribute?
  3. Be realistic. You might have a topic big enough to fill your working life, but you only have three years to finish your PhD or Postdoc.
  4. Make a flexible plan, including holidays, hobbies, and rest.
  5. Think less about content and more about structure.
  6. Look at other people’s theses – not to plagiarise, but for layout and approaches.
  7. Get to know people. Go to events and meetings. Friends will help you through, professional contacts are absolutely necessary, and others, working on similar projects, will exchange ideas.

When you need to start writing

  1. The best way to improve your writing skills is to start early and keep sending drafts to your supervisor. Practice makes perfect (cheesy but true).
  2. Set aside ideas that don’t fit your thesis. Work is never wasted. Abandoned threads might turn into a freestanding article.
  3. Research can be lonely. Join a writing group, or start one; work alongside others from time to time, sharing ideas and problems.
  4. Start to think about publishing. Present a poster or paper at a conference and ask a friend to make a note of the questions you are asked (you will be too nervous to remember them afterwards) to get an idea of your audience. Look regularly at publishers’ websites and the journals in your field. Go to publishers’ open events and get used to pitching your ideas.
  5. If you’re looking for funding or a further academic job, ignore impact at your peril, especially on the non-academic public; interdisciplinarity; and diversity.
  6. Don’t become inward-looking: ask ‘so what?’ to test each new idea.
  7. If all else fails, find experienced study skills advice: you’ll be amazed how much it can help.
  8. Anything is better than a blank page. ‘Just do it!’

Margaret Coombe is Lecturer in History and Tutor for Study Skills at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Formerly a City accountant and businesswoman she has many years’ experience in training and mentoring. She has been a lifelong learner, with professional qualifications, degrees, and diplomas from the University of Oxford, The Courtauld Institute and King’s College, London. She has received the OUSU student-led award for best support staff for her work in study skills tutoring, and is passionate about access to learning for disadvantaged students.