Jottings on science, religion, technology, pop culture and faith from the Antipodes.

Finishing the PhD

5. You have backed up your work, haven’t you? (Finishing the PhD)

(Part 5 of 10)

Everyone has a horror story about losing part of their thesis. In my case it wasn’t so bad, just a day or two’s notes I’d typed out a year or two back which weren’t there when I came to check something. I was lucky because I had a day or two spare to write them out again.

Mostly though, I don’t have a horror story because I’m fairly obsessive about backups. Here a measure of paranoia is useful, because basically, the thesis is your life and your life’s work. Computers fail and die. Computers have accidents (a friend’s 2 year old poured a glass of cola into his laptop keyboard!). Computers get stolen.

If you do not know how to back up your thesis then learn. Now!

Here’s how I did it. Pick what works for you.

  • Work out what you need to back up. Backing up half of your research is better than nothing, but you don’t want to miss anything. I had a single Research folder on the computer, plus my email mailbox. With those backed up, I was pretty good.
  • Every day or so I put a copy of my recent files on my flash disk I carried around with me. If it was important I made sure I had a copy at the end of the day (or even at lunchtime). That included the EndNote database if I’d make lots of edits or additions. Flash disks are cheap. Go get one.
  • I’d regularly burn a thesis CD or DVD with all my notes, drafts, bibliographic databases, downloaded material, essential fonts and emails!. CDs are really cheap. Don’t lose a whole lot of work because you were too cheap to spend less than 50 cents on a CD. If you don’t know how to burn a CD then get someone to teach you.
  • At any significant milestone in the writing I’d print out a draft of that writing and put it in the filing cabinet. Worst case scenario I can type it in again from the paper (and it would be all cited properly – see the footnoting post earlier).
  • Sometimes I’d dump the thesis stuff to my iPod’s hard drive. Big disk that allowed me to keep multiple versions of the thesis. Not necessarily easy to bring back on another computer though. A straight USB hard disk would do the trick too.
  • Off-site storage is useful too. If your house burns down and takes the computer, your printing and your backups with it, what will you do? In my (obsessive) case, I left a CD backup every now and then with someone I trusted. You might also look at using an online storage facility.
  • Always backup your work before you or someone else does something to your computer. New versions of Mac OS X or Windows, upgrades to your primary writing tools (e.g. MS Office and EndNote), and new hardware shouldn’t happen until you have a copy of your most recent work made. If you’re near to the end of the thesis and all your writing tools are working well, then hold off changing anything until you’ve submitted.
  • Check your backup worked. Obvious, really, but try to get a file or set of files back from the backup and see if they’re usable.
  • Clearly label your backups. A bunch of unlabeled CDs is a nightmare to find a file on.

Mostly, it’s just common sense. If your work is important to you then make sure you won’t lose it.

As a former database administrator for large computer systems I’m pretty paranoid about making sure my work is recoverable, but you have to pick the level of risk you want to take. Just remember how you will justify it to your ‘significant other’ and your supervisor.


  1. david whyte


    I am currently writing a book. My back up system is a USB stick. Copy complete folder (as you mentioned above) onto USB stick. Take USB stick to another computer that is off site, and upload it.

    I used to cut things to CD, but have found that now USB sticks are now huge, and hard drive space is not much of an issue, this works really well. And makes me feel better that in a house fire – I have things backed up off site !

  2. Sounds like a good plan. The falling costs of flash disks means that for short-term storage its definitely replacing the CD-ROM.

    Much better than some of the tape systems I’ve used in the past.

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