A PhD soundtrack

Tags: PhD 

A selection of songs with lyrics or messages I like for getting through PhDing.

As of writing I am not yet someone who has ‘got through’ a PhD, but I do have less than a year to go. It is also my mum’s birthday next week, and she’s a big influence on my music tastes - so this one is for you mum!

I’d love any of your PhD soundtrack recommendations! Let me know on Twitter, @Liza_Bolton.

P.s. In NZ doctoral students write a “thesis” and honours and masters students do “dissertations”, which I think is the opposite of how these words are used elsewhere? When I say “thesis” I mean the big document I submit at the end of 3-4 years in the hopes people can call me Dr Liza.

My playlist

Google Music playlist

Spotify playlist


Of course I need to explain each song now. Opening Christmas presents from me takes ages in my family because I NEED to give everyone a DETAILED explanation of WHY I got what I did for them.

The songs are (loosely) grouped under 5 themes:


Songs about…writing. Where they say book, think thesis or dissertation.

Non-Stop, from the Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton

I’ve talked briefly elsewhere about loving the Hamilton soundtrack. I’ll listen to the whole thing through while doing data analysis, and know it’s time to go home when I’m the last person in the office and crying through the final song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. If I had to only pick one song from it for PhDing, “Non-Stop” wins hands down.

Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?

Big thanks to my dad for taking me to see the musical in Chicago when I was there for a PhD-related conference.

Full lyrics here.

Paperback Writer, The Beatles

I can’t find a song called “Thesis Writer”, but the opening lines of “Paperback Writer” seem quite appropriate for it:

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?”

Full lyrics here.

I Could Write A Book, Ella Fitzgerald

This song also fits in the Songs about knowing or not knowing stuff with the great little opening. I sure feel like I can’t spell or count a lot more than I think is strictly good for someone with as many years of education as I supposedly have. But…

But my busy mind is burning to use what learning I’ve got
I won’t waste any time
I’ll strike while the iron is hot

If they asked me, I could write a book

Full lyrics here.

Autobiography, Sloan

This is a slightly more tangential writing song - but captures some good feels about the life stage a lot of PhD students are in, and this is a bit how I feel when trying to write bios about myself for talks, University profiles, etc.

I’m writing ‘young and gifted’ in my autobiography
I figure who would know better than me?
I’m certainly the former
But I’m not so much the latter
But no-one’s gonna read it
So I’m sure it doesn’t matter

And this is great too:

I stayed in school this long but still no-one will tell me why
They figured ‘who would know better than I?’

Full lyrics here.

Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield

Way too much of my thesis is still unwritten.

Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find

Oh, or how about this?

No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten

You’re saying I’m going to have to write this thing? Better get to it…

Full lyrics here.

Everyday I Write The Book, London Pop Ensemble (originally Elvis Costello & The Attractions)

The chapter metaphor for struggling with a relationship works quite well as a relationship metaphor for struggling with chapters. Or something like that.

Chapter one we didn’t really get along
Chapter two I think I fell in love with you
You said you’d stand by me in the middle of chapter three
But you were up to your old tricks in
Chapters four, five and six

And I’m giving you a longing look
Everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday
Everyday I write the book

Full lyrics here.

Bloody Well Right, Supertramp

Works well as a strongly worded imperative song if you pretend they’re singing “Bloody well write!”.

And I know this isn’t what this song is about, but this could be about my supervision meetings. I’m lucky to have awesome supervisors.

Write your problems down in detail
Take them to a higher place

And just change

You got a bloody right to say


You’ve got to bloody write to say

and it is a song exhorting you to disseminate findings through writing. Yay!

Full lyrics here.

Word Crimes, “Weird Al” Yankovich

Catchy song to the tune of “Blurred Lines”, but much more educational and I think less problematic.

I read your e-mail
It’s quite apparent
Your grammar’s errant
You’re incoherent
Saw your blog post
It’s really fantastic
That was sarcastic (Oh, psych!)
’Cause you write like a spastic

Full lyrics here.

Oxford Comma, Vampire Weekend

This goes well with the previous song. Well, maybe the link is kinda tenuous, but it’s a song I’ve always enjoyed. And I think I do give a f*** about an Oxford comma…

Full lyrics here.

Dancing In The Dark, Bruce Springsteen

This song always makes me happy, and yet does a remarkable job of describing the trudge-y, no-fun, tired patches you go though while PhDing.

I get up in the evening
And I ain’t got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain’t nothing but tired

And on the nose:

I’m sick of sitting ‘round here trying to write this book

Full lyrics here.

Get pumped

Why are ALL these songs gendered? I don’t know. But they get me pumped. Send me your non-gendered getting pumped songs! I’m on Twitter, @Liza_Bolton.

I’ll Make A Man Out Of You, Donny Osmund, Mulan Original Soundtrack

This song, as well as the next two, comes from a playlist I made for before lecturing called “Confidence (Interval) Songs”. I’d play it before the last lecture before the mid-term test as a “get pumped” song. Mulan is definitely one of my favourite Disney movies and I’m so excited for the live action version. (Please don’t be bad, please don’t be bad!).

Full lyrics here.

Wonder Woman, 80s TV Theme

Cheesy and oh so good. And my 2010 Halloween costume.

Halloween 2010

All the world’s waiting for you,
and the power you possess.

Full lyrics here.

I’m Every Woman, Chaka Khan

Time to get a little disco. Along with the Wonder Woman theme I used to listen to this before exams, and then included it in a playlist for before lectures.

Anything you want done, baby, I’ll do it naturally
I’m every woman, it’s all in me

Full lyrics here.

I’m A Woman, Peggy Lee

My mum, sister and I used to listen to this in the car. Sure, it is a very limited view of being a woman, but DAMN, you can’t beat the confidence in this song!

I got a twenty-dollar gold piece says there ain’t nothing I can’t do

Full lyrics here.

Mental health-ish

Secret For The Mad, dodie

Dodie has such a beautiful voice and this is a great song for when you’re feeling down, or when supporting friends and whānau dealing with depression or anxiety. A lot of songs on this list are a bit silly, or included for silly reasons, but if I was going to tell a fellow PhD candidate to listen to only one, it would be this one.

There’s nothing to do right now but try
There are a hundred people who will listen to you cry
And I get that they don’t get it
But they love you so much that you won’t regret it

Full lyrics here.

I Wanna Get Better, Bleachers

This song always puts me in a good mood and I really like the music video, too. If you can’t go see a therapist right now, watch Jack Antonoff be one.

Full lyrics here.

Let’s Go Crazy, Prince and the Revolution

Or, if you don’t “wanna get better”, go crazy instead. And this is just a great song.

Are we gonna let de-elevator bring us down?
Oh, no lets go!

Let’s go crazy
Let’s get nuts

Full lyrics here.

Masochism Tango, Tom Lehrer

I loooove Tom Lehrer. The glasses, the musical satire, the being a mathematics lecturer. Excuse me while I wipe the drool off my keyboard.

During undergrad some of my friends in Mathematics and I would make up metaphors for our unhealthy relationships with the subject. Usually as some form of unrequited love or abuse. Doing a PhD is a bit of a Masochism Tango really. Embrace the pain.

At your command
Before you here I stand
My heart is in my hand
It’s here that I must be

Full lyrics here.

Songs about knowing or not knowing stuff

If I Only Had A Brain, from the Wizard of Oz

This song was stuck in my head today and the catalyst for this playlist creation effort. It’s a great lament song for PhDing and oh so catchy. Earworm incoming.

I would not be just a nuffin’
My head all full of stuffin’
My heart all full of pain
I would dance and be merry
Life would be a ding-a-derry
If I only had a brain

Full lyrics here.

(What A) Wonderful World, Sam Cooke

This song lists all the things Sam Cooke doesn’t know. Not intended in the “The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know” sense, but fun to sing as if it was.

And it will certainly be a wonderful world when my PhD is done…

Full lyrics here.

I Don’t Know Enough About You, Peggy Lee

Why don’t people write cute songs about love and school subjects anymore? This song pairs well with the Sam Cooke song above.

I could sing this to my thesis topic without having to change a single word.

I read the latest news
No buttons on my shoes
But baby, I’m confused about you
You get me in a spin
Oh what a stew I’m in
‘Cause I don’t know enough about you

And I just can’t resist this cheeky final bit:

I guess I’d better get out the encyclopedia
And fresh up on from “shmer” to “shmoo”, mmmm
‘Cause I don’t know enough about you

Full lyrics here.

I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General, Gilbert and Sullivan from Pirates of Penzance

Just so good. I want to know all the words some day.

I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical
About binomial theorem I am teeming with a lot o’ news
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse

The version from Mass Effect 2 is also quite something. More video games need patter songs!

Full lyrics here.

The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades, Timbuk 3

I don’t know why this song exists, but I’m glad that it does. Let the optimism infect you.

I love my classes
I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
I’m doing all right, getting good grades
The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades

Full lyrics here.

Short Skirt/Long Jacket, Cake

This one is silly but fun. And I like that smarts make it on this (somewhat conflicted) list of desirable traits…

I want a girl with a mind like a diamond

Who is fast and thorough and sharp as a tack

Full lyrics here.


I’ve seen from a range of sources that getting a PhD isn’t about being brilliant (if you’ve got to the point in schooling where you’re considering one, you’re probably smart enough), the real traits that predict success are perseverance and tenacity.

So don’t wish me luck for my next 8 or so months, wish me perseverance! Wish me tenacity! And maybe wish me a good night’s sleep. That’d be welcome too.

The Climb, Miley Cyrus

I don’t even know if I like this song, but I think it benefits from strategically timed listening. Feeling down, late at night, need a ‘keep me going’, overly sincere shot in the arm? Go for it.

Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

Full lyrics here.

Don’t Be a Dropout, James Brown

If Miley being all positive above doesn’t do it, use fear to keep yourself going. (So healthy.)

Without an education
You might as well be dead

He’s probably not talking about pursuing a doctorate…but hey, we’ve happily ignored authorial intent for our own purposes multiple times in this list, why stop now?

Full lyrics here.

I Won’t Back Down, Tom Petty

Stand your ground! Don’t let that thesis kick you around!

Full lyrics here.


I’d looked at these lists while making mine. You might find something that works for you on them that I didn’t include in my own list.

BinaryThis’ Soundtrack for Hard Time PhD Blues

20 Best Songs for Writers and About Writing: The Ultimate Writing Mixtape

20 Best Graduation Songs of the Last 20 Years

40 Songs About School, Intelligence, and Feeling Smart

Written on August 30, 2018

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