Sunday, 26 April 2015

10 Things I Learned While Writing my Thesis

When you’re in the midst of data collection or networking at your first international conference, it’s easy to forget that the end point of a PhD is a giant thesis.  Unless you have previously completed a doctorate in another subject, your thesis will most likely be the largest body of work you will ever complete in one go.  (Note: applied doctorates are little different, but the following list still applies!)  Despite this, it’s something many people – including me – don’t really think about until suddenly your data are collected, your results analysed, and all that’s left is a large volume of writing waiting to be done. 

It’s at this point that it can be tempting to panic.  But take a breath, read this list, and get ready to tackle this mountain and SMASH it.

1.  You have actually already started.

From what I understand, any university in the UK requires you to submit a body of work in your first year; this may take the form of a literature review/systematic analysis or a journal-style write up.  If, like me, you’re not returning to this until your third year your writing will have improved since this point so it will need an overhaul, but the key point is that the information is already there. I wrote a literature review chapter for my first year submission, and in hindsight I’d strongly advise it.  It meant I spent a lot of time immersed in the literature that would later inform my work, and formed a large part of my Introduction chapter.  If you’re past this point, don’t worry about it – any journal-style submissions you’ve done include some literature review, and can provide a basis for an experimental chapter.  Whichever option you chose, you’ve written something that will be incorporated into your final thesis.  So get rid of those blank-page woes!

2.  Find out which rules apply to your writing.

Before you start writing, look up your university’s procedure for formatting doctoral theses.  There will be rules, so make sure you adhere to them.  For example, the University of Dundee’s theses formatting guidelines can be found here.  Your guidelines might specify margins, spacing, fonts, headings, the use of images (not figures – pictures) or Appendices.  Similarly, you need to look at guidelines for whatever referencing system you operate within.  My PhD was in Psychology, and there are very specific guidelines produced by the American Psychological Association (APA) on style both of references and of headings, subheadings, and table/figure headings. 

Sometimes rules can be a surprise – for example I had to submit my thesis printed only single-sided.  A waste of paper perhaps, but that’s the way it is.  But there were also set margins I needed to use, and if I hadn’t applied these to my document early, it could have really messed up my formatting later.

3.  Make a template.
You can create templates for documents in Microsoft Word that allow you to use the same set-up every time you set up a new document.  I used this excellent guide from the University of Reading (  I would advise against using preset guides, unless you can be 100% sure they serve all your needs.  The template was invaluable for me.  I created each chapter as a separate document so that I could send my supervisor bits at a time without it becoming difficult to navigate, and it meant that I knew each chapter was formatted correctly so they could just be copied and pasted into a master thesis document.  (Doesn’t that sound grand?)

4.  Pay attention to small details.
I cannot stress this enough.  If you have ever marked undergraduate work and bemoaned the lack of appropriate citations or the poor grammar, you will know how disheartening it is to read a piece of work that has clearly been rushed.  You must not do this!  You might well be thinking ‘Well this is a PhD thesis, of course I can’t rush it!  It’s too long to rush!’ but you’d be wrong.  Sure, writing 85,000 words or thereabouts isn’t done in a day, but you will be amazed when you are against the wire how quickly you can get words on paper. 
It’s tempting to skip proper formatting of references, assuring yourself you’ll come back to it later, or not bother with getting your figure headings right at the time of writing, saving it for editing, but all you are doing is giving yourself a giant headache for later.  Trust me, when you get to the point of proof-reading and editing, you do not want to be searching for that one paragraph you said you’d adjust later but didn’t highlight because you were sure you’d be able to find it.  Get it right first time.  Then your editing is much more simple: looking for typos, compiling contents pages, and proof-reading.  I did it this way, and I was still hugely stressed.  I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been if I had to amend figure headings to APA format and scour for missed references along the way.

5. Plan it out.
You don’t have to plan every paragraph, but blocking out a rough idea of how many words you’re writing per chapter can help you create a timeline to completion, and give you a guide to setting writing goals.  As a really general example, if you estimate your thesis is going to be 80,000 words and you have written absolutely nothing, and you plan on writing 1,000 words per day, you’d need 80 days to write a complete first draft of your thesis.  That gives you a starting point.  You need to add in days off (if you are taking them), time for your supervisor to review chapters, days for redrafting, days for compiling contents pages, days for proof-reading.  But when you break it down into these little sections it’s much easier to approach.  I’d recommend creating a gantt chart to plan out getting it done.

6.  Set targets, and stick to them.
After you’ve planned out a time line for completing your first draft, set yourself strict targets on what you want to achieve each day.  It might be to write 1000 words, or to edit a section of your work, or to re-do a certain analysis.  Whatever it is, make your goal for each day very clear.  Once you’ve met your goal, finish up!  If you’ve written your 1000 words faster than you expected, don’t try and give yourself a head start on the next day’s task.  Take your well-earned break.  This is essential for avoiding burn out.

7.  Allow much more time than you think you need.
Point 5 is important, but don’t be precious about your plans – be prepared to adjust them because you can be sure life will throw things at you that you haven’t anticipated.  It might be an illness, a family emergency, a housing problem, a pet problem, a computer failure – life is inventive in its curve-balls.  When these things happen, deal with them.  LIFE COMES FIRST.  Set aside your writing without guilt, take the time you need to deal with the situation, then pick up where you left off.  If you begin your write up with this attitude, when a delay inevitably happens it won’t feel like the end of the world, it will just be something you contingency-planned for, and you can deal with it.

8.  Be kind to yourself.
Some days no matter what you try, it just isn’t happening.  You’ve been at your computer since 8am and you’ve written the same sentence 100 different ways, but never got any further.  Your word count for the day?  68 words.  It happens, to everyone.  If you’ve been in this situation for hours, try and take a step back and evaluate what the problem is.  Are you unfamiliar with this topic?  Are you spending more time reading things than writing?  Are you ill?  Are you tired?  Is everything you need there but the words just won’t come out? 
Each situation requires a slightly different approach.  If you’ve spent the last five hours reading up on a topic, that’s still a productive day, just in a different way from what you’d planned.  Pat yourself on the back for a job well done and give yourself a well-deserved break.  If you’re procrastinating, you need to take a long hard look at why.  Generally, I find a quick count of days until hand-in gets me going.  But, if you’re in one of those days where no matter what you try the words just aren’t coming, sometimes it’s far better to just step away and return to the task tomorrow.  (This is why I included point 7).  Forcing yourself to sit at a computer for hours when you are getting nowhere is not only demoralising, it’s tiring, and is a major contributory factor to burnout.  Avoid it wherever possible.

9.  Reward yourself.
It depends how you like to break it up, but make sure you’re giving yourself rewards at regular intervals.  For me, I had a mix of goals including word-count benchmarks and chapter benchmarks.  The science behind positive reinforcement is well-established.  Apply it to yourself.  You’ve never worked harder, so you’ve never deserved those rewards more!

10.  Keep your chapters/abstract etc. separate.
This is a slightly weird thing to have last, but you’ll see why in a minute.  Like I said earlier, I wrote all my chapters in separate documents.  My contents pages were separate, as was my abstract, my declaration and my acknowledgements.  This is handy for getting your supervisor to review things, but it also has one super bonus to reward yourself with.
There is nothing like creating a new document, and slowly copying and pasting each part of your thesis into the document.  Title page, contents headers, acknowledgements, declaration, abstract, chapters.  In a day, you produce a giant document and you finally see all your hard work come together.  Sure, you’re going to edit it, and you’re going to adjust your contents pages, and you’ll have to number it all, but that moment when you see Word tick up your word and page count and you realise, finally, you’ve made a thesis, is one of the best feelings in the world.  You see it there before you and you can’t resist showing it off.  (I carried my laptop around making everyone look at my impressive word count and insisted on praise and congratulations).

Seldom in your PhD journey will you get a moment like this – don’t deprive yourself of it, because it’s amazing.

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