Top Tips on Writing a PhD Thesis

Editor’s Note: This week’s blog is brought to you by one of NESSE’s Executive Director’s: Alexandra Hicken. Read on to find out what Alexandra’s tips are for making the writing process of a PhD thesis less daunting!

Last week, I began the writing of my PhD Thesis. A huge task lay ahead of me with over three years of work ready to write-up into one document. Naturally, the first couple of hours were spent scrolling through Twitter and pondering on the perfect starting point (it was the first day back after the Christmas break, so a very slow day) and thus I sent out the following tweet:

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To my surprise, I was greeted with numerous replies with my fellow tweeters giving a range of advice on writing – and here I am now (procrastinating further) with a blog post designed to help others who are embarking on thesis writing. So, here it is condensed into three easy-to-digest sections.

Planning & Writing

If you are reading this with a few months to go until your thesis submission deadline then congratulations! Starting to write early is a good idea and having a plan is key. Writing a plan is an excellent first step in order to get you thinking about what to write in a logical order and with a clear story.

Plan how you will write the sections – does your thesis need to be chapter focused? Based on manuscripts that you have already written? One specific piece of advice is to write a plan in quite some detail with descriptive sentences and to show this to your supervisor in order to see if you are on the right track. One very keen advisor suggested that you should estimate how much time each day you need to spend writing to meet your deadline – and even suggested to write a timeline in order to make sure that all sections are written on time. Personally, I feel like having a written schedule is a little too prescriptive, however I did make a plan ahead of Christmas, and thus feel like, initially at least, I put myself on the right track.

The way that you write and where you write also seems to be something that was mentioned by a few tweeters. Treating writing like a day in the lab – writing in what you would consider your normal working hours and defending that time for writing is important. Do not let your colleagues’ tasks distract you from doing yours! Others suggested locking yourself away in a library or in a quiet room to avoid distractions. Another very specific piece of advice was to block off two-hour slots in your calendar to write about a specific topic, section or read specific papers – again this feels quite prescriptive to me but could benefit your own style of working. It could be beneficial to find a few theses that have already come from your group – or ask to see the theses of the postdocs in your group. Find out what you like about them in terms of style and formatting and what you do not like to later tailor your writing accordingly.

Now you have a plan, a place to work and you have told everyone in your research group that you are beginning to write your thesis. You hope those who have already been through the process will give you the space that you deserve, and you hope the new PhD and undergrad students will also recognise that now is not the best time to ask you for help! It is time to begin the actual writing. Most of the advice I received was to just write. Try to get something on the page, even if it does not feel or look right, just get it done. Write a lot, maybe even way more than you think is acceptable and remember everything can, and will be edited. Do not just stare at an empty page.student-849825_1280

Keep in mind that the first things you write will not make the final cut and do not feel bad about this. All good writing starts with a bad first draft and then you go from there – even saying things out loud may help you arrange your thoughts on the page better. Have it read by others and plan when you are going to send your supervisor the drafts – maybe do not send all of your chapters or sections in one go, do this gradually so that they have time to edit and to send it back to you whilst you are still writing other sections. Remember that writing is one job and editing is separate – having a break in between will help with the editing process.

Some tweeters recommended not starting at the beginning with the introduction, as you may not know the specific story that you want your thesis to tell at the beginning. Others recommended writing the introduction as you go along as it will take the longest. I feel like in the planning stage, planning the introduction took the longest amount of time and required the most effort, but I will not start writing it straight away.

If you’ve started writing and you’ve got a few pages under your belt – at this point I would be feeling pretty happy with myself. Maybe now it’s time to think about formatting. For the purpose of this blog post, I have assumed that the majority of readers, like myself, will have decided to write their thesis using the trusty, yet sometimes frustrating programme – Microsoft Word. I am aware that this may not be the case. Using LaTeX is definitely another option and some advice for using it would require a whole other blog post that I do not have the expertise to write – but I appreciate those who suggested it as a writing tool!

Formatting, Citing & Saving

Start writing in a template – if you have already written a bit then do not worry, transferring your thoughts to a template is easy – but see if your university or college has a thesis template that you can use. You may even be able to make an appointment with a librarian to talk through this template with you. If this is not possible – make one for yourself. It is pretty easy once you get going and was one of the first things I did along with making a plan.

Save your work. This was probably the first piece of advice that was ever given to me by my dad when I started doing homework on a PC. You have got to save your work and save it often because it won’t be recoverable. I appreciate that time has moved on and recovering work is now possible, but I think that the point still stands. Do not just save your work locally – also back it up often. In multiple locations. Do whatever you can so that you don’t have to re-write things that you have taken a long time to note down, or worse lose your entire thesis document altogether. Use autocorrect for common subscripts/ superscripts. You can make word do the hard work for you!

Referencing is also a topic that was brought up by a lot of tweeters – make sure you cite whilst writing and don’t leave it all to the end. Save your work every 45 minutes and when you do, refresh your referencing tool then for it to update. Don’t let it get bogged down and expect it to be able to update a whole days worth of referencing.

Looking After Yourself

Remember that thesis writing is just one part of your professional life – don’t get hung up on it needing to be perfect because it is a summary of the past 3/4/5 years. Regardless of what you do, you will probably look back on it and wish you would have done something different – which is fine. Do not get annoyed with yourself for not making a certain amount of progress per unit of time. It’s a long task so focus on rewarding the successes and the progress that you are making.

Eat well, sleep well and take regular breaks. Your mental health still needs to remain a priority during this time and looking after yourself is the only way to realise this. Do not overwork yourself and regardless of how much you write a day – if you feel like you cannot write any more then do not! Don’t be afraid to take weekends and evenings off. Have in mind that towards the end things may get more chaotic, but by this time you will have a few weeks worth of writing under your belt and be prepared to finish the damn thing.

Finally, thank you to everyone who offered their advice and good luck if you are in the same position as me. I’m sure I will be tweeting about my experience and I would love to hear from you too (@ahichem07).

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