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5 Tips for thesis writing

Posted in News on 15 March 2019

Thesis writing: 5 Tips Your Advisor Might Not Tell You

Approximately 50% of PhD candidates drop out before they complete their thesis. There are many reasons for leaving including change in career focus, illness or family challenge and inability to meet rigorous academic requirements. 

Before you get overwhelmed by the demands of pursuing an advanced degree, know that there is help.

If you find you are struggling with the final step in the completion of your thesis, here are five tips your advisor might not tell you.

They could make the difference between staying in your program and quitting. 

1 Your Personal Life is Important

In academia, like any professional world, there seems to be little room for your personal life. 

However, when it comes to completing a dissertation, you need to take care of the personal as well as the professional. For example, taking small breaks from intense research and writing periods can help you get refreshed and recharged to tackle difficult sections. 
Also, if you do have emotional or personal issues going on – life doesn’t stop for your thesis – it’s important that you address them in an appropriate way. If you neglect your or your family’s health issues or financial issues during your writing, this will just add to your stress. 

Your advisor of course wants you to focus on your work but keeping things in perspective and giving enough care and attention to your personal life will help you do this. 

2 Your Thesis Topic Will Change Over Time

In an ideal world, you would pick your topic, your research would go easily, and your thesis would write itself. However, reality rarely goes this smoothly. It’s possible or even likely that your final paper won’t follow your proposal exactly. This is okay. It’s actually relatively common.

Your advisor will push you to stick to your proposal, but remember the topic is not set in stone. Often, students may try to tackle a complicated topic, only to realize that they’re trying to investigate too many variables. During your research you may discover that there are parts you can cut out or want to expand upon.

Many successful PhD students report that their topics evolved over time.

If you want to make changes, you will have to go to your advisor and committee (see #4 below). Make sure you have a good explanation for the change. Note, explanations such as you’ve hit a wall or are experiencing writer’s block are generally not acceptable. 

3 Use Time Management Apps

Many PhD candidates are surprised to realize how big of a role time management plays in completing a thesis. While you can work on a calendar with your advisor, there are a few time management tips that he or she may not share with you. 

One of the most effective ways to motivate yourself to keep working is to set deadlines for different stages of your thesis. You could use a paper or electronic calendar for this but there are a host of time management apps that make this more effective and even a little bit fun.

Trello and Asana are two of the better solutions available. While these apps are typically designed for small businesses, they are great for managing any sort of large project with multiple steps across a long time horizon.

With these apps you can also assign blocks of time for taking breaks or notice where you might be wasting your time. When you reach the end of one stage, be sure to celebrate this accomplishment. This focus on the smaller wins can help keep you energized and focused.

4 Keep Your Advisor Informed

The advisor-advisee relationship will be different for every professor and student. In some situations, it will be the beginning of a lifelong collaboration. In others, it will be a not-so-brief period of interaction. 

In general, dissertations are supposed to be a period where the student does much of the research and writing on his or her own.

Advisors can give you guidance on your topic and help you set a schedule, but they won’t hold your hand through the process. Some PhD candidates take this to mean that they should never bother their advisors unless asked for an update.

However, that’s not true. Your advisor wants you to be successful. If you hit a rough patch, he or she will be on hand to offer guidance on how to move forward. Professors may be shy about advertising this support for fear that it will mean near constant updates about everything from the absurd to the important. 

Choose your interactions with your advisor wisely but do interact.

5 You Don’t Have to be Perfect

As you know, PhD candidates don’t lack ambition. You’ve likely been at or near the top of your class, especially in your favorite fields, for your entire academic life. It wouldn’t be surprising if you were a perfect, straight A student with a long list of publications and extracurriculars. When it comes to your thesis, however, you don’t have to be perfect.

Your advisor will likely push you towards perfection, and with good reason. Defending your dissertation can be difficult. The better your research and writing are, the easier your defense will be.

However, this isn’t the time to agonize over every single small grammatical decision, or the time to rewrite every section over and over until you feel it is absolutely perfect. 

It may sound harsh, but it’s unlikely that your thesis will be the best work you’ve ever done. You’re just getting started in academia, and you have a lot of work to do; keep plugging away.

¡Start Writing!

Writing a thesis is a wonderful accomplishment. It shows that you are more than just a student who can learn from a teacher, but that you are a scholar who can develop and investigate important queries in your field.

As you work towards this likely lifelong goal, remember that even the best of advisors may not tell you everything you need to know.

With the above tips in mind, however, you’ll be able to continue progressing towards this incredible achievement.