Bugging The System

A blog about microbes, diseases and biomedical research advances. Posts in English or German.

My one advice on writing a PhD thesis: don’t overthink; just do it

Two weeks ago, I made a memorable trip to University. I was boarding the number 15 bus from the Garscube Campus in Bearsden to Glasgow University, a heavy carton box sitting on my lap. In it, I carried three softbound copies of my PhD thesis. Four years in the making, this was the moment I had worked for: It was my hand-in day.

thesis hand in

Me, showing off my PhD thesis in the lab prior to handing it in later that day. Picture courtesy of Pablo Sierra.

Now, I am not going to talk about the relief I felt when I dropped off the thesis copies, nor do I want to discuss the highs and lows of the thesis writing process. What I want is to pass on one piece of advice to future PhD students in their write-up period. This mantra helped me finish my work without major problems, and it may help others too:

Ignore you are writing a PhD thesis and just get on with it.

I don’t mean to suggest you forget all deadlines, or work without a plan. It is quite clear that you will have to coordinate deadlines and milestones with your supervisor, because they will need to make time to look over your thesis – and as you are aware, their calendars are always full and their opportunities to have a thorough look at your thesis are limited. A good timetable, outlining when you expect to finish chapters and hand them to your supervisor, is therefore essential.

What I propose is that you don’t think of your thesis as one, big body of work, but rather a series of small, manageable tasks. Each chapter can be seen as standalone feature, and can be broken down to smaller parts – usually its subchapters. Now say you consider your “Materials and Methods” section as one entity, and you estimate it will take one week part-time to write a draft. You set aside a week in your calendar and decide to work on the thesis in the afternoons while you still continue your research in the mornings. Once you have executed your plan you will actually feel like you have achieved something. In the bigger picture, this is only a small part of your thesis. Disregard that. Believe me: it will make you happier to celebrate each accomplished task and not worry which parts of whole thesis you have written and how much you still have to do. This way, you feel like you have completed several smaller manuscripts before you even put your thesis chapters together and realise that it is actually one massive body of work.

In my case, this strategy really paid off. The first time I realised how much I had written was when I printed out a full, 230 page thesis draft. It seemed surreal to me – I had tricked my brain to forget about the thesis and think only at the tasks at hand. I had told myself that I was preparing two review papers (that together make up my introduction chapter), two big reports containing my data from two projects, a methods paper and a discussion of my work for a lab review. This way, I gave my best in every chapter. I stuck to my pre-arranged schedule. And I did all that without major panic attacks or days spent fighting myself to get at least a few new sentences on the page. When I my writing did not progress, I went back to the bench to do another experiment.

This actually helped me in two ways – distracting my brain with something I still considered productive and getting out of my flat to mingle with people. I did most of my writing from home, because this is where I could focus best and where I was close to my inexhaustible coffee and chocolate supply. But at no point in the process I actually felt isolated. I rewarded myself for every milestone reached; I kept in touch with people. I went out on weekends or evenings and I ate well and exercised at least once or twice a week with a friend. In short: I did not put my life on hold while I worked on my thesis. I considered it my job – and I worked on it accordingly. I never felt bad for taking an evening off to meet a friend, because I knew I did my best in my working hours. I also gave myself ample time for the whole endeavour, mostly because I could not estimate how long my revisions would take. They turned out to be gentler than expected, so I was able to hand in one month early.

With this strategy, I did not only avoid painful experiences in my write-up stage; I actually enjoyed the experience. I felt free to arrange my day, even take an hour long break when I needed it. I pampered myself with homemade food and little treats from a fancy supermarket and the deli around the corner. Most of all, I felt like I had everything under control – a feeling I often missed during my PhD. Of course, not everyone will enjoy writing. I loved to write long before I started my thesis, and I assume this also helped me a lot. But I think that my strategy can make the whole process less stressful and more enjoyable, regardless of one’s aptitude for writing.

Finally, I would be curious to know what other PhD students think: What has helped you most in the writing up stage? Did my strategy work for you? And which piece of advice would you give those that start writing their theses now?

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This entry was posted on September 5, 2016 by in A Life in Science, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .
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