Writing a Thesis Without Tears

/ 26 Jan 2015

Writing a Thesis Without Tears

Having been a journalist for over seven years, I thought writing my doctoral thesis wouldn’t be any different than a very long article. Along with being a journalist, I had also successfully completed a master’s-degree thesis. So when the examiner asked me upon applying for my Ph.D. whether I thought I had the skills needed to finish the 80,000-word long dissertation, I smugly told him I did. I am, after all, a professional writer.

Three years on, I now know my confidence had absolutely zero grounds.

Writing a thesis is painfully different than any other sort of writing I have ever done. It is stressful, daunting, confusing and seems to take more skills than I ever acquired in undergraduate and graduate university or even at work.

After many trials and tribulations, I can share the hard-earned wisdom I have acquired. If you’re pursuing a degree requiring writing a research-based thesis, these tips may come in handy.

  • Start off with a detailed outline: This is crucial to guide your writing and help your academic advisors and reviewers navigate through your thesis. Don’t just settle for chapter headings, provide subheadings that are clear and indicative. The outline is something you should actually start off with, not an afterthought.
  • State your research question or hypothesis in one sentence and hang it by your desk: As you go along, way too much material will seem relevant in your research. While you need to be flexible with updating your research focus, you also need to avoid tangents. So state exactly what your research is about in one sentence and keep it somewhere you always see. Break this sentence down into sub-questions and also keep them nearby.
  • Keep readings neatly archived in chapter folders: You will read tons of theories, data and research papers and soon won’t be able to remember most of the material you think is crucial to include in your thesis. So once you have your outline ready, divide your readings and notes by chapters and even subheadings.
  • In those folders, keep separate documents for your notes: You won’t be able to refer back to all your readings, so if you come across a quote you find interesting to include, write it separately in a document, indicating the author, title of the work, publisher and page number for easier reference and citing. Each sub-folder of your readings should have a document including all the notes you wrote down to include in that subheading.
  • Write a timeline for your work and clear it with your supervisor: When you start your thesis, you will think you have all the time in the world. Fast-forward a little while later, you’re frantically pounding the keyboard to make your deadline. You might indulge in research and leave little time for writing, or you might spend weeks on one chapter and rush through the rest. Avoid such time crunches by planning early.
  • Wikipedia is useful: Many academics will twitch and spasm reading this. But if your supervisor suggests a new theory you never heard of that might be useful for your research, go ahead and secretly check it out on Wikipedia. Wiki isn’t an academic source, nor should you rely on the information there, but it’s a quick way to introduce yourself to a new theory and get more reliable academic references for further readings.
  • Read undergraduate theory books: Sometimes you have no idea which theories might be relevant to your work, and that is when politics 101 comes in handy. Read an undergraduate book introducing important theories in your field and take it from there. Once you determine theories you think are relevant, move on to academic works about this theory.
  • Don’t leave writing your citations to the last minute: Get in the habit of keeping a reference document where you cite all the works you read and use in your thesis in the right format.  Leaving that task until the day before submission is hectic and you might have lost many of the data you need, like page numbers or publishers.
  • Don’t feel the need to cram all the data in: Once your fieldwork and secondary research are done you will feel every single finding is earth shattering—they aren’t. So pick the findings you know are most significant and exclude the ones that aren’t.
  • Provide a summary: As bad as it sounds, most readers of your thesis—both official and unofficial—won’t actually have the time to read everything you submit. They will probably end up quickly skimming through the work. A summary of your research and how you will present it to them will be helpful to them. Start your thesis off with a couple of pages explaining what your research is and giving a road map of what you will be discussing throughout the chapters.
  • Talk to people about your research and findings: You get so consumed in your research that everything you argue for will make perfect sense to you. Your supervisor is also too involved to look at your research with fresh eyes. This is why it’s helpful to talk to academics and non-academics alike about your research, to get fresh-eyed criticism of your work.
  • Present your work: Participate in workshops, seminars and conferences and present your work before you submit your thesis. A roomful of critical academics is intimidating, but it’s also really useful to be forced to summarize your work in 15 minutes.
  • Take a step back: When you feel you’re on top of it all or when you feel drowning in words and data, take a day off. This isn’t a luxury, it’s actually crucial. You can’t possibly critically edit a chapter you’ve been working on for weeks on end.

 Writing a thesis will probably always be a stressful experience. But with proper time management, organizing your research as you go and keeping on top of citations, you can keep the anxiety down and stay on an easier path to getting a doctoral degree.




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  1. Sam Young says:

    Hi Nadia, I agree with your comment about Wikipedia. It is a great aggregator. I use it to mine the sources 🙂

  2. David Kirby says:

    Writing a thesis should be enjoyable and will be if you plan it as you suggest Nadine. Don’t just plan the structure, though, plan the word allocations too. My Professor told me when I started my Doctorate that a good Ph.d is not just what you put in but what you leave out! I did not really understand him then. I do now. It is about knowing what goes into the main body of the thesis (essential to know), what goes into the appendices (nice to know) and what to leave out altogether. Ask yourself, does this hold up the “story”? If the answer is “yes” either it goes into an appendix or it is omitted.
    The methodology chapter is important. You need to demonstrate that you can select and apply the most appropriate tools to enable you to conduct your research and achieve your research aims and objectives. Hence you need not just to describe your research methodology but justify it.
    Clearly the findings are important and you need to discuss them in the context of the literature. Do your findings corroborate or refute the existing body of understanding/theory? If they refute the existing body of understanding, why?
    Finally, don’t be afraid to acknowledge any limitations of your work. A Ph.d does not have to be perfect but you do need to demonstrate that you have learned from conducting the research and know what now needs to be done. Remember, you should now be the “expert” on the topic. Let your expertise and interest in it come through in your writing. Enjoy it.


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