The process of thesis writing

It's not so bad after all...

Go to the profile of Mikaila Bandara
Jan 30, 2017
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It has been just over a year since I submitted my PhD thesis. During this time, I have been part of many conversations with colleagues about the difficulty of thesis writing. I often nod my head in agreement, but the secret is that I actually enjoyed writing and putting together my thesis. However, like many PhD students, constantly hearing others complain made me dread the thought of having to write, even before I started. It was only when I began that I realised that it wasn’t so bad after all. In the same way that I offer advice to PhD students today, here are a couple tips and tricks that hopefully will help future thesis writers enjoy the process as much as I did.

Plan ahead and don’t panic

I started thinking about my thesis during the final year of my PhD, before the Christmas holidays. This meant I had approximately 10 months left before my submission deadline. This may seem very early for some people, but to be honest this was most likely a factor in why I found writing my thesis not so stressful.

Initially I didn’t know where to start and was also worried about not submitting my thesis in time, especially as I had a lot of lab work to do before submission. So I googled ‘how to write a PhD thesis’ and came across an article by James Hayton: http://jameshaytonphd.com/how-i-wrote-a-phd-thesis.... I certainly did not write my PhD in 3 months but I do recommend people to read it as Dr Hayton gives great advice.

My supervisor gave me a very useful book called How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper by Barbara Gastel and Robert Day. The book mainly focuses on scientific writing (which is essential for thesis writing) but it also has a chapter focusing on how to write a thesis. This book particularly helped me with choosing what grammatical tense I needed to use for different chapters.

Set a structure and stick to it

For me personally, organisation is key. I had a calendar dedicated to thesis writing where I would write what I was going to do each day towards submission. I did indeed include some days off and even a mini holiday to reboot my brain.

After Christmas I decided that I wanted to write my thesis using Word. Using LaTeX is a good alternative, as your thesis will look neat and aesthetically pleasing, but a thesis can still look ‘pretty’ using Word if you are meticulous. Therefore I carefully chose which font I wanted to use and also figured out all the formatting for headings, subheadings etc., so my thesis looked consistent throughout.

Start small and beware of writer’s block

Some people can happily write and work in the lab at the same time, but I am not one of them. I started putting my material and methods together as I knew I could be near to completion with this chapter. Already that was one chapter down.

From January to April I focused mainly on lab work, however I did start putting figures together for my result chapters whenever I had spare time. I found making figures to be very fiddly and quite time consuming, so I definitely recommend making figures before you start to exclusively write. In addition to this, I made a draft of the contents page which I went through with my supervisor so I knew what I would need to include for my thesis.

Block some time for a final push

May to August was the start of non-stop writing. I first wrote the result chapters, introduction, and ended with the discussion. Like most people, there were good and bad days. Sometimes, I would end up writing just a small paragraph whilst other days I would write over a 1000 words. As I had previously drafted a contents page, I already typed out the appropriate heading and subheadings in my thesis Word document prior to writing the content. This helped immensely as it meant that even if I wrote about one subheading for the day, I knew at least I was making progress.

After I had finished writing a chapter, I would send it to my supervisors straight away and whilst waiting for corrections I would start on the next chapter. I would strongly advise doing this as some supervisors may take a while to get back to you.

Come September, I had finished writing my thesis and all that was left to do was check over it and make sure everything was formatted correctly according to the University’s guidelines. By this time you will already feel a sense of relief knowing that the end is near.

Go to the profile of Mikaila Bandara

Mikaila Bandara

Research Assistant at University of Cambridge, University of Cambridge

Previously worked on the accessory Sec system in Streptococcus. Currently working on HIV latency.

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Andrew Jermy
Andrew Jermy 8 months ago

Thanks

Go to the profile of Andrew Jermy
Andrew Jermy 8 months ago

... for sharing your writing experience. I went for the cram into three months route when I was writing many moons ago, and did hit plenty of writers block. I also enjoyed the process though and it helped me shape my thinking on the field and three years worth of research.