When starting a PhD, one anticipates that doing the research will be the hard part. Well…that’s until you near the end and have to write it all down – in a convincing manner. Academic writing can be daunting. If writing is not your forte, putting together a thesis can seem like mission impossible. Or at least mission improbable. That being said, a few good tips can make a world of difference. Here are mine.
1) Start early
People often leave thesis writing to the end. They spend 3+ years doing the research before starting to write up. I found it useful to start the writing process early, even before I had all my results. This helped me capture all the processes and findings as they unfolded, instead of waiting until the end and hoping I would remember everything. You won’t remember everything.
The beauty of the UoM PhD process, even though it seems tedious at the time, is that you are required to write annual reports. If you take the time to thoroughly write these reports, they will repay you in future. These reports can be used as part of your thesis is one way or another; this was the approach I used. The upside of doing this is also that these reports would have been checked by an objective party (your internal examiner) which, if done right, serves as a form of quality control.
2) Plan and organise
Note: writing the thesis will take longer than you anticipate! Be cognisant of this and plan your time accordingly. It would be unrealistic to expect yourself to be a high-functioning writing machine for how ever long you plan on writing your thesis. There will be days when you’re on fire and the writing just flows. There will also be days when you get a form of writer’s block or just don’t feel like working (I wrote about the latter in a recent piece). So, add some time contingencies and don’t be too hard on yourself.
Another thing I found useful was creating a dynamic table of contents and a thesis overview. The table of contents gives you a snapshot of the main areas that will be covered in your thesis. This helped me see which sections I had already completed and which still had to be done, all at a glance. The keyword here is dynamic, meaning that it has to be a ‘live document’ that gets updated on regular basis.
A thesis overview can be thought of as a more in-depth table of contents. It has both the main and sub-sections of your thesis. In a thesis overview, you write down short descriptions/synopses of what each section will cover, such as its purpose, the data that will be presented, etc. I found that writing this out helped me plan out my thesis in greater detail and helped safe-guard me from deviating off course when writing. Revisiting my thesis overview also helped me write more concisely, meaning I could eliminate sections or paragraphs that did not add to the argument being made throughout the thesis.
3) Communicate with your supervision team
Part of this whole process is deciding when you plan to submit your thesis and getting support in making that happen. It is paramount that you have your supervision team on board. The role of your supervisor is to guide you in becoming an independent researcher and ensuring that you produce ‘world class research’. They will most probably want to read through sections, if not all, of your thesis before you submit. And because everybody is so ‘busy’ nowadays, you will need to give them notice well in advance of when you plan to submit so that you guys can come to an agreement of when/how your thesis will be reviewed.
Communicate your expectations. This could include how often you will send them thesis chapters or sections, after how long you would like a response and what kind of feedback you are looking for. The objective of this back and forth thesis pass is to ensure that the submitted document is the best you can produce.
4) Take your time
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is necessary. Don’t rush the process. As cliché as this may seem, good things take time. Set time aside to read your thesis through from beginning to end, preferably in hardcopy. If you can, also get someone else to read it through, make alternations and give you feedback. As sucky as this may sound, thesis writing is an iterative process. You will have multiple versions of your thesis – this is a good thing. Each version will probably be an improvement from the last. So, take your time and produce a document you are proud of.