10 tips to keep your PhD thesis on track
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Writing up your PhD thesis after years of work can be terrifying, but stay calm and read on for my top 10 tips, gathered from academics around the country, to help you stay on track.
1) Don't be scared and don't procrastinate.
I won't lie, writing up is a massive task, and some struggle to get their thoughts down on paper more than others. Instead of putting it off and finding distractions (another cup of coffee would surely help, wouldn't it?), start writing from the very beginning. Everyone I spoke to was unanimous on this.
Dr Candice Majewski, Deputy Head of the Engineering Graduate School at The University of Sheffield, says, "Write up your literature as you go, write your methodology sections as soon as you define them, and write up your results and analysis before you start the next bit of experimental work. It's so much easier to write in chunks than to try and do it all at once."
2) Establish a supportive network to help you through the journey.
Dr Matt Carré, Director of Student Experience, says, "PhD study can be a very solitary affair. Establish a supportive network to help you through the journey, whether it's within a research group, department or via social media. Hearing from others who are in the same boat can make you feel much less alone."
3) Plan, plan, plan.
This goes for any writing, really. Knowing what you want to say before you start trying to say it is a great way to make sure that you cover everything and avoid waffling. Work closely with your supervisor to plan the structure of your thesis and create rough drafts as you go.
4) Be prepared to re-write each chapter.
The first draft is never perfect. Far from it. Keep re-reading what you have written, highlight sections that you aren't completely happy with and be prepared to scrap them entirely and start again if you have to. You may need to re-write things several times before you are completely happy with them, all good authors do.
5) Listen to your supervisor.
Listen to what your supervisor is telling you. If you really don't agree with them, for whatever reason, get a second opinion from your 2nd supervisor (if you have one) or another experienced academic.
Your supervisor is not just there to talk at you, however. Make sure you talk to them, too. Not just about the work, but about you and the work. Open up. If you're struggling, let them know - they are there to help and support you.
6) Re-write your acknowledgements.
According to Dr Beverley Gibbs, Director of Learning and Teaching, "When you're stuck/despairing/distraught, (re)write your acknowledgements. It doesn't matter how many times you write them, it puts you psychologically in a place where it's finished."
7) Don't plagiarise, either deliberately or accidentally.
If you are quoting others, make sure that the quote is accurate (including spelling and grammar - even if it differs from your chosen style (-ise vs. -ize, for example)). Take careful notes and keep track of your references from the very start. If you cite something in your text, make sure that you also include it in your references section at the end. Incorrect citations can constitute as plagiarism so it's vital that you get this right. There is software available to help you do this, but you could also use a simple spreadsheet.
If you paraphrase, make sure that you use all your own words. If you write more than two words verbatim, you will need to use quotation marks.
Always check your thesis for plagiarism before you submit it.
8) Be consistent in your writing style.
This is a really important one as inconsistencies can really distract the reader. Make yourself a style sheet (like mine) which covers things like heading styles, UK/US spelling, hyphenation, formatting of labels and titles, etc, and use it when you do your final edit to ensure that your style is consistent throughout. Make sure that you are consistent in your message as well - you don't want to contradict your own findings!
9) Self-edit, and then have someone else proofread for you.
All writers need editing, and, in his book On Writing, Stephen King advises, "Kill your darlings". Just because you love a particular bit of text, it doesn't mean that your thesis is necessarily the right place for it. Be really brutal, if it doesn't fit, or it's no longer relevant, take it out. It doesn't have to be lost forever; save it somewhere else - it might come in handy when you write your book. When you re-read your thesis, ask yourself: does your writing stick to the point? Have you backed up all your claims with evidence? And have you made any silly typos that could potentially change the whole meaning of a section.
Once you're happy with your work, get someone else to read it. If you can afford it, pay a professional (like me) who will check every aspect of your work from spelling and grammar to syntax, consistency, repetition and references. This is particularly important if English is not your first language.
10) Know when to stop writing.
"There are two kinds of thesis: the perfect thesis, and the finished thesis," says Dr Gary Wood, University Teaching Fellow in Professional Skills.
If you are always waiting for your work to be perfect, you will never get around to submitting because you'll never quite believe it's time. At some point, you have to draw a line, know that you've done your very best and say, "I'm finished!", but that last full stop can be as hard to write as the very first word. This applies to any writing, by the way.
Have you already got your PhD? What are your top tips for writing up? What things did you struggle with the most?