Top 5 Thesis Writing Strategies To Keep You Going

Evolution of Your Thesis: The Last Fifteen Minutes

I went to middle school and high school in New York City and one of my favorite places to visit was (and still is) the Museum of Natural History (by the way the movie,  “Night at the Museum” does not do its magnificent exhibits any justice). A very memorable exhibit is the “Evolutionary Clock” which compresses the evolution of the Earth into a 24-hour day.

The evolution of my thesis (and I believe of many other students) followed a similar exponential development with a lighting-speed sprint before the finish line. During the first five and a half years, I completed coursework, learned the basics of my field and figured out 1001 ways to set up my experiment so I would not get reproducible results.  Five months before graduation my methods were finalized, and I had produced publication-quality data three months before the thesis deadline.

My thesis committee then gave me the green-light to graduate, and scheduled my defense less than 3 weeks later.  Twenty days to be exact. Twenty days is less than 1% of a six year doctoral program (about 15 minutes on a 24-hour clock), but I have more vivid memories of those twenty days than the rest of my years in the program put together. I had twenty days to put together a 50 slide presentation and write my thesis.

How did I pull through? Here are the top five strategies that kept me going:

1. Summarize your dissertation in one sentence. This is called the thesis statement. For example, “The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of XYZ mutation on the development of tumors  (result) in order to gain a better understanding of the causes of cancer (purpose)” Write this sentence somewhere where you can see it all day. You will become more focused when you repeat it to yourself several times a day.

2.    Keep writing, even if you are out of ideas. As you write, ideas will come to mind and make it eventually into the computer. If you are really out of ideas, write 3 letter-size pages by hand. I have tried this strategy hundreds of times, and I always have a few ideas by the end of the three pages.

3.    Pesky little thoughts popping into your head? What to make for dinner? Need to call XYZ or check your email? All those can (and must) wait. Keep a little notepad next to you and jot down all your to-do’s until the end of the day. They will not seem so urgent by then.

4.    Write every day, preferably at the same time and place. If you have a few months to write, aim for at least 2 pages a day. If you need extra motivation, ask someone to read your thesis by a certain day. External deadlines can do wonders for your productivity.

5.    Remember that no one wrote a doctoral thesis in one day. Build up your arguments gradually. Begin with your core    statements and add more arguments and references as you write. Each time you proofread, you will probably get more insights to enhance your writing. Complete your abstract at the end.

Finally, visualize yourself defending your thesis every day. What will you tell your audience? What was the purpose of your thesis? How did you contribute to your field of research? What are the 3-5 chapters of your thesis? The more vividly you imagine your defense and your written thesis, the more focused you will become. Soon, you will become unstoppable, writing and proofreading without the need for external motivation.

A final piece of advice: Aim for excellence, not perfection. No matter how many times you read it over, you will make little corrections here and there. The priority is to confirm that your data and references are correct, and your arguments are built up logically. Once your thesis is 98% complete, it is time to let it go. If you want to be extra diligent, give it to a friend (in exchange for reading their thesis), in case they notice any small imperfections.

The Grad Student Way’s “Secret To Thesis Writing”

I am currently writing my thesis and it will be complete by July 1. Basically, I have set a deadline and have weekly goals as I break everything down into small, manageable chunks. I will be posting a future article on how to keep the motivation, manage your time effectively, and stay in the habit of writing. Some of you may not like writing or feel that you’re are good at it. Or as the deadline approaches you get ‘thesis meltdown.’  There are ways to overcome it. Also, there are a lot of distractions and things that can demotivate you, so I will be sharing those with you in the future. This is an excellent list by Dora, but I will be going more in-depth. Keep an eye out and sign-up for our mailing list!

For more ideas, here are a few books and resources:

  1. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis by Joan Bolker
  2. Writing the Doctoral Dissertation by Gordon Davis
  3. Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process by Kjell Erik Rudestam
  4. This page has several links to other sites with dissertation writing advice.
  5. smartwaytoyourphd

Author Bio:

 Dora Farkas received her Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Toxicology from MIT. She is currently a Senior Scientist at AbbVie Bioresearch Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dora is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of Grad School Net, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, Q&A columns and blogs on her site,