By Soph Arthur
No matter what stage you are at of your PhD, the thought of having to write up at least three years worth of hard work can be daunting to say the least. Especially if you are a final student and the need to actual leave the lab and put pen to paper is becoming more and more real.
Having just come out the other side of my PhD in stem cell metabolism and passing my viva with a few minor corrections to my thesis needed, I thought it would be a good time to share some tips and advice about things that helped me to write my thesis while it is still fresh in my mind in the hope that it will help you too.
So here are 15 of my PhD thesis writing tips for you starting with:
1. Do as much as you can in advance
You might think this is a bit of a weird one to start with as you have time at the end of your PhD to write up right? Correct but here me out.
For me, if I had opened up my laptop on that first Monday after I finished in the lab to write up and I saw a blank page I would have completely freaked out. Over the course of my three and a half years in the lab collecting data I also had to write a transfer thesis and I had the opportunity to start writing manuscripts about my research too. All were sold foundations to build my PhD thesis upon.
I realise this is not going to be possible for everyone and there might be cases where you do have to start with a blank page, but any prep you can do before your writing up stage will ease you into it a little more. As you progress through your PhD maybe write out your methods in thesis style, or whenever I had a new result that would make a figure for my thesis, I put it into my final format ready from day 1. It was always good to have the thought of writing a final thesis around and I tried to prepare myself for that as best as I could in advance. And I cannot stress enough how much that helped me.
2. Set out a clear structure with your supervisor beforehand
In case you didn't know, PhD theses are split up into different chapters. Traditionally, that is one for the introduction, one for the methods, usually three results chapters and a discussion chapter primarily. So even if you have prepared anything in advance, I highly recommend not starting to build it all until you have sat down with your supervisor and had a good old discussion about what results contribute to what story and the order of your chapters. It might have to be adjusted further down the line but hopefully will only be smaller adjustments then rather than huge shifts in order.
My supervisor and I spent a good 3 hours in a meeting debating the order of my results in each chapter and then the order of the chapters. Why? Well, your thesis will ideally have structure to read well. If it reads well then your examiners in your viva will, fingers crossed, be happier and make your viva much more relaxed.
3. Work to a time when you are most productive
I am a firm believer that if you are not in the zone for something then it is pointless forcing yourself to do it. Unless you have to of course. But I, for example, just cannot focus in the mornings. When I was at home writing up, I would be much more productive by binging Netflix or something in the morning, cracking on with a short writing stint before heading to the gym for a break. Come back, grab some lunch and then I would be focussed for the rest of the day normally. Some days I wasn't ready to write until about 7pm and could write until 2am if I was in the zone. This obviously won't work for everyone so find something that works for you.
4. Use the Pomodoro technique
One thing that did help me to focus on the more difficult days was the Pomodoro technique. 25 minutes of writing followed by a 5 or 10 minute break and repeat for however long I could or had scheduled. A simple technique that I am sure most of you have heard of, but it helped me to get back in the writing zone when I was struggling.
5. Keep hydrated
I cannot stress this enough. Your brain is going to be doing a lot of work when writing up so make sure you keep hydrated so you can focus and keep going. It also helps to get up and walk around every so often. Not far just to stretch your legs out and feel like you've had a bit of a break away from the screen.
6. Switch up your workspace
After 2 months of writing up at home at my desk, every position was uncomfortable and I had lost all motivation. There were suddenly too many distractions around and I wasn't getting anywhere. So I packed all my stuff up and headed to a different environment. Over the last month of writing, I spent my days in the library, at my work desk, some days at home, local cafes or even a hotel when I was away at an event. It helped me get finished so quickly in the end that I wish I had done it sooner. So I highly recommend writing in different places to refocus again. Preferably in a place with a good supply of cake.
7. Break it up into smaller chunks
Okay so theses are already chopped up into chapters, and each if those chapters as a series of subheadings. And sometimes even the sub headings have sub headings. So I say why not take advantage of all these smaller chunks when it comes to maintaining progress and accomplishing a little each day when writing. This also links in nicely to my next piece of advice.
8. Set yourself a goal schedule
Set yourself a submission deadline. It might sound obvious but there were so many students I know that didn't have the hard deadline that I did and just kept writing and refining and not really getting any closer to submission. Utilise all these smaller chunks that your thesis is broken up into and set yourself a realistic and attainable schedule. Remember to factor in time to get any feedback from supervisors too. So you might say that in week 1 of writing up you want to complete Chapter 1 and then edit that chapter in week 7 for example. Find a plan and schedule that works for you.
9. Find yourself a thesis writing buddy
Whether you're writing in a cafe or the library or even at home find someone that can keep you accountable. I joined an amazing Slack community set up by the amazing Krishana Sankar called Grad Write Slack. There were loads of researchers from all across the world working on various writing projects. So no matter what time you were working there was usually somebody - perhaps someone in a different time zone - that you could be productive with and start a few rounds of ‘pomo’ aka tip 4. But having that writing buddy definitely helps, especially if you are stuck and you can bounce some ideas around too.
10. Make a little progress everyday
Progress is progress, and I would encourage everyone writing up to do a little each day. Whether it is just a sentence or changing a figure around. It might seem like you haven't achieved much but you are that little bit closer to finishing. However, having said that...
11. Don't be afraid to take a day off
This might be hard to comprehend. Surely when you're writing up there is so much pressure that there is no time for days off. But sometimes you just can't sit down and write for whatever reason. As long as your thesis isn't due the next day, then having some days off is fine. I tried to write in the week and then have weekends with no thesis to break it up and still some kind of routine. But it's normal to not stick to your schedules religiously. We are human after all. Plus you still have to think about work life balance even when you're writing.
12. Make a summary diagram for each chapter
Again, this one might not be possible for every PhD out there, but if you can draw up a summary then I cannot recommend it highly enough. In fact, these diagrams were the first things I did for each chapter. It helped me align all my ideas and what I thought was going on before having to write it all as prose. It was a great way to summarise the end of each chapter and it also really helped me with my examiners and viva. If there was anything they were unsure about, they told me that my diagrams helped at the end. Plus it is an easy thing for examiners to stop on in your viva or defence but more on that in viva posts on my blog.
13. Think about document formatting from the start
You're probably thinking that this one should go near the top of the list right? Well that is exactly my point here. You don't want to nearly get to the end and then have to format your document for margins and blank pages and spacing and so on, especially if it then puts all your images out of joint and you spend hours correcting it all. Make sure one of the first things you do is find out the format your document has to be in and set it up from the start.
14. Don't be disheartened with the amount of editing you will have to do
If you have a really supportive supervisor like I was privileged to have then they will give you feedback multiple times on each chapter. But I found that no matter how much red pen came back the first time, then was just as much if not more the next. While feedback is great and helpful, you do have to remember that this thesis is your work and ultimately you get the final decision. Your supervisor’s advice could be useful from an examiners point of view though. But it can get frustrating thinking you are stuck in an endless cycle of editing and reading and rereading again and again. Which brings me to my final point...
15. It doesn't have to be perfect
The best advice I was told that a perfect thesis doesn't exist. There will be typos you missed, stupid formatting mistakes and maybe whole sections that you need to rewrite and modify. You will have to make thesis corrections more than likely so use that opportunity to check through once more and don't fret about spelling something wrong a couple of times. You're not going to fail because of that.
Well there we have it. 15 tips for writing your PhD thesis from my experience to get you started and hopefully less panicked about the task ahead. It isn't that bad really. If you want more tips then I have 15 more tips for thesis writing over on my blog now too and feel free to ask me more questions too.
But for now, be prepared and don't panic! You'll be a doctor before you know it.
Follow Soph on Instagram at @soph.talks.science