For many scientists the most intimidating aspect of undertaking a PhD isn’t the long hours in the lab or the uncertain nature of the job length in academia that follows it. It’s the thought of attempting to write up 4+ years of work into a single cohesive thesis! The thesis writing process can vary greatly between students; some people love the write up, others toil through and hate every minute of it.

Regardless of whether you’re a lover or a hater, the process of producing your first full thesis draft will be a mentally draining process—so here are a few tips for helping maintain your sanity during this stressful time.

1. Start Small (and Early!)

Thesis writing is like completing a giant puzzle; you have to focus piece by piece. Some people might suffer a mental block when opening a blank document and actually making a start on their thesis. My suggestion here is to focus on small areas. For example, make an outline for each chapter to get you moving in the right direction.

It’s also something that you can do in advance of leaving the lab to write full time. Personally I found “materials and methods” the easiest chapter to start with. This was because I could pick away at small sections between my incubations. Thinking about writing a section on how to prepare a SDS-PAGE gel seemed a lot less scary than writing a whole methods chapter in one go!

Similarly, the thought of sitting down and spending the whole day writing my introduction was terrifying to me. But using the hour while waiting on my gel transfer to write didn’t send me running for the hills. By the time I left the lab to start writing full time, I already had a full first draft of my methods section and a rough draft of my introduction ready to go.

Many people advised me to write the introduction last so that I could focus a bit more time on describing the gaping hole in the literature review. This didn’t work for me.

While I agree that it was very important to re-check my intro after writing up the results sections, I found that the basics did not change. I still had to describe the background to my project, a brief history of the proteins I was working on, what we already knew, and where the gaps in the literature were. By already having my sections roughly drafted, and using my short incubations to seek out the original references for important points, I found that finishing off my introduction really just required some editing to make the transitions between the sections run smoothly and adding the odd paragraph to fit in with my results.

2. Write Badly (at First!)

When I started jotting down notes for my introduction, I often found myself struggling to construct a perfect sentence. I would agonize over how what I had written didn’t sound as intellectual as the source I had taken it from, but I also didn’t want to quote them word for word—it was majorly frustrating and an absolute black hole for my time. I once read a great article about thesis writing that suggested a different strategy altogether and found that it really worked for me. Put your perfectionist nature to use after you actually have come up with a rough draft.

Go ahead and write badly! Just get the facts down on the page in roughly the order you want them. Don’t stress over the sentence or how it sounds or the fact that you’ve used the word “describes” four times over two sentences—just get it on the page and leave it alone. Go do something else (like finish an experiment), and come back to your rough draft in a few hours and tidy it up.

When you return, you’ll have a block of text with all the information required in front of you. Now, carve it into a nicely phrased paragraph—kind of like sculpting a block of clay into an ornament. Your raw material is there, and it just needs a little chiseling! The other bonus of this approach is that because you have all the information already in your document, you’re less likely to go back to those reviews. You will just work with what you have and will probably do a much better job of describing things in your own words!

3. Buddy Up for Thesis Writing

Just before I started thesis writing, I read a brilliant article about group motivation and found the idea intriguing. So, a group of us who were due to start writing around the same time decided to try a mini thesis bootcamp. We got together one Saturday, booked a room in the library, and decided to see what happened if we worked as a group.  By far this was the best decision of my PhD.

Having other people working away at the times when your mind starts to flag and think about taking a break really motivates you to hang in there! We found that setting timers really helped keep us focused. So taking the idea from Pomodoro, we buddy up and set a timer for 50 min and during that time there would be no non-thesis chatting or procrastination. At the end of the 50 min we would have 10 min to relax, and then straight back to it.

In addition to having other people to spur you on when your motivation dips, having thesis writing buddies will give you:

  • A group to bounce ideas off—“Does this graph look ridiculous?”, “What’s another more scientific way of saying it looked gloopy?,” or “Should I have used a two-way ANOVA for this”
  • Emotional support in times of breakdown
  • People who know exactly what you’re going through as you go through it

4. Let People Know You’re in a Thesis Cave

Along with time for personal grooming, one of the first things to go out the window when you’re thesis writing is your social life.

Even if you have no responsibilities other than to get your thesis written and submitted on time, your social life will suffer. Even if you swear to yourself that you will only write from 9 am to 6 pm because writing for any longer than that will make you feeling like your brain has melted, your social life will suffer. Because even if you do stick to your plan and put your thesis away at 6 pm, chances are you’ll be exhausted and just want to sit quietly and relax for the evening!

It’s fairly normal to fall off the grid and become a bit of a hermit during thesis writing—but it’s really important to let the people in your life who aren’t academics know what is happening! Your family and non-PhD friends need a little bit of warning that you are about to drop off the radar. Let them know it’s not personal, that you’re (mostly) fine, that you will re-appear when you’ve finished, and that patience would be appreciated!

5. Accept Defeat (Sort of!)

By the end of my write up I could safely say that while I definitely maintained a reasonable level of sanity throughout, there were moments where I went off the deep end and completely lost the plot. I can also safely say that I don’t know any other PhD student who didn’t also have at least a mini-meltdown somewhere along the way!

It’s pretty much inevitable, given the size and complexity of the task, that you will stretch yourself thin trying to get your thesis in on time and simultaneously maintaining a semblance of a life. This is the the nature of academia in general. At some point you will have a “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment. It might be that your supervisor is not giving your corrections priority. It might be a thoughtless remark from a colleague. Or a paper might come back from a journal with a heap of corrections that you don’t have time for right now.  Accept that you will probably have a moment in which it is all too much and you will decide that you’ve had enough and are definitely quitting (despite being nearly finished).

You can deal with this mini-breakdown in a number of ways. Talk to your friends, family, or a counselor and confront the issue head on. Perhaps take it all out on the punching bags in the gym, or just have a good cry. I personally opted for crying in a dark room for a bit, followed by calling my thesis writing pals for reassurance and back-up.  Never underestimate the cathartic power of a good cry!

The other (sort of) defeat you will inevitably have to accept is that after months of hard work, and 100 drafts by the time you’re ready to submit – YOUR THESIS WILL NOT BE PERFECT – and that’s okay! No matter how many times you read through and make revisions to your thesis, there will be mistakes. Acknowledge this early on and don’t get upset when you notice these.  Everyone has these in their first draft (and sometimes in their final manuscript too!).

How did you maintain your sanity during your thesis writing? Let us know in the comments below!

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