How I wrote a PhD thesis and had the time of my life

I finished my PhD a few years ago. And to do this, I had a write an incredibly long document that even I’ve barely read, never mind others. Before I take you on the journey through my PhD write-up, I would like to clarify that I’m not a great writer nor am I a gifted academic. Of course, every thesis should be unique, and each author’s story is different.

Throughout my PhD, I was told by almost everyone that had a PhD that writing up period is like walking through an endless tunnel of torture. On numerous occasions, I’ve myself witnessed the chaos unfold before my very eyes. Final year PhD students that I looked up to during my early years, those that were more organised, cleverer and frankly better scientists than I had a mental and emotional breakdown during their PhD write-up.

Thesis is not only about writing; data analysis, figures and references also constitute a large portion of the thesis. Plan to spread the workload over a long time rather than cram everything into those last months before the deadline.

Final year students spend the last few months of the PhD locked up in isolated, dark write-up rooms, away from the rest of the world. Spending endless hours writing up the PhD drives students to survive on junk food, give up personal hygiene, and cause extreme anxiety and insomnia. The end of my PhD that was supposed to be painstakingly unproductive, full of stress and agony, didn’t turn out to be so. In fact, my experiences in the last few months of my PhD was the most enjoyable. Here’s how I got through it.

Planning

Yes, my writing experience was fantastic, but I didn’t produce my PhD thesis by magic. It took a lot of planning and hard work. Planning is probably the most important step when it comes to a thesis. The idea is to spread the workload over a prolonged time rather than cram everything into those last few months before the dreaded deadline approaches.

I spent ages staring at a blank screen when I started writing my masters dissertation and another big-ish report for PhD transfer. Writing an extensive scientific document requires switching the state of mind from the “lab/experimental mode” to transform into the “writing mode”. From previous experiences, I knew that the brain switch to the writing mode comes after a great struggle and ample hours of procrastination and unproductiveness. However, with careful planning, this brain-switching transition process can be smooth, enabling efficient write-up process.

Write experimental procedures and make high-quality figures throughout your PhD that could go straight into your thesis.

A year before the deadline, I exactly knew what my chapters were going to be, and I had almost all data for two of the three result chapters. Nine months before the due date, I began to outline the framework of the thesis and listed subheadings of each chapter. Optimistically, even for the one that required more data. These tasks were fairly easy because it didn’t require switching the mind to the writing mode. Therefore, I could just do it when I was bored or during free moments in between lab experiments. It was a great thing to do because I was already thinking about my writing up while still generating data, and without exhausting myself.

Getting started

After outlining chapters and their subsections, it was time to start filling in the thesis. I began by working on possibly the hardest and the biggest part of my thesis: figures. The aim was to make roughly one figure for each subheading in the chapter. Planning this bit was relatively straightforward because I used the subheading that I had outlined earlier as a template, i.e. one or two figures for a subheading. I then started making the figures while still working full-time in the lab. Compiling figures is incredibly challenging, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Again, to give myself maximum, actual writing time, I was making the figures during experiment incubations or in between experiments because making figures also don’t require the mind to switch to the writing mode.

Tip to PhD students: get into the habit of making high-quality figures that could go straight into your PhD thesis, if you’ve completed the set of experiments. Unfortunately, I didn’t do this, but I had plenty opportunities to do it, but you should! The best chance to do this is when you report to your supervisor(s). You’ll keep your bosses happy, and trust me it’ll save you a lot of time when you need it the most. Another handy thing to do, especially for PhD involving experiments, is to write your (Materials and,) Methods sections as you carry out new procedures throughout your PhD. It would’ve saved me some valuable time during the write-up it I had done this.

Get writing

Once I finished making the figures, I stopped working in the lab because I wanted to focus entirely on writing. I started by writing legends for all the figures that I’d made. This was a great idea because, while writing a legend doesn’t require excessive effort, it helps with the mind’s transition towards the writing mode.

Don’t waste time re-reading the sentence that you’ve just written. Wait until you finish the whole chapter or even the entire thesis.

Once I finished writing the figure legends, I simply wrote a paragraph or two describing each figure, which nearly completed the result chapters. This is because I wrote a comprehensive introduction in a separate chapter, so the chapter-specific introduction was short. The only thing left to do was to write a discussion on the chapters, which were about 1,500 – 2,000 words in my case and took me a couple of days. This way I could write an entire result chapter in 4-7 days depending on how productive I was being.

There’s no such thing as a perfect thesis. Don’t go through too many thesis versions hoping for perfection. You won’t fail your PhD even if your assessors spot a few typos.

One trick I used that I recommend everyone writing a PhD thesis is to never to read your sentences as you write. It sounds like a bad advice and is certainly unorthodox, but it sped up my writing considerably. In fact, I didn’t read my entire thesis until I completed the first draft in its entirety. It’s called a “draft” because it’s rough. The important thing is that once you’ve got the contents down, you can also amend it to make it better. Pondering over a sentence to make it “perfect” stops the flow that you need to write and it leads to unproductive, frustrating writing experience. I’ve seen people spending hours constructing a single sentence because they go back and read every single thing they’ve just written.

There’re a few things to remember; your supervisor will most likely read your thesis, so there’ll be some changes that’ll improve the first version. I submitted a v3 of my thesis after incorporating the changes suggested by my two supervisors. I admit that my thesis isn’t perfect, but no thesis is, no matter how many version they go through. If you’re currently writing a PhD, it’s worth reminding yourself that it’s not something that’ll ever be flawless. You shouldn’t spend a long time trying to make a minor modification to the thesis that will improve it slightly but not significantly to make a noticeable difference. Plus, even if your assessors find a couple of typos in your thesis, you can always correct those after the viva. You won’t get failed on your PhD because one of your assessors spotted a typo – if you know what you’re talking about then you’ll be fine.

In summary: make good quality figures throughout your PhD; start off by planning your chapters and their subheadings; make figures and write legends for each figure; write a paragraph each for all figures in the result chapters, and you just need to fill in what’s missing.

A typical thesis contains approximately 50,000 words, and mine was much shorter. If you manage to write 500 words a day, then a thesis will finish comfortably in four months, while you enjoy your weekend. It’s important to make most of the productive burst you have while you write. I wrote more than half of my thesis contents in just three weeks. But I only managed to do this with planning together with hard work and through proper rest, ensuring that I wasn’t burnt out through exhaustion. Yes, the thesis is a large piece of document that’ll only be read by a handful of people, but it should be a source of pride for all authors. Instead of worrying and panicking about it, everyone should try to enjoy the writing experience.

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