Lab Life

Game Plan for Writing a Thesis

Deanna Montgomery, Ph.D.

Thesis-writing is a stressful process that occurs during an inherently emotional time. Most thesis writers are embarking upon the single biggest project that they have ever undertaken, which can come with internal and external pressure to finish, exhaustion from many years of graduate school, and uncertainty about upcoming career changes. Whether you feel excitement, trepidation, or both, you can turn the daunting task of filling the blank pages of a dissertation into a manageable and rewarding experience.

At its core, a thesis is a report on new knowledge that you have produced through years of research. Your thesis may never be perfect, but it is a big accomplishment. I’ve never talked to a PhD who was completely content with their own thesis. Whether it was an experiment that didn’t get completed or a chapter that wasn’t proofread properly, there are always lingering flaws. Imperfections are part of being human, research always has another potential experiment, and your thesis will reflect all of that.

Though impossible to write a perfect thesis, you can write a good one, and as you’re going through the process, you can alleviate the stress and anxiety that come with the process with these five concrete steps.

Step 1: Think about Your Thesis Long Before You Are Ready to Write

Start by creating a rough outline that pulls the majority of your research into one cohesive story. Ideally, you have done this from the start of your research years and used that concept as you were choosing projects and experiments throughout grad school, rather than leaving it until the end and trying to tie disparate projects into a complete story. Even if you didn't think of this until midway through, get started! The more you prepare now, the better off your future self will be. And if you never did it, don't panic. Pulling your work together may be a bit more challenging, but you can still do it!

Most people start writing their thesis about a year before they plan to defend it. Think about the logistics of your thesis and how you will tackle the writing process. What experiments do you still need to complete to have a substantial and coherent body of work? Is your timeline for completing these experiments realistic? How much can you write while you are completing them?

It will help to draft an outline, even if you are months away from finishing experiments. I outlined my thesis for the first time about one year before I defended. At the time, my outline included a chapter that was almost complete (based on a manuscript that I was actively editing with coauthors), a chapter for which I had done almost no work yet, and a “miscellaneous” chapter that acted as a placeholder for side projects that didn’t fit elsewhere. This early outline helped me see how the research I had already done was progressing and make connections among multiple projects.

My outline was also a great tool for starting conversations with my adviser to make sure we were on the same page about my research priorities and future direction. For the next year, I would return to my outline regularly, and it became a great decision-making tool to help me determine which experiments to run and which to let go.

Step 2: Tackle the Logistics

Every institution, department, and adviser has different rules and expectations for a completed thesis. Do your homework ahead of time and gather this information all in one place so that you are not surprised later.

Here are some questions you might pose about requirements:

  • When and how does your adviser want to give feedback? One chapter at a time, or on the whole thesis when it is complete? Does your adviser prefer to exchange drafts via email or give you verbal feedback in one-on-one meetings?
  • When is the submission deadline? What exactly needs to be done before that deadline? Is there any paperwork that needs to be completed in addition to the thesis?
  • When do you need to send your thesis to your adviser? To your committee?
  • Can you include published or submitted papers verbatim, or do you need to rewrite the material? Do you need to seek approval from any publishers for reuse of materials, including figures?
  • Is there a length requirement (minimum or maximum)?
  • Where can you find guidelines about formatting? Is there an approved template to use?
  • What physical form does the final thesis need to be in? Will you need one or more bound hard copies? If so, what binderies are approved?

Step 3: Make a Plan

As you get closer to the actual writing, you’ll need to expand your outline to account for sections beyond the main text that need to be factored into your writing time. Completing sections such as the Table of Contents, Acknowledgments, Abstract, Bibliography, and Appendices can be deceptively time-consuming, especially since much of the main text will be based on papers you have already written.

One proven strategy for taking on large projects, such as writing a thesis, is breaking down the goal into smaller tasks, then into microtasks. Make these microtasks as quick and concrete as possible. “Write the Methods section for Chapter 3,” for example, can probably be done in a day and is much easier to cross off a To Do list than “Write Chapter 3.”

Once you have divided up your thesis, work backwards from the final deadline to set smaller deadlines for yourself along the way, leaving some buffer time for when things take longer than you expect. Consider sharing major deadlines with someone else—for instance, a lab mate or your adviser—so that that individual can help keep you accountable.

Consider where you are going to start. If you’re feeling stuck, tackle whatever feels easiest in the moment to get some momentum. For example, for synthetic work, compound characterization is a good starting place because it’s necessary.

It’s also a good idea to start early on tasks that may reveal additional experiments that need to be done. Leave formatting tasks for last; you don’t want to spend hours perfecting a figure that doesn’t make the final cut.

Step 4: Write

Find a location, or three. There is no one perfect place to write, and you may need to cycle through a couple of different places to find the best one for you. Writing in your lab or office gives you access to resources such as lab notebooks as well as people to serve as thought partners. On the other hand, you may be distracted by experiments or lab mates. Likewise, when working from home, you may experience fewer interruptions, but you can get distracted by hobbies or housework.

If it’s an option, writing from a “third place” (someplace other than work or home) can provide a change of scenery and a location with fewer distractions. Depending on your preferences for busyness, background noise, and environment, consider finding space in a library, study room, or local coffee shop. Bring only what you need—your laptop and any printed or handwritten materials—to further minimize distraction.

Find a writing buddy. Consider finding a friend with whom you can work in the same space (physical or virtual) to keep each other accountable. You can look for a friend who is also writing a thesis or simply find someone interested in having some company while working on another project. A little social interaction can help lighten any stress or frustration.

Safeguard your work. Losing work to human or computer error is extremely upsetting. Implement backup measures as you write. I recommend writing each chapter in a separate file and combining them later. By doing this, you will have smaller files that are easier to work with. You will also lessen the chances of losing large pieces of work. Also, be sure to regularly back up all of your files in multiple locations (locally, on a USB drive, cloud storage).

When deciding how often to back up your work, consider how painful it would be to have to re-create any given section and you will get a good idea of the right backup frequency.

Step 5: Revise

The editing process is just as important as the writing process. Factor revisions into your timeline. As you seek feedback from your adviser and others, leave yourself time to incorporate that feedback. Once the content has been finalized, recruit friends or colleagues to help with proofreading—even if they do not work in your field. It often works well to ask a different person to proofread different chapters. When you ask for feedback, especially from lab mates or others who are familiar with your work, be sure to clearly explain what sort of feedback you are looking for. Grammatical errors are easy to fix on short notice, but if your thesis is due in a few days, you probably don’t want someone to suggest completely restructuring an entire chapter.

Final Words of Advice

Don’t panic when things don’t go according to plan. Regardless of how well you plan, there will be roadblocks in the thesis-writing process. You may encounter writer’s block, get frustrated with the structure of a particular chapter or the entire document, or fall behind schedule. When these things happen, be kind to yourself. Take a step away from writing. Go for a walk, get a cup of coffee, or call a friend. Then, return to the problem with fresh eyes. Instead of beating yourself up or focusing on the past, make a plan. Work on a different task than you had planned to, ask for advice, or revise your timeline. You cannot change the past, but it’s never too late to plan wisely for the future.

Completing and writing a thesis is a huge undertaking. Remember to take care of yourself throughout the process. Starting early, planning well, and relying on your network for support can all make the experience go more smoothly. However, there is no such thing as a perfect thesis or a perfect thesis-writing process. At the end of the day, remember: The best thesis is a finished thesis.

Guard Against Plagiarism and Self-Plagiarism

We all understand that ethical and responsible scientists work hard to avoid plagiarism. At the same time, there is always more to understand about the topic. Self-plagiarism, for example—the attempt to make a previously published work or text appear new—can be a tricky concept that some are not familiar with.

Most academic institutions include information about plagiarism on their websites. Places to search for information include your writing center, campus libraries, or your institution’s Office of Academic Integrity.

If you are not sure about whether to cite a source or format a citation, use resources available or ask your thesis adviser.

Other resources to consider are the Purdue Online Writing Lab and MIT’s student handbook on academic integrity.