You’ve done years of research, you’ve got the results, you’ve done the analysis, drawn your conclusions… But what if the examiner tears your thesis apart?
Obviously you want to avoid the humiliation of having your thesis torn to pieces. So here are the 7deadly sins of thesis writing to avoid at all costs.
Any hint that you’ve fabricated results, or tried to cover up major problems by lying, and the examiner will tear you apart.
If you feel tempted (or pressured) to lie about your research in your thesis or in published journals, it’s really time to have a good look at your situation, and talk honestly with someone you trust. The temptation is understandable, but it’s just not worth it.
Distinct from outright lies, bullshit involves trying to give the impression of expertise in a subject you actually know very little about.
It’s tempting to try to appear like you know everything, but it’s far better to give more detail on subjects you are genuinely expert in.
It is sometimes hard to paraphrase other people’s writing, so it’s better to try explaining the idea to someone verbally then writing about it in your own way.
Never sit with the paper in front of you and try to rearrange sentences to make it look different. It just doesn’t work.
4. Misrepresentation of other people’s work
You will have to write about other people’s work, and give references to back up your arguments. It’s very, very important that you know what these references actually say, because the examiner will tear you apart if you misrepresent other people’s work (especially if it is the examiner’s work).
Don’t cite anything you haven’t actually read.
5. Getting the basics wrong
It’s OK to have the occasional mistake, but if you make a fundamental mistake in your assumptions which then undermines your conclusions, then you are in trouble.
While you aren’t expected to know everything, you should have a good knowledge of relevant developments in your field and some knowledge beyond your highly specialised niche.
It depends how broad your field is, but at the very least you should be aware of who the top people are and the most highly cited papers.
7. Lack of insight
What does it all mean? How does your work relate to the wider field? What are the limitations of your research and what open questions remain (or are raised)?
You have to be willing to commit to what you think, and know that you can defend it.
It will be OK!
If you avoid these 7 sins, as long as the basic research is OK (it doesn’t have to change the world), and as long as you write honestly and don’t stray too far from what you are expert in, then you should be OK.
Before reading this post please note: it took three and a half years of full-time research to gather the data for my PhD thesis; the three months refers only to the writing, which I did quickly at the end. I do not claim that everybody can write that fast, and, certainly, if you have not done the research it will be impossible. You probably won’t write as fast as I did, but you might gain some useful insights from the way I approached it.
After almost 3 years, I was on the verge of quitting my PhD in the summer of 2006.
I had nowhere near enough results, the equipment I was using didn’t work most of the time, and I could barely summon the motivation to get up in the morning.
So how did I turn things around, get the results I needed and write my thesis in 3 months?
1. Dealing with stress
After a near-breakdown, I started taking walks around the campus when I faced a problem in my research or found myself getting stressed.
I took the time to think about what I needed to do and get myself in the right frame of mind to come back and deal with the problem.
Previously I would have found myself killing time on the internet just to get through to the end of the day. This one change in habit probably saved my PhD.
2. Limiting the time available
Though my productivity increased once I figured out how to deal with stress, I was still doing experiments well into my fourth year.
I had a final submission date (at the end of my 4th year), but my research was still a bit chaotic. It wasn’t focused on finishing.
My supervisor (the brilliant Professor Moriarty) then told me that I would no longer be allowed into the lab after the end of March 2007, and that I would have to write whatever I had.
3. Adapting and acting decisively
Because of the limited time, I had to make some tough decisions. Anything I did, I would either have to finish or let go. There would be some loose ends, but that was OK as long as I tied up others.
I had to decide not to do certain things, and focus with energy and determination on others.
Still, though, the thesis would be a little thin. So I took on a side project based on another student’s research, which could produce some results quickly.
By the time I stopped doing experiments, I knew I had enough for a PhD. Not the best PhD ever, and not world-changing, but with two publications and enough data for another, I felt it was good enough.
Because I wasn’t allowed back in the lab, I just had to focus on writing. The hard part was behind me. The results weren’t going to change, so it was just a matter of making sure I was productive when writing.
It is much, much easier to write when you know the raw material isn’t going to change.
I decided to work at home, not at the office, because there would be fewer distractions.
I got rid of the TV, and had no internet connection on my computer. The lack of internet meant I had to gather all the papers I would need beforehand, forcing me to think about what I would need.
I also set up a dedicated space (2 large desks joined together and a very comfortable chair, next to a large window for plenty of natural light), just for thesis writing.
6. Targets and consistency
I set myself a target of 3 months, broken down into targets for each chapter. This would give me about 3 months in reserve before the final absolute deadline.
I had a daily minimum target of 500 words, which I knew I could meet even on the least productive days.
This meant that because I smashed the target most days, I finished every day feeling good about my progress, which in turn meant I started the next day feeling confident.
The two most important parts of the day are the beginning and end. It’s important to build momentum early, and have a routine for ending the day too.
At the end of each day I always left myself something easy to do to get started with the next day, so I woke up knowing what I was going to do.
I also tidied the desk at the end of every day, which also helped close the day mentally and stopped my brain going over and over the thesis at night.
8. Applying ruthless standards to what I included
Whether it was the lit review, or my own work, I cut anything sub-standard.
I focused only on the very best literature, saving myself a huge amount of time. It also had the result of associating my work with the very best in the field.
I only wrote about what I knew about, which made the thesis shorter, faster and easier to write, and of higher quality than if I had included everything whether I understood it or not.
9. Taking time over details that matter
I took painstaking care over the clarity of the writing, the diagrams and the overall look of the thesis.
If a diagram took 2 hours, so be it. If I couldn’t find a high-quality image in a paper to paste in, I would re-draw it myself. Why? Because it adds so much to the feel of quality running through the thesis.
By applying obsessive focus to one detail at a time, I could make sure that I wouldn’t have to do it again. This brings me to the final point…
10. One draft
I always edit as I write, with one goal only: to make sure I’ve expressed the idea in my head clearly on the page. I don’t move on until I feel the sentence makes sense, with no ambiguity of meaning.
Clarity of thought is always the number one aim. But it is very difficult to come back to a piece of writing days or weeks later and sort out a mess of thought if you don’t clarify your writing while the thought is still fresh in your head.
This means I was constantly re-reading and revising what I’ve just written, but also means that when I submitted something to my supervisor it needed very few revisions and saved months, simply by getting as close to “right” as I could the first time round.
I’ve had some comments on this post reacting as if I completed my entire PhD in 3 months. No, I did three and a half years of research first, then wrote the thesis. I also do not claim that anyone can write that fast, as it depends on a lot of different factors. This is why the title is “How I wrote…”, not “How to write…”
This is quite an old post now, and I don't write in this style any more (it's a bit sarcastic). For a better summary of the key principles, written with a more positive outlook, check out this blog post
1. Isolate yourself
You are surrounded by other very smart people with different experience and ways of viewing problems.
But if you want to fail, don’t ask them for their opinions. Never ask for advice if you find something difficult, and never admit that you’re making less progress than you think you should.
Don’t discuss your research. Instead, wait till you write your thesis before you attempt to explain your work for the first time.
2. Don’t take time to think
You have to work hard if you’re doing a PhD.
Professors work 26 hours per day, so you must too. Clearly, that’s the best way to do your best work. If you stop to think, people might think you are being lazy, and it’s vital to maintain the appearance of being busy even if you’re too exhausted to tie your own shoelaces.
If you stop to think, you might be able to find a better way of doing things that saves you time… or a new idea that’s a breakthrough in your research. Then what are you going to do for the rest of the day?
3. Don’t ask for what you need
Your supervisor might say no, after all. Instead, carry on doing things the way you are whether it’s working or not.
You can avoid asking for things by following commandment 2. If you don’t think about what you need, you can’t ask for it.
4. Make lots of excuses
Things will happen that will slow you down.
It’s not your fault… you didn’t have the support, you didn’t have the resources, this didn’t arrive on time, there are too many distractions…
Excuses are a great way to cover up your own responsibility for your own research. Strip them away and the onus is on you to think about what you need to do to overcome the circumstances and make progress.
4. Spend all your time reacting to new things
Your inbox is your master. If you want to stay a PhD student forever then spend all your time reacting to new (but non-urgent) tasks coming in, rather than on your long-term goals or finishing what you’ve already started.
Wait till Monday before you decide what you’ll do next week, and then just do what you feel like doing at that moment.
5. Do everything important at the last minute
You work best with tight deadlines.
Doing everything at the last minute means that you won’t have time to think about what you are doing, and gives plenty of opportunity for excuses to crop up.
6. Ignore your own mistakes
Successful people acknowledge and think about their mistakes, then act accordingly.
But you learned from undergrad studies that a mistake is the worst thing you can make in an exam or in an essay. Back then there was little chance or need to learn from mistakes, as you only had to retake the exam if you failed.
Failing a PhD is all about working harder without gaining a deeper insight into your research. So don’t stop to think about what you’ve done wrong and what you can do differently, and never, ever admit your mistakes to others.
7. Avoid making decisions
You can avoid making mistakes in the first place by doing nothing.
Spend all your time worrying about whether this or that option is best, because you don’t and can’t ever know with certainty until you try (that¡s why it’s called research).
You could decide to try something new, but that means having to stop to think about the options. And you risk making mistakes which you’d then have to think about some more and try to learn from, or admit to.
8. Try to be an expert in everything
No good at statistics or data analysis? Never written a computer program before? No idea where to start with a new sub-topic?
Try to do it all yourself and don’t ask for help. Spend most of your time doing things you are bad at, and less time doing the things you’re good at.
It might take a colleague 30 seconds to do something it will take you a week to figure out, but then you can’t make excuses and look busy by struggling on alone.
9. Be totally passive with your supervisor
Just do as you are told. Don’t bring your own ideas to meetings, don’t ask for clarification, don’t stand up for yourself or what you think is best.
If you want to be treated with respect, act with dignity and act proactively.
But speaking your mind, voicing your concerns, coming up with your own solutions to problems means that they might start to see you as a human being and a capable researcher, but there’s also a risk of them disagreeing with you.
You supervisor is not your employer. They aren’t your owner, either. Your time is yours, and you are investing it in the PhD.
But just stay quiet and stay chained to your desk for 3 more years.
10. Forget why you’re here
You are here to succeed. You are here to finish your PhD and move on to the next challenge in your life.
It involves taking some risks, making difficult decisions, thinking creatively, overcoming obstacles. It involves thinking about what you are going to do right now, and acting decisively to achieve what you want to achieve.
But it’s easier in the short term to see the whole thing as an impossible burden, to hide behind excuses, be passive, avoid making decisions and focus on all the problems you face instead.
It’s hard to commit yourself to a thesis topic. You don’t yet know if the idea you have now is a good idea or not, and if you commit to it, you might not be able to pursue a better idea you could come up with later.
So here are a couple of guidelines to stop you going round in circles.
1: Stop looking for the one big idea
Start investigating something… anything at all, and see if it grabs your interest.
This might not be what you end up researching, but just exploring your subject can lead to unexpected flashes of inspiration. You might try 3 or 4 (or more) ideas before you hit gold.
2: Talk to people
Share ideas with people in your department, and see what they think.
But also find out what other people are doing. There may be a what’s hot in your subject at the moment. Are there big gaps where nobody else is looking? Should people be looking there?
3: What do you want to learn?
A PhD isn’t just about your contribution. It’s also about what you learn, and the skills you can use later in your career.
What skills and knowledge do you want? What are you already good at and want to improve?
4: What do you like doing?
Choosing your research topic is choosing what you’re going to be doing every day for the next few years.
What do you enjoy the most? What do really dislike doing?
5: Combine ideas
Once you’ve followed the above steps, if you are still stuck but have a few ideas to play with, try combining ideas in new ways. Applying technique A to area B.
There are very few truly original ideas, but there are always new perspectives on old problems.
When you find a combination that could be interesting, useful, or even exciting, go for it!
This post was written in response to a question from a reader. Use the comments section to let me know what you’re struggling with, and I’ll do my best to help!
But there’s also got to come a point where it’s good enough to submit your thesis and get on with your life.
So here are a few guidelines to revising your thesis from one draft to the next.
The content shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to your supervisor if you’ve been communicating during your research.
At the very least, you should discuss what you’re going to put in and a rough outline before you start writing.
Still, it’s going to come back with quite a lot of suggested changes, whether it’s spelling mistakes, factual errors, or changes in the structure or style. That’s OK, as long as you’re clear about what they want you to do to make it better.
If there’s even the slightest doubt, ask.
Any major changes should have been made, and it should be pretty close to the final thing, though there’ll probably be a few new mistakes in there.
At this point, your supervisor shouldn’t suggest any major new sections. If they do… well why didn’t they say so after the first draft? This is why it’s so important to clarify what they want you to do after the first draft.
By this point, there should be no obvious technical mistakes or bits missing.
There will still be spelling errors, there will still be more you could do, but from this point on, any further rounds of revision will have a rapidly diminishing effect on the quality of your thesis.
The hardest thing to edit…
The most difficult thing to edit is your writing style. If in doubt, keep your sentences as short as you can. This will generally make them clearer, and clarity is king.
How to avoid endless rounds of revision
Of course some chapters might take a fourth draft to get right, but if it’s going up to 6 or 7, then it’s just silly. Here’s how to avoid getting into that situation.
Discuss the thesis structure with your supervisor before you start
Plan chapters before you sit down to write, so you know what you’re going to include before you start
Give chapters to your supervisor one at a time, rather than drafts of the entire thesis
Don’t keep doing new research once you start writing. If you do need to do some extra, stop writing, finish the research!
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… But I’m not interested in why it’s difficult. If you have to write your thesis in your second (or third or fourth) language, how can you make it easier for yourself?
Ideally, it should start long before you sit down to write your thesis, so here are some things you can do from day one.
If you sign up for a postgraduate degree, you know what language you’ll have to write in, so start practicing as soon as possible.
That doesn’t mean pulling out all your old grammar textbooks, learning the rules and going through set exercises. It’s not only boring, but also a terrible way to learn a language.
Practice by using the language in writing at every opportunity. Need to send an email? Try new sentence constructions and new vocabulary.
Don’t over-complicate things, just try to just push your ability a little bit each time.
One of the basic principles of learning anything is that it’s very, very difficult to learn or improve a skill under stress.
In conversation you have to speak without thinking too much. People understand, but it might not be technically correct or the way a native speaker would say it.
Even when corrected (which might not often happen), you’ll soon revert to the way that you’re accustomed to speaking.
Writing email, you can take your time, stop, check and rethink phrases without any pressure. You’re also practicing writing the things you naturally want to say, rather than what a textbook author thinks you might need.
(If you don’t have a native speaker to email, try to find one. Or you can probably email your supervisor in English. There is always a solution.)
Pick a research or review paper written by a native speaker, and related to your subject.
But don’t read it from start to finish, just read one section or paragraph at a time over several days, and look at the language style.
Is that sentence written the way you would write it? Is there a difference in meaning because of the word order? Or is it different in tone or formality?
I don’t understand that… How can I use it?
When you notice something new, or something you don’t understand, before moving on with reading you should ask yourself, “how can I use it?”
Keep a notebook, write down no more than 2 or 3 things then try to use them in real-life writing over the next few days.
It doesn’t do translation (online translation is unreliable anyway), but is an amazing resource. Full dictionary definitions, verb conjugations and so on, and online forums where you can see native speakers’ translations of phrases and ask questions.
If you have any great language resources you want to share, comment below!
Coming up in Part 2…
Stuff you can do once you start writing the actual thesis…