How to start writing your PhD thesis

By James Hayton,
August 26, 2019
I'm James, I'm a former physicist (PhD, Nottingham, 2007) and author of "PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life".
Since 2010, I've been helping PhD students all over the world overcome barriers in their research and writing
My strategies have helped thousands of PhD students just like you to build confidence, write better and finish on time

How should you start writing your PhD thesis?

If you are part-way through your research, I would always suggest focusing primarily on gathering and analysing your data. This needs to be the priority because you can’t present results you don’t have, and it’s impossible to write with confidence if you don’t know what your contribution will be.

Once you have the bulk of the results and analysis, then you can shift your focus to writing (there may be an exception to this if writing is part of your analysis: see this post if this is the case)

The way I approach any writing project it is to start with the introduction and work through in sequence (trying not to leave any gaps and finishing sections to a submittable standard). This is because;

  • You don’t have to decide what to work on and you always have a clear point of focus
  • You can move on to the next section knowing that the previous ones are at least submittable
  • You always know what you’ve already told the reader
  • It forces you to make decisions and deal with problems as they arise (instead of leaving them for later)

You might find it difficult to start with the introduction, but it’s important to stay with it rather than switching to another section. It is a solvable problem given time, persistence and patience.

But if there is a reason why you can’t write the introduction (for example, if you haven’t decided what your research questions are), then this needs to be addressed. You need to face the fundamental problem and make a decision.

This is the writing process in a nutshell; facing the problem in front of you, considering your options, making decisions and moving forward.

See also:
Free Live Webinar:

How to adapt your PhD during the coronavirus crisis (and beyond)

Sunday 3rd May, 5pm UK time*
(6pm CET, 12 noon EDT, 9am PDT)
register free
*if you can't make the live event, you can still register and watch the recording

Stay up to date...

The PhD Academy:
Online training and support for PhD students

learn more...

For more detailed guidance and support...

The PhD Academy All-Access Pass

Weekly calls with James

You don't have to do it all alone! Get the All Access Pass for weekly group calls and Q&A sessions with James

Every online course

Build your skills and confidence with our detailed video courses. Go at your own pace and get advice and support when you need it

Get the book!
PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life

order now on amazon